A Brief History of Indonesia

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Indonesia

The first people in Indonesia arrived about 40,000 years ago when the sea level was lower and it was joined to Asia by a land bridge. Then at the end of the last ice age about 10,000 BC, a new wave of people came. At first, they hunted animals, collected shellfish, and gathered plants for food. By about 2,500 BC they learned to grow crops such as taro, bananas, millet, and rice. The early farmers also made pottery but all their tools were made of stone.

However, by 700 BC the Indonesians had learned to make bronze and iron. Furthermore, at that time wet rice cultivation was introduced. Indonesian villages were forced to cooperate to regulate the supply of water to their fields. In time organized kingdoms emerged.

From about 400 BC Indonesians traded with other nations such as China and India. Hinduism and Buddhism were also introduced to Indonesia and they took route.

By the 8th century AD, Indonesian civilization was flourishing. Among the kingdoms was a Hindu kingdom in central Java called Sailandra.

There was also the great Buddhist kingdom of Sriwijaya in south Sumatra. From the 7th century to the 13th century Sriwijaya prospered and it became a maritime empire controlling western Java and part of the Malay Peninsula. It was also a center of Buddhist learning. However, in the 13th century, the Sriwijaya Empire broke up into separate states.

Colonial Indonesia

During the 17th century, the Dutch gradually extended their power over Java and the Moluccas. However, they had little influence in the rest of Indonesia. Moreover, during the 18th century, the Dutch East India Company slipped into debt. Finally, in 1799 the Dutch government took over its territories.

In 1806 the British and Dutch went to war. In 1811 the British under Lord Minto sailed to Batavia. The British soon captured all the Dutch possessions in Indonesia. The British abolished slavery and they also divided the country into areas called residencies for administration. However, in 1816, the British handed Indonesia back to the Dutch. Many Indonesians resisted the return of the Dutch. However, the Dutch eventually defeated them and regained control.

However, in 1825 the Javanese War, in central Java, began. It was led by Prince Diponegoro. However, the war ended with a Dutch victory in 1830. Diponegoro went into exile and died in 1855.

Furthermore, during the 19th century, the Dutch extended their control over other parts of Indonesia. In 1825 they took Pelambang in Sumatra. They also fought wars with the Balinese in 1848, 1849, 1858, and 1868. However, Bali was not finally conquered until 1906.

In 1873 the Dutch went to war with Aceh. The war went on until 1908. Meanwhile, in 1894 the Dutch captured Lombok, and in 1905 they captured the whole of Sulawesi.

Meanwhile, the Dutch exploited the Indonesians. In 1830 the Dutch introduced the cultural system. Indonesian farmers were forced to put aside 20% of their land to grow crops for export. They were paid only a nominal sum by the Dutch government for them. Indonesians were forced to grow coffee, indigo, tea, pepper, cinnamon, and sugar. As a result of this measure, rice production was reduced.

However, in 1870, the Dutch switched to a free market system. The Dutch government’s monopoly on sugar and other commodities was ended. Private plantations were created. However, the Indonesians were not necessarily better off. Now they were employed as coolies on the great plantations.

In the early 20th century the Dutch decided to treat the Indonesians more fairly. They introduced what they called the ethical policy. This meant building schools and spending money on health care, sanitation, and irrigation.

However, the new policy had little effect on the lives of most Indonesians. It did, however, mean that a least some Indonesians became highly educated and familiar with Western ideas such as liberalism and socialism. As a result in the early 20th century, nationalist movements were formed in Indonesia. They began clamoring for independence.

Then in 1940, the Germans occupied Holland. In 1942 the Japanese invaded Indonesia. The last Dutch troops surrendered on 8 March 1942. At first, the Indonesians welcomed the Japanese as liberators. However, they soon grew disillusioned. The Japanese were brutal and they ruthlessly exploited Indonesia’s resources.

Yet when the Japanese were losing the war they started to favour Indonesian independence, hoping to make the Indonesians their allies. Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945. Young Indonesian nationalists were determined to assert the country’s independence before the Dutch could return. A group of them kidnapped two nationalist leaders Sukarno and Hatta. On 17 August Sukarno declared Indonesian independence. He became the first president and Hatta became vice-president.

However, the Dutch were not willing to let Indonesia go so easily. At first British troops landed in Indonesia. They tried to remain neutral although there were armed clashes between the British and Indonesians in places.

However, by November 1946, the British were gone and the Dutch had landed many men in Indonesia. In November the Indonesians and Dutch signed the Linggadjati agreement. The Dutch recognized the new republic, but only in Java and Sumatra. They still claimed the rest of Indonesia. Furthermore, the agreement stated that the republic would join a federal union with Holland in 1949.

Not surprisingly neither side was happy with the agreement. The Dutch built up their strength in an attempt to retake all of Indonesia. In the summer of 1947, they invaded the independent areas. However, they were forced to withdraw, partly because of Indonesian resistance and partly because of strong international condemnation (especially by the USA).

In December 1948 the Dutch tried to retake Indonesia. This time the Indonesians turned to guerrilla warfare and they were successful. The Dutch faced strong condemnation from powers like the USA and they realized they could not win the war. Finally, on 2 November 1949, the Dutch agreed to recognize Indonesian independence. Their troops withdrew in December 1949.

Modern Indonesia

At first independent Indonesia was a parliamentary democracy. However, in February 1957 President Sukarno introduced a new political system, which he called ‘Guided Democracy’. The power of parliament was reduced and his power was greatly increased. His opponents formed a separate ‘parliament’ called the PRRC (the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia).

However, the army remained loyal to Sukarno and he stayed in power. Meanwhile, in October 1957 the army took over the remaining Dutch companies in Indonesia. As a result, the army grew wealthy.

Then in the early 1960s, the economy faltered. There was very rapid inflation. In September 1965 the Communists attempted a coup in Indonesia. They murdered several generals. They also seized strategic points in Jakarta. However, General Suharto quickly took action. The coup was crushed. Suharto was granted powers by President Sukarno to restore order. After the coup, Suharto arrested and executed a large number of communists.

However Sukarno lost support and on 11 March 1966, he signed over his presidential powers to Suharto. From 1966 Suharto ruled as a dictator (although there were elections held every five years democracy was a facade). However, Suharto brought stability and under him, the economy of Indonesia recovered.

From the 1960s reserves of oil in Indonesia were exploited. After 1973 Indonesians benefited from the high price of oil. Agriculture also became far more productive.

However many Indonesians remained poor and in 1997 Indonesia was hit by a financial crisis. As a result, the economy contracted. Indonesia was hit by riots and Suharto resigned in May 1998. Democracy returned to Indonesia with elections, which were held in 1999.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the Indonesian economy began to recover. Today the economy of Indonesia is growing steadily. In 2024 the population of Indonesia was 271 million.


Last revised 2024