Archipelago: A Journey Across Indonesia by Ian Burnet

In this final saga of the author’s three books about his 30 years in Indonesia, Ian Burnet combines his love of adventure and travel with his knowledge of the region’s history to take us on a personal journey through geographic space and historical time across the centuries.

The book’s scope seems impossibly ambitious, but yet it manages to give us within just 175 pages a sweeping kaleidoscopic view of all the cultures that have ever washed up upon Indonesia’s shores.

Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelagic nation comprising as many as 17,000 islands that sits astride two oceans and stretches 5,200 kilometers, embracing a total area of 5 million square kilometers, more than the total land and sea area of the entire United States. Indonesia is also the most culturally diverse nation on earth. Its national motto almost had to be Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (“Unity in Diversity”) as these islands are an extraordinary mixture of races, religions, languages and cultures.

No one has published a trilogy of books about Indonesia in recent times. But Archipelago is quite different from Burnet’s other two books Spice Islands and East Indies. Unlike the others, the author uses his journey across a sizable swath of the archipelago to tell a broad history of the country related to the places   he visited. He is able to conjure up  an historical anecdote, erudite observation or indirect link about every place he visits.

Ian Burnet first arrived in Indonesia in 1968 as a young geologist working on the very first off shore oil exploration projects in the country. Brimming with excitement, he arrived at the port city of Surabaya, then in complete disarray after the 1965 coup that killed key Army generals and the ensuing military takeover ousting President Soekarno that started revenge killings all over the country.

Burnet had always dreamed of traversing this storied arc of islands to all the way to Timor Leste (East Timor) and   then to Australia, but life got in the way. There were paid air tickets home from his job, then marriage, children, a career. There were always other priorities. In the intervening years he read and reread The Malay Archipelago by that greatest of all archipelago travelers, Alfred Russel Wallace, as well as Joseph Conrad whose evocative stories portrayed the exotic East Indies.

The only other travel books that cover the southeastern   islands of Nusatenggara as thoroughly as The Malay Archipelago and Archipelago are Kal Muller’s East of Bali (Periplus 1997), Lawrence Blair’s Ring of Fire (Editions Didier Millet 2010) and Elizabeth Pisani’s Indonesia etc. (W.W. Norton 2015). If you had one sentence to say what Burnet’s book is all about, it’s an historical version of Pisani’s brilliant travelogue.

Finally in 2008, Burnet finally sets out to discover the rich cultural diversity of this watery nation. Starting from Malacca, he travels by bus, plane, train, ferry, boat, car and motorcycle. He describes how the early Malay people came to these islands and the profound influence of the Indian religions of Hinduism and Buddhism on the islands of Sumatra, Java and Bali. He unearths the heritage, the landscapes, the food and the traditions of the Chinese and Arabs who arrived to trade in spices and sandalwood. He follows the rise of Islam and the traces the first Europeans to enter Asia, with particular focus on the 16th C. Portuguese traders and priests who brought Christianity to these lands.

The last few chapters on East Timor were the most difficult for the author to write. Burnet like many before him he found it almost impossible to write about East Timor without getting bogged down in all the atrocities committed by the Indonesian military and militias.

Although it is without question that human rights abuses    took place and need to be documented, Burnet in the end decided treat East Timor within the context of the Pope’s visit and the attitudes of the Catholic church towards the territory’s sad history. He aptly explains why the Pope would make a state visit to the country with the largest Muslim-majority population in the world.

From the image of a giant pot-bellied Singhasari guardian statue on the opening page, this historical travelogue is filled with an unusual and stunning potpourri of full color photographs – many taken by the author – that reflect the multicultural nature of the vast string of islands – vintage 17th C. maps of Batavia and Java, colonial architecture and monuments; Borobudur stone reliefs, ancient Buddhist statuary and Hindu temples, goddesses and bathing places; erupting volcanoes, paintings              depicting important historical events; old grave yards and artifacts; the traditional villages; Christian churches, rituals and textiles of the eastern islands; revolutionary slogans emblazoned on walls.

Thirteen full color maps trace the author’s land hopping adventure from a west to east direction following the smoking volcanoes that form the archipelago’s spine. A dotted line denotes land journeys, a red line denotes flights and a blue line denotes sea journeys. A table of contents indicate islands visited and a short glossary defines terms used throughout the book. A basic index makes it easy to find specific places, people and subjects that interest the reader.

As he takes us along on one of the world’s greatest train journeys from Jakarta to Bandung, enjoys a cold beer on the hotel terrace while looking out on the street life of a remote provincial town, rises before dawn to catch a sunset, chugs across a strait on a fishing boat, splashes cold water over himself from a bak mandi, shares a hard wooden warung bench with Balinese farmers or becak drivers for a crispy fried duck or nasi goreng, faces a menacing Komodo dragon, circumambulates Borobudur in the cool morning silence before the tourist hordes, we remember past trips we have taken and are spurred to explore parts of Indonesia not yet visited.

Archipelago, both an illustrated history and an informative travel book, will delight historians, newcomers to the country, travelogue readers, as well as both bonafide and armchair travelers. A comprehensive history of Indonesia would take several volumes. What Burnet has uniquely and handily accomplished in offering fragments of the country’s history related to his journey is to produce an engaging and enticing piece of modern travel literature.

Archipelago: A Journey Across Indonesia by Ian Burnet, Rosenberg Publishing 2015, ISBN 978-192-507-8602, hardback, glossary, index, dimensions 18.5 cm X 24.5 cm.


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