Chapter 3: States and Polities until 1800

The Earliest States

We know nothing for certain about the political organization of the Austronesians as they began moving through the Indonesian archipelago about 5,000 years ago, but enough communities have survived in relative isolation in various regions to let us infer that they lived in settlements of a few hundred led by a headman or big man (occasionally a woman) whose authority was based more than anything else on personal skills. Depending on the circumstances of the community, these skills might be in warfare, in hunting, in magic or simply in the management of community affairs. It was an unstable political order because no leader survived long once his skills began to decline or were made obsolete by changing circumstances. Nonetheless the headship system was enduring precisely because of this flexibility, and the title of these early chiefs has survived in the languages of the archipelago in many forms (datuk, ratu) as a term of honour for such leaders.

We should be wary of idealizing early communities about which we know little, but there is good reason to suppose that they were relatively egalitarian, with both women and men sharing in decision-making, and without a hereditary aristocracy. Many writers, Indonesian and foreign, have identified in these communities an ethic of community spirit which was later to be called gotong royong, or mutual self-help. They argued that personal interest was always subordinate to the interests of the community as a whole and often suggested that decisions were taken by a process later denoted by two terms derived from Arabic. Community matters, it was said, were discussed exhaustively in a process called musyawarah, in which all members of the community were given the opportunity to contribute their views. This process then eventually led to consensus, or mufakat, articulated by community elders on the basis of all that had been said.

Many scholars are now sceptical about this view of early social arrangements, and argue that gotong royong, musyawarah and mufakat were primarily ideological constructions used in the 19th and 20th centuries to bolster the decision-making powers of community leaders and to suppress expressions of individualism. The idea that community interests must override the interests of the individual, however, has become an important element in contemporary claims that there is a distinctive Asian approach to human rights. The issue remains unresolved in both scholarly and political circles.

Around A.D. 100, the chieftainships of the archipelago came under enormous pressure as a result of economic change. The opening of the maritime trade route between India and China and the participation of Austronesian communities in the trade brought a sudden influx of wealth into the region. Some local chiefs, we can assume, made the most of the new commercial opportunities to accumulate wealth greater than ever before seen in their communities. Others were presumably bypassed by more entrepreneurially-minded members of their communities and found themselves edged out of power. Newly wealthy chiefs needed a justification for the new disparity in wealth in their communities and turned for this justification to Indian ideas of kingship.

The spread of Indian political ideas and elements of Indian culture to the western part of what is now Indonesia has given rise to much historical controversy. Some early scholars believed that Indian conquerors had brought their civilization to Indonesia; others gave credit to Indian traders or to Indian missionaries. We now see the initiative as coming primarily from indigenous chiefs in the archipelago itself and this view is supported by the selective adoption of Indian culture, by the fact that local people – whom we can now call generally Malays – were the major traders both in the South China Sea and in the Bay of Bengal, and by the fact that there is no indication that any Indonesian ruler adopted Chinese political forms, although these were as readily available as those of India.

The new rulers typically took Hindu names for themselves and their ‘kingdoms’, and adopted Hindu or Hindu-Buddhist rituals in their courts. These rituals generally emphasized the ruler’s status as the incarnation of a Hindu god, and developed the notion that the spiritual and material welfare of the people was dependent on respect for the ruler’s authority. We can assume that these newly-styled kings faced a continual struggle over authority with their vassals and subordinates, but the new political forms quickly spread, and within a century or so of the opening of the India–China maritime route the western part of the archipelago was scattered with Hindu and Buddhist courts from which kings, or raja, attempted to exercise some degree of hegemony both over a hinterland supplying food and goods to trade and over the trade routes leading to the main ports.

We rely for most of our knowledge of the existence and location of these courts on the writings of foreign travellers and on Chinese court records. The Chinese records are important because for long periods of time some acknowledgement of Chinese suzerainty was the price that all traders had to pay when they visited Chinese ports to trade. Indeed, at times trade was only possible under the fiction that goods were not being bought and sold but that tribute was being presented to the Emperor, who in turn bestowed gifts on those who had acknowledged his greatness. For this reason, we should be a little wary about taking at face value the existence of all the Indonesian ‘states’ reported in the Chinese records, but they are nonetheless an invaluable source of information on the changing political constellation in the archipelago. The courts themselves have left few records – an inscription here, a Hindu statue there - but in recent years careful archaeological work has begun to make sense of many of the ambiguities and contradictions in the Chinese record, and further digging holds the greatest promise of expanding our knowledge of these ‘states’.

Political entities known in the archipelago, ca A.D. 250

States and courts in the archipelago, ca A.D. 450

Eruption of Kapi, 535?

States and courts in the archipelago, ca A.D. 550

States and courts in the archipelago, ca A.D. 650

Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula

During the 8th century, an important distinction began to develop between two geo-political zones in the western archipelago. On the one hand, the Strait of Melaka (Malacca) began to develop as a key control point on the India–China trade route and a state called Srivijaya, based on the southern Sumatra city of Palembang, emerged as the first great power in the region. On the other hand, the island of Java, with its fertile soils and growing population, became a key centre of military power and cultural influence in the region.

Srivijaya’s location, well south of the mouth of the Melaka Strait, does not appear to be the most suitable site for controlling trade, but this disadvantage was offset by the kingdom’s access via the Musi River to a large hinterland in southern Sumatra, which supplied food, forest products and gold. Because of the rhythm of the monsoons in maritime Southeast Asia, traders moving between India and China generally needed to spend a season in port somewhere near the strait to wait for winds favourable for the onward journey.

Likely extent of Srivijaya's maritime empire

The power of the ruler of Srivijaya rested on three distinct bases: the courtiers of the capital, who managed the port facilities which made Srivijaya an attractive destination, the chiefs of the interior communities, who supplied produce, trade goods and probably labour to the city, and the orang laut, or people of the sea, semi-piratical people whose homes were aboard small, fast vessels which sheltered amongst the numerous islands and inlets of the Sumatra coast. These seafarers played a crucial role in forcing ships to call at Srivijaya whether they wished to or not, and they were also the means by which the ruler of Srivijaya kept at least a broad suzerainty over potential rivals along the coast. Successive rulers of Srivijaya also appear to have cultivated a relationship with China by sending regular tribute missions and making other gestures of respect for Chinese emperors. This relationship may have assisted the activities of Srivijaya traders in the ports of China. Wealth from trade was used to support a sophisticated civilization, one in which Chinese monks came to study Buddhism and whose scholars were known for their mathematical expertise.

In the 11th century, Srivijaya went into abrupt decline, particularly as a result of destructive raids from Java in 992 and from the Chola rulers of southern India in 1025. Shortly thereafter the empire’s capital appears to have moved from Palembang to Jambi (Melayu), though the reasons for this move are not clear. From about this time, however, Srivijaya appears to have ceased to be the dominant power in the region.

Although Jambi inherited some of the authority of Srivijaya, the balance of power in Sumatra and the peninsula shifted dramatically in the 12th and 13th centuries. On the northern coast of Sumatra, several small trading states, Aru, Tamiang, Perlak, Pasai, Samudra and Lamuri now came to prominence. These states were the first in Indonesia to convert to Islam, Perlak probably being the earliest in about 1290. In central Sumatra, the Buddhist kingdom of the Minangkabau, sometimes called Pagarruyung after its capital, emerged in about 1250 and extended its hegemony down into the coastal regions facing the strait. Palembang and Jambi, however, declined in importance, though they remained significant regional ports. Late in the 13th century, both became the target of Javanese expansionism, when king Kertanegara of Singhasari launched what was called the pamalayu expedition.

Sumatra and the Malay peninsula, 13th century

Kertanegara appears to have attacked Jambi in 1275, and his quarrel with Kublai Khan a few years later was partly over who was to receive tribute from Palembang.

On the Malay Peninsula, too, numerous small states emerged, notably Kedah, which had had a long history as one of Srivijaya’s less tractable vassals. The most northerly of the peninsular states, Tambralinga and Langkasuka, however, found themselves under increasing pressure in this era from the Thai state of Sukhotai and its successor Ayutthaya. There is even some evidence of a seaborne raid on Jambi by forces from Ayutthaya at the end of the 13th century.

The civil war in Java which ended Kertanegara’s rule, and the Mongol invasion which followed, ended Javanese intervention in Sumatra for some decades. By the middle of the 14th century, however, the Javanese empire of Majapahit claimed suzerainty over the whole of Sumatra and over the peninsula as far north as Langkasuka. It is unlikely that this suzerainty translated anywhere into direct rule from Java, but local Sumatran courts, especially in the southern half of the island, certainly paid homage to Majapahit and modelled the ceremony and culture in their own courts on the greater splendour of the Javanese capital.

