Castles that the coolies of Deli built

The East Coast of Sumatra owes everything to tobacco and the enterprise and energy of those who have been and still are engaged in its cultivation. In Deli, the planters take first place, and it may be said that they have ruled and developed the country. — Twentieth century impressions of Netherlands India, 1909.

The east coast of Sumatra was a significant economy of the Netherland East Indies in the 1900s. The area called Deli started to be developed in the 1860s by Dutch merchants. Jacob Nienhuys found the soil of Deli was suitable for producing high-quality tobacco leaf that fetched a good price in Europe. Deli and the east coast of Sumatra were soon developed into industrial, large-scale tobacco plantations.

Many Dutch companies joined in, Deli Maatschappij, Senembah Maatschappij, Deli-Batavia Maatschappij, and Tabak Maatschappij Arendsburg were the big four tobacco companies at the end of the 19th century.

Various European individuals and companies got in for the money, as noticeable from the name of the company/plantation. Petersburg established in the area of Sampali in 1874, was named after Saint Petersburg in Russia. Mariëndaal (1872) after an estate in the Netherlands, locally called Marendal. Arnhemia after Arnhem, a city in the eastern part of the Netherlands. Helvetia, a female personification of Switzerland, was established by Swiss planters Mots and Breker in 1873.

The name of plantations in Deli in 1880 include: Vesuvius, Anniedale, Danemark, Saentis, Germania, Charlottenburg, Rudolphsburg, Saint Cyr, Two Rivers, Perseverance, etc.

Polonia, the Latin word of Poland and the first airport of Medan, was a plantation established in 1872 by a Pole, Baron Michalsky. The current airport of Medan, Kuala Namoe, was established in 1890 as a tobacco plantation with an area over 3100 hectare by Medan Tabak Maatscappij.

In 1864, Nienhuys successfully produced 4 tons of tobacco. By 1880, east of Sumatra had 49 companies producing more than 5000 tons of tobacco. In 1886, more than 100 companies produced 11,000 tons, and in 1891 more than 270 companies produced 21,000 tons. Each year, the east coast of Sumatra produced an average of 20,000 tons of tobacco for export to Europe and the USA.

In 1901, 34,000 fields were planted resulting an income of f 40 million. The stock market value of the companies at the end of 1901 was almost f102 million, and the total proceeds from 1864 to 1900 included the enormous amount of f 662 million.

Thee Kian Wee summarised it as

In 1938, this region, with only 1.7 percent of the country’s whole territory and a population of only 2.5 percent of its total population, accounted for not less than 21 percent of the country’s total exports.

Deli was the land of gold, or also called the “Wonder of Deli”, a lot of money can be made from cheap labour and land. This large amount of money allows European individuals to build castles in Europe.

Villa Patumbah

Villa Patumbah is a castle with a land area of 13,000 m² in Riesbach, Switzerland. Carl Fürchtegott Grob acquired the land in 1883, and built this castle over the next two years. According to the Swiss Castles website: “This exceptionally wealthy builder had acquired his wealth with a tobacco plantation on Sumatra.”

Indeed, the castle was built from wealth accumulated from the tobacco company Senembah in Tanjung Morawa, North Sumatra.

Carl Grob, and Hermann Naeher, a Bavarian, came to Deli in 1870. In 1871, they obtained a land concession of 5,300 hectares on the banks of the Blumei river near Tanjung Morawa. The area was under the Sultanate of Deli. It was an urung (small kingdom) of Senembah, with a capital of Patumbak. The company had two estates: Tandjong Morawa and Patoembah in the Senembah landscape.

Grob and Naeher employed experienced agriculturists to manage their farms. Although the soil is not the best, derived from alluvial of acidic rhyolitic materials, the plantations still produced abundant of good quality tobacco leaves. Senembah was considered a progressive plantation, with its own hospital, and a doctor researching on tropical diseases.

Thanks to the cheap labour, within ten years, Grob earned a substantial wealth that in 1879 he returned to Zurich. In 1889, Grob and Naeher converted the plantation into a limited liability company, Senembah Maatschappij, in Amsterdam in 1890 with a capital of f 1,500,000. The Deli Company took over the management.

In 1883, Grob bought the 13,000 square meter property in Switzerland with an unobstructed view of the city, lake and mountains. He commissioned famous Zurich builders, Chiodera and Tschudy, to build Villa Patumbah. Evariste Mertens designed the spacious garden.

Grob died in 1892 of a “tropical” disease that he had brought with him from Patumbak.

So here you have the majestic Villa Patumbah in Swiss, build from money produced in the land of coolies.

And here today, the actual Patumbak in Tanjung Morawa, where the tobacco came from, an industrial and plantation area, still desolated.

