Jul 19, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Thoughts for Lance Castles

Published: Sep 14, 2020

Anthony Reid

I was fortunate in the time and place I landed in the Research School of Pacific Studies (RSPS) at the Australian National University (ANU), in 1970. Australia had been looking through the 1960s for Southeast Asian historians to explore a new frontier beyond the excessively British, and beyond that 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, my opportunity was to build a capacity in Southeast Asian history at a time when highly qualified scholars just a little younger than me were becoming available.

I had an older-style training in Cambridge. The generation slightly behind me was rightly drawn to the US where a professional style of training with language and in-country fieldwork was available through the new Southeast Asia Centres. Cornell had the biggest name, especially in politics, but it did not have a tenured historian of Southeast Asia at that time.

Lance Castles had done a fine degree in history at Melbourne University, and Herb Feith probably suggested he try Yale, since his friend Harry Benda had taken up a chair of Southeast Asian History there. Lance also suggested to one of the star Indonesia historians to come out of the ANU’s Faculty of Oriental Studies, Heather Sutherland, that she also apply to Yale. Both Lance and Heather produced great theses at Yale, Heather so impressively mastering the Dutch material on the Javanese priyayi administrators that she would quickly become the dominant Indonesia historian in Holland. 

To my delight, Lance wanted to come home, and applied for the first three-year SE Asian research fellowship I was able to steer through the committees in 1972. How could I not be impressed? Although 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. Before leaving Australia he had had six months of 1965 as research assistant in Heinz Arndt’s Economic Department in RSPS, ANU (probably facilitated by Herb Feith, a predecessor in my Pacific History Department 1962-4).

There, “Castles was clearly the initial lynchpin” of the inauguration of the Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies - BIES (Colin Brown, Australia’s Indonesia Project: 50 Years of Engagement, p.27). He wrote two sole-authored articles for the first [1966] issue, on ‘Socialism and Private Business’ and on rice production, and co-wrote the first of the Annual ‘Surveys’, which would become a key feature of BIES. The second issue contained his article on cloves and kretek, and another on the textile industry co-written with Ingrid Palmer

Before leaving Australia he had also begun work with Herb on the magnificent reader that became Indonesian Political Thinking, 1945-65 (Cornell University Press, 1970) and did the fieldwork for the three extraordinary ethnographic studies that made his name: ‘Notes on the Islamic School in Guntur’ (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).

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 last appeared in Yale’s own increasingly important series, and the two former 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: 2. Jan. 1969). Before switching to Sumatra for his dissertation, therefore, Lance was already the best-published young scholar of his generation on Javanese society. I was very lucky to get this hot property to ANU.

Perhaps with hindsight the rather privileged 3-year research-only position at RSPS offered just too much freedom, and too little pressure to get further stuff out. Instead of publishing his fine dissertation on the politics of colonial Batakland (fortunately widely read and cited now in its University Microfilms thesis version and in a Gramedia translation), a genuine new frontier on which little else was written before or since, he indulged his marvellous capacity for exploring new avenues. 

I did enrol him in doing an important pre-colonial Batak paper for one of the first of the many ANU Southeast Asia conferences, published as Reid & Castles (ed.), Pre-colonial State Systems in Southeast Asia: The Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Bali-Lombok, South Celebes (Kuala Lumpur: MBRAS, 1975); and his hard-of-access ‘Sources for the Population History of Northern Sumatra’ (unfortunately difficult to access in Masyarakat Indonesia II, no. 2, 1975) also arose from discussions at ANU. Partly because I left for my year teaching at Yale in 1973-4, partly because I didn’t feel entitled to be hard on this impressive scholar older than me and far more experienced in hands-on Indonesian research, I did not play the role that Herb and Harry had done in channelling his talents into publications.

Halfway through the research fellowship Lance was attracted to a challenging position in the Social Science Research Training Centre (PLPIIS) established in Aceh with Ford money on a model suggested by Geertz to give Indonesians research training in their own country. He enjoyed being in Indonesia, teaching young Indonesians, and learning the language and culture of a new place. As far as I know he never again applied for a regular university position outside Indonesia.

Anthony Reid, 1-9-2020

See also: Obituary and Bibliography for Lance Castles

Inside Indonesia 141: Jul-Sep 2020

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