Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Early Political and Economic History of Indonesia



The habitation of what is now indonesia goes back to the very dawn of human existence. Bones and artifacts of homo erectus have been found that date back a million years of more. The climate was suitable to the limited range of the ancestors of humanity. But the immediate ancestors of modern humans came out of Africa and so there has been a number of migrations to the islands of Indonesia.

Even in relatively modern times these islands that now make up Indonesia have had a rich but turbulent cultural history. There are several hundred language-culture groups scattered throughout the islands. Probably they would not be part of one nation except for their conquest by the Dutch. The Malay people who constitute the majority of the peoples of what is now Indonesia are distributed through many other places in Southeast Asia, including what is now Malaysia and the Philippine Islands. Malays traveled to eastern Africa on trading expeditions and settled the island of Madagascar. This is known from the nature of the language spoken in Madagascar. The language of Polynesia also reveal linguistic ties to the Malays.

The historical origins of the Malays are lost in time but the survival of indigenous groups in the territory of the Malays indicate that that they were not the first in these areas and therefore migrated from elsewhere.

The original religion of the Malays was animism and some elements of animism survives even in modern times. Now the Malays of Indonesia and Malaysia are predominantly moslem but that was not always the case. At some distant time in the first few centuries of the common era (A.D.) teachers from India brought Hinduism to Indonesia and it survives in a few places such as the island of Bali. The spread of Hinduism is a bit of a puzzlement in that the high-caste (Brahman) priests are prohibited by their religion from crossing the Dark Sea. But clearly teachers of Hinduism of some sort did cross those dark seas. At a later time Buddhism came to Indonesia as evidenced by magnificent monuments such as Borobodur. Buddhism did not surplant Hinduism in Indonesia. Some kingdoms had Buddhist monarchs and others had Hindu monarchs. For more on the spread of Indian culture throughout Southeast Asia see the Indianization of Southeast Asia.


Islam came to Indonesia much later, about a millenium later. This put the era of Islamization a couple of centuries or so before the time that the Portuguese and Dutch were setting up trading stations and conquering petty kingdoms. Preceding the the European contact in the 15th century the Ming Empire of China sent a large armada into the region, but internal politics in China ended those contacts.

The Economic History of the Colonial Period in Indonesia

(To be continued.)

HOME PAGE OF applet-magic
HOME PAGE OF Thayer Watkins