Against Geopolitical Destiny: Indonesian National Character Shift from Maritime to Agriculture


            Indonesia sebagai negara kepulauan berusaha untuk mengembalikan jati diri sebagai negara maritim dengan mencanangkan visi Poros Maritim Dunia. Pencanangan visi maritim oleh pemerintah tersebut karena melihat visi Indonesia saat ini, baik sebagai negara dan sebagai bangsa, belum mencerminkan visi kemaritiman. Kenyataan ini bertolak belakang dengan sejarah masa lampau nusantara saat Sriwijaya dan Majapahit pernah menjadi kekuatan maritim besar di kawasan dengan kekuatan militer dan ekonominya. Pergeseran paradigma ini menarik untuk ditelusuri. Bagaimana orientasi sebuah bangsa maritim dapat berubah menjadi agrikultur? Hal apa yang mendasari perubahan tersebut?

            Setelah menganalisis dan mempelajari sejarah pra-Indonesia dari masa kerajaan hingga masa kolonial, artikel ini berpendapat dua periode dalam sejarah Indonesia dapat manjadi faktor utama pergeseran visi kemaritiman tersebut. Dua periode sejarah tersebut adalah saat kerajaan Mataram menjadi kekuatan utama di Pulau Jawa dan periode penjajahan Belanda dengan kebijakan-kebijakannya yang tidak pro-maritim.


            Indonesia as an archipelagic country is trying to restore its identity as a maritime country by proclaiming the Global Maritime Fulcrum vision. The declaration of the country’s maritime vision was because, one of others, current Indonesian vision, both as a country and as a nation, does not show the maritime vision itself. This reality is contradictory with the history when Majapahit and Sriwijaya became maritime powers in the region by their military and economic might. The shift of paradigm is then interesting to trace. How could the orientation of a maritime nation change into agriculture?  What underlie that shift?

            After analyzing and studying pre-Indonesian history from royal period to colonial era, this article argues that two stages in the Indonesian history could be the main factor in causing the shift of maritime vision. The two periods are when the Kingdom of Mataram dominated Java and the era of the Dutch colonialism with its anti-maritime policy.


As the largest archipelagic country in the world, Indonesia forgets its geopolitical destiny as a maritime nation. Even though Indonesia comprises thousands of islands spread from Sumatera to Western Papua, its revenue from sea resources lags behind Japan and China, countries that have much less coastline than Indonesia. This problem was addressed by the current Indonesian President, Joko Widodo in his first official speech, which he, during his tenure, will prioritize maritime development. The President’s vision is to return Indonesia’s identity as a maritime nation. This vision was further emphasized globally by the President during the 9th East Asia Summit in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar in November 13, 2014.

A maritime nation is a country that has an outward-looking mindset and a broad sea power, which Alfred T. Mahan says, “includes not only the military strength . . . but also the peaceful commerce and shipping.”[1] According to Mahan’s theory, a nation’s sea power is determined by the following criteria: geographical position, physical conformation, the extent of territory, population, character of the people, and the character of the government.[2] Naturally, Indonesia meets the first three criteria, but lacks the last two. The current government has attempted to address the issue by prioritizing maritime sectors. On the other hand, the character of the people is hard to change.

In the past, the Indonesian people were seafarers with a strong maritime culture. Boats and sailing activity figures carved in stone caves located in Ohoidertawun (Maluku) and Papua reveal that ancient Indonesians had mastered seamanship.[3] The maritime tradition, however, have faded among Indonesian people at present. The cause of the Indonesia’s shift away from its maritime tradition, which characterized Sriwijaya and Majapahit, can be traced to two important time periods: first, when Mataram, a non-maritime kingdom, became a new hegemon in Java, and second, when the Dutch dominated the sea trade and implemented policies that hurt the Indonesian maritime tradition.

Indonesian Maritime History

Indigenous Indonesian people have been involved in maritime activities since before the 7th century. The Javanese people had sailed to Madagascar by small boats. Research of Murray Cox, a New Zealand scientist who conducted DNA analysis, shows that Madagascar’s ancestors are Javanese.[4] Small boat relief in Borobudur’s wall, an eighth-century inscription found in Central Java, and other inscriptions reveals Indonesian engagement in maritime activity. The most phenomenal Indonesian maritime history is the existence of Sriwijaya (650-1377) and Majapahit (1293-1527), who spread their influences far beyond the sea. Those historical clues prove that Indonesians had had the strong maritime legacies.


