The Millions from Deli: The booklet that exposed slavery

The Deli society can safely be called the founder of Medan; all life, all strength, and prosperity emanated from it. However, it understood in its own interest that of the workmen, and set up a hospital and an immigrant asylum, where the Chinese coolies, who commit themselves to it by contract, find good nursing care in case of illness or accident, even a permanent home, when they become entirely unfit for work. Justus van Maurik (Indrukken van een ‘Tòtòk’, 1897)

The romance of tobacco plantation at Bandar Klippa of the Deli Company.

That was the romantic picture of the Deli society, which has transformed virgin jungles of Sumatra into luscious and productive tobacco gardens.

In 1902, Johannes van den Brand, a lawyer graduate from the University of Leiden, who had a practice in Medan, released an explosive booklet, De Millioenen uit Deli, or the Millions of Deli. It exposed the appalling conditions of the workers and systematic abuses by the Dutch planters to the so-called contract coolies.

Unlike Max Havelaar, which is a novel, this brochure-style publication is a straight no-nonsense exposé of the inhumane treatment of coolies or indentured workers in the flourishing tobacco plantations in Deli.

What does the Millioenen uit Deli say?

The Millions from Deli can be interpreted as the millions of dollars made by the planters and the millions of workers who suffered from its prosperity. It is a small booklet of 80 pages with 71 pages of essay and an appendix of the deliberated coolie ordinance.

The booklet started with a preface on a meeting on March 29, 1902 of the Indische Bond. Mr. C. de Coningh, a journalist, raised three questions: Can the current contract coolie system be morally defended? Is free immigration desirable? And is that free immigration possible?

Those questions referred to the coolie ordinance, enacted by the Governor-General in 1889, which arranged a contract between workers and the company’s administrator for any agricultural or mining enterprise on the east coast of Sumatra. Poenale sanctie is part of the agreement where workers can be fined or punished for desertion, continued refusal to work, extreme laziness, refusal of service and the like.

Mr. Van den Brand, a devout Christian, argued that the coolies in the Deli society in practice are regarded as slaves, which is legalized through the coolie ordinance. Behind the prosperity of Deli, there are immorality, corruption, and injustice. He called Deli a plastered grave.

Corruption and Vendutie

Van den Brand exposed the clever vendutie system where planters, local rulers, and Chinese officers can officially pay Dutch government officers in an open auction or vendutie. Read about the Vendutie here.

Van den Brand narrated how the plantation and magistrate collaborated:

Abuse and cruelty: the ToetoepStelsel

Van den Brand produced several chilling stories about abuses of coolies and how the culture of toetoep (covering up) was pervasive in Deli.

Corporal punishment at Bindjey plantation. The punishment took place under the watchful eye of a Inspector (JG Schot) and a Prospective Inspector. TM-60007721

Disappearance of all witnesses is more customary in Deli.

And advertisement in Deli Courant 1890. Wanted for Runaway.
House of planters in a tobacco plantation.
Coolies recruitment for plantations in Deli, Deli Courant 1902.

Other abuses and mistreatments include

  • A makeshift place was made a “hospital” in a plantation where the sick were locked away
  • Workers were traded as animals, an advertisement wrote “He delivers them to you at the lowest prices! Buy now, buy! Behold, they are all good”
  • Dead workers were not properly buried, bones of the dead can be found in different places in the field.
  • Ringgit is understood to mean a rijksdaalder on Java and a Mexican dollar on the east coast. The latter has a lower price than the former and the recruited Javanese unaware of this difference. When he got his month’s wages of six ringgits, he was expecting ƒ15, but discovered that he only received f7.

How does a Javanese woman earn her sarong?

Finally, van den Brand wrote an essay about the life of Javanese women in the plantation who got paid much less than male workers.


The booklet caused an uproar in Deli and the Netherlands. Ex-resident of the east coast of Sumatra, P.J. Kooremann, had to reply and wrote on Deli Courant and a booklet to defend the plantation society. Van Den Brand replied with another booklet “Nog eens: De millioenen uit Deli”, Again, the Millions of Deli.

