Stumbling upon Java
To adapt an old joke, ‘if you want to get to Java I wouldn’t start from Melbourne.’ But Melbourne is where I started out, in an unrelievedly WASP family, suburb, and school. England and Europe dominated the curriculum throughout. At secondary school, I studied French, Latin, English and History (if maths and science had been competently taught, my life might have gone very differently), and on matriculating enrolled for an Honours degree in History and Political Science at Melbourne University.
Still no sign of Indonesia or any of its regions in the curriculum. Courses essentially provided more detail to what we had learned at secondary school. The Political Science department offered ‘Interstitial innovations in Australian bureaucracy after the Second World War’ and the History Department came to the party with ‘The Development of Conciliar Government in Late 18th Century England’. After two years of this I decided that I did not want a career working on some detail of a well-explored academic landscape. (By the way, do you know how many historians you need to change a light-bulb? Click here for the answer.)
A door suddenly opens
Just at this point the chance to escape from this rather arid scholarly landscape presented itself. A friend’s mother told me that the Australian government was awarding scholarships to study Asia, to be taken up at the Australian National University. I succeeded in obtaining one of these, and moved from Melbourne with its wonderful bakeries and second-hand bookshops to bleak one-cafe Canberra (tellingly described as ‘a good sheep paddock spoiled’).
The specialisms offered in the Asian Studies degree at the ANU were China, Japan, and Indonesia. I actually wanted to study India, about which I had read a bit, but this was not then available. So I chose Indonesia, which I would have been hard pressed to find on the map, and about which (like almost all my compatriots) I knew absolutely nothing.
The ANU’s Asian Studies degree was, at that time, dedicated to teaching students all the languages they would need as, say, diplomats or serious scholars. For students in the Indonesia stream this meant learning the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, thoroughly, in an excellent program. Honours students also had to learn at least two regional languages. I learned Old Javanese and Modern Javanese (which are completely different languages), and also Sundanese, the language of West Java. Minangkabau, a major Sumatran language,was also offered. Then we had to learn either Sanskrit (which I chose) or Arabic, both of which have greatly influenced Indonesia. Finally, we had to learn Dutch, in which colonial records and much scholarship on Indonesia are written. Teaching materials were very patchy compared to the wealth of dictionaries, grammars, collections of prose and verse, etc that had been available for French and Latin at school and university, and some strange expedients resulted. For example, modern Javanese was taught by interlinear translation of a chronicle. And Sundanese was taught by the novelist Achdiat Karta Mihardja using a Dutch phrase book for colonial officials, enabling them to address their subjects in a suitably de haut en bas fashion. (But why was it necessary to teach Dutch using the Dutch version of Aesop's fables? Though my fellow student and I found the stories of the hond and the pard hilarious, this vocabulary wasn't really very much help with colonial records.)
What made this prescriptive slogging tolerable - and indeed enjoyable - was that most of the teachers were Indonesians and could sometimes be persuaded or tricked into telling us about their experiences in the momentous period from Dutch rule through the Japanese occupation to the guerrilla struggle for independence. Furthermore, the Indonesian community welcomed us warmly with Indonesian feasts, sometimes including dress-ups and Indonesian songs. This seems very tame stuff now, but for someone from an austere and formal tradition it was extremely jolly (especially in Canberra, where the sixties were not really swinging).
The Faculty had recruited some noted English and European scholars, such as A.L. Basham, Hans Bielenstein and Gšran Malmquist, and later on J. de Jong and A.H. Johns. They set the standards to which students were expected to aspire. Their scholarly tradition was later criticized as ‘Orientalist’, and while there is some truth in that, it is also true that they translated and made available the diverse literaryand scholarly corpus of the countries they studied. This could not be said of the anthropologists and political scientists who came later. These latter often made sweeping pronouncements about a whole society and its history based on a stint of fieldwork, or relied on handy one size fits all categories like the 'bureaucratic polity'.
I completed my undergraduate degree, to my surprise achieving a First: I did not think I had done well in the Sanskrit and Historiography exams (taught respectively by Professor de Jong and the noted Australian historian Manning Clark, who I thought regarded me less than favourably). This enabled me to enrol for a Ph.d.
