History of Indonesia

Indonesia’s history is as colorful as its stunning 17,000 islands. It began as a cradle of ancient civilization, with ape-like animals believed to be early humans. Once the Western world discovered the archipelago, its history was shaped by trade with colonial powers.

Cradle of Man

Some of the oldest ancestors of modern humans were discovered in Indonesia. In 1891, Dutch anatomist Eugene Dubois discovered the fossilized remains of Homo erectus, popularly dubbed “Java Man.” The 70,000-year-old skeleton was the oldest human ancestor found at the time. Other H. Erectus fossils were found throughout the islands over the years. Etchings made with a shark's tooth were found on a 500,000-year-old clamshell in Java in the 1890s. These etchings, assumed to be made by H. Erectus, are considered the earliest evidence of art ever found. The fossil remains of a 3-foot (0.9-m) tall hominid known as “Flores Man” was discovered on Flores Island in 2003. This unique human ancestor was between 74,000 and 13,000 years old and was thought to be reduced in size due to island dwarfism. Stone tools discovered on Flores in 2010 dated back to one million years ago, the oldest evidence found that indicated man had the technology to make ocean voyages.

Homo sapiens reached Indonesia about 45,000 years ago, most likely by sea. Austronesian people arrived from Taiwan about 2000 BC and brought with them skills such as wet rice cultivation and ikat weaving, traditions that continue to this day. By the first century, civilization bloomed in Java around rice cultivation.

Hindus and Buddhists

Indian culture began to spread across the islands from the 2nd to the 12th century. Archaeological finds indicate that Hindu cultures were living in West Java starting around 200 BCE. The south Indian Pallava dynasty spread to Southeast Asia in the 4th and 5th century. Several Hindu and Buddhist states rose and fell during this time period.

Throughout this period, trade ships from all over Asia were visiting the area to obtain spices and other goods. The Kalingga Kingdom was established in the 6th to 7th century in West Java. The name of this kingdom was derived from that of an ancient Indian kingdom, thus establishing a linkage with Indian culture. The 7th and 8th century were influenced by the Hindu Srivijaya state from Sumatra, and the Buddhist Sailendra state from Java, which is best known for its famous Borobudur monument. The Srivijaya were a naval kingdom who dominated through trade. They faded from prominence following an unsuccessful war with the Chola empire of South India.

By the 15th century, the Majapahit State, the greatest of the pre-Islamic states, and the Malacca, the greatest of the Muslim trading empires, dominated the land and seas. This marked the beginning of the Muslim rise in Indonesia. The Majapahit era was considered a golden age for Indonesia and lasted from about 1293 to 1500. While focusing on taking a greater share of trade, they could not contain the power of the Sultanate of Malacca. Many of the Majapahit moved to Bali as their days in power ended and Malacca rose to dominance.

Islam in Indonesia

Based on what little evidence we have, Islam spread from Sumatra across the archipelago beginning in the 13th century, and became dominant in the region by the end of the 16th century. Only Bali retained a sizable Hindu minority. Christian missionaries began arriving the eastern islands around this time. Two Sultanates, one in Mataram, Java, and the other in Banten, became powerful during the 1500s to early 1800s. The sultanate of Mataram was ultimately overcome by the Dutch.

Colonists Arrive

The 16th century brought Europeans — Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and British — to the region. Each sought to monopolize the spice trade at its source, by cutting out the Muslim merchants. Spices were sold at high prices and used not only for seasoning but also medicinal potions.

The Portuguese arrived first and sought to dominate the Maluku (spice) Islands while supporting Catholic missionaries in the east. By the latter half of the 16th century, they had been defeated by the Dutch and indigenous people. Their biggest accomplishments were spreading the seeds of Christianity, conquering the Malacca, and disrupting the trade networks that the Malacca had established.

