A Brief History of Bali by Willard A. Hanna and Tim Hannigan

There are no shortages of excellent scholarly histories about Bali. Henk Schulte Nordholt’s heavy weight The Spell of Power and Adrian Vickers’ revisionist Bali: A Paradise Created are several that spring immediately to mind. These venerable tomes have accomplished their task well by presenting the island’s linear history from a systematic, academic perspective. A Brief History of Bali however is the first truly popular, comprehensive history behind the “paradise island of the Pacific” in a series of essays about an ancient society’s vulnerability-and resilience-in the modern world.

It’s not an entirely new book, but a repackaged and updated version of Willard A. Hanna’s Bali Chronicles, published in 1976. Its new title positions it as a companion volume to Tim Hannigan’s A Brief History of Indonesia, also published by Tuttle. A new introduction has been added and the text was given a thoroughgoing new edit. This 2004 book is also without footnotes or an index but there is a bibliography. A three-part epilogue – about 20% of the book – has been added to bring Hannah’s previous narrative from the 1960s into the 21st century.

Willard A. Hanna (1911-1993) worked for the American Universities Field Staff in Southeast Asia for more than two decades. Over the course of his career he prepared scores of field reports on Indonesian affairs. Hanna is the author of Indonesian Banda about the history of the Indonesian Spice Islands and Bali Profile about Bali during the Sukarno era Indonesia. Tim Hannigan wrote Raffles and the British Invasion of Java, which won the 2013 John Brooks Award; A Geek in Indonesia and Journey Through Indonesia. His features and travel articles appear regularly in Indonesian newspapers and magazines.

The core of this new book is Bali’s history from 1800 up until modern times. Bali’s early history ends by the second chapter – only 49 pages, out of 280 pages, is devoted to the pre-1800 period. This lack of material is reflective of the challenges facing researchers of Indonesian history where original, verifiable primary sources are difficult to find. Even in those cases where records were kept, they were written on perishable lontar palm leaf manuscripts that seldom survive the ravages of the tropics. With the arrival European trading companies, meticulous records began to be kept.

The development of Bali really takes off after the first Dutch fleet landed in 1597. Much of the island’s history thereafter is told through the accounts of officials and foreign traders. A strong emphasis is placed on Dutch influence, both the good and the bad – some of it reprehensibly bad. Between 1846 and 1908 the Dutch launched seven military expeditions in an effort to control the Balinese rajahs. In the face of resistance, these actions resulted in horrific puputan (ritual mass suicides).

Yet one of the book’s fundamental arguments is that Bali until relatively recently is an island essentially stuck in 1600 A.D., with all the grandeur, theatrics, traditions, mannerisms and culture of that bygone era still persisting. From Bali’s history it’s also clear that whenever the island has been without stable, overarching governance it has had a tendency to lapse into political violence.

The book’s voice abruptly changes with the start of the three epilogues – the last three chapters – a spirited and nostalgic portrayal of contemporary Bali and a sympathetic critique of some of Hannah’s assumptions and assertions. Hannigan has the novelist’s instinct for surprise and entertaining anecdotes pop up at every turn. He takes issue with the way that Hannah – an aging academic steeped in American establishment     values – interprets the events of 1965. Hannigan gives a more realistic, updated account.

The un-repackaged version also contains some old-fashioned views from the mid-1970s. Hannah’s dismissal of the hippies of Kuta Beach, calling them “drifters, not drivers,” provide unintended humor and clearly date the book. Hannigan feels his comments are misplaced. Many of these “hippies” were actually inquisitive backpackers traveling the world. Hannah was also horrified that the number of tourists visiting Bali was projected to climb to 500,000 per year by the end of the last century. The old scholar would be epileptic at the current number of tourists that is more than ten times that number with more than 25% of the total Balinese workforce employed in the tourism sector. The last epilogue is a nuanced essay on the pluses and minuses of tourism, the effects influenced by many factors that result in different outcomes which mean different things to different people.

A two-page two-tone reference map appears right after the content pages. Thirty vintage black and white photos and illustrations are included as well as 16 entirely new full color pages that visually update Hannah’s original history and are extensively and insightfully captioned. A two-page “Further Reading” list has been added which recommends primary sources of information. A formal 3-page bibliography, weighted with anthropological and academic histories, updates the bibliography in Bali Chronicles.

A Brief History of Bali is not just a book about art and culture but rather an extended discussion on how cyclical historical events have affected a pristine island and its people. We learn that Bali is not just a perennially popular tourist destination, but also home to a fascinating people who have a long and dramatic history of interactions with foreigners. The sinews that bind together a society’s history are convoluted and confusing, and the book packs in a dense amount of facts, interpretations and analysis.

Although both contributors are witty and easy to read, at times lyrical and eloquent, the only other distinction that they share is that the first four letters of their last names are identical. The content and writing style of a fuddy-duddy but brilliant old school academic and the insights and viewpoints of a hip modern historian make for a lively, well-informed study from two widely divergent perspectives and time periods.

Together, they do a fine job of presenting Bali’s history as complex and multi-dimensional. In so doing, they demystify and rectify much conventional wisdom. The reader is thus able to look behind the glossy tourist view to discover that Bali is so much more than the cheap version presented to tourists. Definitely a must read for those interested in furthering one’s understanding of how Bali got to where it is today, why it is so different from other parts of Indonesia and how difficult it is becoming for  Balinese to preserve their unique cultural identity amidst the financially-irresistible allure of tourism.


A Brief History of Bali: Piracy, Slavery, Opium and Guns: The Story of an Island Paradise by Willard A. Hanna and Tim Hannigan, Tuttle Publishing 2016, ISBN 978-080-484-7315, dimensions 20 cm x 13 cm.


For any publishers interested in having one of their books considered for review in Toko Buku, please contact: pakbill2003@yahoo.com.


Copyright © 2017

You can read all past articles of

Toko Buku at www.BaliAdvertiser.biz