The case aroused sharp debates in the House of Representatives, and the Dutch indies government had to respond and ordered an inquiry. J.L.T. Rhemrev, a public prosecutor in Batavia, was assigned to investigate the accusations in 1903. Rhemrev’s report arrived in The Hague in March 1904 broadly confirmed Van den Brand’s allegations’ accuracy.

The minister of colonies A.W.F. Idenburg in the Hague parliament was forced to take up the matter. Although he did not deny the existence of abuse, he did not try to uproot the cause. The colonial government responded with legislation and other measures to prevent a continuation of the abuses. The regulations on industrial relations were revised, and a labor inspectorate for the plantations was set up. A judicial office was established in Medan.

Nevertheless, poenale sanctie still remains. No one can convince the Dutch government to remove it. Although there is an improvement in workers conditions, treatments of coolies still inhumane.

It was not until 1929, Senator John J. Blaine from Wisconsin discovered the penal sanction used by tobacco companies in Deli. He requested an amendment to the tariff act prohibiting the importation of any article produced by convict labour and also products of “forced labor or/and indentured labor under penal sanction.”

But this clause would have excluded rubber, where the US owned large rubber plantations in Kisaran, which used indentured labour. The terms were then changed to cover only items that were also produced in the US.

Only due to economic crisis and American pressure, on January 1, 1932, the Deli tobacco companies “voluntarily” declared that they would remove penal sanction. In 1931, the Dutch government passed an act requiring the older companies to cut contract laborers to fifty percent by 1936.

By January 1, 1942 the penal sanction was finally abolished, 40 years after van Den Brand’s publication. It was all a bit too late, the economic crisis had already closed down many tobacco plantations. And soon afterwards the Japanese moved in.

Van Den Brand

Johan Van den Brand (1864–1921), driven by his Cristian faith, stood up against the big companies, knowing that he will face a serious backlash.

He came to Deli as a lawyer and was one of the first editors of De Sumatra Post. During his time in Malaya around 1899, he described the coolie ordinance to the British government official to be used as a model. He got a reply, “We didn’t want slavery here”. Perhaps that’s what started him thinking.

Following the uproar of the booklet, in Deli, businesses advertised they want nothing to do with van den Brand. He wrote “My life here is intolerable” and had to leave.

In 1904, he went to the Netherlands to fight against the system in the political arena. He tried for the Lower House for the Protestant party but not successful.

Van den Brand went back to Deli and continued as a lawyer: “and yet you will win — gradually one has learned the actual target, from your action itself distinguished and the old wounds were healed.”

He continued the fight with a few more booklets, although not as popular as the first one:

  • De practijk der koelie-ordonnantie (1904)
  • Slavenordonnantie en koelieordonnantie gevolgd door een ontwerp-arbeidswet (1905)
  • De arbeidsinspectie in de residentie oostkust van Sumatra (1907)

He remained active in the protestant church and local politics. He continued to write on many issues in De Sumatra Post. Van den Brand was elected as a member of the Medan municipal council in 1915. He founded a new political party De Vooruitstrevende Kiesvereeniging Medan (The Progressive Electoral Association).

In 1918, he left for Europe; and according to his own wishes, he left without a farewell, nor a vendutie.

In May 1921 he was elected to the People Assembly (Volksraad). He died in Buitenzorg 5 December 1921 due to a heart condition.

Multatuli and Max Havelaar of Deli

Dirk Buiskool called Johan van den Brand as the Multatuli of Deli. De Millioenen uit Deli would be the equivalent of Max Havelaar, even more. Now you can download or read it online here

As Max Havelaar is the most famous books in the Dutch literature, De Millioenen uit Deli is almost an obscure literature that was studied by historian. Now it is time to acknowledge it and read it widely.


Jan Breman, 1989. Taming the Coolie Beast. Oxford University Press.

D.A. Buiskool. The Multatuli of Deli.

James W. Gould. Americans in Sumatra. 1961

Mohammad Said, 1977. Koeli kontrak tempo doeloe: dengan derita dan kemarahannya. Harian Waspada, Medan.

Soil Scientist, interest in Colonial history.