A BRIEF HISTORY OF INDONESIA
By Tim Lambert
The first people in Indonesia arrived about 40,000 years ago when sea level was lower and it was joined to Asia by a land bridge. Then at the end of the last ice age about 10,000 BC a new wave of people came. At first they hunted animals, collected shellfish and gathered plants for food. By about 2,500 BC they learned to grow crops such as taro, bananas, millet and rice. The early farmers also made pottery but all their tools were made of stone.
However by 700 BC the Indonesians had learned to make bronze and iron. Furthermore at that time wet rice cultivation was introduced. Indonesian villages were forced to co-operate to regulate the supply of water to their fields. In time organized kingdoms emerged.
From about 400 BC Indonesians traded with other nations such as China and India. Hinduism and Buddhism were also introduced to Indonesia and they took route.
By the 8th century AD Indonesian civilization was flourishing. Among the kingdoms was a Hindu kingdom in central Java called Sailandra. There was also the great Buddhist kingdom of Sriwijaya in south Sumatra. From the 7th century to the 13th century Sriwijaya prospered and it became a maritime empire controlling western Java and part of the Malay Peninsula. It was also a centre of Buddhist learning. However in the 13th century the Sriwijaya Empire broke up into separate states.
Meanwhile Islam was brought to Indonesia by Indian merchants. It first gained a toehold in Aceh in north Sumatra and in following centuries it spread through the rest of Indonesia.
However in the 13th and 14th centuries a Hindu kingdom flourished. It was called the Majapahit Empire. It was founded in 1292 and soon rose to dominate most of Indonesia. However in the early 15th century the Majapahit Empire went into a rapid decline.
In the early 16th century the Portuguese arrived in Indonesia. at that time there was a huge demand in Europe for spices such as nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and mace. Huge profits could be made by transporting them to Europe and selling them. The Portuguese therefore decided to seize the Moluccas, the chief source of spices. In 1511 they captured Melaka, an important port. They also captured the Moluccas.
However in the early 17th century the Portuguese lost their position to the Dutch. The first Dutch fleet sailed from Holland in 1595 under Cornelis de Houtman. In 1602 the Dutch East India Company was formed to control trade with Indonesia. In 1605 they took Tidore and Ambon from the Dutch. In 1619 the company captured Batavia. In 1641 they took Melaka. During the 17th century the Dutch gradually extended their power of Java and the Moluccas. However they had little influence in the rest of Indonesia. Moreover during the 18th century the Dutch East India Company slipped into debt. Finally in 1799 the Dutch government took over its territories.
In 1806 the British and Dutch went to war. In 1811 the British under Lord Minto sailed to Batavia. The British soon captured all the Dutch possessions in Indonesia. The British abolished slavery and they also divided the country into areas called residencies for administration. However in 1816 the British handed Indonesia back to the Dutch. Many Indonesians resisted the return of the Dutch. However the Dutch eventually defeated them and regained control.
However in 1825 the Javanese War, in central Java, began. It was led by Prince Diponegoro. However the war ended with Dutch victory in 1830. Diponegoro went into exile and died in 1855.
Furthermore during the 19th century the Dutch extended their control over other parts of Indonesia. In 1825 they took Pelambang in Sumatra. They also fought wars with the Balinese in 1848, 1849, 1858 and 1868. However Bali was not finally conquered until 1906.
In 1873 the Dutch went to war with Aceh. The war went on until 1908. Meanwhile in 1894 the Dutch captured Lombok and in 1905 they captured the whole of Sulawesi.
Meanwhile the Dutch shamelessly exploited the Indonesians. In 1830 the Dutch introduced the cultural system. Indonesian farmers were forced to put aside 20% of their land to grow crops for export. They were paid only a nominal sum by the Dutch government for them. Indonesians were forced to grow coffee, indigo, tea, pepper, cinnamon and sugar. As a result of this measure rice production was reduced.
However in 1870 the Dutch switched to a free market system. The Dutch government's monopoly on sugar and other commodities was ended. Private plantations were created. However the Indonesians were not necessarily better off. Now they were employed as coolies on the great plantations.