Indonesian history - as written by Indonesians
No Indonesian history was taught, but this was the area I chose for my Ph.D. I did this because I was still very interested in history and I wanted to find out how Indonesians experienced Indonesian history. For this I needed to read Indonesian sources. The belief that Dutch sources were the only ‘reliable’ ones for the historian was still surprisingly strong when Soedjatmoko published his pioneering Introduction to Indonesian Historiography in 1965. Indigenous sources were often dismissed because of their ‘mythic’ and ‘supernatural’ elements. (One eminent scholar, C.C. Berg, went so far as to claim that one could safely assume that anything stated in a Javanese royal inscription was the opposite of the truth. This logically implies that no event reflecting well on the ruler, such as a good rice crop, ever happened.) But the venerable Bede believed in miracles, yet we do not ignore his account of 7th -8th century England. And, as I was to discover later, the fact that Dutch records were generally correctly dated did not necessarily mean that the author was well-informed, truthful, or serving the Dutch East India Company diligently and free of personal interests as he was supposed to do. So I decided to use both colonial records and Indonesian, in my case Javanese, histories (which I couldn’t yet read), thus opening up a treasure-trove of unexplored material illuminating Javanese society, politics and beliefs. Down the track, of course, though we didn’t know it, Foucault and Said were going to turn the tables of those ‘reliable’ colonial records.
I chose to do a historiographical study of the different Javanese chronicles written about Surapati - a colourful character, possibly a Balinese slave, who famously defeated and killed a Dutch Captain on the battlefield in 1686. He subsequently set up his own principality in eastern Java. Surapati is on Indonesia’s National Heroes list, and his story is still celebrated in theatrical performances. A rural performance on Independence Day 2015 [published April 19, 2016] can be seen on Youtube: Ketoprak Wahyu Budaya Jawa Tengah https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYkWxKRvW9w. I found that the historical actors who featured most prominently in Javanese historiographical sources were fighters: ‘heroes’ as they are called in Indonesia, or ‘rebels’, as the colonial Dutch considered them to be. This is not so surprising: in my own tradition, Robin Hood is a much more celebrated figure than many historical actors who did worthy, but dull, things (reforming the administration, balancing the budget ...).
Java here I come ...
I decided that I needed to go to Indonesia to find Javanese histories (Babad) about Surapati. A venerable Dutch professor advised my professor that the situation in Indonesia was not safe for a young woman. Though naturally timid, I aspire to bravery, so of course I rejected his advice. After searching the Jakarta manuscript collections, I travelled overnight to Yogyakarta in an ancient bus with tiny seats, toting my camera and tripod for photographing manuscripts. I arrived at dawn in a dazzling green landscape of rice fields; a farmer was leading his ducks down a bund. I have never forgotten the serene beauty of this scene, so different from Jakarta.
As I got off the bus I felt distinctly nervous: after Indonesia’s terrible colonial experience and Sukarno’s anti-Western rhetoric, I rather expected a cold reception. On the contrary, I was met with great kindness and helped to find my way to where I was supposed to stay (a convent school) – a kindness shown me in many subsequent visits, often by those much less well off. Indonesians were extraordinarily helpful and supportive. They quickly picked up that I was seriously lacking in on-the-ground knowledge, and on the other hand were surprised and pleased that I was doing my best to read manuscripts that they themselves could not.
and Holland too ...
Java was not my only field-work location. I needed to go to the Netherlands to consult the Dutch colonial records and manuscript collections, and in 1977 my husband and I went to Leiden on sabbatical leave. The records I needed to consult were held in an old German bunker in the Schaarsbergen woods. The Dutch had previously tried to blow it up, without success, and so had re-purposed it. The area is what passes for remote in Europe and was thought to be the refuge of members of another left revolutionary organization, the German Baader-Meinhof/Red Army Faction. I had to traverse the woods with helicopters circling overhead and without my diminutive Javanese anti-guerilla escorts, who would certainly have seen off the only bloke who actually accosted me there (with non-revolutionary intent).
The Netherlands, though generally one of the most orderly countries in Europe, were going through an exceptionally eventful time. During the attempt to restore Dutch rule after the Second World War, the south Moluccans who allied with them were promised that they would be rewarded with their own homeland. After the Dutch defeat, many Moluccans moved to the Netherlands ‘for the time being’. After decades of waiting in ‘temporary’ camps they realized that the Dutch were never going to attempt the hopeless task of carving their homeland out of Indonesia. Some of these Moluccans began to attack Dutch trains and even occupied a school – a worry, since our daughter had started at school in Leiden. In the event we were all quite unscathed, and the only time I myself felt a sense of imminent peril was when visiting the Indonesian embassy – also a potential target for the Moluccans. There was now a guard, who looked more like a janitor than a soldier, and was maintaining a loose two-finger contact with a machine gun that you had to dodge around when entering.
