Learnings from "A Brief History of Indonesia"

January 31, 2024 · 6 min read · thoughtsreading

Despite being an Indonesian citizen and living in Indonesia for 12 years, I often feel that I don’t know the history of my own people. This led to me and my friend Tiffany, both part of the Indonesian diaspora, to delve into ‘A Brief History of Indonesia’ by Tim Hannigan. The history classes I took as a kid often felt like a blur of dates and names, resulting in me not fully understanding the meaning behind them. However, it was through the pages of this book that the rich tapestry of Indonesian history finally started to “click” for me. It's a journey of discovery that I'm excited to share with you.

🇳🇱 The Dutch didn’t “colonize Indonesia for 350 years”

Growing up in Indonesia, a common narrative I heard was that the Dutch colonized Indonesia for 350 years. It’s a bit more nuanced than that though. Initially, the Dutch arrived not as colonizers but as traders, eager to tap into the rich spice trade of the archipelago. For those curious about this era, I recommend watching this fascinating documentary with Kate Humble or listening to this engaging Gastropod podcast episode. In the 1600s, the land that would eventually become the Republic of Indonesia was a diverse mosaic of islands, each governed by its local rulers. The Dutch East India Company, or Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), started as a union of traders, initially seeking nutmeg and cloves, both spices native to Indonesia. Gradually, they wove a web of influence across these islands, eventually transitioning from trade allies to colonial rulers, deeply embedding themselves in every facet of life in the archipelago.

the VOC proceeded to act as a self-interested mercenary to the courts of Central Java whenever there was an internal uprising or a disputed succession. By the eighteenth century it was unthinkable for any conflict to arise in the still-sovereign Mataram territories without Dutch troops being called upon to back one side or other … they simply used their powerbrokering position to ensure that whichever king occupied the throne was a man that they could work with, and to ensure that ever more favourable treaties were signed [p93]

💰 Indonesia made The Netherlands so much money

While the term “colonization” doesn’t inherently imply exploitation, I think by now most of us understand that colonization more often than not involves the exploitation of the indigenous people and their land. Unfortunately, this was no different in Indonesia.

By the middle of the nineteenth century remittances from the East Indies, raised through the Cultivation System, were almost a third of all state revenues in the Netherlands [p136]

It reminded me of this image I saw on Instagram recently that perfectly illustrates how the global south has been deeply exploited.

On the topic of colonization and exploitation, I recently watched this video on YouTube about how the British impoverished India; I’d highly recommend it.

✊ Life in Indonesia after independence did not change overnight

In 1942, Indonesia found itself under Japanese control amidst the turmoil of World War II. The war's end in 1945, marked by Japan's surrender, resulted in a significant power vacuum within the archipelago. Despite the Indonesian nationalist leaders proclaiming independence on the 17th of August, 1945, neither the Dutch nor the Allied forces recognized this declaration. This ultimately led to a period of significant tension and uncertainty in Indonesia as the Indonesian nationalists fought to assert their independence.

The Linggajati Agreement of 1946 marked a significant milestone in Indonesia's struggle for independence. The Dutch conceded to the Republic of Indonesia's authority over Java, Sumatra, and Madura, yet stopped short of full recognition of independence. The agreement proposed the formation of a United States of Indonesia (USI), a federal entity under the Dutch crown, slated to be established by January 1, 1949.

Despite its initial promise, the Linggajati Agreement failed to bring lasting peace and instead fueled further distrust and conflict. The subsequent Renville Agreement in January 1948 attempted to mediate these tensions.

It formalised Dutch authority over large swathes of former Republican territory, established a de facto border, and looked to many Indonesians like the most outrageous sop to the colonial aggressors … But in the eyes of the world, the Indonesians came out of the Renville Agreement in firm possession of the moral high ground … The Dutch found themselves looking like anachronistic bullies in a post-colonial world [p203]

After protracted negotiations and conflicts, the Dutch ultimately recognized Indonesian sovereignty in 1949, marking the end of a tumultuous era in Indonesian history.

🫤 The unique role “Indos” played in Indonesian history

These days, my friends and I use the term "Indo" to refer to Indonesia. For example we’ll say "I’m flying to Indo next month" or "Is that person Indo?" However, the term “Indo” had a distinctly different meaning during the colonial era. It referred to individuals in the Indonesian archipelago who had mixed Indonesian and Dutch heritage but were classified under European legal status. Given the Dutch's centuries-long presence in Indonesia, it’s no surprise that Indos developed profound connections to the land. Nowadays, meeting someone in Indonesia with European roots is pretty rare, which got me thinking - why isn’t that more common, given all that history?

Back then, Indos occupied a unique middle ground. They were above indigenous Indonesians in the social hierarchy but not quite equal to the pure Dutch. Their European legal status afforded them certain privileges over native Indonesians, yet they faced discrimination and weren't fully integrated into Dutch social circles. Indos made their own communities, embodying a blend of Dutch and Indonesian cultures. They were, in essence, navigating a delicate balance between two identities.

Neither fully Dutch nor fully Indonesian, the Indoes had discovered that their only true homeland lay not in a concrete territory, but in an abstract concept—the Dutch East Indies. For many of them its endurance was an existential matter, and as a consequence, by the end of World War II, they were amongst the most vigorous and at times violent proponents of continuing colonialism [p204]

The transition from the Dutch East Indies to Indonesia brought about a surge in nationalism, which increasingly marginalized the Indo community. Feeling alienated in their own land, many Indos found themselves compelled to relocate to the Netherlands. But even there, fitting in wasn't a walk in the park. The Indo experience is a story of a community caught between two worlds, each with its own set of challenges and influences.

📚 Further learning

For anyone keen to delve deeper into Indonesian history, I highly recommend exploring Pramoedya Ananta Toer's 'Buru Quartet'. This masterpiece of Indonesian literature vividly captures the essence of life under Dutch colonial rule from the perspective of an indigenous Indonesian. Another compelling read is 'The Black Lake' by Hella Haasse, which gives also gives you a glimpse into the colonial era. Currently, Tiffany and I are reading in 'Cantik Itu Luka' by Eka Kurniawan which also has some elements of Indonesian history in it. Each of these books offers a unique lens through which learn and understand the complex history of Indonesia.