Sriwijaya is a Hindu kingdom based in Palembang, East Sumatera, which was a dominant player in the Strait of Malacca trade and politics. A Telaga Batu inscription, ancient evidence from the 7th century, lists the puhawang, one of the Sriwijayan society members, as a potential threat to the monarch. Puhawang is a local term likely dedicated to a non-noble official, or shipmaster. The inscription, Kenneth R. Hall writes, also associates puhawang with “vaniyaga ‘merchants’ and tuha an vatakvurah‘ or supervisors of trade and crafts.’”[5] Vaniyaga, known as long-distance sea traders, in collaboration with puhawang, actively traded overseas and interacted with foreign merchants. A Puhawang was also an expert of shipbuilding that provided ships to the aristocrats, mainly for the purpose of achieving magical spiritual powers.[6] This evidence shows that Sriwijaya was very developed in the maritime trade at that time.

In military terms, Sriwijaya had expanded beyond its principal territory. Most inscriptions about Sriwijaya were discovered in the 7th and 8th centuries, an era where Sriwijaya grew as a new power in Southeast Asia. The discovered inscriptions give the impression that Sriwijaya’s forces were prepared for an effort to control the Asia Pacific region.[7]  Sriwijaya was highly dependent on its naval power; Srwijaya’s victories in several naval battles and blockades had assured its dominance in the region.[8]  Its naval supremacy was believed to be supported by manpower from both Musi River valley and the sea nomads, or orang laut.[9] Sriwijaya’s strategy was to control strategic points related to the trade, not to occupy whole territories of their rivals.[10]

Picture 1. Sriwijaya Territories and Its Vassals.[11]

Sriwijaya had eventually its dominance to the entire of Sumatera, parts of Malay Peninsula, West Java, and western part of Kalimantan; it also controlled main the shipping-lanes to India and China as well as small lanes of trade to Java and Tanjungpura.


Slightly different from Sriwijaya, Majapahit had a strong policy of expansion, with an ambition of extending its domination over the whole archipelago. According to the 1365 manuscript Negarakertagama, Majapahit’s territory comprised the whole of modern Indonesia and the Malayan peninsula. Its dominance might had been wider if considering the acknowledgement of suzerainty and the tribute levied from its vassals, imposed by sporadic punitive expeditions.[12] Majapahit’s heyday was during Hayam Wuruk’s administration, which succeeded in uniting the archipelago thanks to the forces led by Gajah Mada, a famous Majapahit Prime Minister who pledged not to have pleasure before integrating nusantara. The strong character of its leaders brought Majapahit to be respected by its neighborhood.

Picture 2. Majapahit Territories and Its Vassals.[13]

In addition to its maritime power, Majapahit was also strong in inter-island trade. The period of Majapahit was when Southeast Asian trade experienced a downturn during the 13th to 15th centuries due to Chinese and Indian internal problems.[14] Despite the depression, Majapahit merchant ports in Java hosted Chinese traders, who sold glassware and porcelain from China, as written by Ma Huan, a Cheng-Ho’s spokesperson who visited Majapahit in 1413.[15] Majapahit’s ability to control eastern-western shipping lanes during sea-trade depression was because of its financial stability, which was achieved from its mixed economy, combining agricultural surplus and sea trade.[16]

The Influence of Javanese Islamic Kingdom: Start of Declined Maritime Mindset?

The fall of Majapahit, who later was replaced by the Demak kingdom, marked an important political change from Hindu to Islamic influence in the archipelago. A set of internal conflicts during the death of Hayam Wuruk in 1389 caused Majapahit to fade, finally ending in 1478. The rise of the Sultanate of Malacca in the mid-15th century limited Majapahit’s ability to control the Strait of Malacca as an important point of Southeast Asian sea-trade. The Sultanate of Malacca then gradually expanded its influence to all of Sumatra. Majapahit’s inability to maintain its domination in Sumatera provoked its vassals and colonies in other regions to release themselves from its suzerainty and influence. The tendency of disintegration forced Majapahit to adopt a more accommodating policy. During the last period of the Majapahit, the King Kertabhumi allied Majapahit with Muslim traders by giving the merchants trading rights along the north coast of Java. The policy expected the Muslim merchant’s loyalty to Majapahit as a compensation; however, this only worked for a short period as the civil war continuously eroded the existence of Majapahit.