Nienhuys building

The Nienhuys building on Herengracht 380–382 in Amsterdam is now the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Jacob Nienhuys bought the building in 1887 and rebuilt it between 1888 and 1890, designed by a well-known architect Abraham Salm (1857–1915). Jacob Nienhuys wanted a building that was different from anything built before.’ It was the first residential home in Amsterdam with a complete electric lighting. The building was called: A palace on the Heerengracht.

The upper part of the building has two statues of Mercury and Minerva, the symbols of trade and civilisation… One of the most impressive room in this building is the golden bathroom.

Nienhuys moved there with his family and staff from 1891 until 1909. In the following year, he transferred the premise to the Maatschappij tot Exploitatie van Kantoorlokalen (“Society for the exploitation of office spaces”).

Jacob Nienhuys, after a success in producing tobacco in 1868, convinced a wealthy grain merchant, Peter Wilhelm Janssen in the Netherlands to invest in the tobacco farm. They founded the Deli Maatschappij in 1869, with a capital of 300,000 guilders with a major investor Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij (later became ABN AMRO). It was one of the first publicly-traded companies in the Netherland Indies. It started in 1869 with an area of 4,000 hectares and by 1910, the area was twenty times larger over the districts of Deli and Langkat, with a capital of f9,000,000.

The company report of 1918 recorded a sale of 34,566 packages, yielding a net profit of f3,746,400.86.

A 1913 article in De Sumatra Post recounted the history of the early days of Deli. Around 1867 or 1868, Nienhuys was indicted of flogging seven Chinese coolies to death. The Sultan of Deli ordered Nienhuys to leave the land of Deli and never to return. Nienhuys said that he had to leave Deli because of “health” reasons.

Following this incident, the Deli company in 1871, appointed two administrators to avoid the repeat. The company appointed J.T. Cremer (who was still 24 years old and worked for Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappi) for financial management and banking and engineer E.A.F. Straatman as a deputy administrator for the tobacco culture.

In 1875, an investigation was ordered by the government at the request of the Deli Maatschappij, into the incident in 1867 or 68. The investigation could not prove that the alleged crimes were not committed by Nienhuys. This information also made the company to decide that under no circumstances to name a museum (of Deli Company) after Nienhuys.

Nevertheless, Nienhuys was still involved in the company and became a wealthy man and still called a pioneer.

Landgoed Duin & Kruidberg castle

J.T. Cremer successfully built the Deli Company into a giant money-making tobacco company. He was the administrator from 1871 to 1883.

After accumulating wealth from Deli, J.T. Cremer the bought the Landgoed Duin & Kruidberg castle in Santpoort, North Holland in 1895. Previously it was owned by Dutch King Willem III in 1682 and used as a hunting retreat.

Cremer spent his summer working in the castle Duin en Kruidberg in Santpoort and when winter came, he went to Prinsessegracht in The Hague.

An article in the Hollandsche Revue 1903 article wrote:

In a large, spacious back room, which by means of glass doors that reach to the ground, gives a beautiful view of the pond, a lawn and against the dune tree, two writing tables are placed. And all around, on chairs, benches and smaller tables, are books, wallets, bundles of papers and papers…

Mr. Cremer is sitting at one table early in the morning amid his documents and correspondence; and his secretary is seated at the table next to him, who writes on the typewriter the answers which have been dictated or indicated to him by Mr. Cremer.

J.T. Cremer is the man behind the Coolie Ordinance, passed by the Dutch East Indies government in 1880. The regulation allowed companies to engage coolies in a contract that bound them for three years. The workers were meant to pay for their “debt” of transportation cost to Deli land. The ordinance also contained “poenale sanctie”, allowing companies to directly punish their workers for any alleged wrongdoing.

Cremer became the minister of colony 1897–1901. He founded the Netherlands Shipbuilding Company, and co-founded the Bouwonderneming Jordan NV, Royal Packet-Society, Dutch Shipbuilding Company. He was the president of the Nederlandsche Handel Maatschappij, later became ABN AMRO.

Tropical Institute Amsterdam

The Royal Tropical Institute is originally called the Colonial Institute, was initiated by J.T. Cremer and others in 1910 to “study” the tropics and to “promote” (read plunder) trade and industry in the colonial territories of the Netherlands.

J.T. Cremer and Ambrosius Hubrecht directed the construction of the building, financed mostly by trading companies and wealthy merchants. Contributors include merchants who made lots of money from Deli: CW Janssen, Hendrik van den Honert, and others. Tjong A Fie contributed 25000 guilders. The total money collected was over f 1,600,000.

The neo-renaissance building was designed by J.J. van Nieukerken, and completed by his sons M.A. and J. Van Nieukerken. Construction began in 1915, and opened in 1923.

