The Idea of Indonesia
Cambridge University Press
9780521876483 – The Idea of Indonesia – A History – by R. E. Elson

The origins of the idea of Indonesia

Before the twentieth century, there was no Indonesia and thus no
Indonesians. In the archipelago that stretched between continental
Asia and Australia, states and statelets abounded, some loosely
articulated by slowly gathering Dutch imperial power, but localism
remained the predominant motif of political and cultural identity.
There was `not a single flag but many flags’.1 Equally, there was in
the archipelago nothing by way of broadly conceived, modern,
decisive, indigenous leadership. The political idea of `Indonesia’
(that is, that there was an archipelago-wide state, and that it might
have other forms of existence than as the colony of a cold, wet
little country facing the North Sea) was very slow to develop in
comparison with thinking of a similar kind in, say, China or India or
Vietnam. Indeed, no one knew quite what to name the region until the
early decades of the twentieth century. Non-Dutch travellers and
officials called it `the Eastern Seas’, `the Eastern Islands’, `the
Indian Archipelago’, to name a few. The Dutch sometimes employed
terms like `the Indies’, `the East Indies’, `the Indies possessions’,
or even, later, `Insulinde’ (the islands of the Indies), and as their
political connection with the region grew, `the Netherlands (East)
Indies’, and they saw it as part of `tropisch Nederland’ (the
tropical Netherlands).

The word `Indonesia’ was first manufactured in 1850 in the form `Indu-
nesians’ by the English traveller and social observer George Samuel
Windsor Earl. He was searching for an ethnographic term to
describe `that branch of the Polynesian race inhabiting the Indian
Archipelago’, or `the brown races of the Indian Archipelago’. But,
having coined his new term, he immediately rejected it – it was `too
general’ – in favour of what he deemed to be a more specific
descriptor, `Malayunesians’. A colleague, James Logan, undeterred by
Earl’s decision, decided that `Indonesian’ was in fact a more telling
and correct usage, to be employed primarily as a geographical rather
than an ethnographic term:

I prefer the purely geographical term Indonesia, which is merely a
shorter synonym for the Indian islands or the Indian Archipelago. We
thus get Indonesian for Indian Archipelagian or Archipelagic, and
Indonesians for Indian Archipelagians or Indian Islanders.2

Distinguishing between geographical and ethnological uses of words,
Logan was the first person to employ the name `Indonesia’ to
describe, however loosely, the geographical region of the
archipelago. He proceeded to make relatively free but not exclusive
(`the Indian Archipelago must remain’) use of the
words `Indonesia’, `Indonesian’ and `Indonesians’ in this basic
geographical sense here and in later writings. Indeed, he
divided `Indonesia’ into four distinct geographical regions,
stretching from Sumatra to Formosa.

His use of `Indonesia’ was not immediately followed. Only in 1877 did
E. T. Hamy, a French anthropologist, employ the word `Indonesians’ to
describe specific prehistoric and `pre-Malay’ racial groups within
the archipelago. In 1880, the British anthropologist A. H. Keane
followed Hamy’s usage. In the same year, a more properly geographical
sense of the term, along Logan’s lines, was employed by a British
linguist, N. B. Dennys, a practice adopted by W. E. Maxwell two years
later.3 Adolf Bastian, the famed German ethnographer, well apprised
of Logan’s earlier use of the term, employed the term in his five-
volume Indonesien oder die Inseln des Malayischen Archipel, published
in 1884–94.4 Given Bastian’s scholarly eminence, his adoption of the
term gave it a previously unknown respectability.

Apparently encouraged by Bastian’s usage of the term, the brilliant
Dutch ethnologist and former Indies official G. A. Wilken, from
September 1885 professor at the University of Leiden, adopted in that
year the terms `Indonesia’, `Indonesian’, `Indonesians’. Himself a
prodigious scholar, Wilken was familiar with and highly appreciative
of Bastian’s work – he spoke of Bastian as `the prince of
ethnologists’5 – and also acquainted with Logan’s earlier efforts. He
employed the usage both in its geographic sense (the `Indonesian’
archipelago) and (much less frequently) in a broader cultural sense
(the peoples sharing cognate languages and cultures, extending as far
as Madagascar to the west and Taiwan to the north). But he much
preferred `Indies Archipelago’, and only occasionally employed the
word `Indonesia(n)’. Nonetheless, his example was followed about the
same time by Dutch colleagues, including the linguist H. Kern, and
thereafter by G. K. Niemann, C. M. Pleyte and others. Christiaan
Snouck Hurgronje, the eminent Islamologist, spoke of `Indonesians’
and `Indonesia’, albeit very sparingly – he much preferred the common
term Inlander (native).6 A. C. Kruyt, the noted missionary and
ethnographer, made use of the terms `Indonesia’ and `Indonesians’ in
his 1906 writings on animism, again in a purely cultural sense.7

Some indication of the limited acceptance of the term may be gained
from an analysis of the terms used for the archipelago by
ethnographers, geographers and travel writers in the last part of the
nineteenth century. A scan of the voluminous Repertorium under the
rubric `anthropologie–ethnographie: de Indische Archipel’ indicates
that such terms
as `Indonesia/Indonesien/Indonesier/Indonesischer/Indonesische/Indones
isches/Volkern Indonesiens’ were used just four times in the titles
of learned articles between 1866 and 1893, another four times between
1894 and 1900, and three times between 1901 and 1905.8 The broad
cultural sense of the term predominated, so that the ethnographer
Kern could assert that `the northerly island group of Indonesia is
formed by the Philippines’.9 Somewhat similarly, the second volume of
the Encyclopaedië van Nederlandsch–Indië (1899) remarked that

in a geographic sense the terrain of the Malay race is the world of
islands, which divides itself into the sub-sections Indonesia, New
Guinea, Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, the Philippines, New
Zealand and Madagascar, to which must be added the Melaka peninsula
and the interior of Formosa. The population size of the people and
groups of these islands is about 45 million, of which no less than 33
million belong to the Netherlands Indies.