Jul 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Obituary: Remembering Lance Castles (1937–2020)

Published: Sep 14, 2020

Margaret Kartomi with contributions from Martin M. van Bruinessen, Richard Castles, Barbara Leigh, Michael Leigh, David Mitchell, Halina Nowicka, Anthony Reid, and Heather Sutherland 

Lance Castles died peacefully in Melbourne’s Highgrove Aged Care home on 27 August 2020, his mind remaining lucid to the end. He was a pioneering and insightful scholar of the history, economics and politics of Indonesia.

Born in Kyneton, Victoria, of Methodist parents Rex and Thelma Castles, Lance excelled as a boarding school student and winner of two state prizes at Wesley College, and received his tertiary education at Melbourne, Monash and Yale Universities. His brother Brian testifies that his gentle, generous nature and amazingly broad interests and knowledge were apparent from an early age.


Lance first went to Jakarta to work as a teacher in the Faculty of Economics at the University of Indonesia on an Indonesian salary, a challenging job and quite unlikely to contribute anything to a conventional career back in Australia, but immensely satisfying to an idealistic graduate wanting to make a difference. 

Lance Castles, painted by Yasin Tiar in 1999

He had committed himself to the aims of the Australian Volunteer Graduate Scheme, established in 1951 as a world leading and globally influential program to contribute to the development of post-colonial Indonesia. Born out of idealistic Christian and secular activism at the University and developed through intensive international lobbying by Herb Feith and his friends, the Scheme enabled Australians and New Zealanders to contribute their skills as young university graduates working in Indonesian institutions. Volunteers like Lance made very real contributions in their time in Indonesia, each according to their own field of work, as documented in Ivan Southall’s 1964 book Indonesia Face to Face.

Lance’s experiences as a volunteer graduate determined the course of his life, not only as an academic but also as a very appreciative participant in Indonesian society in different parts of the country. In fact, he found life in Indonesia more congenial and fulfilling than life back in Australia, and as it turned out, he spent most of his life in the country he learned to love. Perhaps he was happiest when living in Aceh, Sumatra.

His early researches began in Java when working as a research assistant in the Institute of Economic and Social Research at the University of Indonesia. In 1963-64 he spent three months doing field work in the small town of Kudus in Central Java with funding from Monash University and the Myer Foundation; this was the basis of his Monash MA thesis (1965). He also carried out a lengthy interview with Kiai Imam Zarkasyi about the Islamic School at Gontor (near Ponorogo) in East Java, and researched the history and ethnic profile of Batavia/ Jakarta 1931-1961.

Lance (third from right) departing for Jakarta in March 1963

In 1964 he returned to Australia and began work with Herb Feith on the anthology of political texts that became Indonesian Political Thinking, 1945-65 (Cornell University Press, 1970). In 1966 Lance was back in Indonesia conducting fieldwork, from where he regularly sent reports to Herb and others around the world about the conditions of political prisoners at that time (together with informants including Murray Clapham, Carmel Budiardjo, Andrew Gunawan and Soe Hok Gie).

He took up a research assistantship in economics at ANU’s Research School of Pacific Studies (RSPS), and then applied for a PhD scholarship at Yale University where Professor Harry Benda had taken up a chair in Southeast Asian History.

Fellow history student Heather Sutherland remembers that Lance had quite a close relationship with Harry Benda at Yale. Anthony Reid wrote:

It is easy to imagine that Harry Benda seized with delight on his Australian graduate student with an uncanny knowledge of Javanese society, and encouraged, even perhaps obliged, him to publish this research that he may have first seen as term papers. The first appeared in Yale’s own increasingly important series, and the two later field studies in the first issues of Cornell’s initiative looking to prove there was room for a specialist journal on modern Indonesia. Benda also entrusted Lance with the job of updating and adding Indonesian materials for the research he had done on the Samin movement in Dutch archives. This appeared as an article in the Dutch journal Bijdragen (BKI 125:1969). Before switching to Sumatra for his dissertation, therefore, Lance was already the best-published young scholar of his generation on Javanese society.

