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Book Reflections – A Short History of Indonesia by Colin Brown

After travelling through Indonesia for 3 1/2 weeks (see 20 posts under the Travel menu), I realised how little I know of the history of Indonesia. At Yogyakarta airport I saw A Short History of Indonesia by Colin Brown and, in line with my non-consumption ethos, rather that buying it then I waited until I returned home and borrowed it from my local library. Immediately I was delighted to discover that the writing style is highly accessible and Brown never delves too deeply into details or loses the pace that kept me fascinated from cover to cover. At times he brushes over modern topics that he assumes the reader will know plenty about and I needed to read further afield to understand these references but otherwise I thoroughly enjoyed this book and learnt a great deal from it. I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone who wants to quickly learn a little about the formation of Indonesia.

As I was reading lights went on in my mind as I understood more of the complexities of the causes of the poverty and disunity evident in Indonesia today. I decided to take some notes on topics that I found particularly interesting and pertinent to my own experiences in Indonesia and share them here.


As early as 500 BCE (Before Current Era) some ports in North Java were trading routinely with SE Asia, China and India. By 100 BCE the emperors of Rome were receiving cloves from eastern Indonesia and Pliny the Elder (Roman historian) mentioned that Indonesian boats were trading with Africa by 100 CE.

As a result of trade and Indonesian boat-building and sailing prowess, Indonesia was multicultural, for example Sumatra by 800 CE had permanent residents who were originally Chinese, South Asian, Bengalis, Gujeratis, Persians, and Javanese.

In ~1150CE Indonesian traders were importing pepper from India and selling it onto China but by ~1200 CE, Java and later Sumatra began growing pepper and by ~1420 CE Indonesian pepper was being shipped to China in place of Indian pepper. Similarly in the mid 1600’s when demand for Sumatran pepper waned many farmers switched to growing cotton and were then able to fill the void left by the decrease in Indian production of cotton.

Trade brought a lot of wealth to the spice islands on Indonesia but by the mid 1600’s economic crisis in Europe and China and the cancellation of trade with Japan led to many Indonesian traders leaving the market to the Dutch and ethnic Chinese traders.


By  640 CE Java had Buddhist (Ho-ling) and Hindu/Buddhist (Mataram) states. It was the Mataram state that produced the world’s largest Buddhist building, Borobudur. Considering that the construction of Borobudur involved quarrying over 1,000,000 stones and hauling them up a hill, and intricately carving scenes of the Buddha’s life, Mataram must have been a very prosperous state with an abundance of skilled and unskilled labour.

Until 1300 CE the Indonesian states were primarily Buddhist and by 1082 Islam came to Indonesia and flowed through the archipelago through trade. By 1300 CE most traders taking Indonesian spices to Europe were Muslims from south Asia and the Middle East and some Chinese traders were Islamic too. Muslim traders preferred to deal with fellow believers and for Indonesians without a strong religious belief system, Islam offered coherent and persuasive answers to complex questions. By ~1350 Aceh converted to Islam, followed by parts of Java, Maluku islands, and Sulawesi by 1580.

In 1527 a Muslim leader (from Demak) swept into the heartland of the last great Hindu-Buddhist state of Java (Majapahit), ending 1000 years of tradition.


European powers wished to control the spice trade themselves rather than rely on Middle Eastern traders so in 1511 Portugal captured Malacca and then in 1512 Maluku islands, trying to secure a monopoly on trade and converting locals to Catholicism. Following not far behind the Portuguese were the English, Spanish and Dutch (by the 1590s). The early Dutch voyages were so profitable that they created the VOC (United East India Company) in 1602 and began making bases in Indonesia, starting by seizing the Portuguese base in Maluku islands in 1605, followed in 1610 by the establishment of a storage facility and port in Jakarta. In the late 1620s the great Javanese state of Mataram fought the Dutch in Jakarta with an army of 160,000 men but they were unable to supply the huge army and eventually the Mataram army had to pull back. Through the remainder of the 1600’s the Dutch systematically fought their way through the Indonesian spice islands capturing a monopoly position in trade. By the mid 1600’s the Dutch were able to sell spices in Europe for 17 times the purchase price without any profits passing into Asian hands. By the late 1600’s the VOC shifted from being solely a trading entity to a regional administrator and expanded its control of ports through the archipelago. However in 1799 the VOC was bankrupt and the Dutch Crown took over its overseas activities.

