Lincoln Cent NEI Error Obverse

Indonesia at 70: A Unique American Striking Error Mirrors the End of Colonial Rule in the East Indies

The Struggle for Independence

This year is a notable one for the Republic of Indonesia as the South-East-Asian nation celebrates its 70th anniversary of independence.

Dutch Colonial Troops in Surabaya ca1930

Dutch Colonial Troops in Surabaya circa 1930 (early postcard)

In 1945, however, autonomy seemed anything but certain.  After three centuries of Dutch colonization, the main islands of Java and Sumatra were invaded by the armies of Japan in about March of 1942, leading to more than three years of harsh occupation in which thousands died among the local populations. Unlike the Dutch, however, the Japanese occupiers did not strive to suppress the development of independence fervor among young Indonesians, and indeed actually leant tacit and practical support to the movement.

In somewhat of an ironic move on the announcement of Japan’s surrender in August of 1945, the occupying forces in the Indies turned their weapons over to the very people they had so brutally oppressed, rather than to the anticipated returning Dutch.  Two days later, on August 17th, 1945, an independent Indonesia was declared, with Soekarno – a 44-year-old civil engineer – as its first President (Soekarno’s involvement in the independence movement predated the Japanese occupation, as he had spent more than a decade under Dutch detention for his activities in the nationalist movement).

The Dutch, however, had little intention of giving up their Indies colonies, and persuaded their allies – mainly the British – to aid them in reoccupying the islands.

The pivotal Battle of Surabaya, which took place in Java’s second-largist city (and the birthplace of my wife, Nana) in October and November of 1945, was a turning point in this history of Indonesia. More than 600 British-Indian troops, together with their commander – Brigadier A.W.S. Mallaby – died in fighting with pro-independence soldiers and militia. Also during the fracas,  a tri-colour Dutch flag flying atop the Hotel Majapahit in downtown Surabaya had its bottom blue stripe torn away by students, and was hoisted back up with only the now-familiar red and white horizontal stripes that would later become the “Mera-Puti” – Indonesia’s official flag.

The Dutch Governor of Java and his Military Chief, May 1942

The Dutch Governor of Java and his Military Chief entering Japanese internment, May 1942. (1977 Edito-Service S.A., Geneva, Printed in Italy, US Information Service)

British troops retaliated with massive force, backed by both air and sea power, quickly retaking the city of Surabaya with thousands of casualties caused to the ranks of the defenders. As many as 200,000 others fled the devastated city for refuge in rural areas.  Though a significant military defeat for the Indonesian forces, the fervor, dedication and sacrifice of nationalists served to galvanize support for the movement throughout the Indies, and made it clear to the British and their Allies that the age of Dutch colonization had effectively drawn to an end. By November of 1946 the final British troops had departed, and England would join those in the United Nations who openly supported the Indonesian cause of independence.  By December of 1949, all conflict had ended and the Republic of Indonesia was at last officially recognized by the Dutch.

The Coinage of Wartime

Throughout this wartime period – from the initial invasion of the Japanese in 1942 to the final declaration of independence in 1945 – the circulating coinage in the Netherlands East Indies was both consistent and predictable. Coinage of the Dutch administration continued, and the day-to-day economies of both Java and the other islands functioned on a coinage system of Cents and Gulden. As detailed in an earlier newsletter of last summer, the Japanese made great efforts to introduce their own unique series of occupation coinage in One, Five and Ten Sen denominations – eventually striking more than 480 million pieces – however if any of these shipments did indeed avoid being sunk during the treacherous sea-journey from Japan to Java, there is very little evidence that any specimens actually entered circulation in the Indies.

Clearly, the unique coinage issues of the Netherlands East Indies – with their trilingual Javanese, Arabic, and Dutch inscriptions – continued to dominate everyday commerce.

One significant difference in the production of this wartime coinage, however, was the actual origin of its production. With the German occupation of the Netherlands preventing the continued production of both domestic and colonial coinage, the striking of these coins for the period 1941 to 1945 was instead contracted to the various mints of the United States. Thus, a massive 1.6 billion coins were struck at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mints on behalf of the besieged Dutch government, and bore both a standard U.S. mint-mark as well as a palm tree.

NEI Tenth Gulden Obverse and Reverse

NEI Tenth Gulden Obverse and Reverse: Click to enlarge

Included in this number, with denominations of Half Cent through 2 ½ Gulden (curiously omitting only the N.E.I. 5 Cent issue), was a combined striking of more than 290 million One Tenth Gulden coins in .720 Silver.

And of this mintage, 19,280,000 pieces were struck in the very waning days of the Dutch claims to Indonesia, bearing the date and mint-mark combination of 1945-S.

Lincoln Cent NEI Error Obverse

Click to enlarge

A full 70 years later, a “holy grail” of colonial Indonesian overstrikes has been discovered, in which a United States Lincoln Penny of 1945 has been struck over an already completed Netherland East Indies 1/10 Gulden (see accompanying images), while passing through otherwise completely separate production paths at the San Francisco Mint.

Lincoln Cent NEI Error Reverse

Click to enlarge

Almost certainly unique, I am personally thrilled to have survived a ferocious bidding frenzy to acquire this incredible “Indonesian” error coin, and look forward to sharing it with our customers and fellow collectors in a future open-house display.

Selamat Hari Kemerdikaan!

Sean Isaacs

4 thoughts on “Indonesia at 70: A Unique American Striking Error Mirrors the End of Colonial Rule in the East Indies

  1. Hi Sea. Many thanks for the most fascinating short history of Indonesia’s 70th anniversary of Independence. I really enjoyed it as this part of the war is not that well known and learning about your personal early life beginnings makes it quite understandable why you obtained the unique cent . I too have a passion for objects with connections of my past. That cent must have caused you to pay a “pretty Penny” to obtain. Congradulations to you and your fine family! Horst

    • Thanks for the kind comments, Horst; yes, delighted to find this coin, and indeed was necessary to “liberate” a few non-sentimental pieces from my collection in order to budget for it! My telling of this story was of course necessarily brief, as there are many untold stories from this period of transition, including the poignant memoirs of interned Dutch citizens during the war, etc.

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