Letters from Chempa Karam Pillai in Amsterdam to the Indian Independence Committee in Berlin



In August 1915, the British Indian revolutionary and German agent Chempa Karam Pillai (image 1) wrote several reports from Amsterdam to the German-sponsored Indian Independence Committee in Berlin. He discussed the secret missions of recruited Indonesian agents and the pivotal role of the neutral Dutch Empire in German-Indian plots to instigate uprisings in British India. To read the original letter, please click on the sources above.


These letters evoke how imperial strategies and propaganda policies cannot be interpreted as solely top-down decisions. These policies were often designed in consultation with local agents, revolutionaries, and intellectuals. Such intercultural negotiations - where, of course, racial and cultural hierarchies were still at work but were challenged at the same time - often preceded the proclamation of official policies. The letters illustrate how Indian and Indonesian agents contributed to, changed, and questioned German imperial strategies. The neutral Dutch East Indies played a pivotal role in German-Indian plans to foment unrest in British India, which was the main aim of Germany's imperial strategy in Asia. The Dutch colony served as a secret transport route for the movement of subversive pamphlets, weapons, and activists to British India. Indian and Indonesian anti-colonial revolutionaries - often old friends - also joined forces in German-sponsored missions to destabilise British rule. In August 1914, the German-financed Indian Independence Committee in Berlin invited the most famous Indonesian nationalists, Ernest Douwes Dekker and Soewardi to join their anti-British plots. In these letters of 1915, the Indian revolutionary and German agent Chempa Karam Pillai made explicit his wish to stir up Javanese nationalism. In particular, he wished to translate anti-colonial pamphlets, such as India’s Loyalty to England and Dr Rifat’s Damaging Evidence against English Hypocrisy (1914), into Malay and Javanese to be circulated throughout the Dutch East Indies. Like-minded Javanese nationalists were indeed most useful partners for the British Indians, as these ‘neutral colonials’ could travel more freely than Indians who were continuously monitored by the British Secret Services. Pillai possibly also sought a gradual destabilisation of the Dutch East Indies, to bring an end to all European rule in Asia. His Javanese partners Douwes Dekker and Soewardi were strong advocates of an independent Indonesia. Together, they considered their German-Indian activities and the translation of many anti-colonial and pan-Islamic manifestos into Javanese as serving their cause in the Dutch East Indies. The far-reaching ambitions of both Indian and Indonesians agents to stir up Javanese nationalism conflicted with Germany's desire to maintain the Dutch Empire as neutral and to use the Dutch East Indies predominantly as a means for transporting revolutionary material to British India. Von Kühlmann, the German consul in The Hague, facilitated these Indian-Indonesian activities. However, he remained sceptical about overt attempts to stir up the Javanese to revolt, as it endangered the neutral position of the Dutch.