Book Review: A serious body of work that challenges us to unlearn the Indonesian history we’ learned in school

“The Thugs, the Curtain Thief, and the Sugar Lord” by Onghokham

For a book written by an Indonesian historian, who earned his PhD on history from Yale, it doesn’t disappoints. The most important aspect of this book got to be the author’s serious argument that there are many falsehoods and oversimplification in the writings of Indonesian history, and that its versions change with every new regime, in the name of ideology.

For example, he argued that Dutch colonial period taught in school, which lasted for 350 years, is a myth. Dutch’s annexation of Bali, for example, only happened in early 1900s and was more of an occupation rather than colonialism. When the Dutch arrived in Bantam in 1596, it wasn’t a straight-on colonialism but the Dutch arrived in the busy and vibrant port as just one of the many foreign merchants along side the English, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabs, Indians, and many other “Indonesian foreigners” from different parts of the archipelago.

Just like any other tales in history, oftentimes there’s no clear distinction between the heroes and the bad guys, and this book tries to portray that rather than demonised the Dutch for nationalism’s sake and burying the complicated truth. With this approach, he wrote the main subjects of the book through a critical historian’s point of view, and he clearly understands inside out the complex political, economic and social structure of Javanese society in the late 1800s. He then elaborates in detail on how the Dutch play out the local politics to divide and eventually conquer Java, ruining the courts, left the princes in dire poverty, made the people despise the royalty, and became the successor of the kingdom of Mataram.

However, it’s noteworthy that Mataram attacked the Dutch first in Batavia, not because Mataram tried to get rid of the colonial power but because Mataram wanted to expand their kingdom. And they actually became allies against maritime powers like Banten (trading rivals for Batavia and rivals for power and influence for Mataram), with Mataram supplied Batavia with rice and labour in return for financial and political support from the Dutch. The Dutch only began to interfere in Mataram’s and interior of Java’s politics in 1678, when the kingdom of Mataram faced an internal conflict (described in detail in the book, as complicated as any stories from the Roman Empire).

The book also covers how the Dutch eventually run their Indonesian colony, with its day-to-day business, social structures, rules, regulations, and the segregation of different ethic and religious groups down to their strict dress code to prevent unity among the colonised subjects (the roots of apartheid). It also has a special chapter that emphasise the vital (but difficult) role of the Chinese-Indonesian in building the Indonesian capitalism system. And provided the most detailed context on what created wealthy people and at the same time what caused rampant corruption in the VOC, which strikingly resemble the politically-connected business environment in present-day Indonesia.

All in all it is a masterpiece, a serious body of work, that challenges us to unlearn most of the doctrines we learned in school and began to see our history in a more objective way. And it is a book that explains the root cause of events that has shaped the Dutch colony, and provide us with better understanding on contemporary Indonesia. A must read for anyone interested in Indonesia and in how colonies are run. Highly recommended.