Independence movements come in different shapes and sizes in different parts of the world. And while many of us are familiar with Vietnam’s anti-colonial history, that is less true of other countries in South-East Asia. Here, Miguel Miranda explains the anti-colonial movement and quest for independence in post-World War Two Indonesia.

Revolutionaries who wanted Indonesian independence. 1946. Source: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures. Available  here .

Revolutionaries who wanted Indonesian independence. 1946. Source: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures. Available here.

Southeast Asia used to be a chaotic map of internecine conflict. This was indeed the prevailing state of affairs when the Portuguese and Dutch arrived in the early 16th century. As the scholarly adventurer Antonio Galvao wrote of the Moluccas’ martial culture, “they are always waging war, they enjoy it. They live and support themselves by it.”

Maritime forays into the Orient, an uncharted expanse whose nations were completely unknown to Europeans, were inspired not by Marco Polo’s tall tales but the raw desire for commodities. Spices, cloves and nutmeg, in particular, were the prizes. The problem was exactly where the precious cloves were to be found—the Moluccas Islands in the Banda Sea.

Owing to competition from Portugal, the Dutch East India Company or the VOC established a firm toehold in Java instead. The sumptuous domain was where petty Sultans and pirates held sway. European arms and technology weren’t as superior as presumed in this setting because local armies had greater numbers and formidable warships. After all, the Portuguese adventurer Fernao Magalhaes and his men were slaughtered in the shores of Mactan. The VOC employed the alternative to force of arms, focusing their energies on cultivating alliances, patronizing local rulers, and building outposts for absorbing exports.


The Dutch influence

This changed when the Netherlands consolidated the Dutch East Indies after the brutal Java War ended in 1830. Appointed governors, tasked with running an export-driven economic policy, assumed control of Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Papua and Borneo. The Dutch were stern and ruthless masters and every revolt, such as in Aceh, was dealt with by force.

The very idea of Indonesian nationalism took hold in the early 20th century. It even followed a pattern many anti-colonial movements went through, where a so-called intelligentsia educated in Europe began to aspire for political freedom. This ferment produced two seminal figures who would usher Indonesia’s birth: the coldly intellectual Mohammad Hatta, who was more Dutch in his outlook and conduct than Javanese, and Achmed Sukarno, whose own background as an engineer hardly prepared him for a career as professional rebel. Together they formed an interesting partnership, the ideologue and the man of action, and commanded a powerful vehicle for their ideas: the PNI, or Partai Nasional Indonesia.

Japan’s lightning assault on Southeast Asia in 1941 deposed the Dutch colonial government in Batavia, which is present day Jakarta. This brief interlude, complete with the harsh wages of occupation, did galvanize Java’s nationalists. Sukarno himself, long familiar with imprisonment meted by Dutch colonial authorities, was freed by the Japanese. In turn Sukarno didn’t hesitate to solicit aid from his country’s occupiers. His dalliance with Japan extended to the personal realm. A compulsive womanizer, Sukarno’s better half was a Japanese entertainer.



Towards the end of 1945, with the Imperial Japanese Army having surrendered and ready for demobilization, the nationalists and their allies—hardened by years of guerilla warfare—were poised to reclaim Java. The PNI rallied and with Tokyo’s blessing Sukarno declared a republic on 17 August 1945.

But what followed instead was swift retribution from the Dutch. Cobbling a military from young recruits equipped with Allied Lend Lease and surplus, some 120,000 soldiers were shipped to the Indies to smother the new country. Their activities, which would include prison camps and wholesale slaughter, were officially labeled as “Police Actions.”

The historical record of Indonesia’s “national revolution” remains murky. The available facts form a bare outline lacking in color and drama. Its most critical battle, for example, is a farcical episode in the city of Surabaya where the British—not the Dutch—had to rout the local guerillas who had seized the metropolis to restore order.

