Jun 19, 2019 Last Updated 4:30 AM, Jun 18, 2019

Reviews

Review

Review: How one man's courage changed the course of history

Ron Witton

This book is a beauty. It tells how the sixteenth century Dutch East India Company, the grand old VOC, spread its tentacles across the globe in search of the inordinately valuable spices of the eastern islands of present day Indonesia.

The Dutch, like other European nations (particularly the English, their greatest competitor), initially followed Columbus westward from Europe in order to find a passage to the East Indies. This resulted in the Dutch establishing themselves on Manhattan Island, which they named New Amsterdam. They sailed up the Hudson River hoping to reach the Pacific. When that proved unsuccessful, they began to explore northwards in search of the fabled, but ultimately impassable, northwest passage. Others travelled northeast from Europe in search of an equally fabled, but also unpassable, arctic passage along Russia's northern coast. Mariners had horrifying experiences caught in winter ice floes thousands of miles from home, on routes that would prove fruitless.

Even the proven passage to the east via the Cape of Good Hope was perilous, but with luck they returned to Europe with cargoes of spices worth far more than gold. There are enough stories here of heroism, horror and adventure to keep the reader awake until late at night, exploring the roots of modern empire. Contemporaneous illustrations and maps are an added bonus.

Not till two thirds through this gripping book do we meet Nathaniel, whose 'courage changed the course of history'. He was an Englishman committed to his nation's titanic economic struggle against the Dutch. He succeeds in taking over and fortifying the now forgotten island of Run, which lies 'in the backwaters of the East Indies, a remote and fractured speck of rock that is separated from its nearest land mass, Australia, by more than six hundred miles of ocean' (p2). Forgotten today, it is not even shown on modern maps. However, Run Island figured prominently on seventeenth century maps because of the fragrant nutmeg that grew in abundance there. The island was the key to monopoly control of the world's supply of this fantastically valuable spice.

For five years, Nathaniel Courthorpe and his half-starved band of thirty men were besieged by a Dutch force one hundred times greater. Their heroism led directly to one of the most momentous geo-political rearrangements of the world. Stymied by Courthorpe's courage, the Dutch were forced to give the English the island of Manhattan in exchange for this now insignificant speck of rock. Thus New Amsterdam became New York. It is a tale so fantastic that one is left wondering why it has never been previously told.

Giles Milton, Nathaniel's nutmeg. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1999, 388pp, ISBN 0340696761 (pbk)

Ron Witton (rwitton@uow.edu.au) teaches at the University of Wollongong, Australia.

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Reviews - Marrying up in Bali

Review: Tarian bumi is the story of four generations of Balinese women

Pamela Allen

With this novel (originally serialised in Republika in 1997) Oka Rusmini joins two minority groups in contemporary Indonesian literature - Balinese novelists, and female novelists. Born in Jakarta of Balinese parents in 1967, Oka is a journalist for the Bali Post. She has had poetry published in several anthologies, and short stories in a range of journals and magazines. She is married to the East Javanese poet Arif B Prasetyo, a union which so upset her family on account of his ethnicity and religion that they disowned her.

Tarian bumi is the story of four generations of Balinese women. It is told in the third person, but from the narratorial point of view of Ida Ayu Telaga, a woman in her thirties whose aspirations for herself and her daughter Sari differ somewhat from those of her mother, her grandmother, and her female peers. These women are motivated primarily by two factors: a longing to be beautiful, and desire for a high-castebrahmana husband.

Telaga's mother Luh Sekar, born into a commoner sudra family, declares when she is just a girl that the only thing she cares about is becoming the wife of a brahmana man, thus elevating herself from her lowly status. When she finally meets and marries her brahmanaman, her world changes irrevocably. She can no longer use the name Ni Luh Sekar. She can no longer pray in her family temple. When she gives birth to Telaga, her mother-in-law forbids her from taking the child to see its maternal grandmother. Yet, as a woman who has become a brahmanaby marriage rather than by birth, she is treated differently within the circle of her husband's family compound. She can never truly be a part of her new brahmanafamily, but at the same time she is expected to sever her ties with her sudrapast.

Despite the displacement and distress her new status causes her, she continues to perpetuate the importance of high-caste standing by projecting her aspirations onto Telaga who, however, scandalises her family by marrying the sudraWayan Sasmitha, in defiance of the importance in the Balinese hierarchy of a woman not lowering the status of the whole family by marrying beneath her.

Telaga's difficulty in adjusting to the lifestyle of a sudra family is proof to her mother-in-law that the marriage should never have taken place. Finally, because her presence in the household is regarded as unlucky, her mother-in-law asks her to go back to her family compound to perform the upacara Patiwangi, the ceremony which officially sets a person free from the brahmana caste. In the end, Telaga is transformed into a sudrawoman. It is a liberation for her.

Beauty

The women are also driven by the longing to be beautiful, which goes hand-in-hand with the desire to be a fine dancer. However, like the brahmana status, beauty has its price. In the novel, beauty is infused with the same sort of quality traditionally associated with power in Java: it seems to be finite, and the competition to acquire it is fierce. The envy surrounding beauty is compounded by pique that brahmanawomen are perceived as having more than their fair share of it.