The Dutch East India Company (VOC) arrived in the early 1600s, emboldened by a trade monopoly awarded to them by the Dutch parliament. In 1619, they founded the city of Batavia on Java that would later become Jakarta. They became enmeshed in island politics and local wars. The Dutch followed the Portuguese playbook but with much more success. By the 18th century, the Dutch had defeated all the major rivals in Indonesia and controlled inter-island trade, establishing bases and ports at all major islands.

During the Napoleonic wars in Europe in the early 1800s, the French took control of all Dutch assets for a time and dissolved the VOC. The British stopped by and took over Java in the early 1800s for several years. Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Dutch resumed control. After crushing a Javanese uprising in the Java War of 1825-1830, the Dutch introduced a system that brought them wealth. The cultivation system tied the poor Indonesians to their land and forced them to work in government-owned plantations. An updated Ethical Policy was adopted in 1901 that showed some compassion for the local people. The Dutch continued to hold sway until 1950, upgrading infrastructure, building roads, and modernizing the economy.

Indonesia Rises

Indonesian nationalist movements formed in 1908 (Budi Utomo) and in 1912 (Sarekat Islam). Following World War I, the Dutch responded by suppressing these movements. Sukarno, a nationalist who would later become Indonesia’s first president, was arrested and jailed during the uprising.

Japan and World War II

In 1941, Japan invaded Southeast Asia, and defeated the Dutch within a year. Japan went on to occupy the Dutch East Indies and the experience was not good for either the Dutch or citizens of mixed descent. Thousands of people were taken away by the Japanese and forced into labor. In March 1945, Japan organized a committee to discuss Indonesian independence. This group drafted the 1945 constitution which is still in use. After the Japanese surrender, Sukarno proclaimed Indonesian Independence on August 17.

Indonesian National Revolution

The following day, Sukarno was named the first Indonesian president by the Central Indonesian National committee. The Dutch were not pleased, and backed by the British, attempted to take back Indonesia. The armed and diplomatic battles ended in December 1949 when the Dutch bowed to international pressure and formally recognized Indonesian Independence. On August 17, 1950, Sukarno combined the federal states to create the Republic of indonesia.

The early years of independence showed divisions in society, as different religions and groups tried to assert control. The socio-economic climate was bad, and a new 1950 constitution was drawn up to help get things organized, influenced by the United Nations Universal Declaration of human rights.

By 1956 Sukarno, with the support of the military, replaced the parliamentary government with what he called “guided democracy.” In 1959 he replaced the newer, more human rights focused 1950 Constitution with the original 1945 version. He dissolved the Constitutional Assembly and set up the National Front as a revolutionary organization. He began a series of confrontations with Western New Guinea and Malaysia as part of his new nationalist outlook. By the mid 1960s, the economy had crashed and things were looking grim.

The New Order

Faced with opposition from within from the Army and the powerful PKI Communist party, Sukarno survived a coup spearheaded by the 30 September movement. The PKI was blamed and an anti-communist purge ensued. Sukarno was weakened politically, and by 1968 had transferred his position to General Suharto of the Army, who became the new president.

Suharto was a strongman and killed or imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people accused of being Communist supporters. He enriched himself through corruption and business deals while in office. The government next annexed West Irian and East Timor.

In support of democracy, the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) changed direction from supporting Suharto and began to assert independence. A group of police and soldiers stormed the headquarters of a candidate supported by PDI on a day known as Black Sunday and hundreds were arrested.

In 1998, Suharto stepped down, unable to recover politically from the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis along with the near-simultaneous disasters of wildfires and drought. He was replaced by his deputy Jusuf Habbie. Habbie began to stabilize the economy with help from the IMF.


The period known as the “reformasi” began in earnest in 1999 with a new President, Abdurrahman Wahid. Constitutional amendments were drawn up and Wahid pursued more democratization of Indonesia. By 2001, Wahid was forced to step down due to corruption charges. In 2014, Joko Widodo took over as president, the former governor of Jakarta. He is the first president without a military or political background. New constitutional amendments were enacted to clean up voting and terms. Widodo embarked on a campaign to eliminate corruption and enact helpful social laws.

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