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The Blind Eye and the Strong Arm: The Colonial Archive and the Imbrication of Knowledge and Power in Mid-Nineteenth Century Java

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The argument of this paper relates to on-going debates about the acquisition of knowledge and the enhancement of power in the context of European empire building during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It seeks to locate these debates in the specific context of the Netherlands Indies and its key island of Java in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, at a time when the Dutch colonial power attempted a major fact-finding investigation of the island's sugar industry, and of the social and economic circumstances of "peasant" Java, in which colonial sugar manufacturers operated. It argues that in this particular instance, the attempt to assemble colonial knowledge exposed the potentially counter-productive aspects of such projects. It highlights the limitations of colonial knowledge implicit in the institutional structure of colonial power, and the extent to which, in the circumstances of mid-nineteenth century Java, the blind eye was the necessary corollary of the strong arm. This was because power rested on a carefully and consciously circumscribed quest for knowledge, which might easily be upset by too keen an investigation of the social and economic circumstances of the countryside.


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