When Tim Hannigan first arrived in Indonesia in 2002 as an earnest backpacker with a passion for history, he headed for Bali’s best bookshop in the tourist enclave of Kuta Beach. Among the bright shelves full of books about Indonesia were plenty of heavy tomes and weighty academic histories about the country, but not one pithy non-scholarly narrative history for the general reader.
That literary vacuum he himself set out to fill a decade later with the publication of A Brief History of Indonesia, the kind of light entertaining reading that the young traveler was looking for those many years ago. It is not a work of professional scholarship or formal academic research, but a highly readable first landfall in Indonesian history. It succeeds admirably in making a story out of Indonesia’s past, providing an informative, solid and irreverent introduction to one of Asia’s most colorful and fascinating countries.
Dates, battles and kings have long gone out of fashion with professional historians. They look instead to contexts and impacts where they find a deeper understanding. A framework of facts is still needed before a writer can ever hope to consider the contexts, so this book does have all the important dates, battles and kings, as well as recounting the colorful and sometimes funny visits of foreign travelers who have passed through these shores over the centuries – from missionaries, traders, soldiers and Chinese Buddhist pilgrims to Moroccan and Dutch adventurers, English sea captains, American tourists and Indonesian revolutionaries.
Indonesia is a land of stupefying diversity and unending paradoxes that has a long and rich history stretching back more than a thousand years. The sprawling island nation is by far the largest state in Southeast Asia and the world’s fourth most populous. Indonesian history and culture are especially relevant today as the country is an emerging power in the region with a dynamic new leader.
The chapters chronicling the early history of Indonesia are elucidating. One section on Majapahit portrays the ancient kingdom as the first cultural binding element for the archipelago. Interestingly, the author rejects the crude nationalist notion of Majapahit as a pan-Indonesian empire, but emphasizes more its importance in forging the beginnings of a pan-Indonesian culture. The author in his discussion of the Sriwijaya Empire makes a similar argument.
Particularly enlightening are key passages about Indonesian national identity and resistance to colonialism. The whole of the chapter Clash of Civilizations deals with the conflicts between European imperial power and indigenous sovereigns, and the resistance of the latter to the rise of the former. The second half of this chapter tackles resistance to the Dutch in Sumatra and Java, by figures who are now proclaimed national heroes. Elsewhere, we read of stormy sea crossings, fiery volcanoes and the occasional tiger – telling snapshots of the islands at particular points in time.
The writer’s primary task was to forge a single driving narrative out of the vastness of Indonesian history. He is skilled at pointing out incidents that serve to illustrate the whole and to identify the threads that bind the whole archipelago together as a historical entity. The chapters dealing with the rise of nationalism and the war for independence are most relevant to celebrations of Indonesian independence. The final passage of the last chapter is no less than a song of praise to the existence of a nation that no one could possibly ever have envisioned or invented.
Hannigan’s aim is analogous to the job of Indonesia’s founders in establishing a single nation-state out of myriad wildly diverse islands, ethnicities, languages and religions, making one story out of many tales. But besides this high-minded mission, Hannigan’s book is simply a good read, a compilation of easily comprehensible and well-chosen yarns taken out of the grand narrative of Indonesia’s past. This is most decidedly not the kind of history you read in tourist guidebooks and brochures.
The majority of narrative histories about a place as big as Indonesia simplify a good deal and leave out a good deal more. Though it makes for more engrossing reading, this is also the case with Hannigan’s version. For this reason, the “Further Reading and Bibliography” sections in the back matter list the most important sources he used as well as suggest further reading on subjects and events passed over too quickly or bypassed altogether. Recommendations for books he personally found enjoyable and worthwhile add a bit of spice.
There are various other respectable histories of Indonesia, many of which were used as references in Hannigan’s own research, but none have really aimed to do what he has attempted and achieved here. Colin Brown’s A Short History of Indonesia is of similar length and covers the same timeframe in a very accessible style, with excellent explanations of economic contexts across history. But Brown is a professional scholar who doesn’t set out to be “entertaining,” which Hannigan assuredly does.
Another very fine book is Jean Gelman Taylor’s Indonesia: Peoples and Histories. Taylor is a professional scholar and this is also a scholarly book. But she has a distinctly literary prose style, quite unusual among academics. She makes a huge effort to bring human experiences from history to the fore; particularly the experiences of “normal” people of the kind usually obscured in more traditional historical narratives, the so-called “subaltern.” This is a very commendable approach, though again, she does not actively try to create an entertaining “good read.”
The only other narrative histories that have the same ripping can’t-put-it-down tale-spinning-style as Hannigan’s that are readily available are Giles Milton’s Nathaniel’s Nutmeg and Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa, both of which are brilliant fun, but both of which cover only one tiny episode in the great sweep of Indonesia’s past.
What makes A Brief History of Indonesia stand out from other available histories is simply that it is a highly readable overview of the country’s history. In this it should provide something of real use to those who have been daunted by the prospect of getting to grips with the country’s past – be they long-term expats, regular visitors, interested new comers or even Indonesian citizens previously bored by dry formal histories.
A Brief History of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices, and Tsunamis by Tim Hannigan, Tuttle Publishing 2015, 288 pages, ISBN 978-080-484-4765, dimensions 13 cm X 20 cm. Available for Rp230,000 in Periplus (www.periplus.com) and Ganesha bookstores (www.ganeshabooksbali.com).
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