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East of the Cape in 1832: The Old Indies World, Empire Families and “Colonial Women” in Nineteenth-century Java1

  • G. Roger Knight


This paper deals with several themes central to recent debate about Dutch colonial society in Java, the key island of the erstwhile Netherlands Indies. Primarily, these themes relate to the colonial-metropolitan nexus, and my discussion seeks to illuminate these themes with particular reference to the documented experiences of three women who were either on their way to the Indies—or making their way back from there—early in the 1830s. The paper's fundamental argument concerns the importance of the concept of “Empire Families” to an understanding of Dutch colonial communities in the Indies. It is an understanding that serves to correct some misconceptions about the dynamics of those societies in the early to mid-nineteenth-century period. Among other things, building on the work of others and drawing on unpublished documentation, it seeks to locate some aspects of colonial “discourse,” particularly those relating to “colonial women,” in the broader framework of social history.



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1 This paper was made possible by financial support provided by the University of Adelaide and by the kind collaboration and assistance of numerous individuals in the Netherlands and the UK. I am also grateful for their instructive and encouraging comments to two anonymous reviewers for this journal.

* G. Roger Knight teaches in the School of History and Politics at The University of Adelaide. His main research interests (in which he is widely published) are in the Indonesian and global sugar industry; mercantile houses and commercial networks in nineteenth-century Southeast Asia; and in the colonial communities with which both sugar and mercantile enterprise was so closely bound up. His book on “Commodities and Colonialism: The Story of ‘Big Sugar’ in Indonesia, 1880–1940” is in press, and he is currently working on a “business biography” of Gillian Maclaine, a Scot who was active in Batavia in the 1820s and 1830s. The author can be contacted at:

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East of the Cape in 1832: The Old Indies World, Empire Families and “Colonial Women” in Nineteenth-century Java1

  • G. Roger Knight


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