In the early 1800’s the Dutch were about as strong a force as any individual Indonesia state but by the end of the 1800’s the Dutch colonial state dominated all but a few peripheral parts of the archipelago. In 1832 the Netherlands had a huge debt owing to wars in Java against the Diponegoro resistance, in Sumatra against the Paderi (Muslim fundamentalists who made the hajj to Mecca and studied with the Wahhabi Islamic reformist movement) and in the Netherlands to try to prevent the establishment of the Kingdom of Belgium. As a solution to recover debts, the Dutch implemented the Cultivation System whereby villages had to set aside 1/5 of their rice fields for the production of a crop nominated by the Dutch, e.g. coffee, sugar, indigo. Villagers also had to provide labor to work the Dutch government crops. The Cultivation System was a huge financial success and eliminated Dutch debts and then funded the Netherlands’ railways, canals and military fortifications. The cost on the Javanese people was immense with one colonial administrator reporting:

On the roads as well as the plantations one does not meet people but only walking skeletons, which drag themselves with great difficulty from one place to another, often dying in the process.

In 1843 major famines struck parts of central Java. The traditional leaders of Java in Yogyakarta and Solo did nothing, instead focusing on a cultural renaissance. The impetus to abolish the Cultivation System came from the Netherlands due to poor public opinion.

By 1900 Javanese people were suffering even more due to declining wages and working conditions on European and Chinese-managed estates, displacement of local products by Dutch imported goods, displacement of indigenous entrepreneurs by Chinese manufacturers, and rising consumption of Chinese operated opium dens, pawnshops and gambling houses. In 1901 the Netherlands adopted an Ethical Policy to raise the welfare of the Indonesian population and promote loyalty to the Dutch colonial regime. Under the Ethical Policy, agricultural systems and research was established, primary schools were opened, and the public administration system was reformed.

In 1928 a national language was proposed by a Youth Congress, the language called Indonesian was a modernised version of Malay (traditionally spoken in part of Sumatra and the south of Malaysia). Malay was not the first language of many Indonesians but it was widely spoken because it was the language of inter-ethnic trade and of Islam.  The goal of the education system was to prepare students to be minor government officials and clerks. The vast majority of schools taught in Malay or a local language, not Dutch which limited the educational and career prospects of the graduates. Only a very small number of Indonesian children (mostly Christians or aristocrats) were permitted to attend Dutch-language schools.

For the first 200 years of Dutch occupation of Indonesia, the Dutch integrated somewhat and many Dutch men had Indonesian mistresses or wives. From the 1870s Dutch began arriving for short-term money-making ventures and many brought their wives. These people were true expatriates and brought their Dutch culture with them rather than adopting Indies culture.

Formation of the Nation

Japan invaded Indonesia to secure access to its resources and food. The Dutch surrendered and the Japanese occupied Indonesia in their place. In September 1943 the Japanese established a Central Advisory Council with Sukarno as the Chairman. Membership of the Council was entirely Indonesian and from a broad range of backgrounds. Many Muslims on the Council argued for a formally Islamic state but Sukarno argued that islands dominated by other religions would secede from Indonesia if that happened. Eventually the Council agreed to Five Principles of the Indonesian State:

  1. Belief in God
  2. Nationalism
  3. Humanitarianism
  4. Social justice
  5. Democracy

In late July 1945 the Japanese authorities announced that they would recognize Indonesian independence in September. The dropping of atomic bombs on two Japanese cities forced the unconditional surrender of Japan on 15th August. This placed Indonesian independence in a perilous position because the nationalist leaders didn’t want to risk provoking the Japanese occupying forces and knew that the Japanese would make a handover of the administration of Indonesia to the Allied forces. A group of radical young people kidnapped the nationalist leaders, Sukarno and Hatta and attempted to force them to declare independence immediately. The two leaders instead informally contacted the Japanese commander and had an agreement to make the announcement on 17 August 1945 in Jakarta:

We the people of Indonesia hereby declare our independence. Matters concerning the transfer of power, etc., will be attended to in an orderly fashion and as speedily as possible.

