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Seas rose, islands appeared, cultures evolved in ‘Empire of the Winds’

Duncan Graham

The Jakarta Post

Malang, East Java  /  Sat, February 23, 2019  /  11:59 am
Seas rose, islands appeared, cultures evolved in ‘Empire of the Winds’

Into history: Empire of the Winds reads well but its more a reference book. (Courtesy of Philip Bowring/-)

When an author sets out to write “the history of the world’s biggest, most important archipelago – from its birth following the last ice age to today” readers wonder about this grand ambition.

What’s the book to be? A set of encyclopedias in academic jargon? Or quirky gleanings that lure, but whose superficiality frustrates?

Empire of the Winds is option three: “deep history”. This means linking multiple disciplines, such as anthropology, linguistics, archaeology and others to assemble the story of human evolution.

Clues might include ceramics recovered from an old wreck, language patterns and similar cultural practices in widely distant locations suggesting some shared ancestry or migrations.

Author Philip Bowring calls his area Nusantaria – a slight expansion of an ancient term for the mysterious collection of islands and islets, atolls, reefs and peninsulas, bays and cays which have bubbled up across the equator. Nusa comes from Sanskrit and means “island”.

He steers his ideal through the waters of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines; sailing closer to scholarly papers than magazine features. His book is a drop anchor where shelter offers to check the references, rather than a go-to-whoa adventure story. 

This is a substantial work drawn from limited resources. Few books have survived and decoding weathered inscriptions is a tricky task. Nusantaria is not Europe with its great libraries and well-preserved writings.

The difficulties in getting to the truth are shown in this story about the Singasari monarch Kertanegara, whose name is well-known in East Java. He died in 1292.

Writes Bowring: “He was said by one later chronicle to have engaged in alcohol ­fuelled tantric sexual practices which led to his downfall. But another chronicle described him as an ascetic, erecting a statue of himself as a meditating Buddha”.

Educated as an historian at Cambridge University, Hong-Kong based Bowring, 76, is a journalist who has been working in Asia for 46 years – and as a yachtsman sailing some of its seas. So he knows a few facts – and some fictions uncovered by his intensive research.

Academics have long puzzled about the fall of the Majapahit Kingdom, roughly 1300 to 1500; at its height it controlled much of Southeast Asia through maritime trade, military action and statecraft, apparently giving the citizens a good life in a land of abundance.

Bowring discards the volcanic explosion theory for the fall. He blames feuding families and Islam pushing down from the north-coast cities where it had been brought ashore by traders.

Trowulan, on the 320-kilometer long Brantas River, the East Java center of the Kingdom, was destroyed in 1478 during a war with Muslim Demak. The survivors moved east, which is why Bali is now largely Hindu.

So much has happened since – the rise and fall of a European colonial power, the Japanese invasion, the birth of the Republic and now democracy. Yet what Bowring calls “Majapahit glory” is still part of Javanese culture. The national motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (unity in diversity), is not from a holy book, but a Majapahit-era poem.

“The memory (and myth) of Majapahit and its empire in Nusantaria remains at the heart of modern Indonesia’s sense of identity, generally overriding Muslim identity and an historical basis for a state created in its present geographical form by the Dutch,” he adds.

That won’t sit easily with the fundamentalists who think their faith is unadulterated. But anyone lucky enough to have witnessed Javanese village ceremonies, where modern practices and curious rituals seem to syncretize, will know Bowring is right.

To modern travelers the idea of an island life sounds romantic and exotic, though less so since last year’s devastating tsunamis.  The archipelago was created as the oceans rose between 20,000 and 7,000 years ago, drowning fertile low-lying land, now under 40 meters of saline seas.

The rising waters separated people who over time developed their own cultures and languages, enriching the nation. Before that the more adventurous would have walked between what are now islands, or paddled craft across narrow straits.  Curiously the squid-shaped Sulawesi always seems to have been apart.

Some survivors turned from farming to fishing; others learned how to clear, cultivate and irrigate hillsides, which the Javanese do so well. 

Nationalists love to pinch legends of real or imagined heroes and elevate them to models which they think modern people should emulate. The Chinese have long promoted the expeditions of Zheng He (1371 – 1433) but Bowring says many “facts” are not.

The admiral is supposed to have commanded a fleet of massive ships, each measuring 137 by 57 meters, which he used on vast journeys demonstrating Chinese might, navigation skills and technology. The parallel today is its Belt and Road infrastructure program.

Bowring rubbishes this story because a wooden ship with even half the fabled dimensions would not have survived open-sea storms. 

Before him, and at the end of the 13th century, a Chinese fleet did land on the north coast of East Java and troops headed inland. The soldiers were asked to help sort out a few squabbles but were outsmarted by the Javanese and forced to flee.

In the confusion some were left behind; the most adaptable integrated and so started the multi-ethnic society we have in parts of the Republic. 

Empire of the Winds reads well but its more a reference book than a ripping yarn, even though the tales are rich enough to challenge Kipling. Religions, cultures, cities rise and perish. Bowring lists 38 states which no longer exist. How did they die? There’s a mine of stories here.

The author’s journalism used in his past career as an editor and commentator could have been better employed. The book includes maps and plates needed to understand the text, which brings us up to date with today’s politics.

“Geography is destiny,” concludes Bowring. “The tide has turned, and modern Nusantarians are beginning to sense their own common identity.”

The ASEAN grouping of 10 disparate nations undermines his optimism. Individual countries are trying to cope with China; they need the money and trade but don’t want to become client states. If there is a “common identity” it’s Sinophobia. China was the challenge centuries ago to Nusantaria. It remains so today. (ste)