The Rhemrev Report: Coolie Scandal revisited

The harsh reality described in obscure booklets and pamphlets, and unpublished documents such as the Rhemrev Report, was for years simply denied, ridiculed in the second room, and avoided in historiography as not spoken of in civilized society. And this polarization actually still exists. (Rudy Kousbroek, NRC Handelsblad, October 16, 1992)

Following De Millioenen uit Deli’s explosive release by van den Brand in 1902, the Dutch Indies government had to respond and ordered an investigation.

The investigation was commissioned by a Government Decree of May 24, 1903. J.L.T. Rhemrev, a senior public prosecutor from Batavia, was instructed to go to the east coast of Sumatra to conduct an administrative inquiry into the allegations referred in The Millions from Deli. The booklet indicted the colonial and plantation society in Deli, the centre of Sumatra’s east coast’s economy where shocking and disgraceful practices prevailed.

Rhemrev arrived in Medan in early June 1903 and started the investigation immediately. Rhemrev, an Indo mixed-blood officer, who was 49 years old at the time, was familiar with many local languages and was the best choice for the job. However, the Deli planters and society did not welcome Rhemrev, an official from Batavia charged with investigating working conditions in Deli cultures created lots of unease.

Rhemrev started hearing from van den Brand. He also used ‘spies’ to collect information from the coolies on the plantations in the kedehs or in the fields, during their breaks or in the evening. Rhemrev had to perform the task in a hostile environment with the local and Indies newspapers (including both Deli Courant and De Sumatra Post) reported almost daily about his movement and also pieces of slander on his work and personality.

The investigation took six months and was finalized in December 1903. Het Vaderland newspaper reported that:

Mr. Rhemrev, has left again, and in the green briefcase with the brass locks, guarded by the an Javanese with the red baldric.

Rhemrev completed the report in early 1904. The report reached Governor-General Rooseboom on January 18, 1904 and on January 31, it was sent to the Minister of Colonies Idenburg in The Hague.

The report

Report of the results of the Government’s Decree of May 24, 1903, Commissioned inquiry no. 19 is a 167 pages typed document. It started with an investigation on allegations made by van Den Brand.

The first reported case of abuse was JP Petersen, the administrator of the company Namoe Tongan of Langkat Tabaksbouw Maatschappij, which was already liquidated when Rhemrev arrived. Rhemrev found reports of repeated abuse. In July 1899, 4 cases were recorded where Petersen punished several Chinese coolies with rattan sticks.

the said administrator had instructed his overseer that Chinese Ho A Tjit, Tjin Koean Kong and Pong A Sie, when they had to pass a river by carrying the wood and asked for a drink, tied their tails together and holding the heads of these Chinese underwater and, when they surfaced, submerged them again.

In the middle of the investigation, Rhemrev had to break his spy system, because the number of crimes that came to light became too much that without the help of judicial officers he could not investigate them properly. But he also feared planters started to interfere his research with various means. Rhemrev said that the first part of his research obtained through espionage should be given the greatest weight. Those reported incidents took place in the most affluent and best organized plantations of Deli.

The second part of the investigation, Rhemrev went to the plantations and talked to the coolies in the presence of the planters. Those still produced a series cases of assault and abuse of power. He presented the report of the survey of various tobacco plantations in the Deli and Langkat (75 companies), Serdang (43 companies), Padang, and Bedagei, Batoe Bahra and Asahan divisions (28 companies).

And at each company, various maltreatments were recorded such as:

Deli Maatschappij in Bekalla, with 1153 workers: Seven people complained about despicable acts, of which 3 were stood in the sun from morning 9 until evening 5 without food or drink; 2 over cane lashes; 2 on lashes with a whip which resulted in hospital.

At another Deli Maatschappi plantation in Mariendal, Rhemrev recorded assistant Moens had beaten a woman worker Atimah because she collected too few caterpillars. He hit her on her back and then kicked her in the loins, even though she was eight months pregnant. Fifteen days after the abuse, she gave birth to a lifeless child. The dead child’s head was dented on the left side, the left eye was not visible.

The report concluded that mistreatments, including freedom deprivation, frequent homicide, repeated abuses, and unlawful acts, were common. Rhemrev recorded abuses in 40 percent of the companies that he visited. But he warned that it doesn’t mean that no abuse occurred on the other companies.