Owing to the young republic’s tenacity, a typical stalemate soon prevailed between conventional European armies (the Dutch and the British) garrisoned in the large cities while the local rebels had free reign in the countryside. The fate of Madiun, in East Java, was interesting as it fell to hardcore communists who were then crushed not by the Dutch but the nascent republic’s own troops. In West Java a separate rising under the guise of Darul Islam sought to wage jihad and establish a grand theocracy lasted two decades.

Even the Japanese had a role in the conflict. With a substantial garrison stuck in Java, IJA officers willingly lent arms and equipment to the Indonesian resistance before departing for their homeland. This was done just as the British were relying on Japanese troops to help police the restive colony.


The rise of a new leader

Sukarno’s revolution wasn’t an exceptional one. Other eruptions were tearing apart Europe’s aging dominion on foreign territories. The British in Palestine. The French in Vietnam and Algeria. The Belgians in their precious Congo. World War Two may have saved Western civilization, but it ignited small fires among the people suffering under colonialism’s yoke.

Indonesia’s war for independence never had its own Dien Bien Phu where local grit and daring prevailed over European hubris. This didn’t make it any less bloody. It killed more than 100,000 Indonesians and cost the Netherlands several thousand troops along with at least a thousand dead British and Indian soldiers. Rather than Sukarno and the PNI victorious beyond doubt, it was the United Nations who eventually recognized and then restored Indonesia’s independence on 27 December 1949. The Dutch acquiesced owing to their battered economy and withdrew their forces. Rather than usher peace, however, Indonesia’s emergence allowed a dictator in the making to craft grand schemes.

Despite an early fixation on parliamentary democracy in the 1950s, Sukarno eventually steered the PNI toward “guided democracy,” which was really just shorthand for lifelong dictatorship. With a powerful army at his disposal a headlong push to annex Borneo ignited a confrontation with the British in what became the Konfrontasi. Provocations aimed at Singapore and separate invasions of Sulawesi and West Papua enhanced Jakarta’s reputation as a contentious neighbor.

As he leaned closer to Peking and Moscow, Sukarno dreamed of establishing a super state across Southeast Asia. This compelled Washington, DC’s long campaign to unseat him, beginning with a botched covert invasion in 1958 and a full-blown coup d’etat in 1965 that ushered the Suharto era and the horrific purge of Indonesia’s communists.

The only recourse that checked Indonesia’s belligerence was when five ministers, from Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, and Bangkok, convened in the Thai capital on 8 August 1967 and agreed—on paper—to establish an informal union. The idea came from Indonesia’s Adam Malik, who would go on to serve a brilliant diplomatic career. 50 years later and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN is thriving, albeit still uncomfortable with the challenges posed by what the First World considers “development.”

Indonesia paid dearly for its independence and suffered under two corrupt dictators. Having achieved true democracy it’s exciting to think about whether Indonesia is destined to emerge a peerless regional giant. Could Sukarno’s fever dream become real?


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We have a special issue that has a focus on empire. More specifically, we’re going to be looking at a range of views and stories on empires. And unfortunately for those who think that empire was good for the world, the views expressed are often less than positive. We have an article on the British in India in which the intriguing customs that sprung up in British India are considered. The article also looks at the importance of women in British rule, as well as the often racist views that underpinned the system. Following, we have another article by somebody who had less than flattering views on empire – famed writer George Orwell. He spent time working in British Burma and grew to loathe empire. Then we have a piece on the remnants of American Empire and how a colonial legacy has left one island in limbo.

Finally on empire, we have an article by somebody who did like empire. We explore the Ashanti Wars and the views of George Clarke Musgrave, a journalist who accompanied the British military to West Africa. There he came face-to-face with a brutal king and saw his beloved Britain regain control of a troublesome region.

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 George Levrier-Jones

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

In this article, we step back and take a broad-based look at history. We particularly like this article as it covers part of the reason we originally started up the site.


