The continuity of the Dutch colonial system of law was hampered by the political underdevelopment of the metropole. Until the early nineteenth century, the Dutch political entity consisted of seven heterogeneous provinces. Solely by virtue of their geographic position, they had been able to assert political independence from their liege lord, Philip II of Spain (1527–1598). A national Dutch state was created in 1816 as a result of international politics culminating in the Congress of Vienna. Even then, a legal basis for the kingdom was delayed by war with the southern Netherlands, which in due course would become Belgium. Only after a finished constitution was promulgated in 1838 could attention be turned to regulating law in the colony.

The second was that of duality: Dutch laws applied to the Dutch and those considered as such; "native" law applied to the indigenous population. From the latter followed the doctrine of applicability, through which "natives" could legally become "Dutch," voluntarily or at the discretion of the government, temporarily or permanently. The assumption was that the natural superiority of Dutch law would attract enlightened "natives" (inlander), which would ultimately result in legal unification. Ethnicity was a legal definition, albeit with far-reaching social effects. Criminal and commercial law were unabashedly European.

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