Majapahit’s most important rival for influence in Sumatra may have been the Minangkabau kingdom, which evidently included Jambi and other east-coast ports in its sphere of influence in the middle of the century. Minangkabau itself, however, was claimed by Majapahit as a vassal and its greatest ruler, Adityavarman, may have been part-Javanese.

In about 1377, the ruler of Jambi apparently asserted his independence from Java and sought formal investiture by the Chinese emperor. Majapahit reacted brutally: the envoys sent from China to conduct the ceremony were waylaid and killed, and Javanese forces attacked and sacked Jambi itself. Palembang suffered a similar fate about a decade later. Believing that the death of the Majapahit king Hayam Wuruk gave an opportunity for greater independence, the ruler of Palembang repudiated Javanese domination in 1389. In retaliation his city was destroyed, and the administration of what remained came into the hands of local Chinese merchants.

Sumatra and the Malay peninsula, 14th century

The port city of Melaka, founded by Parameswara or his descendants, quickly rose to be the most powerful state in the region. Abundant fresh water, a deep harbour and control of the narrowest part of the strait gave it an immediate advantage in attracting traders. So too did its ruler’s careful strategy of providing excellent facilities for merchants. Specially appointed shahbandar, or harbour-lords, maintained the warehouses, policed transactions and settled disputes between the dozens of trading communities in the city. Melaka’s main trading rival, the northern Sumatra state of Samudra-Pasai, was never able to match these advantages. Melaka’s ruler also inherited from his Palembang forebears a close relationship with the orang laut, the semi-piratical sea people who had been the basis of Srivijaya’s navy.

Melaka also benefited from the decline of Majapahit, from a lull in the southward expansion of the Thai, and from a close relationship with the Chinese empire. Under the Yung-lo emperor, China briefly abandoned its hostility to trade and sought out reliable allies as trading partners in South and Southeast Asia. Melaka was the most favoured of these allies.

At the height of its power, Melaka was one of the great cities of the world and the largest city in Southeast Asia. Melaka’s empire was never extensive – with its control of the strait it had no need for a far-flung empire – but its influence as a glittering centre of culture stretched far beyond its immediate environment. This reputation was its downfall, for it was a major target of the European interlopers into Southeast Asia in the early 16th century, and it fell to an attack by the Portuguese admiral Alfonso d’Albuquerque in 1511.

Sumatra and the Malay peninsula, 15th century

Melaka under the Portuguese never recovered the prosperity it had enjoyed under its sultans. Many Muslim traders now consciously avoided it, and the Portuguese themselves were less interested than their predecessors in the needs of foreign traders. As a result, Melaka lost its pre-eminence as an entrepot in the region.

One of the greatest beneficiaries of Melaka’s fall was the small kingdom of Aceh, at the far northern tip of Sumatra. Many traders and scholars who fled from Melaka after the fall settled in Aceh, which now began to displace Samudra-Pasai as the principal power on the north Sumatra coast. Seeking to take over the mantle of Melaka, Aceh’s first sultan, Ali Mughayat Syah, began a series of campaigns which took the influence of Aceh down the Sumatra coasts as far as Gasip (Siak) in the east and Tiku and Pariaman in the west.

Across the strait, meanwhile, the sultan of Melaka had fled into the interior of the peninsula immediately after the Portuguese conquest, but he eventually settled on the island of Bintan in the Riau archipelago. There, close to some of the largest communities of seafaring nomads, he hoped to marshal his forces to recover the city. The Portuguese, however, pursued him, destroying his new capital in 1526 and driving him to seek refuge in Kampar in Sumatra. His son eventually re-established a kingdom in Johor in about 1530.

For the remainder of the 16th century, Aceh, Johor and the Portuguese fought a three-way contest for dominance in the strait. The Portuguese never extended their territorial control beyond Melaka, but their fleets were a potent force along the coasts. Johor exercised a broad hegemony over the peninsula and over the opposite shore of Sumatra, but raids from Aceh made its tenure uncertain.

Sumatra and the Malay peninsula, 16th century

The contest between Aceh and Johor revived during the first half of the 17th century, when Acehnese power grew once again under Sultan Iskandar Muda. Aceh dominated the western coast of Sumatra and challenged Johor on the peninsula and in the strait. After Iskandar’s death in 1636, Acehnese influence began to contract, partly because Johor had found a new ally in the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC). The two joined forces in 1641 to drive the Portuguese from Melaka, and the Dutch then brokered a peace between Johor and Aceh which allowed Johor to recover its influence in Pahang.

In southern Sumatra, the arrival of Portuguese and later other European traders stimulated a massive expansion in the production of pepper. The most southerly pepper-producing region of Lampung was conquered by the western Java state of Banten in the second half of the 16th century and Banten’s influence also stretched up the west coast as far as Bengkulu. Further north on the east coast, pepper became the basis for a revival of the Palembang and Jambi regions, which had been the heart of Srivijaya. This prosperity, however, attracted the attention of the expansionist Javanese state of Mataram, which laid a general claim to Palembang in 1625 and sent a fleet in 1641–42 to force both Palembang and Jambi to become vassals of Java.

Sumatra, first half of 17th century

The successors of Sultan Iskandar Muda were unable to maintain the empire he had created and in the middle of the 17th century, the Acehnese empire began to contract. Within Aceh, moreover, royal power dwindled in the hinterland with the rise of powerful regional warlords or uleëbalang. Although Aceh remained independent, it was never again a major power.

Meanwhile, Aceh’s main rival, Johor, was also in decline. From the north, the aggressive Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya had turned Kedah into a vassal, requiring its ruler to send as tribute an intricate gold and silver tree (bunga mas dan perak). Johor was also under pressure from the south. From the middle of the 17th century, the pepper kingdoms of Jambi and Palembang had grown increasingly independent of their Javanese overlords and had begun to develop close relations with the VOC. Palembang soon fell out with the VOC, which sent forces to destroy its capital in 1659, but Jambi continued to prosper, repudiating Mataram’s overlordship in 1663. By 1673, Jambi was powerful enough to attack Johor and to destroy its capital utterly. Johor’s rulers then shifted their court once again into the islands for fifteen years. The final blow to Johor’s standing came in 1699, with the assassination of the brutal Sultan Mahmud, which broke Johor’s dynastic link with the prestige of the Melaka sultanate.

The decline of Aceh and Johor gave new opportunities to the Minangkabau peoples of central Sumatra. Siak on the Sumatra coast opposite Johor, Indrapura on the west coast, and the small Minangkabau communities of Sungai Ujung and Rembau near Melaka all became virtually independent in this era.

Sumatra, second half of 17th century

The assassination of Sultan Mahmud of Johor led to the disintegration of what remained of Johor’s empire. The Thai state of Ayutthaya invaded Trengganu, most of the east Sumatra coast as well as the Minangkabau settlements west of Melaka threw off Johor’s domination, and in 1718 Johor’s former vassal Siak attacked and occupied its territory. The sultan fled to Trengganu, which enjoyed a brief heyday as the centre of Malay power on the peninsula, though its power never extended beyond the east coast. Johor, meanwhile, came under the control of Bugis adventurers from Sulawesi, who also established the new state of Selangor between Melaka and Perak.

Bugis power drove Siak from the peninsula and the Riau archipelago, re-establishing ‘Johor’ with its capital on Bintan. Siak meanwhile extended its power northward along the Sumatra coast as far as Tamiang. Although Siak was still nominally a vassal of Johor until 1745, when the sultan ceded it to the VOC, in practice it was independent of all outside powers.

The greatest power on the island, however, was Palembang, which grew wealthy from the tin mines on the island of Bangka. Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin (r. 1724–57) kept tight control of the tin trade and delivered reliably to the VOC. Because Bangka and Belitung had been seriously depopulated by the slave-raiding of the previous century, however, the sultan encouraged Chinese miners to settle and work the deposits. By the middle of the century they dominated production.

Sumatra and the Malay peninsula, first half of 18th century

During the second half of the 18th century, VOC power became increasingly decisive in the international politics of the Melaka Strait region. In 1753, the Company gained sovereignty over Banten, giving it a legal claim to Lampung. It was also engaged in a protracted struggle with the Bugis on the peninsula and in the Riau archipelago during which the Bugis occupied Kedah and the Dutch briefly took Selangor and sacked Bintan yet again. Johor, which still had little presence in the Malay Peninsula, came under Dutch influence and was under effective Dutch rule until 1795.

