Facts about Indonesian history, culture and religion

Map of Indonesia

beautiful places to see in Indonesia

There are many facts about Indonesian history, culture and religion that will surprise you. It is a fascinating country and there are many stories to be told. It has great cultural diversity, a long history of suffering and struggles for freedom, and is now a rising economic power in Southeast Asia.  This blog will present facts about Indonesia related to the early years of Dutch colonialization, its struggle with the Japanese occupation, its eventual independence and the formation of a government, and information on the many ethnic groups and religions in the country. If you wish to see facts on geography and natural disasters in Indonesia, please click here

There are many facts about Indonesian history, culture and religion that will surprise you. It is a fascinating country and there are many stories to be told. It has great cultural diversity, a long history of suffering and struggles for freedom, and is now a rising economic power in Southeast Asia.  This blog will present facts about Indonesia related to the early years of Dutch colonialization, its struggle with the Japanese occupation, its eventual independence and the formation of a government, and information on the many ethnic groups and religions in the country. If you wish to see facts on geography and natural disasters in Indonesia, please click here

NAME OF THE COUNTRY

The word ‘Indonesia’ is derived from the Latin and Greek ‘Indus’ meaning ‘Indian’ and the Greek ‘nesos’ meaning ‘island’. In 1850 an English ethnologist, George Windsor Earl, proposed the term ‘Indunesians’ to describe the people of the very large archipelago. After 1900, the word ‘Indonesia’ was commonly used in academic circles and in 1928 was adopted by the Pro-Independence Nationalist Youth Group in their Youth Pledge stating Indonesia as one nation, and using Indonesian as the language of unity.

COLONIZATION

Coat of Arms of Portuguese East India Company

The earliest European power to establish themselves in what is now called Indonesia were the Portuguese. They were hungry for lucrative spices in islands of Malacca (now Malaysia). In 1511, a Portuguese East India Company armada invaded the kingdom of Malacca and established a base there. The Portuguese also established trading posts, forts, and Catholic missions in the Spice Islands, including Ternate, Ambon, and Solor. This was accomplished through military conflict and treaties. Over the years the spices were over-exploited and trade fell dramatically, the focus then shifted to the exploitation of sandalwood from the Timor island. this was fought over by the Portuguese and Dutch until the near extinction of sandalwood.

Coat of Arms of Dutch East Indies

In the early 1600’s, the dominant player in trade in Asia was the Dutch United East India Company. Their main interest in Indonesia was the exploitation of spices (i.e. nutmeg, peppers, cloves, cinnamon), cash crops (coffee, tea, cacao, tobacco, rubber, sugar, opium) and sandalwood, especially in the eastern islands.

In 1595 the Dutch government granted a charter to the East India Company to establish a capital in Batavia (now Jakarta) and wage war if necessary, build fortresses and make treaties across Asia. Colonialization however officially began in 1819. There were frequent battles between the Dutch and Portuguese over the years, but the Dutch proved to be stronger.

During World War II the Japanese had a brief period of colonization in Indonesia from March 1942 to September 1945. The Japanese massive navy easily defeated the Dutch and Allied forces, and the Indonesians were very happy to finally get rid of their colonial masters.

The Japanese however turned out to be cruel masters as well, forcing from 4-10 million Indonesian people into labor on projects related to economic development and defense. Between 200,000 to 500,000 people were sent away to the outer islands, and to Burma and Thailand, but not more than 70,000 were alive by the end of the war. During the Japanese occupation, more than 4 million people died as a result of famine and forced labor, including 30,000 European civilian internee deaths.

NATIONAL FLAG

The national flag of Indonesia has two colors, a strip of red across the top and a strip of white across the bottom. Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, stated that the red color symbolized courage and the white symbolized purity. These same colors were used by the Majapahit Maritime Empire in the 13th to 16th centuries which stretched across present-day Indonesia, as well as into Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Southern Thailand, East Timor, and Southwest Philippines. 