The next rebel I studied was Dipanagara, the leader of the Java War from 1825-30. His autobiography is a unique record of Dutch relations with the Javanese royal courts, and of the Javanese and Islamic beliefs that made up Javanese religiosity. He describes his meeting with Nyai Loro [or Nyi Roro] Kidul, the Javanese sea goddess. The Java Trench is a deep underwater valley, the deepest part of the Pacific, running along the south coast of Java and Sumatra. So it is not surprising that the Javanese wanted a sea deity on their side, but it is notable that it is a goddess, not a god like Poseidon or Neptune. This is one example of the highly recurrent image in Javanese literature of a woman of great beauty and power. Rulers and those aspiring to rule frequently claimed that the Queen of the South had appeared to them and endorsed their rule, or had even entered into a marriage with them. Even today she is sometimes portrayed as a protectress of the President. She is nearly always depicted wearing green (a colour one is warned not to wear on the south coast beaches, where drownings one might otherwise attribute to dangerous rips are explained as due to the goddess’s ire), and often driving a horse-drawn chariot.
One of the last of the Javanese aristocrats to rebel against the Dutch-controlled monarchy was Suryengalaga, a feeble-witted prince manipulated by his ambitious mother into a short-lived rebellion in 1883. Though it did not amount to much, one of those marginally involved wrote an insider’s account of the 19th century mosque world. I try to bring to life this unique source in Diary of a Javanese Muslim.
A wonderful find in the Leiden library was the late 18th century diary of an anonymous prajurit estri, or ‘guardswoman’. This provided much rich and colourful evidence of the role women could play in the military sphere Its author was one of an elite corps of cavalry-women who, clad in gold and armed with firearms - their skill with these attested by astonished Dutch visitors - formed a guard on ceremonial occasions. But, having more than one string to their bows, they were also highly trained practitioners of court arts such as music and dance. The diary covers all aspects of court life, from the wages bill of the soldiery and other aspects of the budget to the volatile political relationships between the different Central Javanese courts with each other and with the Dutch Company. The prince who had established this particular court was Mangkunegara I, in earlier decades one of the most skilled opponents of the Dutch on the battlefield. Court dances re-enacted his military victories.
This has been my most popular academic project, not surprisingly. And as a result of the articles I wrote about Mangkunegara and his court, which revealed that he had actually fought on for longer than one of his erstwhile princely allies, he too was placed on the National Heroes list.
In 1994 I was honoured and thrilled to be asked to edit a volume on Indonesia’s huge and still largely unexplored manuscript heritage, working with John McGlynn from the Lontar Foundation. The resulting publication Illuminations: the Writing Traditions of Indonesia, was launched by the President as part of the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of Indonesian independence. It was also launched in New York by the Ford Foundation, the initiator of the project.
The postmodernist ascendancy
I owe a lot to postmodernism, though not in the way you might expect. The criticism it made of ‘modernist’ scholarship was not without basis, but it was made in an extremely cumbersome way. It led to a proliferation of seminars whose presenters donned the full panoply of postmodernist theory to arrive, very slowly and ponderously, at conclusions which could soon be seen looming behind the dense thicket of verbiage we had to cross to get to them. The many hours of acute brain pain spent listening to or reading about such analyses and explaining these to students prepared me psychologically for learning quite different skills - skills that actually might produce something new and surprising.
At this juncture I stumbled by chance upon some slight but puzzling evidence suggesting a hitherto unknown link between Java and Japan. I was not the first to perceive such a link: scholars in professions other than history, such as scientists working on rice varieties, had made this claim earlier. And Japanese and German specialists on masks had deduced a strong link between the two theatrical traditions. These masks played a foundational role in the development of live theatre in both countries. But how to find evidence of a less subjective type from a very long time ago? As I explained on my web-page, I managed to gather together quantifiable evidence from Rice, DNA and Linguistics to demonstrate, in my book Globalising the Prehistory of Japan, that there had indeed been a link between Java and Japan. ehistory
At the ANU I lectured a fairly wide range of courses relating to politics, society, economy and history of Indonesia and Southeast Asia in the (then) Faculty of Asian Studies, introducing the Faculty’s first course on the modern world: Indonesia: Politics, Society and Development. It was taught with a lot of generous assistance from colleagues, particularly in economics - beginning with the famous Heinz Arndt. He was one of those distinguished scholars who excel at conveying economic complexities to students - and to me - in an accessible way. Having studied in two 'discipline' departments at the University of Melbourne, I introduced a discipline major to the degree as a necessary complement to language facility and country knowledge.It also gave Asian Studies students a chance to get to know their peers in other faculties, where these majors were taught.
