Indonesia’s premier historian
At his 85th birthday in February 2006.
In the early hours of the morning of 7 December Yogyakarta time, Indonesia's greatest historian of the twentieth century, Professor Dr Aloysius Sartono Kartodirdjo, died at the age of 86. Fifty years after the defining Indonesian National History Conference (which he attended a year after he graduated from his first degree), another of the writers who defined history for two generations of Indonesians has died.
Although he was almost totally blind by the late 1980s, Sartono's teaching and commentary continued to influence Indonesian history up until the present day. I saw him in action at the 1994 National History Conference at Udayana University in Bali. Seeing this old, frail man being led in, I did not expect much. But his session proved to be one of the most astonishing of any Indonesian conference. Sartono gave a brilliant analysis of the lack of a concept of 'heritage' in Indonesia, and the need for a national heritage body, and his discussion showed that he was as sharp as ever. However, it was in the question-and-answer session that the conference really came alive.
This was in the period of Suharto's proclaimed 'openness', but most Indonesian academics, cowered by years of intimidation and spying on campus, were too scared to raise political matters. Some of the more daring students began to ask Sartono about his education, and at first I wasn't sure where this was leading. Sartono had been a student of Harry Benda at Yale, and then studied under WF Wertheim in Amsterdam. The questions amounted to asking him whether he followed Wertheim's theory of the 1965 coup (never explicitly stated at the meeting, but everyone knew that this was the theory that the coup was all Suharto's doing). Sartono made a very skilful answer about having more than one 'guru', meaning that he wasn't tied to the ideas of Wertheim, but he never directly denied the suggestion that Wertheim's theory might be true.
He was then asked why the last volume of the National History had never appeared. Some of his panel co-members (from the University of Indonesia) prevaricated, too scared to discuss the problems directly, but Sartono was very firm in saying that he refused to allow this final volume to be published because the military were trying to force their interpretations on him. Sartono had been drafted into the team to write the National History, but refused to produce a pro-New Order account of the 1965 coup. If I remember rightly, this was just before the press bans, but people understood that there were penalties for being too outspoken. Sartono would have been aware that some members of the audience (including members of the history department at the host university) were military appointees who had little talent except for enforcing New Order ideology. My strongest memory of that conference was the formidable intellect of Sartono, who outshone all his colleagues.
Since Sartono was a student of Benda's, it was appropriate that his early work, especially his brilliant book, The Peasants' Revolt of Banten in 1888, meant that he was the first to be awarded the Benda Prize in Southeast Asian Studies in 1977. The Peasants' Revolt was a work of 'Subaltern Studies' written long before Indian academics invented the genre. Here, and in all his writing, Sartono rejected the colonial point of view, and employed concepts of social and cultural analysis to examine history at the grass-roots level. Sartono was single-handedly responsible for the dominance of social history as the main mode of analysis in Indonesian history departments, although this has been something of a mixed legacy, since many of those who followed him have produced works that lack the political bite of the master’s writing.
Sartono's works on historiography, as well as his many other books, have been key texts in all Indonesian universities. And it is thanks to him that Gadjah Mada University became the pre-eminent university for history writing, while its main competitor, the University of Indonesia, remained under a cloud of being too pro-Suharto. His work presented a complex picture of Indonesian society that challenged simplistic nationalism and ran counter to the New Order's idea of a docile population kept in check by a small military leadership. It is in writings such as Sartono's that we find the continuation of democracy in Indonesia despite the decades of authoritarianism.
Such has been the magnitude of Sartono's contribution that it has been difficult for younger Indonesian historians to escape from his shadow. More recently Bambang Purwanto of Gadjah Mada University has led what is best termed a 'loyal opposition', a move towards a new paradigm of history writing that takes Sartono's work as a point of departure. The majority of the hundreds of new Indonesian books on social history coming out in Indonesia work within the paradigm created by Sartono, proving that his work will endure through the twenty-first century. ii
Adrian Vickers (email@example.com ) teaches Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Sydney.