ISLANDS OF PAST MYSTERIES
AUSTRALIANS chronically underestimate the interest of Indonesia, even though it is our closest neighbour and represents, historically speaking, the most important centre of civilisation to emerge in our region. Or perhaps we underestimate this nation precisely because of its proximity. Europeans dream of Indonesia as a distant and exotic destination. Australians all too often see it merely as a cheap destination where they can get drunk and behave like oafs.
At times we have been worried about Indonesia as a security threat and have been through some difficult episodes, from the Confrontation of 1963-66 to the liberation of East Timor (1999-2002) and, more recently, terrorism episodes. Numerous minor incidents, such as the Schapelle Corby case, loom large in the popular press.
Our preoccupation with the present of Indonesia thus tends to obscure an appreciation of its historical and prehistorical past. Early man was present in the archipelago more than 700,000 years ago, although the present population probably migrated from the north about 2000BC. Early in the first millennium BC they had mastered wet-field rice cultivation, which allowed the development of larger communities and further crafts, including ikat weaving and bronze casting. Religious life remained at the level of animism and magic.
Higher civilisation came to Indonesia from India, whose influence was preponderant for more than 1000 years, from about the second to the 12th centuries. Java had a flourishing Hindu kingdom centuries before the adoption of Indian civilisation in Cambodia led to the rise of Khmer civilisation in the eighth century AD.
It was these Indianised Javanese kingdoms that built great monuments such as the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan near Jogjakarta, and the monumental temple-mountain of Borobudur, the greatest Buddhist construction in the world.
Islam began to implant itself in Indonesia in the 13th century and became the dominant re- ligion by the 16th century, by which time Christian missionaries were also active in the islands. But Indonesian artistic expression remained essentially Hindu. It’s remarkable that even in a mostly Islamic community the traditional mask dance and theatre and the leather shadow-puppets, wayang kulit, are all based on stories drawn from the ancient Sanskrit epics.
What had brought first the Muslims and then the Christians to Indonesia was the lure of the spice trade. For the archipelago used to be known as the Spice Islands — the source, for thousands of years, of rare and precious commodities that could make the fortune of adventurous traders, successive groups of whom carried them by sea, by camel caravan, then by ship again to great entrepots such as Venice from which they were further distributed throughout northern Europe.
This great East-West trade route, like a southern and maritime version of the Silk Road far to the north, was permanently disrupted by the European seafaring revolution. The Spanish and the Portuguese were the pioneers of the new seafaring, soon followed by the Dutch and the English, but it was in the end the Dutch who came to dominate. First Java, then eventually the whole of what is now Indonesia, came to be dominated by the Dutch East India Company, until its possessions were taken over by the Dutch government in 1800. The Japanese invasion brought Dutch rule to an end, and at the conclusion of World War II the present nation of Indonesia was formed.
The last century of the Dutch East Indies is commemorated in a beautiful and unusual exhibition of historical photographs at the National Gallery of Australia. It is apparently the first art museum exhibition of this material and represents a tiny selection from the more than 6500 items held by the NGA, many of which were acquired as part of a private collection purchased in Amsterdam in 2007. The exhibition is accompanied by a particularly elegant and informative catalogue by Gael Newton.
Photography came to Indonesia very early — as indeed to many other parts of the world,
Ruins of the Temple at Boro-Budur, Java (1913), by Frank Hurley