Modern Asian Studies

Conflict, Justice, and the Stranger-King Indigenous Roots of Colonial Rule in Indonesia and Elsewhere 1

David Henley  a1
a1 Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (Royal Institute of Linguistics and Anthropology, KITLV) Leiden, Netherlands

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Historians of Indonesia often think of states, and especially colonial states, as predatory institutions encroaching aggressively on the territory and autonomy of freedom-loving stateless peoples. For Barbara and Leonard Andaya, early European expansion in Sumatra and the Moluccas was synonymous with the distortion or destruction of decentralized indigenous political systems based on cooperation, alliance, economic complementarity, and myths of common ancestry (B. W. Andaya 1993; L. Y. Andaya 1993). Anthony Reid (1997: 81) has described tribal societies like those of the Batak and Minangkabau in highland Sumatra as ‘miracles of statelessness’ which ‘defended their autonomy by a mixture of guerilla warfare, diplomatic flexibility, and deliberate exaggeration of myths about their savagery’ until ultimately overwhelmed by Dutch military power. Before colonialism, in this view, most Indonesians relied for security not on the protection of a powerful king, but on a ‘complex web of contractual mutualities’ embodying a ‘robust pluralism’ (Reid 1998: 29, 32). ‘So persistently’, concludes Reid (1997: 80-1), ‘has each step towards stronger states in the archipelago arisen from trading ports, with external aid and inspiration, that one is inclined to seek the indigenous political dynamic in a genius for managing without states’. Henk Schulte Nordholt (2002: 54), for his part, cautions against any tendency to downplay the violent, repressive aspects of colonial and post-colonial government in Indonesia, expressing the hope that ‘a new Indonesian historiography will succeed in liberating itself from the interests, perspective, and conceptual framework of the state’. An even more systematic attempt to demonize the (modern) state in Indonesia and elsewhere can be found in the work of James Scott (1998a, 1998b).


1 This article is largely based on a longer essay, Jealousy and Justice; The Indigenous Roots of Colonial Rule in Northern Sulawesi, recently published in monograph form by the Free University Press, Amsterdam (Henley 2002).