Lance was enormously productive at Yale, co-authoring an article with Benda on the Samin Javanese, and producing a fine report for the Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies on ‘Socialism and Private Business’ (1966) and the three extraordinary studies that first made his name, i.e.: ‘Notes on the Islamic School in Gontor’ (Indonesia 1966), ‘The Ethnic Profile of Jakarta’ (Indonesia 1967), and the Yale monograph, Religion, Politics and Economic Behaviour in Java: The Kudus Cigarette Industry (1967). The latter enjoyed an accolade from leading scholar Clifford Geertz in 1968:

In less than a hundred pages Lance Castles has managed to bring an extraordinary number of basic dimensions of contemporary Indonesian culture, society and economy into concrete relationship with one another, and to do so in the guise of a specialised study of …a small and not terribly important town in northern Java. The phrase tour de force…would be the appropriate term to apply to Mr Castle’s closely argued and marvellously compressed book. It is a startling achievement.

Lance was not interested in the headline political stories of the day but rather focussed on bigger themes. His article on the transformation of Jakarta from colonial capital in 1931 with a predominantly Betawi/Batavian population to the great multi-ethnic national capital of 1961 is still well worth reading, writes David Mitchell. Jakarta was a creative crucible where Sundanese, Javanese, Chinese and Batak populations were combining together to develop a new Indonesian identity. God was making a new kind of Indonesian, Lance said. However, as Tadjuddin wrote in his obituary for Lance published in Tempo magazine, the article was somewhat controversial after it was translated and circulated in Jakarta in 2006.


Throughout the 1970s Lance was busy producing an impressive body of academic writing. Herb and Lance published the above-mentioned reader in 1970 and Lance produced a series of articles which are still interesting to read today.

But Lance was looking beyond Java, especially to the great island of Sumatra. In 1972, Lance obtained his PhD at Yale University with a dissertation titled ‘The political life of a Sumatran residency: Tapanuli, 1915-1940’. As Martin van Bruinessen noted, ‘a group of Batak intellectuals considered Lance’s dissertation on Tapanuli as perhaps the best study of their history. Photocopies of the dissertation were treasured as precious possessions, lent only to trusted friends. Lance was often asked to have it published, but in his own view it was not good enough yet and needed to be improved. But he could not prevent the circulation of photocopies, and finally assented in publication of an Indonesian translation in 2001’.

Since the 1960s Anthony Reid, Southeast Asian historian in ANU’s RSPS, had been looking for Southeast Asian historians to explore a new frontier beyond the excessively British, European and Australian focus of Australian universities. An increasing number of students were interested, but the immediate post-war era had produced only a few to teach and guide them. So, it was Anthony’s opportunity to build a capacity in Southeast Asian history at a time when highly qualified scholars just a little younger than Lance were becoming available. ‘To my delight’, he wrote,

Lance wanted to come home, and applied for the first 3-year Southeast Asian research fellowship I was able to steer through the committees in 1972. How could I not be impressed? With a newly minted PhD, he already had several wonderfully informative and influential publications, far ahead of any of his peers. He seemed to show a wonderful knack for identifying a fascinating subject, getting right inside it through a mix of written data, statistics (which he handled better than most historians), meticulous fieldwork, and writing an exemplary report. Besides, he had begun work with Herb on the magnificent reader that became Indonesian Political Thinking, 1945-65.

During his research fellowship at ANU, Lance indulged in his marvellous capacity for exploring new avenues. He wrote ‘Sources for the Population History of Northern Sumatra’ (in Masyarakat Indonesia II, no. 2, 1975); and gave an important paper on pre-colonial Batak society for one of the first of the many ANU Southeast Asia conferences, published in Reid & Castles (ed.), Pre-colonial State Systems in Southeast Asia: The Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Bali-Lombok, South Celebes in 1975. It describes pre-colonial Toba Batak society as a stateless society without the institutions of rulership. As David Mitchell found,

This was a bold concept at the time, but a concept very useful in understanding the older cultures of Indonesia, older Austronesian societies surviving from times before the arrival of Indic, Islamic and colonial influences. On the island of Sumba I found traditional life was very much like that of the Bataks - it was a world of villages without towns or cities, and no palaces either. Society was held together by clan-based alliances without the need for a ruler or central government, so that people lived with a rugged independence and freedom, rather like that idealised by a variety of libertarian and Marxist writers. Lance provided a clear and logical model that fitted well for many communities that I had encountered in Sumba and Timor. Roxana Waterson found Lance’s formulation applied very well in Toraja too, and James C. Scott later described similar stateless peoples of the upland South East Asia.