Further north, Acehnese power recovered somewhat, but the more significant power was the sultan of Siak Sri Indrapura, a state founded in 1723, which had extended its hegemony northwards as far as Tamiang by 1780.

The west coast of Sumatra, meanwhile, became the scene of sporadic competition between the colonial powers. The vague understanding which gave the north to the VOC and the south to the British broke down when the British established forts at Poncang Kecil and Natal on the Tapanuli coast in 1752, though these posts never grew into a significant colonial presence. In the south, Bencoolen was briefly occupied by French forces in 1760. The British in turn occupied Padang from 1781 to 1784, while the French took the settlement briefly in 1793. In 1795, under an agreement between William of Orange and the British during the Napoleonic occupation of the Netherlands, British forces occupied Padang again, along with Melaka, to exclude the French.

Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, second half of 18th century


The second major geo-political zone to develop in western Indonesia was in Java. In the interior of the island, a combination of rich volcanic soil and abundant rain made the Kedu plain the richest agricultural region of maritime Southeast Asia. Somewhat isolated from the north coast by mountains, the region was less vulnerable than most to sea-borne attack, and its rulers were able to keep the merchant world of the trading cities at bay, with the result that royal authority became more deeply established than elsewhere.

The early history of Kedu is as shadowy as that of the rest of the archipelago. The region may at first have been under the domination of Ho-ling, but in about 732 a king called Sanjaya, a follower of the Hindu god Siva, established a kingdom there which we generally call Mataram. Sanjaya was probably not an absolute ruler in any sense; he is probably best thought of as a local warlord who managed by a combination of careful alliance and calculated warfare with other warlords to establish himself as the most important power-holder in the plain. Within a few decades, moreover, and for reasons still not at all clear, his lineage was eclipsed by other rulers who were followers of Mahayana Buddhism and who acknowledged the suzerainty of the Sailendra dynasty. The Sailendras apparently sponsored the construction of the Borobudur, a massive Buddhist stupa, on the Kedu plain, as well as a number of other major monuments. This era of temple construction, which is paralleled nowhere else in maritime Southeast Asia, is a powerful measure of the ability of rulers in Central Java to mobilize the labour of their people on a massive scale.

The coastal polity of Ho-ling evidently survived the rise to power of Mataram on the other side of the mountains, for its ruler sent an embassy to China as late as 820, announcing that it had resumed the old name Jawa (‘Shepo’), but there are signs that it sent this embassy from eastern Java, having been displaced there by Mataram.

The disappearance of Ho-ling soon after 820 coincides with the overthrow of the Sailendras by a Hindu descendant of Sanjaya named Pikatan who restored Sivaitic Hinduism as the dominant religion. Pikatan or his successors were responsible for the construction of the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan and the century or so which followed is generally recognized as a time of cultural florescence, in which Java absorbed and re-worked new elements of Indian culture to create a distinctive indigenous variant of Indian civilization.

In the middle of the 10th century, for reasons which are still not clear, the centre of Javanese power moved from the Kedu plain to the valley of the Brantas River in eastern Java. There, with easier access to the sea, Javanese rulers may have become more closely involved in trade. They were also more vulnerable, and in 1016 were badly defeated in battle, probably during an attack from Srivijaya.

Airlangga's kingdom, 11th century

Out of this defeat, however, emerged the reign of Airlangga, founder of Java’s first empire. Reputedly the son of a Balinese king and a Javanese princess, he was able to bring east and central Java, as well as Bali, under a relatively united regime, though this probably meant that he was able to keep up a sustained intimidation of regional lords, rather than that he ruled closely. His capital was at Kahuripan in the lower reaches of the Brantas and his seaport, Hujung Galah, was probably close to the site of modern Surabaya. On his deathbed in 1049, Airlangga divided his kingdom between his two sons, one taking the lower reaches of the Brantas as ruler of a kingdom known as Janggala, the other establishing a new capital in Panjalu (later Kediri) and ruling a kingdom called Daha. Hardly any information on either kingdom has survived, but two hundred years later, when records are once more available, the division was still politically significant.

By the early 13th century, Kediri had conquered Janggala, but in 1222, Kediri itself was overthrown by a usurper, Ken Angrok, who established his capital at Singhasari. Singhasari’s greatest ruler was Kertanegara, who presided over a time of rapid development in Javanese culture.

Majapahit's empire on Java

Kertanegara’s assertiveness brought him into conflict with the new Mongol rulers of China, who objected to his attempts to establish hegemony over the southern approaches to the Melaka Strait. The Mongol emperor Kublai Khan then sent envoys to Java to demand Kertanegara’s formal submission; he responded by mutilating and sending them back. The angry Khan then sent a military expedition to punish the Javanese, but by the time it arrived Kertanegara had been killed in a rebellion. In a piece of deft diplomacy, Kertanegara’s son-in-law, Kertarajasa, enlisted the help of the Mongol troops to overthrow the usurper before turning on the Mongols and driving them out in 1293. The empire which he founded, Majapahit, became the most powerful of all the early Javanese kingdoms. The 14th century chronicle, Nagarakertagama (now known as the Desawarnyana), gives a detailed insight into life in Majapahit.

Majapahit reached the pinnacle of its power under the rule of Rajasanagara (r. 1350–89), better known as Hayam Wuruk, and his prime minister, Gajah Mada, who held office from about 1331 until his death in 1364. Under their joint rule, Majapahit seems to have been particularly successful in establishing closer royal rule in the Brantas valley, by means of royal charters on land and other productive resources such as ferries. These charters diverted taxation income from local elites to the royal treasury and enabled the king to pay for a network of roads which made communication within the region easier. The capital city itself reflected the ruler’s wealth, with high, thick walls of brick, spacious pavilions and abundant flowers.

Majapahit's overseas empire

After the death of Hayam Wuruk in 1389, Majapahit went into decline. Its influence abroad contracted and it was wracked by civil war and succession disputes at home. Little is known of Javanese history in the 15th century. Majapahit is traditionally said to have fallen in 1478, but the state seems to have survived in attenuated form until about the 1530s. Hindu-Buddhist states such as Pengging, Kediri and Balambangan emerged within the former territory of Majapahit, but none was able to recreate its dominion, even in eastern Java.

Instead power shifted to trading city-states of the north coast, notably Demak, which had converted to Islam in the late 15th century. The struggle of Muslim Demak and its coastal allies with the Hindu-Buddhist states of the interior possibly had some elements of religious war, but at stake was also the question of whether Java’s growing role in international trade could pull the centre of Javanese power away from the interior and to the coast.

Major trade routes and export commodities in the Indonesian archipelago, ca 1500

Java, first half of 16th century: the rise of Demak

Demak was briefly the strongest military power on Java, but its emergence marked the end of relatively united imperial rule under Majapahit and a return to warfare between smaller states. Although Muslims had been present in the court of Majapahit, Demak was the first major Muslim state in Java, and its military campaigns in eastern Java during the first half of the 16th century were intended not only to assert its hegemony but to spread allegiance to Islam. Demak destroyed the last of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms in the old heartland of Majapahit, though the kingdom of Balambangan survived in the farthest reaches of the eastern peninsula. There is little sign, however, that Demak succeeded in establishing a firm hegemony over the interior, and during the second half of the century its power withered with the rise of Surabaya and a state in central Java which took the name Mataram, after the 8th-century kingdom in the same region.

The emergence of Mataram in the late 16th century restored the interior of central Java to a position of political dominance it had not held since the 10th century. As in much of early Javanese history, there is uncertainty about the precise role of Mataram’s founder, Senapati (r. 1584–1601), and its greatest ruler, Sultan Agung (r. 1613–1646) in expanding the state, but there is no doubt that Mataram came to exercise closer control over a larger part of Java than any preceding kingdom.

Java, 1550-1594: the emergence of Mataram and Surabaya

The administrative structure of Mataram was always in flux, as Sultan Agung and his successors endeavoured to maintain control of potential rivals. In broad terms, however, the kingdom was divided into four zones. At the centre lay the capital, Karta, a city laid out according to ceremonial formulas which put it in harmony with the cosmic order. The region immediately around Karta, the heart of the empire, was known as the negara agung; here the king allocated lands to his courtiers and ministers, providing them with income and binding them in loyalty to him. The negara agung thus was a region of direct administration by the court. The outlying regions, known as the mancanegara, were too distant for direct control and were ruled instead by regional lords, generally known as bupati. They were generally drawn from powerful local families and could not easily be displaced by a central ruler. In time of conflict, their independent military power made them a crucial element in the empire’s resources. The mancanegara shaded in turn into the nusantara, the island world of western Indonesia over which Mataram made a general claim to hegemony. Powerful and distant regional lords such as the rulers of Cirebon and Madura were sometimes more like allies than subordinates, but their precise standing in relation to the central court was very much a matter of the politics of the moment.