FORM OF GOVERNMENT

The Indonesians declared independence from the Netherlands on 17 August 1945. The government formed was a republic and today consists of 31 provinces with its capital being Jakarta in northern Java. Democratic elections are based on an absolute majority and are held every 5 years. Eleven political parties participated in the last election was on 17 April 2019 and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was elected as president. The next election is in 2024.

POPULATION AND ETHNIC GROUPS

According to the country-wide population census in 2020 the estimated population of Indonesia was 270,203,900, which makes it the fourth most populated country next to China, India and the United States, in that order.

Indonesia is experiencing a 1.25% annual population growth. Approximately 24.6% are from ages 0 to 14 years, 65.5% from ages 15 to 59, and 9.9% of pension age 60 and above. Indonesia, therefore, has a very powerful productive force compared to many more developed countries.

Indonesia has more than 300 ethic groups; the larger groups being: Javanese 40.1%, Sundanese 15.5%, Malay 3.7%, Batak 3.6%, Madurese 3.0%, Betawi 2.9%, Minangkabau 2.7%, Buginese 2.7%, Bantenese 2%, Banjarese 1.7%, Balinese 1.7%, Acehnese 1.4%, Dayak 1.4%, Sasak 1.3%, Chinese 1.2%, other 15% (2010 est.)

Dayak girls
Young Dayak Women
indonesian woman
Javanese Woman
Dancers in Builaran Timor
Dancers from Malaka, Timor

The first category are comprised mainly of Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese, Minangkabau, Menadonese and Balinese groups, which make up 3/5’s of the population of Indonesia. The second category comprises Malays, the Makassarese and Bugis. The third category is made up of Toraja, Batak, Dayak, Melanesian, Moluccas, Ambonese, Asmat, and Dani groups.

The ethnic groups of Indonesia can be divided into 3 categories:

  • Inland irrigated rice farmers
  • Coastal trading, farmer and fishing people
  • Inland shifting cultivators

RELIGION

The Indonesian Constitution, established in 1945, states that ‘The State guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his/her own religion or belief’. Officially the government recognized only 6 religions: Islam, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism, but other minor religions are also tolerated.

The 2018 Indonesian government statistics show there are 86.7% of Indonesians are Muslim, making this country the one with the largest Islamic population in the world. The remaining religions are 7.6% Protestant Christian, 3.12% Catholic Christian, 1.74% Hindu, 0.77% Buddhist, 0.03% Confucianist, 0.04% others (e.g. indigenous religions, Judaism, Bahai faith, Sikhism, Jainism, Chinese folk religion).

Balinese Temple Ceremony
Balinese Hindu ceremony
Traditional Javanese Wedding
Javanese Wedding
Islamic prayer goers
Islamic People Praying
catholic wedding ceremony
Catholic Couple being Married

Islam is believed to have started through Arab Muslim Traders in the 8th century, but Islam began its spread in Indonesia in the 13th century. Local rulers and the elites adopted the religion starting at first in northern Sumatra. Through intermarriage, the Muslims spread throughout Sumatra and Java by the end of the 16th century. The power of the Javanese Hindu/Buddhist Majapahit Kingdom was greatly reduced as Islam spread through coastal ports. In the end, the Hindu and Buddhists had to flee to Bali. Islam was spread to the eastern islands in the 17th and 18th century.

Catholicism was brought in by the Portuguese missionaries in the 1500s at the time of the spice trade and established missions in the Malukus and in the islands of the Lesser Sundas (i.e. West Nusa Tenggara (NTB) and East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) Provinces). Protestantism was brought in with the Dutch East India Company in the early 1600s. They also settled into the NTT province and also in major Dutch population centers such as Batavia (Jakarta), Semarang, and certain parts of Sumatra.

Information related to tourism in Indonesia can be found at these sites:  Beautiful Places to see in Indonesia, Tropical Island Clothing – the clothes you choose for your vacation, and Indonesian Language Basics.

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