Sugar, Steam and Steel: The Industrial Project in Colonial Java, 1830-1885

Discussion seminar, 10 June 2015, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Recently, Roger Knight’s Sugar, Steam and Steel: The Industrial Project in Colonial Java, 1830-1885 appeared. This book brings together the findings of Knight’s decades of research on the Java sugar industry. We would like to invite you to a discussion seminar on this important work at the International Institute of Social History on Wednesday 10 June at 15.30.  


15.30-15.40 Welcome by Ulbe Bosma (Senior Researcher IISH)

15.40-16.00 Roger Knight

16.00-16.20 Comment by Alicia Schrikker (Lecturer Institute for History Leiden University)

16.20-16.40 Comment by Angelie Sens (Biographer Johannes van den Bosch IISH)

16.40-17.00 Discussion

17.00-18.00 Drinks in the vide of the IISH

Sugar, Steam and Steel (both in print and in Open Access PDF) is about cane sugar and the transformation of an Indonesian island into the ‘Oriental Cuba’ during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Between the 1830s and the 1880s, sweetener manufacture in Dutch-controlled Java — the crown jewel of the erstwhile Netherlands Indies — drew decisively away in matters of technology and sugar science from other Asian centres of production which had once equalled or, more often, surpassed it in terms of both output and know-how. Along with its larger and altogether more famous Caribbean counterpart, Java’s industry came to occupy a position at the apex of the trade in what had become by this date a key global commodity. Along with the beet sugar producers of (post-1870) Imperial Germany, Cuba and Java accounted for a little over one-third of the world’s recorded output of the industrially manufactured kind of sugar usually referred to as ‘centrifugal’.

While Cuba held the position of the world’s second largest supplier of cane sugar to international commodity markets, ‘Dutch’ Java emerged from almost nowhere to take second place. The island had begun the nineteenth century as one of a number of centres — in fact, a rather minor one — of pre-industrial sugar production located in tropical and sub-tropical Asia from the Indian sub-continent through to the southernmost islands of Japan. It ended the century not only as by far the largest of Asia’s producer-exporters of sugar but also — critically — as the sole example of the sustained and successful large-scale industrialisation of sugar manufacture anywhere in ‘the East’. Sugar, Steam and Steel sets out to explain how and why this happened — and what its implications were for the long-term trajectory of the Java sugar industry in the international sugar economy.

The PDF of the book can be found on this website.