Closely linked with the quest for beauty are questions about what it means to be a woman in Bali. The female protagonists of Tarian Bumi are somewhat ambivalent about their womanhood and how it intersects with their quest for a brahmana husband and unrivalled beauty. Telaga, whose life is controlled by her mother's avarice, her mother-in-law's bitterness, and her sister-in-law's greed, has frequent cause to question what it means to be a woman.

Tarian bumi is in part a novel about caste, beauty, and Balinese women. The caste system has to the outside world generally seemed to sit lightly on Balinese social structure. It is here depicted as in fact an insidious one that perpetuates a hierarchical way of understanding the world and creates jealousy and avarice in the women who are forced to compete with each other for brahmanahusbands and for beauty. Tarian bumi is also, however, a novel about the ways in which caste binds and divides per se. The male characters in the novel, too, are subjected to the inequities of this hierarchical system.

Like much other contemporary writing about Bali, the novel is an antidote to the exoticism depicted by early anthropologists and travel writers and in mainstream contemporary tourist ventures. Much of its appeal lies in the fact that it is an attempt by a Balinese, rather than an outsider, to deconstruct some of the myths that lie at the heart of the Orientalist fantasy.

Oka Rusmini, Tarian bumi, Magelang: IndonesiaTera, 2000, 141 pp, ISBN 979-95428-8-X

Pamela Allen (Pam.Allen@utas.edu.au)teaches Asian studes at the University of Tasmania, Hobart.

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Reviews

Review: Robert Cribb's Historical Atlas is breathtaking in its scope and presentation

Ron Witton

I have long found Robert Cribb's Historical dictionary of Indonesia (Scarecrow Press, 1992) a wonderful mine of information. Now he has produced a companion volume that is breathtaking in its scope and presentation. For those of us used to thinking of maps only as a source of geographical information, this volume begins to expand our cartographic universe. Maps cover the Landscape and the Environment, the Peoples of Indonesia, States and Polities until 1800, the Netherlands Indies 1800-1942, and finally, War, Revolution and Political Transformation, 1942 to the present.

Whether one wants to see the distribution of Krakatau noise and tsunamis in the Indian Ocean in August 1883 (Map 1.16), the languages of Borneo (2.4), population density in 1990 (2.74), Airlangga's kingdom in the eleventh century (3.14), how Golkar fared in the 1971 elections (5.38), regional unrest in Indonesia in 2000 (5.68), or the distribution of Muslims in Indonesia as shown by the 1980 census (2.27), this beautiful volume has it all.

Of particular fascination are such maps as Regional rebellions and provincial boundaries, 1950-1954 (5.20), Jakarta on the night of the coup, 1 October 1965 (5.32), or the horror of the New Order's Gulag system as shown by Detention camps for political prisoners ca 1975, as reported by Amnesty International (5.35).

If for example, you were interested in transmigration, you could begin with Slaving in the Indonesian archipelago, 16th-18th centuries (2.39), then examine maps illustrating colonial population movements, and finally move to the detailed maps on modern Indonesia's transmigration program. To check the international dimension you could then turn to Major migration by Indonesians beyond the archipelago, 17th to 20th centuries (2.49). Here you would learn that many Javanese worked in plantations and mines in the British colony of Queensland. Other migrations include those from China into Indonesia (2.51, 2.53 and 2.57).

Teachers will use these maps to make the region come alive and to explore a comparative regional focus. An informative narrative links the maps and draws out salient points. It may be too expensive for some individuals, but there is no excuse for institutional libraries not to obtain a copy. This is truly creative scholarship at its best.

Robert Cribb, Historical Atlas of Indonesia, Surrey, UK: Curzon, 2000/ Singapore: New Asian Library, 256pp, ISBN 0700709851/ 9810427719, Rrp US $100

(Dr) Ron Witton (rwitton@uow.edu.au) first visited Indonesia in 1962.

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Reviews

Review: Robert Cribb's Historical Atlas is breathtaking in its scope and presentation

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Planning Jakarta

Review: Abidin Kusno examines trends in architectural design and urban planning in Jakarta

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Harrowing and healing

The Healing of Bali, a documentary produced and directed by John Darling, (video, 50 minutes), Taman Sari Productions, 2003.

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Reviews

Review: This book is a useful contribution to a very small body of scholarly work in English on Indonesian literature.

Pam Allen

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Reviews

Review: Goenawan's essays investigate the meaning of difference in many forms

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Generation 98

Djenar Maesa Ayu – one of Indonesia’s exciting new female authors

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Reviews

Review: Toraja comes alive in this book through the detailed descriptions and interlinking of political, social, economic, and religious processes.

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Reviews

Review: This book is an important and timely discussion of how nation, belonging, same-gender/same-sex identity and desire as well as geography all intersect in Indonesia

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Reviews

Review: This book provides readers with an alternative history of Indonesia

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Reviews

Review: A History of Modern Indonesia is written in eloquent prose and contains fascinating information on different eras of Indonesian history.

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