The Indonesian Archipelago

Peter Carey | Published in History Today

A History of Modern Indonesia c. 1300 to the present by M.C. Ricklefs

xii, 355, nine maps. (Macmillan, 1981)

Competent, general histories of Modern Indonesia in English are rare. The sheer scope of sources to be covered, the languages required to understand them, and the great variety of traditions and cultures within the Indonesian archipelago, all make the task of writing such a general history a daunting prospect for any historian. At the same time, the state of current historical research on many aspects of modern Indonesian development, especially in the fields of pre-twentieth century social and economic history, still leaves much to be desired and there are many aspects about which pitifully little is known. Despite these drawbacks, Professor Ricklefs has produced a book of high quality which is buttressed by a wide knowledge of both Dutch and Indonesian source materials. Specifically Indonesian concerns are placed for the first time at the centre of the stage and an effective chronological approach is adopted to Indonesia's historical development from the coming of Islam to the modern period. The result is a detailed, finely patterned narrative which repays careful reading.

As Professor Ricklefs admits in his preface, the book is primarily intended for more advanced students who wish to proceed to higher levels of research rather than for beginners. Notes have been avoided, but at the end of the book detailed bibliographies are provided for each chapter giving the most important primary and secondary works which can be used as a guide for further reading. An expertly compiled index, general bibliography and nine carefully drawn maps will also be found useful for those consulting the work for purposes of reference. The book itself is divided into six parts of roughly equal length: I. 'The Emergence of the Modern Era' (c.1300-1650); II. 'Struggles for Hegemony, c. 1630-1800'; III. 'The Creation of a Colonial State, c. 1800-1910'; IV. 'The Emergence of the Idea of Indonesia, c. 1900-42'; V. 'The Destruction of the Colonial State, 1942-50'; VI. 'Independent Indonesia' (1950 to the present). The headings of these divisions, however, conceal three major 'weightings' in the text. First, twentieth-century developments occupy nearly half the book: second, the history of Java takes precedence, especially in the earlier sections, over that of the 'outer islands'; and, third, political developments have been given preference over social, cultural and intellectual history. The major exceptions here are the two thoughtful chapters in the first section on 'The Coming of Islam' and the 'Literary, Religious and Cultural Legacies' of the pre-seventeenth-century states, as well as the percipient references throughout the book to the influence of religion (especially Islam) on Indonesian political society during the past seven centuries. The 'weightings' inevitably reflect the concerns of scholars and students of Indonesian society since the colonial period. Twentieth century developments, for example, have attracted some of the best scholarship of the post-war generation of Indonesia experts, and it is right that they should receive the lion's share of attention in Professor Ricklefs' book. Meanwhile, the stress in the earlier chapters on the history of Java is as much a source of strength as of weakness. After all, Professor Ricklefs is primarily a Javanese historian, and the five detailed chapters on the history of the island from c.1640 to 1900 will be invaluable for those seeking to gain an overall view of the complex political developments of those years. This is especially the case for the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where Ricklefs has been able to draw on his own research notes and publications to provide the first continuous narrative in English of a hitherto little known period. The decision to give pride of place to political and, to a lesser extent, economic history is perhaps inevitable in a work of this nature which strives for a synthesis of existing monographic research and in which most of the material is of a political and economic character. But it does highlight the vast amount of research which still needs to be done before a more rounded picture of Indonesia's rich past can emerge. Professor Ricklefs' work will thus stand as a landmark in modern Indonesian historiography, pointing the way to new research and inspiring those already interested in the region.

Peter Carey is working on a study of Prince Diganagara (1785-1855)

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