The Geography of Indonesia for Newbies

Indonesia is a difficult country to summarize for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that there was no entity called ‘Indonesia’ before 1945. When we’re talking about the ancient or even prehistoric past, though, the name ‘Indonesia’ is sometimes used as short-hand for the entirety of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago. This is more a geographical region — an incredibly diverse one — than a country, and it includes the present-day countries of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Timor Leste, and arguably Papua New Guinea as well. More languages are currently spoken in this region than anywhere else on the planet and there are groups of millions of people living there whose existence is barely acknowledged by the outside world (like the Sundanese people, who live in West Java and number ~40 million, on par with the population of Poland). It may well be the part of Earth that Europeans and Americans are most wont to neglect, although I’m sure there are plenty of other regions that could vie for that crown. In any case, in this post I’m going to outline some of the geography of this arbitrary Indonesia construct so that you can follow along with a basic discussion of the region’s history — I’ll leave a complete dissection of the chronology for another time.

When I talk about ‘medieval Indonesia’ I’m not really talking about a coherent medieval history that applies to an entity that corresponds to the modern borders of the Republic of Indonesia. While the archipelago was knitted together in various ways before c.1500 CE — principally by the trade in spices and luxury products and the use of the Malay language as a lingua franca — Indonesia is nonetheless a rather arbitrary construction, and discussions of its ancient history tend to focus on a more circumscribed region consisting chiefly of Java, Bali, coastal Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula, along with parts of coastal Borneo. This is where most of the people in the region live and from whence all of the known pre-1500 texts and inscriptions come. Eastern Indonesia (east of Bali and Borneo) was extremely poorly documented before the sixteenth century, and for that reason it tends to be ignored by scholars of the medieval period; this is a mistake but perhaps an understandable one. So here I will focus on the geography of these text-producing ‘historical’ islands at the expense of the (in my view equally-interesting) eastern islands because those places are the focus of most historical discussion.

If you don’t know anything about the geography of this area then I recommend going to Google Maps now and finding it. It is south and east of India, south-west of China, and north-west of Australia. Directly to the north is mainland Southeast Asia (MSEA), a related but nonetheless distinct place with its own unique mix of peoples and locales.

Sumatra is the big knife-shaped island in the west. You can’t miss it, even on Google Maps; just scoot around the eastern Indian Ocean until you find it. It is three times the size of Java in land area but is much less populous: today Java is home to 145 million people, a number greater than the population of Russia or Japan, while Sumatra is home to about 50 million, roughly the population of England. The reason for this is generally considered to be geological: the ejecta from Sumatran volcanoes is much more acidic than the ejecta of Javan ones, so the fertility of the soil for rice and tubers in East and Central Java in particular is much greater than in Sumatra and West Java. Particularly fecund are the regions around the Dieng Plateau in Central Java and the Brantas River valley in East Java, and these are home to some of the most important pre-Islamic Indonesian archaeological sites.

If you look at Sumatra from far above it then you can see that it’s situated at the beginning of a huge island arc that extends far to the south and east towards Australia and New Guinea. The next island in this arc is Java (except for some tiny ones in between) and after that comes Bali — a small sort-of-chicken-shaped island. Directly north of Java you can find Borneo, the third largest island in the world; Borneo is now shared by the Republic of Indonesia, the Sultanate of Brunei, and the two Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah.

East of Borneo is Sulawesi, a strange arachnoid island and the product of some very confusing geology mixing up several tectonic plates. While Sulawesi was home to a number of cities and probably literate populations before the arrival of Europeans and Islam in the region, it is hard to produce a coherent history for the period before 1500 so Sulawesi is generally treated separately from the rest of medieval Indonesia. It also exhibits much less Indian and Chinese influence and there are no medieval inscriptions to read in any ancient language of the island. So circle back towards the west and you’ll find the Malay Peninsula, which sticks out of mainland Southeast Asia between Sumatra and Borneo; Singapore is at its southern tip (more or less).

This is the area from which all the known ancient/medieval texts and inscriptions come, and it is the area I will mostly be discussing in my tweets and blogposts. I will also refer to Sulawesi, eastern Indonesia, and New Guinea when I can; I started off with a much stronger interest in Timor and Maluku than Java and Sumatra, but I’ve somehow drifted west in my research. In any case, in my next post I will talk a bit about the languages and peoples found on these islands in medieval times so that you can follow the discussion in some more detail.