History is the study of mankind and its development through the ages. An awareness of the past is essential in order to provide a perspective on the problems of the present, and to understand people and societies which have been built on the foundations of our history. However, man does not always apply this knowledge to situations, condemning himself to repeat the mistakes of previous generations. George Bernard Shaw said ‘We learn from history that we learn nothing from history’; there is much truth to be found in this statement. History is saturated with bloody wars and struggles for power, many of which could have been avoided had the instigators considered the past.

Cartoon from 1878 on the Great Game in Afghanistan. Have recent Western governments learned from that war?

Cartoon from 1878 on the Great Game in Afghanistan. Have recent Western governments learned from that war?

In contrast to that view, Lord Macaulay declared that ‘The history of England is emphatically the history of progress’: our country has evolved and grown, advancing in all areas of civilization, and such developments could not have been made without considering mistakes made along the way.  There are countless instances where people have reflected on past errors and resolved that they will not occur again. For example, shipbuilders will never again assume that a boat is unsinkable after the infamous disaster of the Titanic in 1912, where 1514 people died due to a lack of lifeboats.


War – what is it good for?

Perhaps the most frequently-repeated occurrence throughout history is war. Despite the devastating consequences, man’s greed for power and inability to live harmoniously with his fellows has led to countless conflicts. Ironically, World War I was known as ‘the war to end all wars’, as it was one of the most shattering conflicts ever recorded, triggering the collapse of three major empires. However, World War II broke out just twenty-one years later. This was the deadliest and most widespread conflict in history, with around 60 million fatalities and the only use of nuclear weapons in a war. Nuclear warfare was threatened in the Cold War between America and Russia, and there are many lessons to be gained from these periods, which should be studied carefully to prevent future generations from making the same errors.  One hopes that the implications of deploying nuclear weapons, and the devastation wreaked by the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, will leave a long-lasting legacy, deterring countries from considering nuclear warfare as an acceptable weapon. North Korea and Iran in particular should pay heed to this.

Religious genocides have occurred since antiquity, and are a common theme throughout history. Overall, more than 6 million Jews were believed to have died in the Holocaust, of which approximately 1.5 million were children. Despite the atrocities committed against the Jews during this time, after they had endured centuries of persecution from people such as the Assyrians, Egyptians, Romans, and French, it did not end mass killings under the pretext of religion. For example, there is the ongoing violence in Sudan and Tibet, and the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans of the late 20th century. It could be said that being human is the potential to do good and evil, and therefore, although most look back and vow never to repeat the brutalities of the past, there will always be those who disregard this with a warped view on the moral way in which to treat others.

Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, religious violence escalated between the Shi’a and Sunni branches of Islam to the point of a civil war that continues to this day. Iraq comprises 65% Shi’as, although dispute first arose when the Sunnis disagreed over their status as a minority. The Shi’as have suffered direct persecution at the hands of a Sunni government since 1932, especially under the reign of Saddam Hussein. The two sects have now fallen into a cycle of revenge killings, with the Sunni’s preferred methods being car bombs and suicide bombers in contrast to the Shi’as’ death squads. There is a colorful historical backdrop to the relations between Sunnis and Shi’as: since Mohammed’s death there have been many clashes between the two, often influenced by the political landscape of the time. Instead of accepting that such conflict between branches of religions ends only in bloodshed, these dissidents create renewed terror and violence, and do not embrace their theological differences, but inflict terrorism on the rest of the population. They are so blind to the error of their prejudices that they do not see the mistakes of past generations and try to make amends; instead they pursue their desire for superiority.



The French were beaten in the first Indochina conflict, ending in 1954, but this did not prevent the US Army from being defeated by North Vietnamese troops and their Communist allies in the following years. America did not recognize that attempting to beat the enemy on its home soil was futile, and again, this crucial factor has been overlooked in the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In his latest book, ‘Playing the Great Game: Britain, War and Politics in Afghanistan since 1839’, Dr. Edmund Yorke explores the tension between the political and military forces. Yorke argues that unnecessary political interference or negligence of military operations has consistently contributed to serious failures in Britain’s policy towards Afghanistan over the past 170 years. He highlights the same political and military errors that have occurred throughout the four major Anglo-Afghan wars of 1839-42, 1878-80, 1919 and the continuing conflict today. Brigadier Ed Butler, Commander of the British Forces wrote, ‘If only his book had been available in 2001 and was required reading for all government ministers, officials and senior officers’. This is a reflection of how invading armies are often doomed to repeat the same mistakes, due to the incompetence and ignorance of their leaders. There are many parallels to be found in today’s conflict in Afghanistan and previous wars, and it may be time to find a political solution to avoid any more fatalities.