Rhemrev discovered abuses of unprecedented scale. The allegations made by van den Brand were mostly true. Rhemrev also listed much more cases of abuses:

standing in the sun, rubbed with pepper and then tied to poles for several hours, immersing and holding head underwater, placing on electrical machines, running rods (two rows of men dealt blows to the bare back of the person with a pointed rod), kicking in the back of a pregnant woman resulted in a dead child, tying to poles, beating workers who call in sick and asking for medicines, refusing leave to a father to bury his child, locking up the sick in contaminated shacks during a few months, and sending final-stage sick patients out of the hospital so that their corpses can be found on the road later.

Rhemrev concluded that:

(1) That the situation at several companies in Sumatra’s east coast, with regards the relationship between employer and indentured workers, left much to be desired. Hitting with hand or stick is still widely practiced. ( “but experience has taught me that all too often this expression was used where the word whip would have been more appropriate”).

(2) Serious assaults occurred on various companies.

(3) Unlawful deprivation of freedom, with or without physical punishing, took place frequently at various establishments until shortly before my arrival in Sumatra East Coast.

(4) Manslaughter committed by Europeans is rare. Murders committed by Natives and foreign Orientals to persons of the same kind committed is very large.

(5) The relationship of the employer to the indentured servant is always lord and master. The worker said that he had sold himself in body and soul “soedah djoewal djiwa dan kepala”. However the employers regarded them as “things” that they owned.

The report recommended:

(1) appointment of officials who would be specially charged with supervising compliance to the coolie ordinance,

(2) set-up a court of justice in Medan,

(3) an increase of the wage paid to women coolies, and

(4) an increase of the police force.

JLT Rhemrev

Johan Leendert Tammerus Rhemrev (1854–1927) was born in Banjoemas, Central Java, on January 15, 1854. Rhemrev’s exotic name is an anagram (inversion) of Vermehr. In the Indies, “unlawful” mixed European or Indo children used their fathers’ name but reversed. JLT Rhemrev is the great-great grandson of Leendert Hendrik Vermehr (1737–1790) born in Ambon, who had a relationship with a Javanese woman. Leendert’s father is Lubertus Vermehr (1696–1749), a VOC captain.

According to the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant, Rhemrev knew almost all “native” languages and had the physical of the Native and was therefore also loved by them for his honest and humane behaviour. He was well known both in the Indies and the Netherlands for his righteousness and honesty.

Rhemrev studied law at Leiden and started his service as a judicial officer at the Council of Justice in Batavia in October 1878. He served various positions, including a member of the Council of Justice, chairman of the Landraad at Brebes in 1861, and Semarang in 1886. He also served as chairman of the land councils in Pekalongan and Bantang, and Tangerang.

Rhemrev was appointed as a prosecutor of the Council of Justice in Batavia in 1895 and in Padang in 1897. Subsequently, on March 13, 1900, Rhemrev was appointed vice-president of the Council of Justice in Batavia. And on July 12 of that year, he was appointed as a public prosecutor in the same court.

Rhemrev wrote a book in 1884 Serat Gurma Lelana, published in Leiden, entirely in Javanese, on a tiger hunting experience.

Rhemrev was twice asked by the Dutch Indies government to investigate the working conditions in Sumatra. Rhemrev was instructed for an investigation in Deli in 1903. A second task was conducted in Lampung, South of Sumatra in 1905. After the task, he went to Europe for two years on a sick leave.

In January 1909, Rhemrev was appointed as a member of the Council of Justice at Semarang, followed by appointment as vice-president of the Council of Justice at Surabaya in June 1909. However, Rhemrev requested a retirement. After more than 30 years of judiciary service, he was honourably discharged on September 6, 1910. His merits were recognized by his appointment as an officer in the Order of Oranje Nassau.

He retired in the Hague but still engaged in training young people who were sent to Indies as judicial officers at Leiden University. Rhemrev died in the Hague on June 12, 1927, aged 73 years old.

The reaction

The Deli plantation society quickly argued against Rhemrev’s report.

In December 1904, the former resident of the east coast, P. J. Kooreman, at the Motherland and Colonies Association, again refuted the outcome of the report which was debated at the House of Representatives, quoting Mr. Rhemrev had only succeeded in verbalizing a few insignificant facts.

The recommendation by Rhemrev was followed. A labour inspectorate for the plantations was set up and a judicial office was established in Medan.

Labour inspectorate

In July 1904, Bernardus Hoetink (1854–1927) , a Chinese translator who has worked in Deli, was appointed as a temporary Inspector of Labour on Sumatra’s East Coast. He agreed under two conditions that the position should not be under the Resident of Sumatra’s east coast, and accompanied by two assistant inspectors.

The tasks of the inspector were supervising the regulation on mutual rights and obligations of employers and employees, visiting plantations regularly, checking the local conditions and receiving complaints, and reporting and making proposals.

