Book Review: A Brief but Lucid History of a Unique Island Nation


NOVEMBER 02, 2015

“History is everywhere in Indonesia” claims historian and travel writer Tim Hannigan. And what a complex history Indonesia has!

The major focus of this book is how a thronging cast of millions, disparate peoples with conflicting religions and cultures, fought and intermingled over more than 1,500 years to create a unique country that comprises over 17,000 islands. We hear about its ancient inhabitants: the Orang Laut, Dyaks and Austronesians; more recent invaders: the Dutch, British, Portuguese, Chinese, Mongols, Indians and Arabs; and multiple faiths: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, various forms of Christianity and animism.

During the first millennia CE, Hindu traders from India and Buddhist Chinese set up ports all along the archipelago and gradually a sort of Buddhist-tinged Hinduism sprinkled with old animist spiritual beliefs became the dominant religion, particularly in Java.

The early history of the Indonesian archipelago is dominated by great Hindu-Buddhist Srivijaya and Majapahit kingdoms, the latter of which “rings a bell through the halls of Indonesian history.” These were not nations in the modern sense, more “cultural and economic brands,” “interconnected vassal ports” that operated on a tax and tribute basis.

Religion infuses, though does not dominate, vast swathes of Indonesian history. By the 13th century, pockets of Islam were already evident in north Sumatra, now a bastion of conservative Indonesian Islam. But Islam did not spread in the archipelago by military conquest: "The fall of Majapahit had been a slow atrophying over generations, rather than a single catastrophic defeat."

Hannigan states that most historians are not sure why or how Islam surpassed the old Hindu-Buddhist faith and culture (with the island of Bali holding out). He speculates that it may have been due to prosaic reasons, i.e. the result of it being more convenient to trade with Arabian and Muslim Indian merchants, rather than a great religious awakening. Other regional political events were also a factor: "The Catholic conquest [of Melaka] had displaced many of the expat Muslim traders based there, sending them scurrying away to find new footings on the Archipelago."

Dutch colonialism

The author canters through the first few thousand years from pre-history to the arrival of the first Dutch trader-settlers. From that point, the narrative becomes more chronological and picks up pace.

Dutch colonialism started inauspiciously. In 1595, a band of rogues from Amsterdam sailed into Banten Bay in Java aboard a “floating carcass.” The fortune seekers, attracted by the vast sums of money to be earned in the spice trade, left soon after but not before they conducted an orgy of destruction, wanton violence and murder.

The sections on the centuries-long, intermittently brutal rule by the Netherlands detail how local economies were stimulated and some craft professions thrived but also how agricultural workers were treated as virtual slaves, worked or starved to death under the benignly named ‘Cultivation System,’ which was often supported by local sultans. It is grim but powerful reading.

After the Napoleonic Wars, British involvement is never far away. Indeed, 1871 saw “the apogee of haughty European imperialism in the Archipelago” with the Dutch and British signing a treaty that gave the latter control the province of Aceh in return for a British takeover of former Dutch colonies in Africa’s Gold Coast. It would not be the last European carve-up involving Indonesian islands.

In the end not even a new “Ethical Policy” could save Dutch colonialism. The educated middle class eventually used their education to discard the shackles of their colonial masters, invoking past rebels such as Diponegoro. And so, following the horrific Japanese occupation during World War II, the Dutch East Indies became the Republic of Indonesia. The Dutch did not go down without a fight; it took until 1949 before the new devastated, war-ravaged nation came into being and Indonesians had their merdeka (freedom).


The post-war government was led by independence hero Sukarno, a behemoth of Indonesian history. But politics gradually declined from a form of messy democracy into three decades of virtual dictatorship. His rule ended with a political coup resulting in Gen. Suharto seizing power — all other powerful army generals having been murdered by low-ranking officers fearing a communist takeover.

On the pretext that a Marxist plot (the 30 September Movement) was imminent, the organized extirpation of communists (or suspected leftists) and their fellow trade union travelers began in Java in October 1965. An estimated 500,000 people were massacred in under a year in one of the bloodiest and most shameful periods in Asian history that still resonates today. The death toll could even have been in the millions.

More turmoil was to come in the 1990s with economic and currency meltdown. In Jakarta, the ethnic Chinese population suffered badly with widespread murder and the destruction of personal and business property. This was followed by Muslim and Christian neighbors killing each other, particularly in Sulawesi.

Fortunately, there was no civil war after Suharto’s undignified exit in 1998 and the country also survived losing a province in 2002 — East Timor, colonized by Indonesia as late as 1975 — as well as terrorist outrages in Bali. The catastrophic tsunami of December 2004 was as a further harbinger of change, with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Aceh separatists ending the threat of more conflict to help rebuild the devastated province.

Indonesia has made a near miraculous recovery from these horrendous events and, according to Hannigan, a new-found political stability means it is now facing a brighter future.

Delights in less than 300 pages

Readers will find many delights in this book. For example, we hear first-hand from the tales and journals of travelers, adventurers and pilgrims — from Buddhist monk Yijing in the 5th century to British scientist Alfred Russel Wallace in the 19th century and American tourist Frank Carpenter at the turn of the last century.

Also enjoyable are the imaginative scene-setting paragraphs that begin each chapter. Sometimes they seems to veer into historical fiction territory but they certainly whet the appetite for the more conventional history passages to come. For example, chapter 1 kicks off with: "The little group moved quietly uphill through the trees. They were wiry men with long limbs and dark skin, carrying spears tipped with chipped stone and woven baskets loaded with edible things from the forest ... The men paused for a moment on the threshold. It was a vast space, with a vaulted ceiling of dangling stalactites."

And this, on the arrival of a Moroccan Muslim trader: "As the merchants and crewmen reached down from the deck and embarked on their first bout of commerce after a month at sea, one of the passengers looked out over the scene, noting its detail in his formidable memory and wondering what he would find here, in yet another strange land ... His name was Ibn Battuta, and now, after twenty years of travel he had reached the Sumatran state of Samudra Pasai. It was 1345."

Inevitably, in such a “brief” history, it is impossible to cover everything. For example, Hannigan paints a strong, colorful picture of the most populous islands of Java and Sumatra, whereas the story of Papua and other eastern parts of the archipelago are drawn with brushstrokes. But overall he has done a sterling job in condensing the tumultuous political, economic and cultural past of the world’s fourth biggest country into less than 300 pages.

"A Brief History of Indonesia" is an intelligent and lucidly-written piece of work that has more than enough content and drama to attract the general Asian history reader; and is the perfect companion for travelers and tourists who wish to delve deeper than their travel guide’s history section and get closer to the beating heart of this troubled yet remarkable nation.

Stephen Joyce is a freelance marketing consultant and copywriter who moved to Hong Kong from Scotland in early 2010. He now lives in Singapore.

Asian Review of Books

A Brief History of Indonesia Sultans, Spices, and Tsunamis: The Incredible Story of Southeast Asia’s Largest Nation By Tim Hannigan Tuttle Publishing, August 2015 288 pages