“Revolusi, Indonesia and the Birth of the Modern World” by David Van Reybrouck (published by The Bodley Head)

Dutch colony a grim tale of oppression, avarice, cruelty

The author tells of what he describes as a “classic expat joke”, which goes like this: “Any idea where Indonesia is?”, prompting the answer, “Uh… not really. Somewhere near Bali?” No doubt it raises a greater chuckle among said expats than it might among their Indonesian hosts, but, well, it has to be admitted there is an element of truth about it.
24. March 2024 4:55

As historian David Van Reybrouck points out, Indonesia is the quiet giant you rarely hear about outside South-East Asia. Never mind that it’s the world’s fourth most populous country after China, India and the United States, or that it has the largest Muslim community on Earth, or that its economy is South-East Asia’s biggest, supplying large parts of the world with palm oil, rubber and tin.

And if the rest of the international community just doesn’t seem particularly interested, that’s how it’s been for years. Go to a quality bookshop in Paris, Beijing or New York, Van Reybrouck suggests, and it’s easier to find books about Myanmar, Afghanistan, Korea or even Armenia, even though these countries have populations of tens of millions or fewer against Indonesia’s 268 million.

One out of every 27 humans is Indonesian but it’s speculated in “Revolusi” that the rest of the world would have a tough time naming even one of them. Further, Indonesia is the world’s largest island realm, officially consisting of 13,366 islands, though it could be 16,056, or 18,023. Volcanoes, earthquakes and tides constantly alter the coasts, so when the waters rise, one island could suddenly be split and become two.

Most of these countless islands are tiny and only a few thousand are inhabited, but still, they include five of the 13 largest islands in the world: New Guinea, Borneo, Sumatra, Sulawesi and Java. A couple more impressive facts – the whole tropical archipelago covers  an eighth of the globe and three time zones, like starting in Ireland and ending up in Kazakhstan. Huge it is, with nearly 300 distinct ethnic groups speaking 700 languages.

Enough facts and figures already, thank you, from this exhaustive book that clocks in at around 550 pages. The low interest, in western eyes at least, can be put down to the fact that far-away Indonesia only rarely makes international headlines. There were the three terrorist bombs in Bali in 2002 that killed 202 people, many of them tourists, and the devastating tsunami in Aceh, a province of Sumatra, in 2004 that took 131,000 lives.

Just recently, general elections were held in the country in February 2024 and the world tuned in for a few days. In March the presidential result was contested, after which expect the wider media to switch off again and Indonesia to slide back into semi-obscurity. So the “Revolusi” subtitle, “Indonesia and the Birth of the Modern World”, would seem on the surface of it to be a big claim.

Self-evidently, “Revolusi” is the Indonesian word for “revolution”, and this is in reference to the post-World War Two events there that finally ended 350 years of colonial rule and which are said in these pages to have set a precedent that would reshape the modern world, sparking its decolonisation. Indonesia’s struggle for independence is cast as one of the defining dramas of the twentieth century.

Looking back, Van Reybrouck tells how the Indonesian islands had been swept over by civilisations and religions from the north and west. From India came Brahminism and Hinduism; from China, Buddhism and Taoism. But it was Islam, which arrived around the 13th century, that would become the archipelago’s dominant faith.

Europeans knew the “East Indies” through the magical flavours that grew there. Pepper, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon were brought west through Asian trading networks, and fetched incredible sums by the time they reached Flemish markets. But it took Portuguese navigators centuries to find a route to the Indies themselves, via the Cape of Good Hope. In 1596, the first Dutch expedition reached Java, led by Cornelis de Houtman of Gouda, who returned home with a valuable cargo of spices.

Six years later, the Netherlands confederation created the Dutch East India Company, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC, and granted it a trading monopoly in the east. Much like the East India Company founded in Britain two years earlier, the VOC would take on the powers of a nation state, arranging treaties, building forts and raising armies.

In 1619 the VOC established its headquarters at a sheltered bay on the north coast of Java, naming the settlement Batavia in homage to the ancestral tribe of the Dutch; we now know this place as Jakarta. The company’s only purpose was to make money for its investors. As the author states, “There was no way this could go well.”

From here on the story of Dutch colonial greed is familiar from British, French and Belgian exploits all over the world. The mercantile project soon became territorial, as the VOC took possession of swathes of spice-growing terrain. Sometimes it swapped land with other colonial powers, as in 1667 when it traded the swampy patch now called Manhattan for the far more valuable British-controlled island of Run, a source of precious nutmeg.

Other times VOC troops took territory by force, meting out genocidal “punishments” to people who got in the way. The Dutch king, William I turned the screw so hard that by the 1850s the East Indies would provide more than a third of his kingdom’s revenue. It still wasn’t enough. Over the next half-century, through the efforts of the Royal Netherlands Indies Army, the Dutch seized the rest of the archipelago. By 1914, the small North Sea nation of less than 6 million controlled the third-largest empire in the world, including more than 40 million people of the Dutch East Indies.

The Dutch resisted Indonesian independence at every turn, but World War Two provided the revolutionary and nationalist Sukarno with a fresh spur for revolusi – revolution and therefore freedom. The Germans had occupied the motherland during the war, but the archipelago had fallen to imperial Japan. Four million civilians died during their occupation.

But the Japanese created an aggressive Indonesian youth militia, the pemuda, and promoted the idea of decolonisation. On a sunny Friday in August 1945, when the Japanese surrendered and no allied “liberator” had yet arrived, a handful of tired people raised a homemade cotton flag and on behalf of 68 million compatriots declared the birth of a new nation. Indonesia became the first colonised country to declare independence after the war.

Another 200,000 people would lose their lives in the astonishingly brutal conflict that ensued, as the Dutch used savage violence, summary executions, systematic rape, torture and murder to reassert control, and as Britain and America became embroiled in pacifying Indonesia’s guerilla war of resistance: the revolusi.

The five years that followed were some of the most brutal in the region’s history, as postwar Dutch governments sought to reclaim their cash cow, betraying every agreement their own negotiators had signed. The bloodthirsty pemuda retaliated, and all the Dutch colonial troops’ violence and torture could not stop the march of history.

It was not until December 1949 that the newly created United Nations forced The Netherlands, shamed by their atrocities, to cede all sovereignty to Indonesia. Sukarno was released from prison, and on December 27 he flew to Jakarta to deliver a triumphant speech on the steps of the governor-general’s palace. Indonesia belonged to Indonesians at last, and the bravery and ultimate success of the freedom fighters enthused anti-colonial movements around the world in the ensuing four decades – the birth of the modern world.

David Van Reybrouck, a Belgian, travelled throughout the archipelago to interview ageing Indonesians who lived during the dark days of the Dutch between the two world wars. He is angry, understandably so, at the horrible, arrogant, superior treatment meted out to the oppressed native population. The killing and robbing for spices and money make for unpleasant but gripping reading, balanced by the triumph of the human spirit over greed.

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