Java, 1595-1625

Mataram's overseas empire

Mataram at the height of its power, early 17th century

Mataram’s period of dominance was brief. Sultan Agung’s brutality in eliminating potential opposition was exceeded by that of his successor, Amangkurat I, who soon alienated a large part of the Javanese elite. Full-scale rebellion broke out in 1675, led by a disaffected prince of Madura named Trunojoyo, who was in league both with Makasar refugees from southern Sulawesi and with the crown prince, Amangkurat’s son. The rebellion began in the coastal regions which had felt the brunt of Mataram’s hostility to trade, but quickly found support in the interior after Trunojoyo defeated the Mataram forces at Gogodog in 1676 and, abandoning the crown prince, declared himself king.

Mataram would certainly have fallen but for the fact that the VOC, fearing the rise of a new, assertive dynasty on Java, gave military support to Mataram in exchange for territorial and trading concessions. In 1678, after Amangkurat I had died and the crown prince had been installed as Amangkurat II, Dutch troops marched into eastern Java to begin a three-year campaign alongside Mataram forces which destroyed the rebel armies. The intervention established the VOC as the single most powerful military force in Java, gave it hegemony over a large hinterland south and east of Batavia, as well as control of the enclave of Semarang, and reduced the power and territory of Banten.

Java in turmoil, 1676-1681: the Trunajaya rebellion

Mataram truncated: Amangkurat II and his rivals, 1681-1704

Although Dutch troops had preserved the Mataram dynasty, the kingdom was now a shadow of its former power. Territorial concessions to the Dutch in the west, creeping political influence by the Madurese along the coast, and a full-scale rebellion by Surapati in the east left it sadly truncated. Moreover, when Amangkurat II died in 1703, the Dutch backed his brother, Pangeran Puger, to succeed to the throne over Amangkurat’s son, Amangkurat III. In 1706, in what came to be called the First Javanese War of Succession, VOC forces with numerous indigenous allies marched on Kartasura and installed Puger as Pakubuwana I. Amangkurat III fled to join the former slave, Surapati, whose followers controlled much of Java’s eastern peninsula. Bitter fighting continued in which Surapati was killed and Amangkurat III captured by ruse and sent into exile. In exchange for VOC support, Pakubuwana ceded eastern Madura to the Dutch and gave them the right to build fortifications anywhere in Java.

The six decades which followed were a time of constant turmoil for Java. The descendants of Surapati maintained his kingdom south of the Brantas; further east, they fought with Balinese princes and with remnants of the kingdom of Balambangan for control of the eastern peninsula. The coastal regions from Surabaya to Juana remained under the influence of the powerful Cakraningrat family in western Madura, while the question of whether the VOC was Mataram’s greatest enemy or its best potential ally underpinned incessant factional conflict within the Mataram court.

Java, 1705-1768: the expansion of Dutch control

A Second War of Succession followed from 1719 to 1723, after the death of Pakubuwana I. His son, Amangkurat IV, again held his throne against rebel forces thanks only to VOC intervention. During the reign of Amangkurat IV’s son, Pakubuwana II, a further round of fighting broke out, eventually merging into the Third Javanese War of Succession. Although conflict had been endemic in the intervening years, 1740 marked the beginning of an era of cataclysmic violence. The era began with a wholesale massacre of Chinese in Batavia – probably about 10,000 perished – by Dutch citizens resentful of their prosperity and stirred by VOC fears of a Chinese rebellion. Chinese bands fleeing the destruction moved along the north Java coast destroying VOC posts one by one and massacring their inhabitants. Pakubuwana II joined the rebels in attacking Semarang, while the VOC formed an alliance with the Cakraningrats. As the tide turned towards the VOC, Pakubuwana sued for peace, but found himself at once facing a rebellion amongst Javanese and in mid-1742 he was driven out of his capital. VOC troops on the coast, however, and Madurese troops inland were successful in stemming the rebellion and in late 1743, Pakubuwana was formally restored to his throne in exchange for further territorial concessions to the VOC, the guarantee of a perpetual tribute in rice, and the acceptance of a VOC garrison in the Kartasura court. Although the Cakraningrats had been instrumental in the VOC victory, their fate was still less favourable. They were given none of the concessions they wanted on the eastern Java mainland and in 1745 they went to war against the VOC. The fighting ravaged Madura and much of the north coast, but by the end of the year the Madurese were defeated and West Madura’s status as a VOC vassal was confirmed.

Pakubuwana II’s concessions to the Dutch in 1743 included the right for the VOC to take a narrow strip of land along the entire north coast, as well as along rivers feeding into the Java Sea. The VOC did not take up this option but instead in 1746 pressed the king to lease to the VOC the entire north coastal region. Despite opposition from within the court, the king acquiesced, prompting a further rebellion, led by the capable Pangeran Mangkubumi. By 1749, the king’s new court at Surakarta was under threat from the rebels and in desperation he signed over his entire domain to the VOC. Upon Pakubuwana’s death a few days later, the VOC installed his son as Pakubuwana III, but Mangkubumi also declared himself king, likewise with the name Pakubuwana. After another six years of war, the VOC and Mangkubumi finally reached an agreement, the 1755 Treaty of Giyanti, which partitioned Mataram between the two royal contenders. Mangkubumi took the title of Sultan and the regnal name Hamengkubuwana, and established his capital in the town of Yogyakarta, while Pakubuwana III remained as Susuhunan in the older city of Surakarta. Both rulers confirmed the VOC’s lease over the north coast and its ownership of the eastern peninsula.

Until 1755, VOC policy had been to support whichever ruler of Mataram they believed could be bent to their interests. From 1755, their policy was one of divide and rule. The partition of Mataram was repeated in Surakarta in 1757 with the installation of another former rebel as prince Mangkunegara I with a domain which was beneath Surakarta in status but not quite subordinate in practice. The arrangement was made all the more complex by the fact that Surakarta and Yogyakarta territories were scattered across the whole of the remaining former territory of Mataram and the fact that some territories were still held jointly. There was almost constant conflict over land between the three authorities until a more detailed settlement was reached in 1774.

Java after the Treaty of Giyanti, 1755

The Javanese territories continued to be divided into mancanegara and negara agung, as in the time of Sultan Agung, but areas such as Banyumas and Pacitan were now included in the negara agung. These boundaries remained intact until the end of the century.

By the second half of the 18th century, the VOC controlled more than half of Java. Only Banten and a severely truncated Mataram remained outside their control, and in fact the rulers of both territories had formally acknowledged Dutch suzerainty, Mataram in 1749 and Banten in 1752.

Because Dutch dominion had grown gradually under widely differing political and economic conditions, the character of Dutch rule varied from region to region. The oldest region of Dutch rule – Batavia and its surrounding territories, known as the Ommelanden – had been purged of its indigenous inhabitants soon after the first Dutch settlement and was inhabited in the 18th century by the descendants of immigrants, some free-born, some slaves, drawn from many parts of the archipelago and beyond. Balinese and Chinese were an especially significant component of the ethnic mix on the outskirts of the city.

Batavia in 1682

The Ommelanden fell under the authority of a ‘delegate for native affairs’, responsible to the Governor-General in Batavia, but for the most part they were left to their own devices under a system of private estates (particuliere landerijen), whose landlords had quasi-feudal rights over their tenants. The granting of private estates continued into the early 18th century, by which time they encompassed virtually the whole of the northern coastal plain of West Java. The region was fertile and productive, sugar, rice and cotton being the main crops, but it was also unruly: small-scale landlords and entrepreneurs squeezed their tenants for what they could, and the tenants in turn simmered constantly on the threshold of revolt or brigandage.

Private estates close to Batavia, about 1750

The city of Batavia, on the other hand, gradually developed into a significant urban settlement. Built at first in Dutch style, with tall buildings facing on to a grid of narrow canals, the city soon spread beyond its old walls. In the newer southern suburbs of the city, called Weltevreden, Dutch architecture was modified to take more account of the needs of life in the tropics.

As far as possible, the VOC preferred not to take a direct hand in the day-to-day administration of the territories they dominated. Rather, they sought to work with established indigenous elites, believing that these elites possessed a political legitimacy as rulers which the Dutch would never have and that Dutch domination thus could be maintained without unduly offending indigenous sensibilities. On Java, they turned for the most part to the bupati who had been regional lords under Mataram and whom they referred to as regenten (regents).

