As an Australian, I have long lamented the fact that we see ourselves as on the periphery of South East Asia rather than an integral part of the region. And while we spend our time at school mostly learning about the history of the ‘Anglosphere’, we seem to have very little curiosity about our neighbours – and this is rather disappointing.
After reading This Earth of Mankind late last year, I realised that there were considerable gaps in my own knowledge of Indonesia, who happens to be one of our closest neighbours. So to remedy that, I decided that one of my resolutions this year would be to slowly fill these gaps in. My first step, of course, was find something quite general and then build on my knowledge from there, and Tim Hannigan’s A Brief History of Indonesia: The Incredible Story of Southeast Asia’s Largest Nation seemed like an accessible English-language starting point.
Although I would also like to point out it’s a starting point facing a considerable challenge. A Brief History of Indonesia is exactly that – at roughly 300 pages (or six or so hours recorded), this is not a long book, but a book still tasked with telling a highly diverse country’s history from the time of Homo floresiensis to the modern-day. And provided you aren’t expecting exhaustive detail, I think Hannigan’s book serves as a fine overview of the country’s tumultuous history.
Some chapters are stronger than others: while the prehistoric era is only lightly dipped into, the imperial and post-colonial eras receive a lot more detail – to the point where I suspect that this was Hannigan’s favourite period to research. It covered quite a number of things I wasn’t really familiar with previously regarding the European occupations, such as the widespread co-operation of local aristocrats with occupying powers, and the exploitative Dutch government program known as the ‘Cultivation System’. It’s also a time period full of bastardry as well, to the point the reader is asked whether or not it would be even correct to accuse the occupying powers of colonization if they’re not bothering to care about imparting their culture at all, and are instead just razing the region for maximum debauchery and profit? (To be clear, this is making a case for a whole new category of things more brutal than colonization)
The later sections of the book, dealing with 20th century history, are also quite brief. Of all the historical figures represented from this period, its Sukarno, a major leader of the Indonesian independence movement and the first president, that gets the most attention. Slightly disapointlgy though, while the rise and fall of his successor, Suharto, is given considerable detail, the years between are not. This results in the bland facade Suharto tried hard to project in real life coming across too strongly to the reader, while I would have prefered a bit more emphasis on how much of a bastard he actually was.
Overall, I think Hannigan has delivered a light, easily accessible read that provides an excellent starting point to Indonesian history. The final part of the book contains a good-sized list of additional reading as well, so it really is the author’s intent that you use his book as a springboard for other things.
So if you feel you’re knowledge of this part of the world is lacking, I would recommend you give A Brief History of Indonesia a try.