Historical Atlas of Indonesia

Robert Cribb

University of Hawaii Press 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001 http://dannyreviews.com/
Area specialists will find the Historical Atlas of Indonesia an invaluable reference; they may also find it a source of novel information and new perspectives. Assuming little prior knowledge, it could also be used as a general introduction to Indonesian history by those relatively new to the subject. Like any atlas, it lends itself to browsing, but it also works well read cover to cover, with a continuous text that supplements the maps without being too subservient.

An introduction (with 10 maps) outlines the basic geography of the archipelago and some of the more important changes in place names. Part one (35 maps) covers aspects of the physical environment: geology, climate, vegetation, and so forth. Part two (77 maps) covers demographics, languages, and religions. And parts three ("states and polities", 59 maps), four ("the Netherlands East Indies", 78 maps) and five ("war, independence, and political transformations", 68 maps) present a broadly chronological survey of political and economic change, from the earliest records to the independence of East Timor. The maps exhibit an impressive variety, both in the subjects covered and the cartographic techniques used.

All the obvious subjects are covered, in pleasing depth. Maps showing political divisions are the staple of historical atlases, but Cribb provides (to take one example) as many as seven maps of Java between 1550 and 1768, revealing details of the spread of VOC (Dutch East Indies Company) power and the shrinking of Mataram that would otherwise be hard to follow. There are six pages of maps showing language distributions, including three with quite fine detail of the complex linguistic situation in West Papua and the eastern Nusatenggara. Other maps that caught my eye include a pair showing exports from the Netherlands East Indies to various destinations in 1928 and 1934, nicely illustrating the effects of the Depression, and sets showing the distribution of seats won by the different parties in different regions in the 1955 and 1999 elections.

Some of the smaller-scale (and smaller) maps in particular cover less obvious subjects and offer unexpected insights. A map showing the Dutch defences around the Acehnese capital of Kutaradja in 1885 (a line of forts, a 1000m free-fire zone, and a military tramway) nicely illustrates something of the intensity and bloodiness of the Aceh War. Other subjects depicted include: anti-plague actions (burning of houses and disinfection with sulphur) in the village of Karangasem, East Java, in 1912; the effects of the Cultivation System on village topography in Java; and key locations in central Jakarta in the 1965 coup attempt.

Cribb touches in the introduction on one of the problems with maps as historical tools, on the way in which they focus attention on particular kinds of quantitative data at the expense of less formal information. One response to this is the cartographic variation: he makes no attempt to force the maps into a fixed or uniform framework. And as well as providing good captions, he uses on-map notations extensively to clarify or explain details. (So it is a surprise when a map of opium monopoly policies in 1881 shows that opium importation and distribution were totally banned in most of West Java, the Tengger areas of East Java, and Ambon — without comment.) Where information doesn't lend itself to symbolic representation at all, Cribb is even prepared to offer maps with nothing except scattered text boxes.

The Historical Atlas as a whole is a high quality production, with an attractive cover, glossy paper, and careful attention to detail. Cribb has an eye for effective layout and conventional signs and symbols and my only complaint about the design is that on one or two maps the colour contrast is too low, though the relatively subdued colours mostly work well. The biggest drawback to the volume is that the price (over US$150) will rule out an audience as broad as it deserves — it would be good to see it widely used by students and inside Indonesia. We will just have to hope for a cheaper paperback edition.

March 2001

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
- details at University of Hawaii Press
Related reviews:
- Robert Cribb - Historical Dictionary of Indonesia
- Robert Cribb - Digital Atlas of Indonesian History
- Robert Cribb - The Indonesian Killings 1965-1966: Studies from Java and Bali
- books about Indonesia + Indonesian history
- more geography
- books published by University of Hawaii Press
- other "best book" selections
%T Historical Atlas of Indonesia
%A Cribb, Robert
%I University of Hawaii Press
%D 2000
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0824821114
%P x,256pp