Halfway through his research fellowship at ANU, Lance was attracted to a challenging position in the Social Science Research Training Centre (PLPIIS) that had been established at Syiah Kuala University in Aceh by the Social Science Foundation/Yayasan Ilmu-Ilmu Sosial, headed by Prof. Selo Soemardjan and supported by the Ford Foundation. As Michael Leigh writes, the first PLPIIS was opened in Aceh, followed by Ujung Pandang and Jakarta. The concept, as Michael Leigh explains, was to train twelve young researchers from other provinces of Indonesia in fieldwork-based social science research, as recommended in a report by Clifford Geertz. During the year-long program, each participant chose and implemented their own research project involving three periods of field research interspersed with seminars and intense interchanges on research methods and experience. The first Director was Dr Alfian from the Indonesian National Institution of Economy and Society (LEKNAS), followed by Professor Teuku Ibrahim Alfian, then Professor Syamsuddin Mahmud. Then in 1974-75, Professor Stuart Schlegel was employed as the first specialist lecturer/Tenaga Ahli Utama.

Lance made a huge contribution at the Centre from 1976 as the second Tenaga Ahli Utama - a role in which Lance excelled as teacher, mentor and guide to the trainees. Not only was he fluent in the Indonesian and Batak languages, but he immediately set about learning Acehnese. His prior field work in Java and formidable intellect transformed the PLPIIS into a centre of research activity, and his familiarity with Islamic texts in Arabic was greatly appreciated in Aceh, where he was informally and affectionately known as ‘Teungku Lance’ (an Acehnese honorific for ulama [cleric]). The timing was critical, as the bulk of the research by each successive cohort of twelve outsiders took place between the years of armed conflict, first between central authorities and Darul Islam, and then with Aceh Merdeka.

Lance was very happy living in Banda Aceh in an allocated house full of young Acehnese students who gave him social and intellectual companionship. He cooked Middle Eastern dishes for the many visitors that came to his home. He was interested in the seudati song-dance with its fascinating relationships between the adult men and young boys who sang the songs and performed the dances, and he once commissioned such a performance, as Barbara Leigh remembers. Lance also engaged in long conversations with local ulama about theological matters, drawing on his knowledge of sacred texts in Arabic, Persian, Acehnese, and English.

‘Teungku Lance’ in conversation with ulamas and students in Banda Aceh, 1977

Michael Leigh stepped into Lance’s role as the Tenaga Ahli Utama in 1978 and 1979, and notes that fortunately Lance stayed on in Aceh until the early 1980s, always willing to assist. Lance taught at the Ar-Raniri Institute of Muslim Religion/Institut Agama Islam Ar-Raniri/IAIN, which later became the State Islamic University, then headed by the former Governor, Aly Hasjmy. He also served as a researcher for the Save the Children office in Aceh.

After the 2004 tsunami, and the peace accord, which ended two decades of bitter civil conflict, the Aceh Research Training (ARTI) program was able to re-create much of the institution that Lance had nurtured, utilising the facilities of the former PLPIIS and extending the social science research training en situ for several hundred young Acehnese researchers.


In 1982 Lance moved to Jakarta where he was involved in the postgraduate/ pasca sarjana Program at the University of Indonesia. As Halina Nowicka writes, Lance had a house in Rawamangun in which a number of young Acehnese were living, working, and in most cases studying, and in which he provided hospitality to countless people who wished to talk to him. For these meetings Lance would again cook or provide delicious Middle Eastern food. On one occasion Halina accompanied Lance to Cepu (where the Samin people live) via Bandung where they visited and helped an ex-student from Aceh who had been ‘caught’ when somebody from Aceh had posted him some ganja (cannabis) used in Acehnese cooking. As Halina wrote, ‘Lance had a story about every single town we passed through and I always felt that every conversation we had enriched me greatly’. She noted that Lance also particularly enjoyed the travel part of his job, usually to Ambon, to select potential postgraduate students in the program at the University of Indonesia.

In 1988 Herb and Lance published the Indonesian translation of their reader Indonesian Political Thinking 1945-1965. However, ‘it was too ‘political’ for the depoliticising New Order and could only appear in translation after all references to communism had been removed by the publisher. As Martin van Bruinessen commented, Indonesian students with an interest in politics who knew about the book sought out Herb and Lance and found in them mentors who would discuss politics in ordinary language, without the verbose euphemisms and dissimulations of New Order talk. Lance’s house in Jakarta was often visited by student activists, alone or in small groups, who were for him an important source of information and to whom he was a patient listener and cautious adviser, willing to discuss matters they could not discuss with other lecturers.

