A Brief History of Indonesia (Part One)

The Samata is an Indonesian flagged vessel that is based in Indonesia. We love to share this amazing country with our guests week in and week out (in normal times!). The beautiful and diverse nature and geography is truly wonderful to behold. However, nature is only one part of the Indonesian experience. The other part is the warm and welcoming Indonesian people. Through many years of experience exploring the country with our guests, we have noticed that many people don’t know much about the history of Indonesia. Therefore we are sharing a short primer about the long history of Indonesia. Due to the complexity of Indonesian history, we will post it in two parts. We hope this helps to understand a little more about the country that we call home.

A Long History of Indonesia

The story of Indonesia begins in pre-historic times. There are fossilized evidence of early humans (Homo erectus) found in several areas with the most famous being Java Man. This well preserved skeleton is dated at 700,000 years old. Indonesia is also home to the infamous Flores Hobbits. This set of skeletons, found in Flores in 2003, are dated around 13,000 years old. They are called Hobbits due to the fact they are only 3 foot tall. They have been described as a sub species of Homo erectus who lived alongside modern Homo sapiens.

Bali Rice Fields
Ancient Rice Terrace Farming

The vast majority of modern Indonesians are descended from the Austronesian wave of migration that moved south out of Taiwan around 4000 years ago. The Austronesians also form the basis of the later Polynesians who populated most of the Pacific. This population wave introduced many things that are still evident today, including rice terrace farming and ikat weaving.

The Rise of Classic Indonesian Civilization

With it’s status as a seafaring archipelago, the Indonesian islands were at the centre of much ocean going trade. The islands of Sumatra, Borneo, and Java were influenced by the empires of India in the first centuries of the modern era. This contact with India introduced the first large religions to the area: Buddhism and Hinduism. It was the era where giant religious temples such as Borobudur and Prabanan were built in central Java. These religions provided the basis of a series of large kingdoms in Sumatra, Borneo, and Java that lasted until the 1500s. The Srivijaya Empire was a Buddhist empire based in Sumatra that held sway throughout much of SE Asia through it’s powerful Navy. This empire held power over the Malacca Strait which was the key to commercial success through trade. They ruled the area from the 7th to the 13th centuries.

Borobudur Daylight History of Indonesia
Borobudur Temple

By 1290 the Srivijaya Empire declined and the Java based Hindu Majapahit Empire rose to the forefront. They ruled most of what is now modern Indonesia and Malaysia, including the Strait of Malacca. Throughout this reign Muslims in the Malacca region of Malaysia were gaining in power. This led to many people in Sumatra, Borneo, and Java converting to Islam. The rise of Islam and it’s support by the powerful Chinese Yuan dynasty eventually led to the fall of the Hindu kingdoms in Java. The once powerful Majapahit royal house eventually moved to Bali in the early 1500s and Hindu remains the religion of Bali to this day.

The Rise of Islamic Sultanates

The main rival of the Majapahit Empire in the 1400s was the Islamic Sultanate of Malacca in Malaysia. They controlled the Strait of Malacca which in turn allowed them to control the movement of the much sought after spices traded to Europe. The Chinese supported Malacca and also influenced the spread of Islam and Islamic traders in the coasts of Sumatra and Java. This growing influence allowed the Demak Sultanate to rise to power after the fall of the Hindu Majapahit.

Over the next 200 years, a series of Sultanates in Java (Damak, Pajang, and Mataram) ruled most of the area. This lasted until the Dutch East India Company gained control in the 1700s. The main and longest ruling was the Mataram Sultanate which was based in the modern Yogyakarta area of Central Java. This was the era when Islam became the dominant religion in much of Indonesia including Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and several areas further east.

The Mataram Sultanate’s power was mainly based in Java and eventually waned through a series of conflicts with other kingdoms and the Dutch. In other areas of Indonesia Islam also gained stronghold such as in Halmahera under the Sultan of Ternate. Many of the other islands in Indonesia fell under the influence of these rulers but that was soon to change. In part two of this series we will discuss the rise of European influence and the Spice Trade.

The History of Indonesia: To Be Continued

Banda Islands Harbour History of Indonesia
Dutch Fort in Banda Neira

To read more in depth about the history of Indonesia there are many great resources out there. “Nathaniel’s Nutmeg” is an outstanding book about the struggle between the Dutch and English our control of the Spice Trade. A wider ranging history “A Brief History of Indonesia” by Tim Hannigan is a great read. We highly recommend reading this wonderful books before heading out on your next Indonesian adventure aboard the Samata.

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