In the name of the People of Indonesia.

Sukarno and Hatta

The Japanese forces withdrew from Indonesia and Allied forces landed and attempted to reassert control. The British would not accept Sukarno as President so the revolutionary government created a prime ministership with Sukarno as the figurehead President. The Allied troops (British and Indian) fought battles with Indonesian fighters, the heaviest (in Surabaya) convincing the British government that they should withdraw as soon as the Dutch arrived to takeover. The Dutch invaded the Republic, seizing half of Java and the richest territories in Sumatra. The UN intervened ineffectually, granting the occupied territories to the Dutch in return for eventual Dutch recognition of Indonesian independence. The Dutch launched an attack on the capital city in an attempt to eliminate the Republic and captured most of the Cabinet including Sukarno and Hatta. However the Indonesian army fought hard and the Dutch were unable to secure a quick military victory, leading to American diplomatic intervention and the decision by the Dutch government to restore Sukarno and Hatta. Finally in December 1949 the Dutch formally recognized Indonesian independence.

Modern Indonesia

Once the Indonesians succeeded in expelling the Dutch administration, the much more difficult task began of trying to give substance to the nation’s independence. Importantly, the leaders needed to devise political and economic systems that would satisfy the expectations of the citizens of the new Indonesia but this task was beyond the capabilities of the first generation of political leaders. Amid regional turmoil and violence, Sukarno established an autocratic system called “Guided Democracy” in 1957 that successfully ended the instability and rebellions which were threatening the survival of the diverse and fractious country, thereby taking over control of the country. In the early 1960’s, Sukarno adopted more left-leaning policies, including nationalisation of over 400 Dutch companies. On 1st October 1967, Sukarno was placed under house arrest by one of his generals, Suharto in a coup to seize power of Indonesia.

Suharto built a strong, centralised and military-dominated government that stabilised Indonesia, sometimes by force but largely through a powerful propaganda machine and total control of the media. The areas that suffered the most under Suharto’s 31 year rule were Aceh, East Timor and West Papua. For most of his presidency, Indonesia experienced significant economic growth and industrialisation, dramatically improving health, education and living standards. However, the era was marked by corruption and in May 1999, Time Asia estimated Suharto’s family fortune at US$15 billion in cash, shares, corporate assets, real estate, jewelry and fine art; and subsequent President Abdurrahman Wahid estimated the fortune at $45bn – enough to repay Indonesia’s debts to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

The period after Suharto was marked by riots, civil conflict, separatist violence in Papua and Aceh, the secession of East Timor, an upsurge in religious-based political and terrorist activities, multiple presidents and many predicted the break-up of the Indonesian state. As a vast, sprawling archipelago of over 17,000 islands, hundreds of ethnic and linguistic groups speaking over 300 unique local languages, multiple religious sects and a huge population (estimated at just over 200 million in 1998), keeping sectarian and ethnic conflict at bay would be a challenge at the best of times.

The book was published in 2003 but a little bit of internet digging helped me to bring these closing comments to the post and make it relevant now. Indonesia emerged as a multi-party democracy with a directly elected president in 2004. Indonesia reformed its institutions and rapidly decentralized its governance structure. Today, Indonesia is one of the most energetic economies in Asia, attracting investors from around the world into a rapidly growing consumer market with growth at around 5.6 percent.

2014 will be a pivotal year for Indonesia, one in which both the leader of the House of Representatives, and the Presidency will be changed. The new custodians of Indonesia’s future will face many challenges but the future for Indonesia is very bright.

More reading:


2 comments on “Book Reflections – A Short History of Indonesia by Colin Brown

  1. Pingback: Book Review – A Short History of Japan | strivetoengage

  2. Pingback: Book Reflections – The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton | strivetoengage

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This entry was posted on February 9, 2014 by in Non-fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .
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