The fading of Majapahit caused Demak, Jepara, Tuban, Rembang, Gresik, and Surabaya stood up as independent city-states. All those coastal towns were located on the north coast of Java (Pesisir); they inherited Majapahit’s maritime tradition in the sea trade and maritime expansion. The coastal states grew as wealthy states; their lives relied on the sea trade. They were disturbed by the advent of Portuguese in Melacca, who dominated sea trade and debilitated Javanese kingdoms influence. This condition led to two invasions to Malacca: the first was in 1512-1513 led by Pati Unus, King of Jepara, who finally died; the second was in 1520, a revenge expedition led by Queen Aisah, Pati Unus’s mother, and Trenggana, the third ruler of Demak.[17] Both invasions failed due to weapons inferiority.

Unlike Jepara, Tuban had no ambition to expand. Tuban would have become potential Majapahit’s successor as a regional hegemon, considering its prominent role as a trading port for the spice trade and its potential military power. Nevertheless, Wilwatikta, the leader, did not have a strong military desire; he was only interested in peace and welfare by developing inter-island trading.[18] Tuban then became a vassal of Demak, when it supported Demak in Malacca invasion. Tuban remained prosperous due to its status as a major port until Mataram defeated it in 1619.[19]  

Mataram had risen as a dominant power in Java after Senapati led it to defeat Daha in 1590.[20] Senapati’s ambition to unify Java was supported by Sunan Giri, a muslim saint, who suggested Mataram “bring the eastern provinces under subjection.”[21] This legitimation led Senapati to annex eastern part of Java before conquering the rest. The effort of unifying Java took place in the decades before Sultan Agung earned victories over Surabaya and subdued all the eastern provinces by 1639.[22] The expansion of Mataram was a threat for the coastal city-states. The defeat of those maritime towns crushed Javanese shipping.[23] Mataram itself was relatively weak in maritime power; centered near the Southern Ocean (Indian Ocean), Mataram was an agriculture-based Kingdom. Mataram people avoid interactions with the Southern Ocean because of the myth of Nyai Roro Kidul, a Southern Ocean ruler, which most Javanese believe as a mythical consort of the Sultans of Mataram, or Yogyakarta, to the present day. Nyai Roro Kidul is believed to have power appointing her private guards from those who sail in the Southern Ocean.

In the period of the Islamic Kingdoms, Javanese courts were not able to continue Majapahit’s role as a dominant player in the region. Malacca was still a trade center, which was supported by several major ports in northern coast of Java. Several reasons explain the fail of the Javanese kingdoms to assert continuing domination over Malacca; even Majapahit in the era of Hayam Wuruk could rarely exert de facto control in Malacca.[24] The first reason was the advent of Europeans, who were equipped with technology that was more modern, especially in the military. Even though Islamic kingdoms still inherited the expansion character from Majapahit, they would never reach their goal without military advantages. The two failures of Jepara in the Malacca invasion demonstrate that military technology plays an important role. Majapahit had succeeded in the military expedition because it had a charismatic figure Gajah Mada, and because its opponents were relatively weaker than, or equal to Majapahit.

The second reason was the Javanese people’s character. Thomas Stamford Raffles observes, “The habit of the [Javanese] people had become agricultural.”[25] Living in an array of volcanic mountain, indigenous Javanese enjoyed very fertile land. Foreign traders recognized Java as “the granary of the Eastern Islands.”[26] Their abundant agricultural products gave them no incentive to explore the ocean. It needed more than a survival motive to become like the Majapahit. Eventually, Javanese Islamic kingdoms only controlled northern Java ports and were rarely involved in sea expeditions.

The Influence of Dutch Colonization

The Dutch’s motivation in Indonesia was initially to trade, before it became to colonize due to several reasons. The main goal of the Dutch in Indonesia was Maluku’s spice, which was famous among sailors that the smell of the spice from Maluku can be smelled even from the open sea. The veracious intention of the Dutch in trade had changed as they faced the reality, which the price increase due to the competition between various companies.[27] Strongly motivated to get spices at the least price, the Dutch then gradually asserted its influence, marked by the establishment of the VOC, a state-like trade company that had special rights and authority.

The Dutch’s colonial policy in the seventeenth century was to continue spice domination and to be a prominent player in inter-Asiatic trade.[28] In doing so, the Dutch signed a series of treaties with local rulers, in which the rulers granted a complete monopoly over spices. As a single player in the spice trade, the Dutch tried to gain maximal revenue over spices. To keep the spices price high in the market, the Dutch exercised the extirpation right, a right to destroy excessive rights to maintain the supply over demand. This policy provoked local traders smuggling the spice for the black market, which then anticipated with Hongi Sailing (Hongi Tochten), an intense Dutch sea patrol using armed small boats.