Hoetink wrote that he only wanted “some humanity towards the smallest of small people, a little heart.”

Hoetink was also asked to revise the Coolie Ordinance. Hoetink completed his draft of the new ordinance in January 1905 and finished his post as the inspector in 1906. In 1906, the Labour Inspection Bureau became a permanent institution with a chief inspector in Batavia.

A new coolie ordinance was completed on June 22, 1915; however poenale sanctie remained.

It was not until a threat of boycott from the USA in 1932 that the Deli tobacco companies “voluntarily” declared that the removal of penal sanction. By 1930s, due to economic depression, the demand for labor already declined. Still, it took another 10 years to have the penal sanction completely gone in 1942.

Is it slavery?

Still, many would say contract collies are not slavery; they signed a contract (despite illiterate) and got paid. Some would also convince themselves that the planters were doing them a favour, as options were grim enough in China and Java.

Indentured labour was created to replace slavery, or some would called it as slavery reworked. As reported by Rhemrev, systematic deprivation of personal freedom, assault and atrocities and abuse of power. Contract worker or any other names with widespread abuses would still be slavery.

According to ILO,

slavery is used as an umbrella term covering practices such as forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, and human trafficking. Essentially, it refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.

Where did the Rhemrev report go?

According to Jan Breman (1987), after the minister of colonies A.W.F. Idenburg had read the report in 1904, he wrote it is “a sad history of suffering in injustice”. The report was filed away and never been seen again.

An article on Soerabaijasch handelsblad, 22–11–1904, wrote

In his report on the conditions on the East coast of Sumatra, of which I have been given access, Mr. Rhemrev comes to the following conclusions: the situation at several companies on the East coast of Sumatra is inadequate; serious beatings of coolies have occurred; ill-treatment of coolies has occurred; Unlawful sex deprivation has often taken place, while homicide is rare; the homicide of natives among themselves is very large.

The obituary for Rhemrev in De Locomotief, July 13, 1927 wrote:

His report has remained a secret.

However De Sumatra Post in 1918 stated that the report was well known, as found by Dirk Buiskool in an article on the farewell of van den Brand on November 21, 1918:

The (van den Brand) brochure aroused sharp debates in the House of Representatives, and the follow-up was the well-known Rhemrev enquete, which in turn led to the establishment of a Council of Justice in Medan and a labor inspectorate for the cultural area.

The summary of the report could be well-known at the time, as a reporter in Het vaderland December 23, 1904 wrote:

The known conclusions were published by the speaker and discussed in detail in the House of Representatives.

Roelof Broersma’s encyclopedic book on Oostkust Van Sumatra published in 1919 also listed Rhemrev’s conclusions. Nevertheless Broersma wrote:

On a request on my part in 1917 for inspection of the Rhemrev report, the Government replied that it was not admissible and could only refer to the colonial report of 1904 (Part I, page 277).

For that reason, it always remained secret; the minister could only be induced to communicate the decisions made by the researcher. … Although the House of Representatives and the Planter’s Committee requested access and publicity, the Government carefully closed the Rhemrev report away (Part II, p. 185).

Karl Pelzer, an academic from Yale, in his 1978 book “Planter and Peasant: Colonial Policy and the Agrarian Struggle in East Sumatra 1863–1947” wrote:

To the best of my knowledge, however, the report was never released, nor has any scholar been given access to it. My own interpretation for this is that the report would have been even more shocking than van den Brand’s book.

It can be concluded that although the general conclusion of the report was well-known at the time, the report was not made available. This is because the report contained much more cases of mistreatments than van den Brand’s booklet; it listed names along with alleged abuses in more than 50 plantations which belong to large companies such as the Deli Mij.

Breman’s scandal

Jan Breman, a sociologist from the University of Amsterdam, discovered the Rhemrev report in the National archive in the Hague during his research in 1982. He reproduced it in his 1987 publication in Koelies, planters en koloniale politiek. Breman argued that it is due to the colonial concealment censorship, propaganda, and press regulations.

Writer Rudy Kousbroek also called it a postcolonial cover-up. He wrote in NRC Handelsblad, February 27, 1987:

When I try to reconstruct how I did that, I end up with the same terms used by so many others: ‘greatly exaggerated’, ‘high exceptions’,’ incidental derailments. Moreover, it was so long ago. In fact, it was not. (…)

This may illustrate how easy it is to talk away from the worst horrors, especially in your own circle: statements of that type just mentioned — exaggerated, sprouted from coolie fantasy, and so on, derailments committed by foreigners — all these and such excuses, even if they are lies, are gratefully accepted, they are, as it were, anticipated and supplemented by the people themselves; not always out of cunning or complicity, but simply to get rid of a nightmare.