The Dutch maintained the bupati as symbols of traditional authority and each bupati had responsibility for law and order in his district. In most regions, however, the bupati were also deeply involved in Dutch economic programmes. The most important of these programmes was the Priangan System (Preanger-Stelsel), applied in the so-called Priangan Regencies (Preanger Regentschappen). The people of the region farmed coffee estates for the bupati, who received 10% of the produce for their role. The producers were obliged to deliver the remainder of the crop to the Company, which paid them at half the market rate, in exchange for exempting them from land tax and further feudal services to the bupati. In practice, however, the bupati retained wide powers to tax their subjects on top of the official provisions. This lucrative arrangement remained in force from the early 18th century until 1870.

In the early days of the Company’s settlement at Batavia, Banten (which the Dutch called Bantam) had been a major regional power. Because it possessed only a small agricultural hinterland, it was much more vulnerable than Mataram and its military power was decisively broken in 1677. Thereafter, although the Dutch repeatedly nibbled at the boundary with Banten in order to increase the territory around Batavia, and although they forced the sultan to recognize their suzerainty in 1752, the sultanate was left intact. Only in 1808 did the Dutch annex the coastal regions, a prelude to the incorporation of the rest of the territory in 1813.

West Java: colonial political divisions, 1730-1808

In Cirebon, the Dutch preserved an unusual arrangement in which the heads of two related families, Kanoman and Kesupuhan, both carried the hereditary rank and powers of sultan. The upland regions to the south were incorporated into the Priangan System, but the sultans retained extensive powers in the lowlands, where they farmed their estates out to Chinese entrepreneurs, with miserable consequences for the peasants. Cirebon was the scene of repeated famine and uprising in the late 18th century.

Bali and Nusatenggara

Recent archaeological work has shown that Bali was part of a trading network linking the archipelago with the Indian and Roman worlds from about the first century A.D., but very little is known of the island’s history before the 8th century, when it begins to be mentioned in Javanese accounts. Successive Javanese rulers, notably Airlangga in the 11th century, appear to have held some degree of hegemony over Bali, and many elements of Javanese culture, including Hindu-Buddhist beliefs, were transmitted in this era. According to the Nagarakertagama (Desawarnyana), Majapahit conquered Bali in 1334, establishing a ruling class of nobles called Arya.

Some time after the decline of Majapahit, probably in the early 16th century, Bali came under the dominance of a royal family based in the town of Gelgel, who created an empire encompassing not just Bali but parts of Lombok, Sumbawa and the eastern peninsula of Java.

Bali: the empire of Gelgel at its greatest extent, 17th century

Gelgel appears to have collapsed in the mid-17th century, and Bali disintegrated into a number of warring states, the most important of them Buleleng in the north, Mengwi in the south and Klungkung in the east; Klungkung’s capital was just a few kilometres from the site of Gelgel and its royal family claimed to be the senior lords on the island. Over the next century and a half, however, the balance of power between the kingdoms, large and small, was constantly in flux. Buleleng went into decline in the 18th century, while Karangasem rose in power to dominate virtually all of southern Bali. The rulers of Karangasem carved out an empire on Lombok and even sought to recover Gelgel’s hegemony over Sumbawa. Mengwi was the most powerful state in the south of the island for most of the 18th century, but much of its energy was consumed in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to regain and maintain hegemony over Balambangan.

Balinese kingdoms, ca 1700

Balinese kingdoms, ca 1800

To the east of Bali lies the long chain of islands known as the Lesser Sundas or Nusatenggara (Southeastern Islands). For the most part, these islands were involved only peripherally in the trade and civilization of the western archipelago until the colonial area. Although the Nagarakertagama (Desawarnyana) lists Timor and Sumba as tributaries of 14th -century Majapahit, Javanese culture has left at the most only scattered traces in the region. No significant local inscriptions have been found to attest to the existence of early kingdoms and Chinese records are vague. The region’s economic relations with the outside world seem to have been based on the export of sandalwood, especially from Timor, a trade which may have begun in the 7th century.

Islands of Nusatenggara

From about the 16th century, the western islands of Lombok and Sumbawa came under the increasing domination of outside forces. Balinese settlers from the kingdom of Karangasem displaced the indigenous Sasaks from western Lombok and by the end of the 17th century held a loose hegemony over the east of the island, while raiders and settlers from Makasar drew Sumbawa increasingly into their orbit. The island was effectively subject to Makasar from 1618, and Manggarai, at the western end of Flores, soon followed. The rest of Flores, however, and the whole of Sumba remained divided into a large number of small states until the colonial era.

Polities in Lombok and Sumbawa, 16th century

Polities in Sumba, 17th to 18th centuries

Polities in the Solor and Alor archipelagos, 17th to 18th centuries

Polities in Flores, 17th to 18th centuries

Lombok and Sumbawa, ca 1800

Balinese rule on Lombok was turbulent. By the middle of the 18th century, they had subdued the Sasak aristocracy in the east of the island. A few decades later, however, disunity led them to split into four separate kingdoms, while the Sasak domains in the east regained much of their independence. Even in times of Balinese control, the east of the island was often restive.

Evidence from the earliest European visitors to the Nusatenggara region suggests that the normal state of affairs was one of division into a large number of small polities, which were linked into larger confederacies or empires whose significance was sometimes political and economic but more often symbolic. Timor produced sandalwood, which was valued for trade to China, and management of this trade necessarily meant a relationship between port towns such as Sorbian, Insana and Dili, and the polities of the interior. In the centre and east of the island, the ruler of Wehale (Belu), sometimes based in the port of Dili, sometimes based in the interior, claimed a hegemony over some forty-six liurai or ‘kings’ along the coast and the interior. In the west the confederacy of Sonba’i (Sonnebait), sometimes based in Sorbian, claimed a similar hegemony over sixteen liurai. The port of Kupang seems to have been independent of both of these power centres.

Timor and nearby islands 1500-1800

The Portuguese began trading and missionary activities in the Timor region soon after they had captured Melaka, and they established settlements at Lifau and Kupang in about 1520 and a fort on Solor in 1566 to protect both their trading interests and their converts. The fort soon became the nucleus for a community of mixed race ‘Black Portuguese’ or Topasses. When Dutch vessels captured Solor in 1613, many of the Topasses fled to Larantuka, where they established an independent community, which later extended its influence to the northern coast of west Timor. In 1642, a Portuguese expedition devastated the confederacy of Wehale and intimidated the Sonba’i states into submission, but Portuguese power remained slight and until the end of the century it was represented mainly by the Topasses.

In 1653, the Dutch shifted their local headquarters from Solor to Kupang in Timor. They were defeated by the Topasses in a campaign in Amarasi in 1653, but signed treaties with five small states near Kupang in 1654 and 1655 which confirmed their foothold on the island. Battles with the Topasses continued on and off for the next century, and the strength of Topass resistance was the main reason why Portuguese influence persisted in the Timor region whereas the Dutch were able to remove it from everywhere else in the archipelago. Only with the defeat of Topass forces in the battle of Penfui in 1749 were the Dutch able to extend their influence into the interior of western Timor.

Although the Topasses from time to time nominally acknowledged the sovereignty of Portugal, they were entirely independent of Portuguese control, and from 1719 to 1731 joined an alliance of liurai in the east to fight the Portuguese. The defeat of this alliance and the rise of Dutch power in the west with the victory at Penfui led the official representatives of Portugal to shift their headquarters from Lifau to Dili in 1769.

The VOC was now free to extend closer influence over the west of the island, and in 1756 it signed a contract with fifteen liurai, taking them as vassals. In the following years, the VOC extended a loose hegemony over the middle of the island, with the exception of the Topass enclaves, but a clear demarcation of territory with the Portuguese was not made until the 19th century.

Borneo (Kalimantan)

Unlike Java and Sumatra, Borneo has not experienced volcanic activity in historical times and its soils are correspondingly poor. As a result, although some of the earliest known polities in the Indonesian archipelago were located on the Borneo coasts, the island was never able to support the substantial populations which underpinned empires such as Srivijaya and Majapahit. The interior of Borneo was consistently important as a source of minerals and forest products, but the kingdoms which emerged on the coast never became powerful enough to extend their control over more than a small part of the island, and there is no record of a Borneo state exercising influence further afield than Borneo’s offshore islands. Besides, very few early inscriptions have been recovered from Borneo, so that the record of early state formation there has to be based mainly on external records. Chinese records from the 10th to 15th centuries speak of a significant state called ‘Poni’ on the northern coast of the island which was tributary to China as a trading partner. The name suggests a connection with the later state of Brunei, but Poni’s location remains uncertain. Archaeological research suggests that ‘Poni’ may have centred originally at Santubong, near the mouth of the Sarawak River, before moving at some stage to Brunei Bay.