After dominating the spice trade in Maluku, the Dutch expanded its monopoly policy to Java. Java is an island of abundant rice, a commodity that the European did not need. The initial reason of why the Dutch were willing to subdue Java was because of its importance to Maluku. The Spice Islands strongly interacted with small Javanese traders in trading spice for foods. By taking over the rice imports, the Dutch would completely control native trades. In 1646, the Dutch compelled the Prince of Mataram from signing an unfair treaty, which limited Javanese traders not to trade in ports that were connected directly to Malacca, such as Ambon, Banda, and Ternate.[29] The idea of limiting local traders in sea trade practice was a suggestion of J. P. Coen, which states: “The Dutch monopoly should be used to promote the growth of a colony of Dutch free burghers in the east.”[30]

Following the decline of spice production, the Dutch economy relied on Java, mainly due to its fertile land that had a good prospect in world’s agricultural market. The Dutch introduced coffee plantations and the sugar industry in Java. They began to start expanding coffee cultivation by 1785, which resulted in production increases four years later.[31] The VOC also encouraged coffee production to gain more profit. These agricultural expansions were established in the Pesisir areas, which were closer and easier to transport the commodities to major ports. The Pesisir played an important role during 1795-1810 agricultural boom, with its contribution of 15% of coffee and 25% of sugar production around 1800. Both productions increased significantly by 40% in 1820.[32]

The Dutch established the Cultivation System (cultuur stelsel) in 1830. The new system was based from the assumption that the Javanese did not have strong incentives to produce cash crops for the European market. This system forced Javanese peasants to dedicate one fifth of their cultivable land, and 66 days of their labor, to the cultivation of coffee, sugar, and indigo.[33] This economic policy resulted in a production increase of cash crops for the European market. The expansion of agricultural industry in Java had shifted labor from other areas, including maritime, to agriculture. Despite the negative consequences, the Cultivation System introduced a new idea of multi crops to indigenous Indonesian, which was used to increase agricultural production.[34]

Picture 3. A Dutch officer is watching Indonesian peasants.[35]

Effects on Indonesian Culture

Cultural change is a slow process that might happen over centuries. By seeing the national character of contemporary Indonesia, people know that Indonesia is no longer have a strong maritime character. An agricultural mindset inadvertently has been indoctrinated into Indonesian children, as can be seen in the appearance of the paddy field (sawah) in every Indonesian primary school students’ landscape drawing. This common idea was shared among Indonesians from generation to generation based on what they saw and heard. The childhood mindset determines national character. In addition to that, Javanese’s domination of Indonesian demography, which has a stronger agricultural tradition, strengthens the Indonesian land-based vision.

A good example of the agricultural vision adopted by a national Javanese leader is when the second President of Indonesia Soeharto, who resided in Surakarta, emphasized the development of agriculture instead of exploring maritime resources. His argument was that because investing in land-based resources development is easier and cheaper than discovering the ocean.[36] The importance of the Indonesian agriculture in the world’s markets required the government to focus on this field to gain more revenue to run the state. In the military, Soeharto built dominant land forces that had the political role to maintain his regime. The Navy was underdeveloped during his administration. Most of defense budget were allocated to the Army to support both its military and political role.


Since Dutch rule ended, Indonesia has never been a dominant maritime power as Sriwijaya and Majapahit were, either economically and militarily. Both events in Indonesian history, the defeat of the Pesisir kingdoms by Mataram and the implementation of the Dutch economic policy, have altered Indonesian maritime culture. The Indonesian outward-looking vision has faded and become an agriculture mindset. The fall of Majapahit led to the rise of Islamic kingdoms, especially Mataram, a kingdom that had ambitions to unify Java. Mataram’s ambitions destroyed the coastal towns, and consequently degraded the local maritime tradition. The Mataram period was replaced by Dutch rule, which implemented economic policies that weakened the Indonesian maritime tradition. The Dutch Cultivation System required concentrated labors to address the surplus of agriculture production; in consequence, other industrial fields of Indonesia were neglected. The Pesisir cities focused on land activities and abandoned their maritime habit. The surplus in agriculture continues in the post-colonial era; Java was still a main provider for Indonesian agriculture production during Soeharto era, which accounts 55 percent of Indonesia GNP in 1960.[37]

Modern Indonesia then has shifted far away from its geopolitical destiny as a maritime nation. The problem that the Indonesian government faces today is to return the maritime character to the Indonesian people. A maritime vision of the new government is the first step to regain a status as the world’s maritime power. The next task for the government and Indonesian people in general is to change the people’s mindset. The people’s character is the last Indonesian missing puzzle to meet Mahan’s requirement of Sea Power. This cultural change process might last in centuries, like when the Indonesian people experienced the shift from a maritime to agricultural vision.


