Indonesians in the Indian Ocean and their neglected histories

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Date(s) - 11/04/2013
1:00 pm - 2:30 pm

L1, building 12 (Law Faculty), Monash Clayton Campus


Speaker: Alexander Adelaar, Principal Fellow, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.

Indonesians sailed the Indian Ocean for possibly two millennia in pre-colonial times. They left their marks in Sri Lanka, the Cocos Keeling Islands, the Maldives, the Chagos Islands, Mauritius, India, the South Arabian peninsula, East and South Africa, Mauritius and Madagascar. Indonesianists have paid little attention to this fact, rather limiting their interest to what happened within the national borders of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, borders which were largely determined by colonialism.
In recent years there has been a rising interest among historians, archaeologists, linguists, zoologists, ethnobotanists and oceanographers for the Indian Ocean as a whole (as a field of study, a world system etc.). However, these scholars often risk getting drowned in the vast variety of different cultures, histories and trade networks as well as in the various academic traditions, discourse models and medium languages that have to be mastered in order to participate in this research.
The early history of Indonesians in East Africa can be divided in three parts: (1) very early contacts between Indonesia and mainland East Africa (starting more than two millennia ago); (2) the settlement of Madagascar by speakers of a language hailing from Central Kalimantan (?7th century AD); (3) contacts between Hindu-Malays and Muslim Malays and south-eastern Madagascar (?12th century – 16th century AD).
In my talk I focus in on the third part of this history. I give a critical evaluation of the works of two anthropologists, Paul Ottino and Philippe Beaujard, who have written extensively about this period. Ottino (1983) proposed that Malays had a decisive literary and socio-political influence on east and Central Madagascar from the 12th century onwards (including elements of Hindu-Malay and Hindu-Javanese culture and a Shi’ite Islam). Beaujard (2003, 2011, 2012) elaborates on this idea, emphasising the impact of these later Indonesian migrants on agriculture and the domestication of food crops. He also argues that while these migrants were predominantly Malay, some must have come from different parts of insular South East Asia and from India.
With this critical assessment I try to demonstrate some of the difficulties in conducting multidisciplinary research in various distinct ethno-historical areas. I also argue that there is a need for Indonesianists to engage more in the Indian Ocean history if they do not want to become one-track-minded and regionalistic, allowing others to occupy a discourse that is concerned with a crucial part of Indonesia’s pre-colonial history