The famous marble hall is decorated with twelve types of marble from Tuscany, Italy. The names of the 76 founders were inscribed in golden letters in three marble panels in the hall. The hall also has busts J.T. Cremer and H.F.R. Hubrechts.

Villa Medan

The rich Dutch merchants who earned enormous wealth from Indonesia bought and built luxurious mansions in Baarn, a peacefule countryside in the province of Utrecht. They worked in Deli and the mansions served as their summer home.

One such mansion is Villa Medan, commissioned by Nienhuys in 1886, located in Julianalaan in Baarn. Nienhuys was also involved in establishing a sanatorium called Badhotel in Baarn.

There are several other mansions in Baarn related to Deli that don’t exist anymore, include

  • Villa Minareta, owned by PW Janssen was built in 1886 on the corner of Van Heutszlaan and Beatrixlaan. The villa served as a summer residence. Janssen named the Villa after his wife Folmina Margarethe Peters (1836–1919). Apparently he did not like the villa, and in 1890 he bought villa Canton (below).
  • Villa Kesawan (located next to Villa Minareta), the mansion of Cornelis van den Honert (1854-1916) built in 1892. Van Honert was the Deli Company’s principal administrator.
  • Javalaan 11. The villa was built in 1908 designed by architect J.C. van Epen. The house was owned Jan Willem Stous Sloot (1864–1936) who worked in the rubber plantations of the Deli Company in Langkat and Padang and Bedagai.
  • Villa Mea Vota, owned by Jacob Adrianus Cornelis van Leeuwen (1831–1898) founder of the Amsterdam-Deli Company.

Villa Canton

Villa Canton is on Javalaan, Baarn, built in 1793. In 1890, Peter Wilhelm Janssen (1821–1903) bought the Canton villa. Janssen has the nickname “King of Deli” or “King of Sumatra”, although he never visited Deli. P.W. Janssen remained the director of the Deli Company until 1898, when he resigned. Janssen was involved in lobbying the minister of foreign affairs to importing Chinese coolies to Deli.

P.W. Janssen contributed to charity in the Netherlands and Germany and built a housing for the poor P.W. Janssenhofje in Amsterdam. Now it is a tourist destination.

When Janssen passed away, his son August Wilhelm Janssen took over the business and villa Canton. The old dilapidated house was demolished in 1910 and built the present-day villa Canton.

Cantons Park

Cantons Park is also located in Baarn. August Wilhelm Janssen (1864–1918) took over his father’s business and shares of Deli Company. He was the owner and shareholder of several large agricultural and mineral resources companies in Java and Sumatra. When August Janssen became the owner of villa Canton in 1904, he bought part of the Schoonoord estate opposite to turn it into an ‘overtuin’ (garden park). The central point was the ‘Wintertuin’, the largest greenhouse in the Netherlands filled with tropical plants and trees with monkeys and birds.

The story goes that guests from the Dutch East Indies were served by a djongos brought from Indonesia.

Villa Russenduin

August Janssen also built Villa Russenduin in Bergen aan Zee in North Holland in 1916 as his summer home. It is now called Huize Glory, or house of glory.

After his death his older brother would be older brother Christian Wilhelm Janssen succeed him and later his son PW Janssen. CW Janssen became the director of Senembah company.

Pakhuizen Medan, Bindjeij en Laboean

Not a castle, but these warehouses were built by the Deli Company in Amsterdam. They were designed by architect William Hammer in 1895 and used as tobacco warehouses.

In 1898–1900, the Deli Company expanded its storage facilities with the adjacent warehouses Serdang, Langkat and Deli ( Nova Zemblastraat8–12).

The Deli Batavia Maatschappij

Deli Batavia Maatschappij was established in February 1875 by HJL Leyssius. Its first estate was Gedong Djohore in Deli. The company rapidly extended to other plantations, including Timbang Langkat in 1876, Tandem in 1880, Petani in 1882, and Tandem Hilir in 1883.

The head office in Amsterdam is at Herengracht 286–290, designed by ADN van Gendt, in a classic style and with decorative brickwork and balustrades. It is now used by University of Amsterdam.

More castles

There are more castles or villas or expensive buildings that were built from the wealth of Deli. If you know more, leave a reply down here…

To appreciate where and how the millions came from, read about the Millions from Deli.


Wil Hordijk. 2018. Mannen met ‘Indisch’ kapitaal en kapitale landhuizen. TVE 36e jrg. 2018.

Frank van Vree, If these walls could speak.

Wright, A. and Breakspear, O.T. eds., 1909. Twentieth Century Impressions of Netherlands India: Its History, People, Commerce, Industries and Resources. Lloyd’s Greater Britain Publishing Company.

Soil Scientist, interest in Colonial history.