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History of Indonesia

There is evidence of hominid species living on some of the Indonesian islands for over a million year and the famous "Java Man" lived about 700,000 years ago on the island of Java. However ancestors of people today didn't arrive until about 45,000 years ago, as these people became masters of the seas. In about 2000 BC the Austronesian people arrived, the group from which most of today's people are at least partially descended.

The early people on the islands of Indonesia survived primarily by farming and/or fishing as rice became an important crop in the 700s BC. By the 200s BC at the latest the Indians were trading with the people of the region, at which time both Hinduism and Buddhism were introduced.

Over time the people on the island organized and formed strong governmental systems, beginning in the 300s AD with the Hindi Tarumanagar Kingdom, won continued to rule into the 600s. In the later 600s though power shifted from Java to the island of Sumatra as the Srivijaya dynasty took power and ruled the region until the 1000s, with more limited regional power into the 1200s. The Srivijaya Dynasty was Malay in origin and was a strong seafaring group, who introduced numerous outside influences to the islands, most noticeably Hinduism and Buddhism, although Buddhism was spread more widely under these rulers.

During the rule of the Srivijayas numerous other groups held control over various islands, or parts of islands. It was during this time that the Buddhism Sailendra ruled parts of Java and built the famed Borobudur. The Hindi Medang also controlled other parts of Java during this time.

After the fall of the Srivijaya there were few to no large empires that ruled over multiple islands, but rather most of the islands were independent as trade was generally limited to neighboring islands, but rarely expanded further. From the 1000s until the arrival of Europeans in the 1500s there were few large and powerful kingdoms. Of those that did exist, the Hindi Majapahit in Java and Malacca on the Malay Peninsula were the largest and most powerful.

The spread of Islam on the islands began through Arab traders and in the 1200s the Pasai people in Sumatra converted to Islam. However its spread didn't truly occur on a large scale until the establishment of the Sultanate of Malacca, the heir of the Srivijaya kingdom, in 1414.

Through the 1400s and 1500s the Malacca Sultanate dominated trade (losing influence to European powers along the way) and had the most extensive trade network in the region. This spread their religion, slowly converting people, first in Java and Sumatra, then spreading east. This spread fought with Hinduism, which remained the dominant religion on Bali, and Christianity, which was being spread by European missionaries on various islands.

After the decline of the Malacca Sultanate, numerous sultanates arose on the numerous islands. This includes the slowly growing force of European powers, but their arrival to the region at this time was strictly based on trade; colonization didn't occur in great depth until later centuries. Among the local leaders, the Sultanate of Mataran in Java took great power of that region in the late 1500s. In the early 1600s sultanate was quickly expanding their empire from inland Java to numerous islands, eventually controlling all of Java with the exception of Batavia (Jakarta), which was held by the Dutch.

In the mid-1600s the Mataran Sultanate stopped fighting the Dutch and began creating a monopoly on trade with them. This was done by killing and sacking neighboring people, eventually leading to an attack on the Mataran Sultanate as their kings were exile. This led to turning to the Dutch to regain their lost lands, a move that worked as the sultanate was restored and the Dutch has a friendly and powerful local sultanate to secure their trade routes.

As with previous empires in modern day Indonesia, numerous other rulers controlled many of the islands at the same time the Mataran Sultanate ruled Java and the surrounding islands. Among these, the Sultanate of Banten was perhaps the most powerful as they ruled Banten from the 1500s into the early 1800s.

Although European forces arrived to the region in the 1500s, few made a lasting and permanent difference until later centuries. Many of these powers sought to control the spice trade and sent missionaries, while establishing settlements to guarantee their trade routes. Among these groups, the most influential were the Portuguese and the Dutch. The Portuguese created most of the Christian communities in the islands today and led to the eventually independence of Timor-Leste (East Timor), which was their former colony. The Dutch controlled nearly everything else.

Dutch presence escalated in 1602 when they founded the city of Batavia (Jakarta). At first this was only to protect trade routes, but in the mid-1600s, as already mentioned, they formed an alliance with the Mataran Sultanate and became more intimately involved in the region. From this time until the 1800s the Dutch played small groups against each other, slowly taking over more and more land and islands.

However, the Dutch East Indies Company struggled in the 1700s and by 1800 had declared bankruptcy. This led to the eventually takeover of the region by the Dutch government in 1816. They were immediately faced with challenges and protests, but eventually they created a cultivation system, which forced workers to their land and gave the Dutch full control. This system worked until the early 1900s when they began putting money into the region to improve education, healthcare, and infrastructure.

In the early 1900s independence movements began in Indonesia, but were generally quickly put down by the Dutch as they arrested the movements' leaders. This continued until World War II broke out in the region as Japan began taking numerous islands in 1940. The Dutch offered little assistance since the Netherlands had been taken over by Nazi Germany. This led to division among the people; many sought alliance with the Japanese to gain independence, while others clung to the Dutch. No matter the side, the Japanese eventually took nearly the entire island chain by 1942 at in that year they destroyed the last of the Dutch forces.

In 1942, after the Dutch were expelled, Indonesia declared independence (which wasn't made official at this time) and welcomed the Japanese under the presidency of Sukarno. After Japan's defeat in the war, the Indonesians declared independence without true international support. Despite this, numerous countries recognized the declaration, including the United Kingdom, who pressured the Netherlands to also recognize their independence, which they did in 1949.

The country faced numerous struggles as much of the country's east was destroyed during the war, numerous groups in the country sought independence, and religious extremists arose to fight the government among other issues. Through this time Sukarno sought greater power and in 1959 dissolved the parliament, taking full powers as he hand-picked the new parliament members.

In the 1960s the country's borders were expanded as they moved into Irian (now called New Guinea), numerous other islands, and Malaysia. The real issue at the time though was the economy, which was slowly collapsing. In 1965 this ended with a coup, probably undertaken by the communists, that failed. However it gave the government a reason to kill every communist leaning person in the country. It also allowed Suharto to step in and take power in 1968.

Under Suharto the economy bounced back as foreign investment was encouraged. Military activity also rose as the western half of New Guinea was finally taken as was Timor-Leste. His rule of corruption, but economic progress continued until 1998, when he resigned under political protests and a weakening economy from the East Asian Financial Crisis.

Since Suharto stepped down the country has granted Timor-Leste independence in 2002 and the political realm has become freer in successive elections. There has also been a rise in terrorism as Islamic militants seek greater power and fight the government's policies; this has led to numerous bombings, primarily in the capital of Jakarta. In 2004 a massive earthquake and Tsunami struck off the coast of Indonesia and destroyed nearly everything in northern Sumatra, including the loss of thousands of lives.

This page was last updated: March, 2013