The most extensive early account comes from the 14th century Javanese Nagarakertagama (Desawarnyana), which records over twenty states in Borneo as tributary to Majapahit. Just how significantly this claim, like that of China, was felt by the Borneo states themselves is open to debate. Archaeological evidence indicates the existence of a state called Negaradipa in what is now the hinterland of Banjarmasin.

Borneo in the 15th and 16th centuries

Little is known of Borneo in the 15th century, but the most significant states were apparently Sukadana and Banjarmasin in the south (both of them tributaries to Demak and later Mataram), Berau in the east, and Brunei in the north. Sukadana is said to have been established by Brawijaya, a ruler of Majapahit, and to have converted to Islam in about 1550. Throughout these years, the interior of the island was the domain of indigenous Dayak tribes.

Shortly after the fall of Melaka to the Portuguese in 1511, however, Brunei seems to have converted to Islam, perhaps as the consequence of an influx of Muslim refugees (though Brunei’s own dynastic records suggest that conversion took place a century earlier). During the 16th century, the sultans of Brunei created an empire which stretched along the entire northern coast of Borneo and into what is now the southern Philippines, though their control was probably tenuous at that distance. The port of Brunei itself became a major entrepot on the spice route between the Moluccas and China and was described in glittering terms by members of the Spanish expedition of Ferdinand Magellan in 1521.

With its mountainous, densely forested interior, Borneo could not easily be dominated by a single power, and each of its four coasts has generally had its own distinctive history.

In the south, the sultanate of Banjarmasin grew strong on the pepper trade. Large areas in the hills behind Banjarmasin were cleared for pepper cultivation and from the middle of the 17th century the region threw off its tradition of vassaldom to Java to become a significant regional power. Banjarmasin’s heartland was the basin of the Barito River, especially the fertile uplands of Amuntai, but at the height of its power, it claimed suzerainty over all the coastal states from Kota Waringin to Bulungan, and even claimed some influence in Sintang in the Kapuas basin. In the west, the main power at the beginning of the 17th century was Sukadana, a major exporter of diamonds and forest products, though its influence was being challenged by Sambas to the north, which was a vassal of Johor. The state of Landak came under Sukadana’s control in about 1600, but frequently sought its independence.

In 1622, forces from Mataram conquered Sukadana. Mataram, however, soon declined and by 1650 Sukadana had recovered to dominate the entire west coast. In 1699, rebels from Landak joined forces with the Javanese state of Banten to conquer Sukadana. Banten’s domination of Sukadana was brief. With the help of Bugis mercenaries based in Banjarmasin, the sultan managed to recover his throne and Sukadana once more became the major trading power of the west coast. Towards the end of the century, however, Sukadana’s power was increasingly challenged by the new state of Pontianak, founded by an Arab adventurer in 1772. In 1778, Banten ceded its defunct rights over Sukadana to the VOC, which joined Pontianak in 1786 in an attack which utterly destroyed the city. The royal family of Sukadana continued to rule the minor state of Matan (Kayung), but Sukadana was abandoned and Pontianak became the main centre of trade on the west coast. In the final years of the century, the rulers of Pontianak claimed Sanggau, Landak, Matan and Tayan as vassals, but they never ruled those areas directly. North of Pontianak, the states of Sambas and Mempawah were transformed from about 1760 by the arrival of Chinese miners to work the gold fields of the region. The miners came at first at the invitation of the local rulers, but their commercial organizations, or kongsi, soon developed into small republics virtually independent of the rulers. States of a different kind also emerged in this era in the interior of western Kalimantan, along the Kapuas River and its tributaries. For the most part, the elites of these states were Malays, often with trading interests, who established varying degrees of hegemony over the indigenous Dayaks. The largest of these states, Sintang, was moderately significant, but the states further upstream were small, sometimes claiming only a few hundred subjects.

Borneo, ca 1750

Brunei, meanwhile, was also in decline before the rising sultanate of Sulu, based in the archipelago between Borneo and Mindanao. In return for backing the successful claimant in a succession dispute in Brunei, Sulu received suzerainty over much of Borneo north of Brunei itself. Sulu’s influence also increased on the east coast of Borneo.

The principal state of the east coast was Kutai, a Malay kingdom in the Mahakam river basin which converted to Islam in the 16th century. From the late 17th century, however, many Buginese settled on the east coast, founding the state of Pasir and for a time dominating the Tidung, Bulungan and Berau regions, though these northern areas were to come under the Sulu sultanate.

States of western Borneo, ca 1800

Sulawesi and Maluku (The Moluccas)

Like Nusatenggara, the island of Sulawesi offers only a sparse historical and archaeological record before the 17th century. By the 14th century, states had begun to form in the southwestern peninsula (generally called South Sulawesi), but because there appears to have been little Indic cultural influence in this process, there are no significant inscriptions from this era. In 1300, the main states were Luwu’ (by tradition the oldest state in the region) and Soppeng, both of them consisting of powerful centres dominating a number of surrounding lesser states, including Sidenreng and Lamuru. Soppeng’s power seems to have been based especially on the export of rice, while Luwu’ exported iron from the interior. In the late 15th century, Soppeng appears to have declined in power, while Wajo’ emerged as junior member of an alliance with Luwu’. The dominance of Luwu’, however, was checked by the rise of Bone in the early 16th century, while a new power arose in the south in the form of Gowa. Little is known about the other peninsulas of Sulawesi in this period.

Southern Sulawesi, ca 1500

Minor states of northern Sulawesi, 16th century

From about 1530, the formerly small south Sulawesi state of Gowa began to grow in power, and its port, Makasar, became increasingly important as a centre of trade in the western archipelago. Gowa used military force to bring much of South Sulawesi under its domination, though the more distant and powerful states such as Wajo’ had the standing of slightly subordinate allies, rather than true vassals; only the Bugis state of Bone on the east coast successfully resisted Gowa’s campaigns. The port of Makasar became still more important in the early 17th century. Its ruler converted to Islam in 1605, making the port more attractive to Muslim traders, and it also became a centre for traders, both European and indigenous, excluded from Maluku by the monopoly practices of the VOC. Conversion to Islam led Gowa into a new bout of conquests in the region, including Wajo’ in 1610 and finally Bone in 1611. Further campaigns in the following decades took Gowa’s influence to Sumbawa, the east coast of Borneo and even the Kai and Aru Islands, though – except in Sumbawa and Butung – Makasar never exercised significant authority and in many areas, such as the northern parts of Sulawesi, the Makasar claim was a fiction supported only by the absence of significant local powers to question it.

Makasar and the subordinate states of south Sulawesi, ca 1600

As the centre for trade which the Dutch regarded as smuggling, Makasar soon became the target for intermittent Dutch hostility, and Makasar responded by assisting the Company’s enemies in Maluku. In 1666, the Dutch decided to make an end once and for all to Makasar’s resistance. They made an alliance with Arung Palakka, a Bugis prince from Bone, who had been exiled by Makasar to Butung in 1660 after an abortive uprising. The combined force defeated Makasar in 1667, and forced the sultan to sign the Treaty of Bungaya in which Makasar relinquished all its vassals, both in south Sulawesi and abroad, and allowed the Dutch to build a fort in the heart of its main port. The treaty was decisive in ending Makasar’s power, but it took a further round of fighting until 1669 before Makasar was fully defeated. Arung Palakka became ruler of Bone and the dominant political force in the region, but his authoritarian rule and destructive military campaigns against rebellious vassals led to a massive exodus of Buginese and Makasar warriors seeking safer homes elsewhere in the archipelago. The northern arm of Sulawesi had come under Spanish influence from the nearby Philippines in the 16th century, but was incorporated in the Dutch sphere of influence after the Treaty of Bungaya.

Makasar empire before 1667

Pre-colonial records are even sparser for eastern Indonesia than they are for Sulawesi, and only the sketchiest outline can be given of the region’s history before the 17th century.

