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Historical Atlas of Indonesia, Robert Cribb

Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2000, 256 p.
Lesley Potter
p. 117-119
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Robert Cribb, Historical Atlas of Indonesia, Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2000, 256 p.

Texte intégral

1This extensive work, published in association with the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, is broad in scope, featuring 327 maps and ten figures with explanatory text. It contains much material not previously presented in cartographic form. The text and accompanying maps move chronolog-ically from distant geological time, through Indonesia’s prehistory and the initial peopling of the archipelago, to the documented historical past. The latter is divided neatly at the year 1800 into pre-colonial and colonial periods, with a rapid increase in documentation during the Dutch colonial times, perceived as ending in 1942. The last section covers the momentous events of the past sixty years, documenting the formation and progress of an independent Indonesia. It concludes with examples of recent regional unrest and the secession of East Timor. The titles of the five chapters summarize their content: 1. “Landscape and environment”; 2. “Peoples”; 3. “States and Polities until 1800”; 4. “The Netherlands Indies, 1800-1942”; 5. “War, Revolution and Political Transformation, 1942 to the Present”. The author states in the introduction that his aim is “to let the reader see how different elements of what we now identify as ‘Indonesia’ gradually assembled”: He foresees some “reassembling” of these elements in the future.

2A description of its organization by no means does justice to the originality and interest of this work. Through careful research, Cribb has been able to assemble and utilize a wide range of materials, and to move from generalized overall patterns to large-scale and detailed examples of particular sites, sometimes accompanying these by photographs or diagrams. For example, he has graphed the frequency of volcanic eruptions at twenty-one different sites in Java from 1680 to 1980 and has provided a detailed account of the Krakatoa eruption, with a diagram and sketch maps. In Chapter 2, he presents detailed language maps of the major island groups, followed by samples of Indic scripts. Religion, migration, urban development and population growth are well covered. The mapping of “states and courts” across the archipelago and particularly in Sumatra and Java from the 8th century to the 19th century is a major achievement of Chapter 3. Similarly, the gradual spread of Dutch influence across the different islands, even in remote places, such as West Timor and Kalimantan, is demonstrated in Chapter 4. A series of detailed administrative maps for all the main islands documents their frequent boundary changes and will provide a useful reference for historians working on specific periods and locations. Economic features, notably absent in earlier periods, appear fairly briefly, demonstrating transport and trading patterns, while crime and health (especially plague in Java) receive some attention. In the final chapter, there are maps of Japanese occupation, European re-occupation in 1945, Dutch/Indonesian military action in 1945-49 and subsequent regional rebellions such as that of Darul Islam. Accompanying the description of the 1965 coup, which brought Suharto to power, a map of Jakarta (5.32) provides important landmarks, including the residences of the murdered generals. In a nice touch a complimentary map (5.64) shows Jakarta landmarks in May 1998, the time of Suharto’s fall. Another interesting feature is a series of detailed analyses of elections from 1955 to 1999, revealing the varied fortunes of particular parties. In a text attempting an assessment of the New Order period, economic and social indicators around 1990 receive some cartographic treatment, such as inter-provincial levels of foreign investment, poverty and infant mortality, together with comparisons between Indonesia and its neighbors. However, the maps in Chapter 5, as in the two preceding chapters, are predominantly political.

