Thursday, 18 February 2016

Tim Hannigan's 'A Brief History of Indonesia'

I'm in two minds about Tim Hannigan's A Brief History of Indonesia (2015). Part of my brain is cruelly happy that Hannigan's book is so deficient in covering the early period of Indonesian history (which it indubitably is), because it means that the gap in the market that I'm hoping to exploit with my own book is still open. The other part is simply sad: yet another reason to consider Indonesia neglected and poorly served by history books.

     Hannigan writes well for a popular audience and the book is, or would be, exactly what he intended it to be: a breezy introduction to the story of Indonesia. Several issues are dealt with well, including the decision to call the book a history of Indonesia despite including large sections about Malaysia, Brunei, and so on. This is an important point to resolve before moving on, just as it is when discussing the history of any fundamentally arbitrary nation. But the number of basic factual errors I found in the first few chapters alone - the ones dealing with natural, pre-, and ancient history, which I'm also writing about - made it impossible to like the book or to appreciate the quality of the writing. Why write a popular book simplifying a topic if your simplification introduces falsehoods and misconceptions?

      Let's be absolutely clear: 'Austronesian' is a linguistic term, and it doesn't denote a tribe, a nation, or any other social entity. It refers to a linguistic phenomenon. 'Austronesians' can't have been sailing geniuses or a 'tribe', as Hannigan misleading calls it, expanding into Indonesia, because they weren't one group of people or a political entity or anything like that. That's a basic but important point, and it is possible to discuss these events without simplifying them to the point of total inaccuracy.

      I'm also rather bothered by the notion of an Austronesian expansion, not because some people speaking Austronesian languages didn't 'expand' but because they only spoke one branch of Austronesian: Malayo-Polynesian. If we're talking about the Indo-European languages spoken in India and their expansion into South Asia about four thousand years ago then we should call it the Indic expansion, or 'Indo-Aryan expansion' if you prefer, because only Indic languages were involved. Likewise, 'Austronesian expansion' is misleading: it was a Malayo-Polynesian expansion. Every other branch of Austronesian stayed right where it was on Taiwan. Saying that 'the Austronesians' were great sailors or explorers is misleading and inaccurate: most branches of the family have had little to do with long-distance voyages.

      Whether you call it the Austronesian or Malayo-Polynesian expansion (or something else entirely - 'expansion' is a bit of a misnomer too), there is little evidence of this process beginning before the mid-to-late third millennium BCE (a bit over four thousand years ago). Hannigan claims, though, that the expansion started six thousand years ago, and that Austronesians got to Sulawesi at around the same time as Khufu's Great Pyramid was being constructed (over 4700 years ago), which is out by as many as a thousand years. Quite an error. Actually the expansion from Taiwan began fairly recently (~2200 BCE), if the archaeological evidence from the Philippines is any guide, and 3500 BP sounds like a better estimate for the introduction of MP to the Indonesian islands. For some reason the six-thousand-years thing has become standard when talking about Austronesian languages - I even saw the mistake on Geocurrents, the otherwise excellent geography website run by Stanford geographer Martin Lewis.

      Hannigan says that 'Austronesians' made pottery from red clay, but in fact they used clays of different colours before applying a red slip, which is used to colour and finish the clay before it's fired. I'd say that his lack of familiarity with the terms archaeologists use led to this mistake rather than reliance on incorrect source material. Other errors of this sort have crept into the account of the Malayo-Polynesian expansion, but I don't want to be too pedantic (red clay vs red slip is pedantic enough already).

      His account of the natural history of the islands is also lacking. Little of the uniqueness of the archipelago is evoked, and the discussion of where the islands are in relation to one another is short and incomplete, so no one reading this book is going to come away with a particularly clear notion about where Timor is or anything like that. Remember: this is one of the biggest countries in the world, and certainly one of the most complex geologically and geographically, and it's one a lot of people know nothing about, so you need to spend a bit of time familiarising the audience with what the archipelago looks like. If you don't do that sort of basic groundwork then you're only giving your readers the illusion of having learned something. I reckon Hannigan could have written a great piece on the outline of the islands, but he didn't. That's a shame.

      Hannigan spends one chapter on everything from Homo floresiensis to 'Indianisation', which is just extraordinary. There's so much to say about those things. I have divided this period into five chapters of my book, between chapter 2 (the Pleistocene - 'Hobbits', Hoabinhian tools, &c) and chapter 6, on so-called 'Indianisation' and the Chinese sources of the first millennium CE. There's a lot to say about metals and international trade and about the arrival of Malayo-Polynesian speech and its accompanying cultural complex. Indianisation needs a chapter of its own, just to look at mutual influence, Indonesian goods in India, and the different strands of South Asian culture that had an impact in Southeast Asia (Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Buddhism; Indic, Dravidian; traders, priests, soldiers; &c). I appreciate that I'm writing a different sort of book, focusing entirely on Indonesia before the sixteenth century, but to remove all that interesting stuff in a rush to talk about Sukarno and the present day seems myopic and harmful.

      I don't know, and don't really care, how good the colonial and modern history sections are - they could be magnificent, and given Hannigan's engaging writing and evident interest in the British Interregnum they probably are. But these early errors are frankly unforgivable, and give the impression that the author cared more about modern history than the ancient past. If that's the case, why even bother tackling the whole history of the country? Why not just stick with colonial and post-colonial history? This is far from a good one-stop-shop of Indonesian history, and if you're really interested in the early history of the region you'll give it a miss.


  1. I saw this book in Periplus recently, and just beginning to read it.
    I also find the term Austronesian for the purpose you mentioned is kinda odd and the dates differs from some other books I've read about their movement. Because it certainly not a tribe.
    Tapi aku rasa tidak juga suatu kesalahan jika menyebut kami adalah bagian dari orang-orang Austronesia. (I'm guessing you have an excellent bahasa Indonesia)
    I concur completely when you said most branches of the family didn't go voyaging long distances. But I failed to understand why we should not say it's an Austronesian expansion? Aint Malayo-Polynesian is also an expansion of Austronesian? Simply put, I can't really understand the third and fourth paragraphs. Either it's because of my lack of understanding in linguistic etiquette or my English failed me.
    The red slip and red clay indeed confusing for laymen like me. Thx for clearing this up.

    I'm also highly disappointed that Hannigan spend little time on those eras you mentioned. Yes I can get it from many other books but because of that, I can’t really recommend this book to my friends who want to learn about Indonesia. For the modern part of Indonesia, Ricklefs', Schawrz' or even Vickers' books are a lot better account. But like you said in a whiff, the prose are just too good for me to pass this book and what keeps me still going. Perhaps, perhaps, he would fare better if he decided to mesh all of this history in a travelogue kind of writing like Pisani's.

    Needless to say that I'm eagerly waiting for your book good sir.
    For know, I'll browse through this highly appreciated blog you have.

  2. Umm because MC Ricklefs and Vickers have dealt well with the modern part? And Hannigan wants to conjure the appearance of his book being something else?

    Now i'm curiously waiting for your book. Thanks

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