Indonesia: the world’s largest island nation, 17,000 pieces of land projecting from the waves where Indian and Pacific oceans meet, ranging in scale from the giants of Sumatra, Java and Borneo, to the tiny volcanic outcrops of the Banda Sea. With 280 million people, this is the fourth most populous nation on Earth, after India, China and the US, and the largest Muslim-majority country. It’s also one of the most overlooked, by western eyes at least. What proportion of anglophones could even place Jakarta on a map? Relating the story of this place is, then, a mammoth task, requiring a monumental research effort. This is what the Belgian historian David Van Reybrouck has achieved in his superb history, Revolusi.
To set the scene: the first humans, hunter-gatherers, reached the archipelago 75,000 years ago. A long time later, around 2000BC, a new influx arrived: the so-called Austronesians, pre-history’s greatest seafarers, who would spread across the oceans from Madagascar to Hawaii. Soon, thanks to their strategic location, the Indonesian islands were 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 in 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 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 Van Reybrouck states, “There was no way this could go well.”
The story of colonial greed that unfolds is familiar from British, French and Belgian exploits all over the world. The mercantile project soon became a territorial one, as the VOC took possession of swathes of spice-growing terrain. Sometimes they swapped land with other colonial powers, as in 1667, when they traded the swampy patch of ground on America’s east coast that we now call 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. At the start of the 19th century, when Napoleon annexed the Netherlands, the British invaded Java, installing Thomas Stamford Raffles as governor, but after Napoleon’s defeat London ceded the islands to the new Dutch king, William I. William 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.
What was life here like? Van Reybrouck depicts it as a nightmarish colonial steamship, where the voyagers are segregated according to Dutch-imposed ethnic categories of “European”, “foreign oriental” and “native”. The elite lived in luxury, but for the great majority the social order was racist, rigid, humiliating. Foremost among those challenging the status quo in the 1920s was the charismatic son of a Javanese teacher from the lesser nobility. Sukarno would unite the three strands of anti-colonialist thought –nationalism, Marxism and Islam – into a single mass independence movement, which would rally around a word coined by a 19th-century British traveller to the region: “Indonesia”.
The Dutch resisted Indonesian independence at every turn, but the second world war provided 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, who created an aggressive Indonesian youth militia, the pemuda, and promoted the idea of decolonisation. In August 1945, when the Japanese surrendered and no allied “liberator” had yet arrived, Sukarno proclaimed independence.
The five years that followed were some of most brutal in the region’s history, as postwar Dutch governments sought to reclaim their cash cow, betraying every agreement their own negotiators signed. Few people apart from Sukarno emerge from this period well. The British and Americans enabled Dutch neocolonial aggression, while the bloodthirsty pemuda committed horrific acts of violence. But the bulk of the historian’s ire falls on Dutch politicians, administrators and army officers, who used torture and murder as a way to re-establish control.
Here, Van Reybrouck introduces us to Captain Raymond Westerling, the British-trained commander of a Dutch unit called the Special Troops Depot. Tasked with putting down a rebellion in southern Sulawesi with just a couple of hundred soldiers, the captain developed the “Westerling method”. This meant arriving with his men at a target village before dawn, herding the inhabitants into a central square and ransacking their houses for evidence of suspicious activity. Sometimes this simply meant owning a torch or a green T-shirt. Westerling then read out his list of suspects to the village, and forced each one to squat before they were shot in the head. Other villagers were picked for interrogation, and if they refused to denounce their friends and relatives he would kill them gradually – shooting them in right foot, left foot, right knee, left knee, and so on – before moving on to a new victim.
When the slaughter was finished, they would burn the village to the ground. This was done with the support of Westerling’s superiors, and other Dutch officers were encouraged to follow the captain’s lead. Westerling was never made to pay for his crimes: he spent the 1960s working as a lifeguard at an outdoor swimming pool in Holland, regaling swimmers with his stories.
All the Dutch colonial troops’ violence, summary executions, systematic rape and torture could not stop the march of history. Embarrassed by their atrocities, the UN Security Council, led by the US, finally ordered the Dutch to hand over sovereignty no later than 1950. Sukarno was released from prison, and on 27 December 1949 he flew to Jakarta to deliver a triumphant speech on the steps of the governor-general’s palace. Indonesia belonged to Indonesians at last.
At least one politician in The Hague felt disgrace at his government’s treatment of the islands it had lived off for so long. “We are revealed to the world as tyrants and cheats,” the social democrat MP Jacques de Kadt wrote. “That which could have been repaired in 1945 and could have led to the cooperation of two independent states … has been destroyed by provincial politicians of all the Dutch parties. What is left to us is this: realising what we missed and botched. What is left to us is shame at all our narrow-mindedness, incompetence, and conceit.”