3While a large work such as this inevitably reflects the interests of the author, as well as the available sources, one might have wished for a somewhat more balanced historical treatment of the environmental and economic issues. The “environmental” chapter is abbreviated compared with the others and there is less of a sense of historical continuity. There are statements about modern environmental problems but little evidence of the nature and rate of environmental change. While it is true that much remains to be written on Indonesia’s environmental history (p. 23), more is known, and mappable, than Cribb acknowledges here. In terms of agricultural change, I must take issue with his statements on shifting cultivation or “swidden agriculture”. These systems may include a wide range of agricultural practices and have long replaced earlier staples with rice, except in the eastern islands. Cribb seriously under-estimates the persistence of these systems, which were still practiced in the uplands of Java at the end of the 19th century. They remain quite widespread throughout Nusa Tenggara Timur, Maluku, and West Papua, as well as being found in upland Kalimantan and more remote parts of Sulawesi. It has been competition for land, from oil palm, pulp forests, and other monocultures, rather than Government bans or logging per se, which has caused recent declines in swidden systems, especially in Sumatra, but combinations of rice swiddens with “jungle” rubber have long been common. To say that swidden is “now seldom practised in Indonesia” (p. 23), ignores the facts. Forestry is also given only cursory treatment, although sources have proliferated in recent years and historical materials are not confined to the Atlas van Tropisch Nederland. Topics such as forest fires are covered only in the present, despite much evidence of earlier burning, especially in present fire-prone areas such as East Kalimantan. While the “Changing Economy of Indonesia” series is noted, there is much material in those volumes that could have been used to further flesh out the economic picture, especially for Java.

4I have noticed some errors and misconceptions in the discussion of the early kingdoms of South-East Borneo. On p. 101, we read of “the fertile uplands of Amuntai”, which sounds odd to the reader familiar with the modern town. It appears that the name Amuntai at that point is being used to refer to the whole Negara river basin. Although Amuntai was the largest settlement, it was riverine, swampy and seasonally flooded. The “fertile uplands” presumably refers to the foothills and alluvial fans of the Meratus mountains, further to the east. On map 4.7 the name Amuntai is located much too far west (well within present Central Kalimantan) and outside the sultanate of Banjarmasin, of which it was an integral part. In the text on p. 119, the Sultan of Banjarmasin is said to have ceded his claims to states of the south and west coast: this should read “south and east coast”, as it includes states such as Kutai, Pasir and Berau. In later chapters, mistakes have occurred in two places (maps 4.70 and 5.46) between the key and the information on the map. In the first instance, the colors in the key do not match all the numbered percentages on the map, the anomalies being Central Java, Yogyakarta, and West Java. In the second, two categories in the key are represented by the same color, cyan blue.

5Every reviewer will no doubt identify errors or omissions in the text and/or the maps, depending on individual interests. Some mistakes may arise from the author or the printer, while others may be intrinsic to the sources used. When one is puzzling over information on a particular map, it is not always easy to identify the source. It would have been more straightforward for the reader if a source or sources had been affixed to each map (perhaps by numbers attached to bibliographic items). The section on sources at the end is useful, but it is not always possible to deduce the exact source from it, with only a proportion of the maps being acknowledged as taken from or based directly on particular works.

6A final comment concerns the color scheme and general artistry of the volume. For most of the maps the colors are very subdued, with pale blue-gray and cream being dominant. While this perhaps lacks interest, the colors do not interfere with the information being presented, and the general effect is quite soothing to the eye. However, every so often, the reader is startled by the use of very strong colors, such as bright red, bright green, cyan blue, and gold. There does not appear to be any particular reason for these color contrasts. In map 3.21, for example, why the bright blue for Balambangan? That region had a mention in the text, but it is not in the key and there is nothing to indicate such a level of importance. The electoral analyses in the final chapter appear to vie with each other for the brightest colors, which do inhibit the reader’s comprehension of the “message” the maps are trying to convey.

7Despite these caveats, which are minor in scale, the Historical Atlas of Indonesia is a monumental work, representing a great deal of literary research and cartographic effort, for which the author deserves high praise. It will be of great value to students, researchers and all those interested in this important archipelago. While the book is published in America by the University of Hawai’i Press and in Asia by New Asian Library, one would hope eventually for an Indonesian version and some cheaper format, which would make it accessible to a wider group.

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Lesley Potter, « Historical Atlas of Indonesia, Robert Cribb »Moussons, 4 | 2001, 117-119.

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Lesley Potter, « Historical Atlas of Indonesia, Robert Cribb »Moussons [En ligne], 4 | 2001, mis en ligne le 18 mars 2016, consulté le 25 juillet 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Lesley Potter

Adelaide University

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