Book Review – A Brief History of Indonesia

A Brief History of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices & Tsunamis: The Incredible Story of Southeast Asia’s Largest Nation by Tim Hannigan

How many colons are you allowed to have in a book title? I feel like Hannigan has exceeded his limit but, then again, he’s published a book and I haven’t. So I’ll just be quiet.

This is an engaging overview of Indonesia’s history going back to its earliest speculative and archaeological roots. Hannigan writes in a very readable fashion and his style is not dry or boring. It’s history – and a lot of it! But it’s also an interesting read.

One of the things I most enjoyed about this book is along the way he makes mention of key concepts that form important aspects of Indonesia’s past and current cultural identity and self-conceptions. By bookmarking these as I notice them, I hope to have good guidance on areas for future study. Ideas such as Majapahit (p.57) help me understand how past empires are called upon as current and future inspiration, similar to the semi-mythical Wali Songo, remembered as Muslim saints who helped bring Islam to Indonesia. Great food for future study and contemplation.

Because of the books’ broad scope Hannigan doesn’t spend too long in any one area. This helps the book move along quickly. I found the names of people and places to be difficult to keep track of and didn’t try overly hard. That will come in time and once we’re living there and better able to find and even visit some of these places. But the scope of the book helps me get a handle on how much history these islands hold, and how many different forces have attempted to shape, exploit or otherwise engage with these peoples.

Clocking in at just about 260 pages, and with a bibliography of sources to be used as a launch for further reading, this is a great and manageable history for those who enjoy history and are interested in the island nation of Indonesia.

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