The islands of Maluku had supplied cloves to other parts of the world since at least 1700 B.C., according to archaeological evidence from the Middle East, and they were also the only source of nutmeg. The small islands with their narrow coastal plains, however, could only sustain a relatively small population, and there appear to have been no large polities in the region before the 15th century, when the tiny clove-producing islands of Ternate and Tidore began to emerge as major political centres. Except in Sula, Buru, Ambon and Seram, where Ternatean aristocrats ruled directly, both empires operated as a network of alliances and vassalages, rather than as tightly ruled polities, and there was considerable ebb and flow in the degree of authority that each exercised. Ternate reached the peak of its power in the late 16th century under the warlike Sultan Baabullah.

Traditional kingdoms of Maluku, early 15th century, and the spheres of influence of Ternate and Tidore, early 16th century

As the main reason for European interest in the Indies, the Spice Islands were amongst the first to experience direct European military intervention. Ternate and Tidore were unable to prevent first the Portuguese and Spanish and later the Dutch and English from establishing fortified trading posts in the region, though Ternate had a number of military victories over the Europeans in the course of the sporadic hostilities of the 16th and early 17th centuries.

By the middle of the 17th century, however, Ternate’s need for free trade in spices was fundamentally in conflict with the Dutch aims for monopoly. In 1652, the Dutch extracted a treaty from Ternate giving the Company a monopoly of clove production, and broke the power of local Ternatean lords in a series of bloody campaigns during the next few years. The Company then centred clove production on Ambon and sent out periodic expeditions to destroy clove trees in other regions.

The great island of New Guinea was also a major centre of population, but its people were concentrated in the interior and except on the fringes close to Maluku there is no record at all of political forms before the 17th century.

Imagining the Archipelago

Although trade routes had tied the Indonesian archipelago to China, India and the Middle East since very early times, the region remained relatively unknown to outsiders until five or six centuries ago. Long distances and the hazards of travel, together with the fact that Indonesians themselves carried most of the products of their islands to the outside world, meant that scholars in the major centres of civilization generally relied on sparse and often second hand accounts of Southeast Asia.

In the West, the Egyptian geographer Claudius Ptolemy (c. 85–165 AD) prepared a major geographical work, the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, containing a compilation of information on the region gathered from traders and seafarers. Ptolemy described a Golden Chersonese, or peninsula, far to the east which is normally identified with the Malay Peninsula and he records the existence of many islands in the vicinity. Ptolemy’s geography formed the basis of most Western conceptions of the Far East until the 16th century, and also influenced some of the Arab geographers. The maps of Idrisi (d. 1165) show a good deal more detail than those based on Ptolemy's account, but they clearly reflect an attempt to reconcile imprecise and contradictory information originating from several centuries and a wide variety of sources.

Eastern Indian Ocean according to Idrisi (12th century)

The world according to Martin Behaim, 1492


Europeans in the Archipelago

Europeans had been aware of the existence of a rich archipelago off the southeastern corner of Asia since classical times, and the name ‘Java’ in particular often appeared in various forms on European maps of the world before 1500. Closer European knowledge of the Indies, however, had to await the establishment of direct contact after the Portuguese Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India around the Cape of Good Hope (though Marco Polo’s brief passage through the archipelago at the end of the 13th century had begun to extend European knowledge). The Portuguese Antonio d’Abreu and Francisco Serrão, sent eastwards after the capture of Melaka, gave detailed reports of Maluku, but the Portuguese were most secretive about their activities in the east and it was not until the later expeditions of the Spaniard Ferdinand Magellan (who died in what is now The Philippines before reaching the Indies) and the Englishman Francis Drake (1540 –1596) that information on the Indies became more widely published in Europe.

Figure 3.i:  Portuguese ship.

Early European visitors to the Indonesian archipelago

Rijklof van Goens' description of main roads in Mataram, 1648-1654

These visits were the prelude to an era of more than four centuries in which European traders, soldiers, administrators and missionaries utterly transformed the Indonesian archipelago.

Historians continue to debate when European influence in the Indonesian archipelago began to produce significant political, social and economic change. The Portuguese attack on Melaka in 1511 was significant as the first attack on the Indonesian archipelago from outside since the brief Mongol invasion of the 13th century and the attack had major religious and political consequences for western Indonesia. Many regions, however, remained entirely or largely unaffected by the Europeans for decades or even centuries thereafter.

The Europeans were drawn to Indonesia by the spice trade, but all the major European powers with interests in the archipelago claimed more than traders’ rights there. Portugal and Spain, the only European powers active in the archipelago during the 16th century, claimed authority throughout the region on the basis of the so-called Papal Donation of 1493, which had allocated the western hemisphere to Spain and the eastern hemisphere to Portugal. This Donation, ratified in the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, implicitly established a line of demarcation in the Indies at 129°E, thus partitioning Maluku. Determining longitude in the field, however, was a difficult exercise, and the course of the line remained uncertain. In 1527, Spain and Portugal signed a further treaty in Saragossa which shifted the boundary seventeen degrees to the east, giving Portugal clear title over Maluku and most of the island of New Guinea in exchange for a payment of 350,000 ducats. Nonetheless, Spain briefly established a post in Tidore between 1542 and 1545 while further north the Spanish claimed what became the Philippines by virtue of Magellan’s ‘discovery’ in 1521. An expedition from New Spain landed in the islands in 1565 and laid the basis for Spanish control which confirmed the separation of the Philippines from the Indonesian world.

Portuguese forts and posts in Indonesia, 16th and 17th centuries

The Portuguese Estado da India was governed from Goa, on the Indian west coast. It consisted primarily of a sprinkling of forts and trading posts, stretching eventually from Mozambique to Japan, and its power lay not in trade but in tax collection. Although the Portuguese crown declared a royal monopoly over the trade of spices from Indonesia to Europe, the Portuguese authorities in Asia were unable and unwilling to enforce it. Instead, in exchange for payment, they issued cartaze, or certificates of safe conduct, to trading vessels within their sphere of influence and connived at smuggling on a massive scale by Portuguese returning to Europe. The Catholic missionary Francis Xavier commented that the learning of the Portuguese in Maluku was limited to the Latin verb rapio (‘I seize’), but that they had invented many new and imaginative ways to use it. Nonetheless, partly because of the widespread settlement of Portuguese men in the archipelago, partly because of Portugal’s control of major trading points, the Portuguese language spread widely as a second lingua franca alongside Malay. Portuguese-speaking communities survived in the region until the 19th century and many Portuguese words entered Malay itself.

The Portuguese initially had an advantage in firearms and ship design, but both advantages quickly diminished as Southeast Asians learnt European techniques and individual Portuguese took service with Southeast Asian rulers. Portugal, moreover, was a small country whose army and navy were thinly spread over a vast region, and their posts and forts were vulnerable to local emerging powers. Their efforts to control the trade routes were under constant challenge from states such as Aceh, Johor, Banten and Jambi. In 1574, the people of Ternate expelled them, as Japan did in 1637.

The greatest threat to Portugal, however, came from the Dutch and English trading companies. In 1601 a Dutch fleet drove the Portuguese from Banten, and in 1605 the Dutch seized the Portuguese forts in Maluku. Solor fell to the Dutch in 1613, and Melaka in 1641. Portuguese influence was then limited to Larantuka, which remained in their hands until 1859.

In 1587, following the union of Spain and Portugal in 1580, the Spanish king allocated the royal monopoly in the Indies to Fuggers and Welsers, the Habsburg bankers of Augsburg, who formed the Companhia Portugueza das Indias Orientaes, but this change came too late to deflect the military and commercial challenge presented by the Dutch.

Figure 3.ii:  One of the world's first corporate logos, the VOC symbol. This was used widely on coinage, flags and public buildings in Dutch Asia.

Unlike the Estado da India, the Dutch East India Company (VOC, Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) was a joint stock company, formed in 1602 by merging several smaller companies founded in the 1590s to trade with the Indies. The joint stock company was a relatively new commercial form which became one of the most important vehicles for the development of modern capitalism. Its essence was that investors purchased shares in a joint operation which they themselves did not necessarily operate. In this way it became possible not only to produce a very large operating capital at short notice but to separate the functions of providing capital and managing the operation.

The VOC also brought to its operations a charter from the Dutch government which gave it the right to administer and to make war and peace in the regions east of the Cape of Good Hope. Although it was technically a private company, its owners were from the same merchant class that dominated the Dutch Republic, and it could thus draw on the protection of the Dutch state.

Newly free from Spanish rule themselves, the Dutch rejected in principle the Treaty of Saragossa and its partition of the Indies, arguing instead the principle of freedom of the seas.