In the early 20th century the Dutch decided to treat the Indonesians more fairly. They introduced what they called the ethical policy. This meant building schools and spending money on health care, sanitation and irrigation. However the new policy had little effect on the lives of most Indonesians. It did however mean that a least some Indonesians became highly educated and familiar with western ideas such as liberalism and socialism. As a result in the early 20th century nationalist movements were formed in Indonesia. They began clamouring for independence.
Then in 1940 the Germans occupied Holland. In 1942 the Japanese invaded Indonesia. The last Dutch troops surrendered on 8 March 1942. At first the Indonesians welcomed the Japanese as liberators. However they soon grew disillusioned. The Japanese were brutal and they ruthlessly exploited Indonesia's resources.
Yet when the Japanese were losing the war they started to favour Indonesian independence, hoping to make the Indonesians their allies. Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945. Young Indonesian nationalists were determined to assert the countries independence before the Dutch could return. A group of them kidnapped two nationalist leaders Sukarno and Hatta. On 17 August Sukarno declared Indonesian independence. He became the first president and Hatta became vice-president. However the Dutch were not willing to let Indonesia go so easily. At first British troops landed in Indonesia. They tried to remain neutral although there were armed clashes between the British and Indonesians in places.
However by November 1946 the British were gone and the Dutch had landed many men in Indonesia. In November the Indonesians and Dutch signed the Linggadjati agreement. The Dutch recognized the new republic, but only in Java and Sumatra. They still claimed the rest of Indonesia. Furthermore the agreement stated that the republic would join a federal union with Holland in 1949.
Not surprisingly neither side were happy with the agreement. The Dutch built up their strength in an attempt to retake all of Indonesia. In the summer of 1947 they invaded the independent areas. However they were forced to withdraw, partly because of Indonesian resistance and partly because of strong international condemnation (especially by the USA).
In December 1948 the Dutch tried to retake Indonesia. This time the Indonesians turned to guerrilla warfare and they were successful. The Dutch faced strong condemnation from powers like the USA and they realized they could not win the war. Finally on 2 November 1949 the Dutch agreed to recognize Indonesian independence. Their troops withdrew in December 1949.
At first independent Indonesia was a parliamentary democracy. However in February 1957 President Sukarno introduced a new political system, which he called 'Guided Democracy'. The power of parliament was reduced and his own power was greatly increased. His opponents formed a separate 'parliament' called the PRRC (the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia). However the army remained loyal to Sukarno and he stayed in power. Meanwhile in October 1957 the army took over the remaining Dutch companies in Indonesia. As a result the army grew wealthy.
Then in the early 1960s the economy faltered. There was very rapid inflation. In September 1965 the Communists attempted a coup in Indonesia. They murdered a number of generals. They also seized strategic points in Jakarta. However General Suharto quickly took action. The coup was crushed. Suharto was granted powers by President Sukarno to restore order. After the coup Suharto arrested and executed a large number of communists. However Sukarno lost support and on 11 March 1966 he signed over his presidential powers to Suharto. From 1966 Suharto ruled as a dictator (although there were elections held every five years democracy was a facade). However Suharto brought stability and under him the economy of Indonesia recovered.
From the 1960s reserves of oil in Indonesia were exploited. After 1973 Indonesians benefited from the high price of oil. Agriculture also became far more productive. However many Indonesians remained poor and in 1997 Indonesia was hit by a financial crisis. As a result the economy contracted. Indonesia was hit by riots and Suharto resigned in May 1998. Democracy returned to Indonesia with elections, which were held in 1999.
At the beginning of the 21st century the Indonesian economy began to recover. Today the economy of Indonesia is growing steadily. Today the population of Indonesia is 261 million.
A Timeline of Indonesia
A Brief History of Singapore
A Brief History of Malaysia
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A Brief History of Thailand
A Brief history of Vietnam
A Brief history of Cambodia
Last revised 2018