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Sabang
The SS Sumatra at the quay in Sabang, circa 1895.

Large image
Seaport and coal station Sabang, schoolroom poster circa 1910.
After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Indonesian archipelago was no longer approached from the south, via the Sunda Strait, but along a more Northern route, via the Strait of Malacca. This partly explains the prosperity of Singapore. Others also hoped to profit from the new route. Among them was the Atjeh Associatie, which operated a seaport and coal station at Sabang. This Association had been established in 1883 by the Factorij van de Nederlandsche Handel Maatschappij (Factorij or Netherlands Trading Society) and De Lange & Co. of Batavia (Jakarta). Sabang had a natural harbour, which was relatively deep and well sheltered. The port was strategically situated on the island of Palu Weh, which lay off the northern tip of Sumatra's Atjeh province, along the shipping route to Singapore. The harbour was intended as a coal station for the Dutch navy, but later also served merchant vessels. Plans for further development were initiated with a view to reducing the dependence of Dutch and Colonial companies on the harbours of Penang and Singapore in the Straits Settlements. In addition, as initially intended, the harbour was used for the transfer of export goods from Northern Sumatra.

These activities were, however, slow in developing. This changed after Ernst Heldring visited the area during his travels through East Asia between 1897 and 1899. He immediately recognised the potential of Sabang as a harbour for the Dutch merchant and naval fleet, but also realised that a sizeable investment was required to improve port infrastructure. Upon returning to the Netherlands he published a book, "Oost Azië en Indië" ("East Asia and Indonesia"), which contained a chapter on Sabang and its development potential. His report on this matter, which he addressed to the NHM and various other companies, contained convincing arguments favouring further development of the harbour.

Heldring's father, Balthazar, held a seat on the NHM board of managing directors and was even appointed president in 1900. He greeted his son's plans with enthusiasm. He saw to it that the languishing Atjeh Associatie was transformed into the N.V. Zeehaven en Kolenstation Sabang te Batavia (Sabang Seaport and Coal Station of Batavia) in 1899. The project gained further momentum in 1902, when the ageing NHM director Hartsen was replaced by the energetic Van Aalst, who had first-hand knowledge of the situation and had already contributed significantly to the development of Sabang while stationed in Singapore. By 1903, he had arranged a bi-weekly service between the colonial harbour and the Netherlands, jointly operated by Stoomvaart Maatschappij Nederland (Netherlands Steamboat Company) and Rotterdamsche Lloyd. In addition, he arranged a vital capital injection for the company by bringing in NHM as majority shareholder. The harbour soon reaped the fruits of these efforts and began attracting Russian and Japanese naval vessels, as well as merchant ships sailing under foreign flags.

In 1909 NHM sold all property, docks, quays etc. on the island of Palu Weh to the Dutch State for 1.2 million guilders. The state subsequently let the property to Sabang on long lease. That same year the Naval Department transferred ownership of its 2,800 ton dock (constructed in 1898) to the company, with the proviso that all government vessels would henceforth be allowed to dock free of charge. In 1914 the NHM sold a percentage of its shares in Sabang to the Dutch State, earning profits to the sum of 947,000 guilders.

Despite these developments, Penang and Singapore remained the most important harbour cities for the North Coast of Sumatra. Sabang suffered severe damage during the Second World War, and in 1950, after Indonesia gained independence, the company initiated liquidation procedures. These were rounded off in 1959.










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