With a large fleet of ships willing to break the Portuguese monopoly, they were initially welcomed in Southeast Asia. By making exclusive commercial agreements with indigenous rulers, and by direct military action against their European rivals and local challengers, they sought to create an exclusive sphere of influence in the Indies. The inter-European contest of the 17th century involved only tiny patches of territory and relatively small numbers of indigenous people, but it determined that the Indonesian archipelago was to be the sphere of influence of the VOC. By the end of the century, the Dutch were a significant power only in parts of Java and Maluku, but their rivals were gone or confined to insignificant peripheral regions of the archipelago – Spain to the Philippines, Portugal to Timor and a few adjacent islands, and the British to the west coast of Sumatra.

Major VOC posts and forts in the archipelago, 17th century

The Company’s initial interest was in obtaining spices from Maluku for direct shipment to Europe, and it established a fort in Ambon (Amboina) in 1605. Under the third Governor-General, J.P. Coen, however, the Company’s ambitions began to extend to taking part in trade within Asia. Coen decided that the Company needed a more central base and in 1619 founded a new headquarters, which he called Batavia, in the small trading city of Jayakarta on the northwestern coast of Java. In developing this so-called inter-Asian trade, the VOC made the most both of its capital reserves, which gave it disproportionate power in the market place, and its naval strength, which enabled it to sweep from the seas both pirates and Asian traders it now classified as smugglers because they infringed its monopolies.

The VOC’s interests in Indonesia were only part of its Asian empire. The Company had major trading operations in India and was the only European power permitted to trade in Japan. It came to control the islands of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Formosa (now Taiwan), as well as a significant territory at the Cape of Good Hope. Most of the Company’s territories were ruled by governors subordinate to the Governor-General in Batavia; the gouvernement of Java’s Northeast Coast, therefore, was no more directly monitored from Batavia than was the distant Cape settlement. Even within the VOC structure, therefore, the ‘Netherlands Indies’, as a precursor to modern Indonesia, had no formal existence.

Banda under Dutch rule

VOC territories and trading posts in Asia, 1650

The naval commercial power of the VOC, especially in an island region such as Indonesia, meant that the Company could pursue its interests on many fronts, but its two most important adversaries in the period to 1800 were Makasar and Mataram. Makasar, the main port in southern Sulawesi, became a major centre for the ‘smuggling’ trade which defied the Dutch monopoly until it succumbed to the Dutch and allied indigenous forces in a three-year war ending in 1669.

Coen had placed his headquarters on Java some distance from the rising central Java power of Mataram, but the two quickly came into conflict. In 1628 and 1629 forces from Mataram attacked Batavia but were repulsed. Thereafter, it was the Company which harassed Mataram, both deliberately circumscribing its power and finding itself drawn into civil wars and political conflicts within Mataram to defend its own interests. Following its participation in the defeat of Trunojoyo in 1678–1681, the VOC was a permanent element in Javanese politics and the Company gradually moved from being a maritime trading power to managing a territorial empire on Java. The Company’s administrative structure, however, continued to resemble that of a trading company, with officials below the level of governor holding mercantile titles and retaining principal responsibility for commercial matters along with administration.

VOC civil administration in Indonesia, 1792

VOC civil administration in central and east Java, 1792

VOC civil administration in Ambon, 1792

VOC civil administration in Banda, 1792

This administrative burden contributed to growing financial difficulties for the VOC during the 18th century. The Company’s monopoly policies, moreover, had contributed to serious impoverishment in the archipelago, diminishing the possibility of large profits. In response, the Dutch sought to drive down the purchase price of produce by various systems of forced delivery which often caused enormous hardship to their Indonesian subjects. A further problem was high levels of corruption amongst Company officials, despite draconian penalties for those who were caught. Another blow were French raids on Ambon in 1769–1772 which obtained clove plants and allowed the French to begin cultivation of cloves in Mauritius. The consequence was that the Company began to borrow money to pay its still-impressive dividends to investors, thereby digging itself into deeper financial problems. Many attempts at reform were begun during the 18th century; some of them tightening systems of control, others proposing some liberalization, but entrenched interests in Batavia were able for the most part to prevent reforms from having long-term effect.

By the end of the century, the VOC could no longer pay its way, and on 31 December 1799 it was formally wound up, its property, debts and interests in the Indies being taken over by the Dutch state. At that moment, however, not just the system of Dutch rule in the archipelago was in the balance. Dutch power itself appeared likely to disappear in the Napoleonic world war between England and France.

The English East India Company (EIC), founded in 1600, was a joint stock company like the VOC formed to exploit the trading opportunities of Asia. Unlike the VOC, it was reconstituted initially after each voyage and then at intervals of four years, so that it did not immediately develop a lasting bureaucratic stucture like that of the Dutch company. The two companies almost immediately came into conflict over trade in the archipelago, with Governor-General Coen unilaterally declaring Maluku closed to the English in 1616. The English established posts on Lontor and Run in the Banda Islands, but were generally outmanoeuvred by the Dutch. The conflict came to a head in 1623, in the so-called Amboyna massacre, when ten English company agents on Ambon were tortured and executed on charges of conspiring against the VOC.

The English briefly established a headquarters at Legundi off the southern tip of Sumatra, but were forced by disease to move first to Batavia and then to Banten. Their interest, however, was moving towards India and they did not attempt to maintain more than a scattering of small posts in Indonesia from this time.

By 1684 the English had lost all their former posts and forts in Indonesia, but in the following year they began to develop interests on the western coast of Sumatra, beginning with Pariaman. These interests grew into control of the southern part of that coast, with a headquarters at Bengkulu (Bencoolen), which became a base, according to Dutch complaints, for private English traders to infringe Dutch monopolies throughout the western archipelago.

Major English posts and forts in the archipelago, 1600-1780

British expansion in the archipelago, 1786-1797

Makasar trepang expeditions to Australia

Other European powers showed only marginal interest in the archipelago in this period. The French formed an East Indies company in 1604 and a number of French trading expeditions reached Indonesia in the early 17th century. The Danes held a post in Makasar until it was conquered by the Dutch, and Americans traded in Sumatra, but none of these attempted to establish a political presence.

In the late 18th century, politics in Western Europe was dominated by rivalry between Britain and France. Increasingly, the weak Dutch Republic fell under French influence, and its possessions in the Indies became vulnerable to British attack. The Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780–1784) briefly cost the Netherlands its possessions in Bengal and Coromandel, as well as two small posts on the Sumatra coast, though most of these losses were restored in 1784.

In 1795, a French-backed revolution in Holland expelled the Stadthouder, William of Orange, who fled to Britain, where he issued the so-called ‘Kew Letter’, instructing VOC officials in the Indies to surrender their posts to the British on demand. On this basis, the British occupied Melaka, Padang and Ambon without a struggle, Banda by surprise and Tidore by assault, but were unable to capture Kupang or Ternate. The 1802 Treaty of Amiens restored these territories to the Dutch.

Under French domination during the Napoleonic years in Europe, the Dutch authorities appointed Marshal H. W. Daendels as Governor-General in 1808. He sought both to reform the corrupt administrative practices that had brought down the VOC and to prepare for the defence of Java against an expected British attack. Amongst his measures was to construct a post-road the full length of the island of Java, from Anyer to Panarukan, to improve communications and the movement of troops. Constructed mainly with forced labour working to a tight timetable, the road earned Daendels a reputation for dictatorial cruelty, and in 1811 he was dismissed. Three months later, British forces occupied Java.

Daendels' postroad on Java

British troops landed near Batavia in August 1811 and the Dutch forces surrendered to them at Salatiga six weeks later. Thomas Stamford Raffles took over as Lieutenant Governor and began a vigorous programme of reform in the hopes of convincing the British government to retain Java permanently as a colony (as it was to do with the Cape of Good Hope and Ceylon). Raffles’ authority was quickly challenged by the sultan of Yogyakarta, but in 1812 British forces attacked, plundered the court of Yogyakarta and sent the sultan into exile, replacing him with his pliable son. To keep the court weak, Raffles also created a new principality within it, the Pakualaman, with a lesser status similar to that of the Mangkunegaran within Surakarta.

British possessions in Indonesia, 1810-1817

Javanese territories ceded to the colonial governments of Daendels and Raffles, 1808-1812

Both Daendels and Raffles radically restructured the administration of the island, reducing the power of the bupati, changing the taxation system and turning the village into the basic administrative unit. Raffles in particular emphasized that ‘native welfare’ should be an aim of the colonial government, and he introduced a form of land tax, called land rent, in an effort to develop a money economy on the island.

Raffles’ rule, however, was only brief. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain’s policy was to strengthen the Netherlands as a European counterweight to France, and in 1816 restored Java to Dutch rule; the outer territories were restored in 1817.