Proposing that all men should share the same opinions and live peacefully together is an unrealistic demand. Wars have shaped the world in which we live, and will continue to do so: by nature, man is a belligerent species. Seeing bloodshed may teach people that fighting each other is wrong, but it will not stop them from going to war to fight for their beliefs.  It is therefore unrealistic to expect mankind always to learn from its mistakes, as conflict between people is inevitable. It is the evolution of warfare that demonstrates whether man has actually learned from his past.


Church and monarch

Conflict between the Church and monarchy is also a recurrent theme. In 1170, Archbishop Thomas Becket was brutally murdered by the knights of his former friend, King Henry II, in a culmination to a bitter quarrel that had been raging for several years. To pay penance for Becket’s murder, Henry dropped his plans for greater control over the Church and in 1174 walked barefoot through Canterbury and was whipped for his sins. Unfortunately, Henry’s son John did not learn from his father’s experience, and argued with the Pope, causing him to be excommunicated. It is not surprising that the Magna Carta of 1215 contained a clause stating that the Church should be free to obey the Pope above the monarch.

The Church was certainly one of the most powerful and influential forces in Medieval England. When the Pope forbade Henry VIII from divorcing his first wife Catherine of Aragon, Henry reacted by declaring that the Pope no longer held divine authority in England, and founded his own church, the Church of England. This led to the dissolution of the monasteries, which had significant social impacts. Although the consequences are not as severe, the Church and the state still clash, most recently with the Anglican and Roman Christian Churches in Britain rejecting the government’s plans to legalese same sex marriage.

King John was a notoriously bad king. One monk wrote of him, ‘Hell is defiled by the fouler presence of John’. He plotted the downfall of his own brother, Richard I, betrayed his father, and quarreled so bitterly with the Pope over the next Archbishop of Canterbury that he was excommunicated, and an interdict was passed over England and Wales. During his 17-year reign, he lost most of the land his country held in France. Determined to regain this, he taxed and fined his subjects heavily, imprisoning them when they could not pay their debts. When he invaded France in 1214, his army was crushed by Phillip II at the Battle of Bouvines, meaning that all his taxes had been wasted in an unsuccessful war effort. This angered his barons so greatly that they forced him to agree to a set of rules, the Magna Carta, decreeing how the country should be governed. This was a cornerstone of democracy, and the start of a monarch’s power being limited. His subjects had seen the consequences of power corrupting a king, and to this day, there are checks and balances in place to ensure no power becomes too great in Britain.

King John of England signing the Magna Carta in 1215.

King John of England signing the Magna Carta in 1215.


Democracy has evolved from the Ancient Greeks, coming from two Greek words: ‘demos’, meaning people, and ‘kratia’, meaning rule. Many modern democracies have come into being after the population of a country rose up against its leaders with a common aim of altering the way in which its country is governed. After the English Revolution, Parliament became gradually more important, although this power still changed over the years, allowing middle-class, then working-class men to vote, and eventually permitting women to vote on equal terms with men in 1928. After the American Revolution, when thirteen American colonies declared themselves independent of Britain, a constitution ensured that no part of their new federal and state system could become too powerful. Although in the short term the French Revolution did not work, the French managed to establish a democratic republic in 1871. These revolutions demonstrate to mankind that ultimately the population of a country must be content, as they are the foundations of the nation. The Arab Spring is a recent series of uprisings in the Arab world. These have led to the deposing of the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, with civil uprisings in Syria and Bahrain. The subsequent violence these rebellions and protests have triggered could have been avoided if a more tolerable regime had been used in the countries.

