Xu Xiaodong - Linking Sumatra with the World: An Economic Analysis of Regional Port Networks, 1870-1940


The liberal policy propelled large-scale plantations and exploitation of natural resources to expand rapidly in Sumatra since 1870 with a significant growth of private exports. Commercial commodities, first tobacco, then rubber and other mineral products such as tin and oil, were produced in large volumes and propelled the export-directed economic growth which has been characterized as a sort of ‘drain economy’ by some historians. Private capital swarmed into agricultural plantations and mining enterprises but hardly entered manufacturing sectors. Very little progress in technical improvement was achieved due to limited investment in industrial and infrastructural construction by the largest group of beneficiaries, Western entrepreneurs. This one-sided and unsustainable economy also brought about various dichotomies between planters and peasants, between large plantations and small holders, between the Netherlands Indies government and local elites. They made this region an arena for political and economic rivalry which incurred chaotic upheavals in the influence of trade, logistics, shipping and migration. All these activities and intensions took place by means of ports acting as gateways for the islands. The port became an inevitable element in historical research, although historians have not yet much analyzed the relationship between the port system and the regional economy in Sumatra in detail. Only a few economic historians, such as Dick and Lindblad, have argued that key ports in the Outer Islands performed a function as nodes of interaction in economic development of Indonesia by making networks of transport and communication. To some extent this confirms Adam Smith’s argument that ports as crucial links offering inexpensive transport facilitated the opening up of wider markets. However, such arguments about macro trends are based on crude classifications of time periods, trading regions and total volume of commodities  rather than a detailed discussion of all aspects of marine communication and economy. Although Airriess has depicted the port system-related development of transportation and regional economy in North Sumatra with the help of some specific division of trading commodities in his dissertation, there are still only a limited number of port studies focusing on the entire island. As the plantation economy becomes a backdrop for understanding regional and ethnic-based issues, the development of port networks thus becomes a backdrop for understanding hinterland economy and foreland market. This study deals with a port history in Sumatra from an economic perspective, focusing on ports and port-related trading activities, the interactions between ports and their surroundings as well.

Xiaodong has graduated for his Research MA degree in 2011.
Contact: endlose@gmail.com

Last Modified: 14-12-2011