[1] Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783, 12th ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1896), 28.

[2] Alfred Thayer Mahan, 28–29.

[3] Marsetio, Indonesian Sea Power (Jakarta: Indonesian Defense University, 2014), 10.

[4] Yunanto Wiji Utomo, “Indonesia Nenek Moyang Penduduk Madagaskar,” Kompas, March 22, 2012, sec. Sains,

[5] Kenneth R. Hall, “Local and International Trade and Traders in the Straits of Melaka Region: 600-1500,” Journal of Economic and Social Histroy of the Orient 47, no. 2 (2004): 222,

[6] Kenneth R. Hall, 223.

[7] Marsetio, Indonesian Sea Power, 14.

[8] O. W. Wolter, Early Indonesian Commerce (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967), 239.

[9] So Kee-Long, “Dissolving Hegemony or Changing Trade Pattern? Image of Srivijaya in the Chinese Sources of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 29, no. 2 (1998): 296,

[10] O. W. Wolter, Early Indonesian Commerce, 239.

[11] “Where Was the Sriwijaya Kingdom? – Quora,” accessed October 17, 2018,

[12] C. D. Cowan, “Continuity and Change in the International History of Maritime South East Asia,” Journal of History of Maritime South East Asia 9, no. 1 (1968): 5,

[13] “Map of the Majapahit Kingdom,” accessed October 17, 2018,

[14] Jan Wisseman Christie, “Javanese Market and the Asian Trade Boom of the Tenth to Thirteenth Century A.D.,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 41 (1998): 344–45,

[15] Marsetio, Indonesian Sea Power, 15.

[16] Jan Wisseman Christie, “Javanese Market and the Asian Trade Boom of the Tenth to Thirteenth Century A.D.,” 346.

[17] Savitri Scherer, “Globalisation in Java in the 16th Century, A Review of Pramoedya’s Arus Balik,” Archipel 55 (1998): 44.

[18] Savitri Scherer, 45.

[19] Savitri Scherer, 45.

[20] Sir Thomas Stamford Rafles, The History of Java, vol. 2 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1965), 234.

[21] Sir Thomas Stamford Rafles, 2:147.

[22] Sir Thomas Stamford Rafles, 2:149–50.

[23] Arun Das Gupta, “The Maritime Trade of Indonesia: 1500-1800,” in South East Asia: Colonial History, ed. Paul H. Kratoska, vol. 1 (London: Routledge, 2001), 113.

[24] C. D. Cowan, “Continuity and Change in the International History of Maritime South East Asia,” 6.

[25] Sir Thomas Stamford Rafles, The History of Java, 2:193.

[26] Sir Thomas Stamford Rafles, 2:195.

[27] George Masselman, “Dutch Colonial Policy in the Seventeeth Century,” The Journal of Economic History 21, no. 4 (1961): 457,

[28] George Masselman, 467.

[29] George Masselman, 467.

[30] S. Asaratnam, “Monopoly and Free Trade in Dutch-Asian Commercial Policy: Debate and Controversy within the VOC,” in Colonial History, vol. 1, n.d., 318.

[31] Peter Boomgard, “Changing Economic Policy,” in Colonial History, vol. 3, n.d., 79.

[32] Peter Boomgard, 79.

[33] Peter Boomgard, 82–83.

[34] Parakitri T. Simbolon, Menjadi Indonesia (Jakarta: Kompas, 2006), 133.

[35] “Pengertian Tanam Paksa, Sejarah, Latar Belakang, Tujuan, Aturan Dan Dampak Sistem Tanam Paksa (Cultuurstelsel) Lengkap – Pelajaran Sekolah Online,” accessed October 17, 2018, //

[36] Sumardjono, Membangun Angkatan Laut Menuju Kemandirian, ed. Rajab Ritonga (Jakarta: Dispenal, 2009).

[37] Robert F. Emery, “Agricultural Production Trends and Problems in Indonesia,” Far Eastern Survey 29, no. 8 (1960), 113,

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