Countries could learn from Britain’s mistakes in the 20th Century: many democratic systems were set up in ex-colonies, with Parliaments responsible to the Queen. These systems have not always fared so well, and many British Commonwealth countries have become dictatorships. The governing of a country is a precarious task, as people will always have conflicting views. By taking into account the successes and failings of past methods, disquiet can be limited to a minimum. For example, ex-British leader Margaret Thatcher would have done well to pay heed to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. There was excessive taxation to pay for the Hundred Years’ War, which was not of common concern, and a poll tax was introduced. This was one of the main factors that contributed to the rebelling of up to 100,000 people who marched on London and demanded audiences with Richard II. Although the revolt was a failure in the short term, in the long term many of its aims were achieved. This included the abolition of poll taxes. If Mrs. Thatcher had paid more attention to this period in history, she might not have faced riots after introducing the controversial Community Charge in 1990.


Perspectives on the past

The hypothesis of eternal recurrence, developed by Friedrich Nietzsche, theorizes history as being beyond our control.  It says that since the probability of our existence occurring is finite, and time and space are infinite, then our existence will repeat an endless amount of times. If this is the case, it suggests that all patterns and similar events through history will recur repeatedly, despite attempts to prevent this.  If this theory were true, then even if mankind were to learn from every error that has happened, any improvements would be in vain as all events will inevitably happen again.

I believe that the statement ‘Mankind has learned nothing from history’ is too indistinct a generalization of mankind to represent the billions of individual opinions and wills of people: there will be those who strive to extract all the lessons they can from history and there will also be those who follow their own beliefs, irrespective of those before them.  People’s perspective on life is also constantly changing, molded by their environment, and it is therefore unrealistic to apply the standards of the present to events in the past.  History cannot predict what will happen in the future. Historians can try to find patterns that correspond with historical evidence, but, unlike the certainty and precision of scientific laws, these can be used only as guidelines.

Isaiah Berlin’s August Compte Lecture, later published under the title ‘Historical Inevitability’, argues that human beings’ capacity to make moral decisions makes them unique. However, the historian, E.H. Carr, believed that impersonal forces such as greed defined human behavior. To assert the inevitability of past events, as Carr did, was to forsake moral obligation for our own present actions. However, the two were united in the fact that historians always look for meaning and pattern in the past: they investigate causes in order to explain what happened. Carr argued that ‘what distinguishes the historian is the proposition that one thing led to another. Secondly, while historical events were of course set in motion by the individual wills, whether of ‘great men’ or ordinary people, the historian must go behind the individual wills and inquire into the reasons which made the individuals will and act as they did, and study the ‘factors’ or ‘forces’ which explain individual behavior.’ This compelling case suggests that if we perhaps paid more attention to the work of historians, devastating historic recurrence could be avoided.  As the German scholar and philosopher, Friedrich von Schlegel observed, ‘The historian is a prophet looking backwards.’

What are your views on humans and history? Have we adequately learned the lessons of history? Comments welcome below...


By Julia Routledge

For more entertaining thoughts, Julia’s blog is here. This post originally appeared on Julia’s blog last year.

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
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The past is a mysterious place. From Ancient Egypt to 15th Century China, and the age of European colonization to the Russo-Japanese War, there are so many questions that remain unanswered. And even more questions to learn about..

I suppose that you’re reading this as you have an interest in history. Whether as somebody who served in a conflict and wants to understand how other wars were fought. Whether as somebody who is fascinated by how people lived before you. Whether as somebody who enjoys historic monuments, podcasts or books. Or, whether as somebody who is studying history and is here because they do not want to fail their exams.

Whether you are none, one or all of them, as long as you have an interest in history, read on to find out how we can help you understand the past.

But, why on earth should you listen to what we’re telling you?

Or, who are we?