However, historian Cess Fasseur (1938–2016) from Leiden University told Breman that he had already seen the report, and two students have even written their theses about it. Fasseur’s student wrote to Breman that the report has been in the catalogue of the library of the Royal Institute for the Tropics since 1966, just no one noticed it.

Breman and Kousbroek then accused Fasseur of hiding the colonial past , as Fasseur was aware of the Rhemrev report but had done nothing with it.

Fasseur in 1994 replied:

The horrific stories were, in other words, already told in detail in the House of Representatives. What Rhemrev did was monitor all of these messages and allegations. In other words, the Rhemrev report — ‘the most gruesome revelation of this century’ — contained only old news, which also explains why after 1905, there was little interest on the report. Only someone like Breman, who never joined Clio’s school, it was something new.

The trading insults between the Leiden and the Amsterdam School was stimulating.

Cremer and Fasseur

Now we come back to J.T. Cremer, his statue is on display in the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, possibly highlighting the golden age glory of the Deli tobacco plantation?

Cremer (1847–1923) was the former administrator of the Deli Maatschaappij (1871 to 1883). He was also the architect of coolie ordinance and got a nickname of Coolie Cremer. He was the minister of colonies in 1897 to 1901, just before De Millioenen uit Deli exploded.

Fasseur sympathetically tried to explain the rationale for the coolie ordinance in Cremer’s biography:

The problem with which the planters had a lot to say was that the coolies, after money and advance had been paid, ran away to reconnect with another company or contracted simultaneously with more than one entrepreneur. In 1876 the planters therefore submitted a petition, drawn up by Cremer and signed first, to the governor-general, calling for better administrative facilities on Sumatra’s east coast and for greater powers for the entrepreneurs to exercise disciplinary authority over and the punishment of the working people.

Among other things, this arrangement (coolie ordinance), which was later extended to almost the whole of the Netherlands Indies with the exception of Java, threatened any arbitrary breach of the contract on the part of the worker, provided the employment contract was registered by the administration, as well as extensive laziness with punishment. Finally, it put restrictions on the coolie’s freedom of movement; for example, he was not allowed to leave the company without the entrepreneur’s leave.

With an admiration to Cremer, Fasseur considerately concluded:

Based on the understandable but not yet correct thesis, that what was good for the Indian business community was also good for the Javanese, he saw it as the ‘highest ideal’ for every colonial power bringing civilization, prosperity, peace, and order. When the ‘ethical direction’ in colonial politics at the turn of the century broke new ground, this typical representative of the Indian entrepreneurial world, in a sense, already belonged to a past era.

Karl Pelzer also wrote an interesting note:

The (ex) Minister of Colonies, J. T. Kremer of the Deli Company, had to answer the questions, for which he was indeed qualified, as he had held a leading position in Medan until 1883. As his answer shows, he was in an extremely embarrassing situation. Kremer maintained that during Kremer’s own residence in Medan van den Brand would not have had grounds to accuse the planters the way he did in 1902. Kremer’s rather lame explanation was that the tropical climate must have caused a moral breakdown after his departure. One could ask whether the climate had changed after J. T. Kremer’s return to the Netherlands.

Cremer already talked about climate change in 1904.

This story was retold in Pramoedya Anata Toer’s book Jejak Langkah (Footsteps), 1985.

This was also told in an article on Cremer’s answer to the attack by Troelstra in the House of Representatives:

Mr. Cremer mentioned this disbelief in in his answer to the ‘damage to his character’: that formerly, as far as he knew, such conditions as reported by Mr. Rhemrev (beating with the hand or a stick, serious assaults, illegal deprivation of liberty) did not exist, and so a ‘moral breakdown’ must have arisen in Deli lately.

Rhemrev Online

The row on Rhemrev’s report extended 90 years from 1904 until 1994! Now thanks to online resources, we can read the report from Leiden’s digital collection

Download it, print it out, and keep a copy in your cloud storage; who knows, it will be retracted again, one day. Whether the report was hidden or always there, it is still a largely obscure document. Read it, and acknowledge that the Dutch has built much wealth from the slavery of many souls in Indonesia.


Breman, J., 1989. Taming the coolie beast. Oxford University Press.

Buiskool, D.A., 2019. Prominent Chinese During the Rise of a Colonial City: Medan 1890–1942 (Doctoral dissertation, Utrecht University).

Kuiper, K.P., 2017. The Early Dutch Sinologists (1854–1900)(2 vols): Training in Holland and China, Functions in the Netherlands Indies. Brill.

See Also

Soil Scientist, interest in Colonial history.