That same year, Lance moved to Yogyakarta where he taught at Gajah Mada University, living in an allocated house on Jalan Bulak Sumur on the campus grounds. Herb and Betty Feith moved in when they returned to Indonesia as volunteers in 1996-1997, providing intellectual stimulus. Like them, as Martin van Bruinessen observed, Lance reflected on the moral implications of their research and felt an obligation to serve, to make their research and teaching useful to the improvement of the society they studied – to human rights, democratisation, and empowerment of the oppressed. They cultivated relations with former political prisoners and student activists and helped them where possible. Their attitude to their work and daily life was deeply religious, although they did not practise any formal religion. Herb Feith once described himself, to an interreligious group in Yogyakarta, as a Jewish abangan (nominal or syncretistic Muslim). Lance, by contrast, was an agnostic santri (devout Muslim student of religion).

Lance with Herb and Betty Feith at Bulak Sumur, Yogyakarta, c1996/97 / Feith Family Collection

In the late 1990s Lance began working with a colleague on a new area of study for him – the history of the political conflict in Papua.


In 2000, Lance and Decki Natalis Pigay co-authored a book on the evolution of nationalism and the history of political conflict in Papua – before, during and after Integration.

In the same year, Lance moved back to Melbourne and stayed with Herb and Betty Feith in their Glen Iris home, taking over their kitchen. However, when Herb died in November 2001, Lance moved to his family’s Hawthorn house, keeping in touch with a few colleagues and university students, and continuing to cook occasionally for visiting friends.

Lance with the Feith family in Glen Iris, 1989 / Feith Family Collection

In 2001 the translation of Lance’s dissertation on the life of a Residency in South Tapanuli 1915-1940 was finally published by the Ford Foundation and Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia.

In 2004 Lance flew to Yogyakarta, Medan and Banda Aceh (though unable to stay there for lack of a permit). He wanted to study the lead up to Indonesia’s presidential election, building on his decades-long interest in the country’s electoral issues. His observations resulted in a book titled: Pemilu 2004 dalam konteks komparatif & historis (The 2004 Election in Comparative and Historical Context), published in Yogyakarta in 2004. And the very last article that Lance published was: 'Why and how did SBY win?', published in The Year of Voting Frequently: Politics and Artists in Indonesia's 2004 Elections (ed. Margaret Kartomi). It compared the direct presidential election with earlier elections since the 1970s, arguing the case step by step in eminently logical and convincing fashion to explain why it was that SBY rather than Amien Rais won.

When David Mitchell caught up with him in Yogyakarta in 2004, Lance was very involved in local political debate, staying up to all hours, writing short pieces for his local network of friends, and living quite a full life. Noting how elevated his mood was, David asked about the role of mood swings in his life: did he have depressive episodes too when he withdrew from society and his friends did not know where he was? ‘But Lance would have none of my psychiatric speculations’, David wrote. ‘To him these were just times when he was very lethargic due to poor physical health or had disappeared into the archives for weeks or months on end. Just the way his life went’.

In his last decade Lance was always most generous in sharing his time and knowledge with colleagues, frequently attending Monash University research seminars and functions in Melbourne’s Indonesian community. Throughout his life he had acquired a large library of books and journals on Indonesia, especially on Aceh and North Sumatra, a few of which are now catalogued and held in the Music Archive of Monash University (MAMU).


It was always fascinating to talk with Lance because of the breadth and depth of his knowledge not only of Indonesian politics and culture but also of history, literature, religious scripture, and current affairs on a global scale. He also loved sacred and secular classical music – especially Bach, Handel Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner, and enjoyed various forms of traditional music in Indonesia, including seudati song-dances in Aceh and traditional music and hymns in the Batak church.

He spent the last two years of his life living contentedly in Highgrove Nursing Home where he listened to music, read the Bible and other writings, and was well looked after by nurses from various countries with whom he conversed in their own languages. Some of the voluminous books he was reading till the end included poetry by Keats, Blake, Yeats, Robbie Burns, Wordsworth, Auden, John Donne, Omar Khayyam, the war poets, and Judith Wright, whom he regarded as Australia’s greatest. There were also the classics of Virgil, Herodotus, Chaucer, Seneca, Boswell, Shakespeare, and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. He owned and read Bibles in German, Greek, Russian, Hebrew, Javanese, Urdu and Tagalog, and also Qur’ans in Arabic, Persian, Javanese, and Indonesian, among many others.