We’re a group of friends, amateur historians, who have always been fascinated by and passionate about history. The lessons you can learn from it, the events that happened, the differences between different ages and countries. Understanding where we as human beings have come from. And it’s not just the big things, but the small things too. Thinking about Neanderthal man in his hunt for food or how Napoleon Bonaparte spent the evenings before major battles. Between us we have discussed and shared knowledge of a wide variety of historical events over the years.

In short, we love learning about the past, and have decided to take our passion one step further. So we have read far and wide to share our passion with people like you..

So, just how can we help you understand the past?

Well, when we decided that we wanted to share our knowledge, there were a number of options open to us. Like many other sites we considered developing a series of in-depth podcasts on one topic (like Ancient Greek History or World War I), but we realized that we have disparate interests and limited time. Then we thought that there is so much that we want to learn about the past – different conflicts, people, and centuries – that it would be better if we brought you introductions to history. This way we can get your shoots of curiosity going – introducing you to one subject so that you can go off and research it in more depth! Or move on to the next subject in history.. As we shall be doing!

That’s because our history podcasts will allow you to quickly and effectively learn about the past – in just 28 minutes (well, more or less!). What we’ve done is to take complex historical subjects and dissected them down to the key points. And we’ve taken the podcasts one step further by creating books on the subjects we cover.

20130528 Core Concepts_v1 2. 256px-Orzvezd_photo.jpg

We’re now starting to write a (hopefully!) regular blog. And what we’re really hoping is that we will be able to get some experts to write for us occasionally. Then, if that works out, who knows? A magazine where we go into still more detail and start gathering controversial opinion on topics in history is the dream!

In short, we want you to understand the past with us, then come back and teach us. We don’t know everything.. Far from it! We want you to give us an introduction to history too.

Er, so what can we teach you about?

Our world is the past, but there are a few topics that we will be focusing on in the podcasts:

  • 20th Century history. That’s vague, we know, but as it is so relevant to so many of us, we want to focus on our ‘living past’ where we can. Indeed, one of the reasons why we started with our series on the Cold War was that people can ask their relatives about it and how it affected them. Another of our ‘generalist’ areas and one in which we have several series planned is the 19th Century. Just because.
  • Civil War. Civil wars always seem to be fascinating affairs. I remember learning about the English Civil War while at school, and my further reading on different civil wars, continues to intrigue me. As well as our series on the Spanish Civil War, we shall be looking at the America, Chinese, Russian and English Civil Wars, as well as the French Revolution.
  • The rise and fall of Communism. Both of the previous topics are related to this. The rise of Communism is an intriguing event in 20th Century history for so many reasons. The system came to dominate much of the world before falling away. We shall be looking at how it arose and what happened in Communist societies in more detail.
  • Colonialism. Colonialism is vital in understanding the modern world and world history. And it’s breadth is astonishing. I was fortunate enough to visit Ilha de Mocambique in Mozambique a few years ago. The place oozes faded colonial grandeur. And if you don’t know about ‘Ilha’, you soon will! On a larger scale, we plan to cover a number of major events in our history. The voyages during the Age of Discovery provided me with fascinating bed-time reading when I was younger and I hope that the tales will be enjoyable for you too. We also plan to cover the American Revolutionary War, the Boer War and British India among other colonial topics.

And that’s not all.. There may well be some special podcasts this year – stay with us for more information!

Finally, we’re not Wikipedia, but..

In the meantime, what we shall do is to provide you with (sometimes) humorous ‘117-second History’ introductions to the topics we mention above as well as many other topics in history*.

* - that’s the plan anyway, but as history teaches us, unexpected events can throw a spanner into the works of the very best plans (and we can’t claim that ours are the very best plans).

Now, over to you!

What else would you like to see us create podcasts and books about?

One of the reasons we created the Spanish Civil War History podcasts as our second major series was that it was suggested to us by a friend, so we will listen to you (well, some of you at least!).

George Levrier-Jones

This will be the first in a regular series of blog posts. Listening options for the History in 28-minutes podcasts are available by clicking here. The first episode in the latest series on the Spanish Civil War is below.