After serving on a lot of committees - some useful, many not - I eventually became Head of Department of Asian History and Civilizations, and later still Dean of the Faculty. This was after the Dawkins ‘reforms’ of the tertiary education sector in the late 1980’s. These abolished the distinction between universities and technical colleges, nursing colleges and other post-secondary institutions which had never undertaken some of the key activities of universities, notably research. The idea was sold as an upgrading of these technical and other colleges - a claim that encouraged people to hope for something like the German technische Hochschulen.
This would have been welcome, as Australia had always wrongly disparaged anything technical as a very poor second to any purely academic work. Dawkins’ promise, however, turned out to be empty. No funds were made available for upgrading standards at the colleges - except for what could be taken from the universities. This led to a long and continuing decline in these, particularly in the range and depth of teaching. Both the major political parties were responsible for catastrophic cuts in university funding.
In this grim climate, getting the Faculty out of the red and into the black when I became Dean proved a major challenge. We were accused by senior management of culpable extravagance because we took more staff hours to teach Chinese and Japanese than were needed for French and Spanish. Despite everything we did achieve solvency, and without reduction of teaching.
Australian universities now spend a huge amount of money trying to transform themselves into businesses with CEO-like Vice-Chancellors and large and expensive establishments of career administrators. Departments are reduced to far too few people to teach the curriculum, resulting in a reduction of its breadth and depth. Graduates who go on to become schoolteachers can only teach as much as they have been taught, and so the downward spiral continues through the school system.
The Australian National University has now abolished the Faculty of Asian Studies. Far worse than losing the name and institution, its staff and offerings have also been drastically cut, as also the number of Indonesian specialists across campus. It is hard not to get into a rant about this - because it disadvantages the younger generation and the future scholars who will guide our country’s research and education, and guarantee our prosperity. It reflects the abysmal failure of succeeding Prime Ministers to act on Keating's recognition of the huge importance of Indonesia to Australia. Given that it is so much easier to destroy than to build capacity, and even with other universities' valuable contributions, it will be a long and hard road back to the coverage that Australia needs.
Other administrative positions
After finishing my term as Dean, I was asked to be Treasurer of the Australian Academy of the Humanities by a cunning old professor who told me 'It's only a matter of signing a few cheques'. Actually, it involved keeping the Academy accounts in the horridly counter-intuitive accrual accounting system of which I had never heard. And, surprise! it involved getting the Academy out of the red. This turned out to be easier to do than it had been for the Faculty.
I was also for a brief period Director of the International Centre of Excellence in Asian-Pacific Studies. Although the time-frame set by the government was too short for the Centre to achieve self-sufficiency, it did during this limited time run a very good small grants program that met a real need, and enabled some low-budget but excellent projects to be carried out.
I spent six years on the panel of experts of the British Library's wonderful Endangered Archives Program. Funded by the Arcadia Foundation its main aim is to produce digital copies of archival material from around the world housed in conditions that threaten its survival. This means, of course, that poorer communities and countries are enabled to preserve the manuscripts and archives in which their history is recorded. Although I had, once more, to acquire new skills, the ideals behind the program and the superbly professional way in which it was run made it a joy, and of course an honour, to be able to make a contribution.
Returning to the ANU, no joy is to be had. The Faculty of Asian Studies has been abolished, staff specialising in Indonesian language and society sacked, course offerings cancelled, postgraduate students left without supervisors. Furthermore, Indonesia expertise across the campus has been cut. Even the flagship program, the annual Indonesia Update - funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade - was threatened, until international protests and heroic resistance at the ANU succeeded in saving it. Surveying this savage destruction of expertise that had taken decades of effort to create, one can only be grateful that the University of Melbourne is no longer the Eurocentric place I once abandoned, but has an excellent program focussed on Indonesia.