Review of Introductory Textbooks on Indonesian History

by indonotes

The last few posts have had a very specific focus: Ki Hadjar Dewantara and the Taman Siswa. So this week I wanted to broaden things out and write something more relevant to people just arriving to the study of Indonesia. If someone has read the English language Indonesian newspapers and wandered through the archives of Inside Indonesia and the Indonesia journal (each of which I have previously posted about), then general textbooks on Indonesia would be a natural place to look next.

Indonesia is now well served by a range of introductory texts providing overviews of Indonesian history. As they each offer slightly different things I thought it would be useful to offer a comparison of some of the best.

M. C. Ricklefs, A History of Modern Indonesia Since c.1200 (various editions)

This is the classic textbook, covering a broad sweep on Indonesian history from around 1200 up to the present in around 400 pages (at least in the latest editions). It synthesises a huge amount of material in a balanced and judicious manner. It is useful both as an introduction and as a reference text for looking up a certain event or person as you study Indonesia further. It also has a very useful bibliographic essay at the end, especially handy if you are wanting to find out how to find out further about a particular topic or period. On the down side covering such a sweep of time and space it can seem stretched a little thin at points, and it is not exactly light reading (although it is written in admirably clear prose).

A. Vickers, A History of Modern Indonesia

Vickers weaves the works of various Indonesian authors (and in particular Pramoedya Ananta Toer) into this account of Indonesia’s recent past. The use of Indonesian works in this way gives a real life to the work, with a more literary and biographical feel than Ricklefs’ work. It is also a joy to read. Vickers is highly sensitive to the cultural dimensions of change, but also gets into the grubby detail of politics, economics and social developments. The book contains a relatively brief but handy chronology at the front and some potted biographies of key figures at the back. I suspect that the publisher set a tight word count, as at 200 pages it is a relatively quick read, but also feels somewhat truncated. Very little attention is paid to developments before 1900, and it is here that Ricklef’s text has a real advantage, as even for readers whose primary focus is twentieth century Indonesia (or even contemporary social and political developments) an understanding of the broad sweep of history in the archipelago is extremely valuable.

J. Gelman Taylor, Indonesia: Peoples and Histories

A rich account taking a broad sweep of Indonesian history that makes a conscious effort to draw out lesser known characters and issues. It gives only very brief treatment to some politically and economically important events in recent Indonesian history (such as the fall of Suharto, the 1980s oil crisis, and the regional revolts of the 1950s). However, this is part of a deliberate attempt to explore some less well trodden paths and makes this work is a useful compliment to Vickers’ and Ricklefs’ accounts. Particularly fascinating are many of the ‘capsules’: text boxes of a page or two dealing briefly with a topic. Some of my favourites are the comparison of Kartini and Rahma El-Yunusiah, a discussion of medicine and colonisation, a history of the word ‘merdeka’ and an account of the short-lived Republic of the South Moluccas. However, it would have been nice if the sources for these boxes had been listed at the bottom of each one, rather than combined into the bibliography at the end, as I sometimes found myself wanting to follow up a particular fact and not knowing where to look.

R. Pringle, Understanding Indonesian Islam

A very helpful account of Islam in Indonesia, Pringle’s account is reasonable and well-informed. Some academic reviews have questioned some points of interpretation, but given the scope of the undertaking it is an impressive synthesis of the flowering literature on the topic. Given that this is an area where many specialist works are not very accessible to the general reader, and also one where the media tends to extreme simplification, Pringle has done Indonesian (and Islamic) studies a great service with this book. It is also highly readable and a quick read (at just over 200 pages) and at the end has a useful guide to further reading on Indonesian Islam. My greatest caveat would be that to understand Islam in Indonesia, it is crucial to understand Indonesian history and society as a whole. So even for those focused on Islam in particular, the other introductions listed here should still be very valuable.

A. Schwartz, A Nation in Waiting

A lengthy but highly readable account of post independence Indonesia. It combines Schwartz’s experience as a journalist with secondary literature. It is particularly strong on the nexus of politics, economics and ethnicity and provides crucial context for the events of the late 1990s. As well as penetrating analysis, there are memorable quotations galore. The version I read (the updated 1999 version) is now beginning to seem a bit further removed from current events, but it still provides invaluable context for the post-Suharto era.