07 June 2004

Origin of the Name "Indonesia"

The term "Indonesia" was first used in 1850 by the British anthropologist J. R. Logan to designate islands called the "Indian Archipelago" by other Western writers. For Logan, "Indonesia" did not designate a political unit but a cultural zone that included the Philippines. The forebears of today's Indonesians had no term for the region or concept of a single political unit linking communities across seas. From ancient times Java had been known by that single name, but most of Indonesia's islands derive their names from European labeling. Early European traders at the port of Samudera named the entire island Sumatra, and visitors to the sultanate of Brunei called the whole island Borneo.

The Dutch named their colonial possessions Indië (the Indies). Initially the Indies meant Java and a few ports scattered across the archipelago. Between 1850 and 1914 Dutch power engulfed over three hundred separate sultanates and communities, and welded them into a single administrative unit called the "Netherlands Indies." Subjects were called "Natives," a legal category alongside "Europeans" and "Foreign Orientals" (local Chinese and Arabs), replacing the terms "Moor," "Christian," and "Heathen" used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Associations in the early years of the twentieth century identified themselves by geography and generation, such as "League of Sumatran Youth" and "Ambonese Youth." As ideological identities developed, parties took the colonial unit as their geographic marker but opted for Logan's "Indonesia" instead of the Dutch "Indies." The first to do so was the Communist Party of Indonesia, founded in 1921. Opponents of the Dutch understood "Indonesia" as both a political and a cultural entity; they adopted as a common language a variant of Malay spoken in Sumatra, already widely used as a lingua franca, and called it the "Indonesian language" (Bahasa Indonesia). The political unit they eventually won was the Dutch colony stretching from Sabang Island off northern Sumatra to Merauke on the border with Papua New Guinea, but many wanted the cultural definition of "Indonesia"--Islamic and Malay-speaking--translated into a state that would include Malaya, southern Thailand, the southern Philippines, all of Borneo, and Portuguese East Timor.

Following independence Indonesian place-names were substituted for the Dutch. Batavia became Djakarta; Buitenzorg, Bogor; and Borneo, Kalimantan. Indonesian spelling was revised in 1972, making Djakarta Jakarta and Atjeh Aceh. In this book Indonesia designates the state established by Sukarno on 17 August 1945; for the period before 1945, it is used as a shorthand for the islands constituting today's republic.
SOURCE: The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia: A New History, edited by Norman G. Owen (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2005)

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