He is survived by his brother Brian Castles and ten nephews and nieces. Eulogies at the funeral were accompanied by recordings of some of Lance’s favourite sacred and secular music, ending with Handel’s uplifting Hallelujah Chorus.

Read also Anthony Reid's 'Thoughts for Lance Castles'

Bibliography of Work

Castles, Lance. 1965. ‘Religion in a Javanese Economic Development Case Study’. MA thesis, Monash University.

Castles, Lance, 1965. ‘Socialism and Private Business: The Latest Phase’, Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies 1(1), 13-45.

Castles, Lance, 1965. ‘Cloves and Kretek’, Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies 1(2), 1965, 49-59. 

Castles, Lance. 1966. ‘Notes on the Islamic school at Gontor’, Indonesia 1: 30-45.

Castles, Lance. 1967. ‘The Ethnic Profile of Djakarta’, Indonesia 3: 153-204.

Castles, Lance. 1967. Religion, Politics and Economic Behaviour in Java: The Kudus Cigarette Industry. New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies.

Castles, Lance. 1967. ‘The Fate of the Private Entrepreneur’, in Tjin-kie Tan (ed.), Sukarno's Guided Indonesia. Brisbane: Jacaranda Press.

Benda, Harry J. and Lance Castles. 1968. ‘The Samin Movement’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 125: 207-240.

Feith, Herbert and Lance Castles (eds.). 1970. Indonesian Political Thinking 1945-1965. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Castles, Lance. 1972. ‘The Political life of a Sumatran Residency: Tapanuli, 1915-1940’. PhD dissertation, New Haven, Yale University.

Castles, Lance.1974. ‘Internecine Conflict in Tapanuli’, Review of Indonesian and Malayan Affairs 8 (1): 73-80.

Lee, Oey Hong and Lance Castles. 1974. Indonesia after the 1971 elections. Published for the University of Hull by Oxford University Press.

Castles, Lance. 1975. ‘Statelessness and Stateforming Tendencies among the Batak before Colonial Rule’, in Anthony Reid and Lance Castles (eds.), Pre-Colonial State Systems in Southeast Asia. Monographs of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, no. 6, Kuala Lumpur: Percetakan Mas.

Castles, Lance and Alfian. 1975. ‘Some Aspects of Rural Development in Aceh’, Berita Antropologi 7 (24): 4-14.

Reid, Anthony and Lance Castles (eds.). 1975. Pre-Colonial State Systems in Southeast Asia. Monographs of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, no. 6, Kuala Lumpur: Percetakan Mas. Castles, Lance. 1982. Tingkah laku agama, politik dan ekonomi di Jawa: industri rokok Kudus. Jakarta: Sinar Harapan.

Castles, Lance, Nurhadiantomo and Suyatno. 1986. Birokrasi, Kepemimpinan, dan Perubahan Sosial di Indonesia. Kumpulan Esei. Surakarta: Penerbit Hapsara.

Feith, Herbert and Lance Castles (eds.) 1988. Pemikiran Politik Indonesia 1945-1965. Jakarta: LP3ES.

Pigay, Decki Natalis and Lance Castles. 2000. Evolusi nasionalisme dan sejarah konflik politik di Papua: sebelum, saat, dan sesudah integrase [Evolution of nationalism and the history of the political conflict in Papua: before, during and after]. Jakarta: Pustaka Sinar Harapan.

Castles, Lance. 2001. Kehidupan politik suatu Keresidenan di Sumatra: Tapanuli, 1915-1940. Jakarta: The Ford Foundation and Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia.

Castles, Lance. 2004. Pemilu 2004 dalam konteks komparatif & historis. Yogyakarta: Pustaka Pelajar.

Castles, Lance. 2005. ‘Why and how did SBY win?’ in Margaret Kartomi (ed.), The Year of Voting Frequently: Politics and Artists in Indonesia's 2004 Elections. Clayton: Monash Asia Institute: 93-104.


Tadjuddin Nur Effendi. 2020. ‘Indonesianis Pemandu Sejarah Aceh’ [An Indonesianist’s Guide to the History of Aceh], Majalah Tempo, 5 September.


Inside Indonesia 141: Jul-Sep 2020

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