Geography is destiny

This is the first chapter, ‘Origins‘, of Batam and the Riau Islands published in 2011 by Yayasan Bali Purnati and edited by Leonard Lueras, who kindly contributed the chapter to this archive of Dave’s writings.

(A review of the book was published in Tempo Magazine (English) with a testimonial to his “sterling and unique contributions” added by the editor. Read it here.

We believe that this is Dave Jardine’s final essay. There may be other notes and completed writings to be added here, but they will be backdated so that this essay remains on this page as a testament to his impeccable research and always coherent writing.


Geography is destiny, manifestly so. If in times before mass communications and air travel you lived on remote islands, such as, for example, the Seychelles far, far out in the middle of an ocean your contact with the wider world would have been both sporadic and minimal. If in those times you lived on a group of islands so strategically placed as the Riau and Lingga at the swing point of the Straits of Malacca, the Java Sea and the South China Sea the chances of inter-action with travelers, itinerant merchants and other adventurers would have been that much greater.

And so it has been throughout history. The Riau and Lingga have in their own way had a seriously important, although not necessarily high profile, role to play. Their position athwart the routes of early human migration, trade routes from early in the Christian era (AD) and, as we shall see, lanes of militarized naval movement is of the greatest significance.

This story brings together a whole variety of human groups, Malays, Chinese, Arabs, Indians, Japanese, Europeans and others who criss-crossed the Southeast Asia region for various purposes.

Which of them were ‘foreigners’? It really does depend on what you mean by the term. If, as the French historian of Southeast Asia Paul Michel Munoz says in ‘Early Malay Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and Malay Peninsula‘ the peninsula itself was not peopled until the last millennium BC then by definition the first incomers at that time were ‘foreign’.

Clearly that would apply to the neighbouring and adjacent islands such as the Riau and Lingga.

If we accept Munoz, there had indeed been earlier movements of hominids (any of a family of erect, two-legged types, including ‘homo sapiens’) through the region. These would have included so-called ‘Trinil Man’, who takes his name from where fossils were found on the banks of the Solo River in Central Java. ‘Trinil Man’, however was an evolutionary dead-end.

The first human groups to arrive in the region may well have been of Veddoid South Indian stock. Their last descendants are the small tribal societies of the Kubu and Sakai of Sumatra and Malaysia, hunter-gatherers still. There is no evidence that they were in the Riau islands, although it is possible if we recognize that sea levels have varied over time and even for non-maritime peoples the crossing would have been more feasible from time to time.

The human migration that should interest us most to begin with is of the Malayoid peoples. These form the bulk of the peoples of western Indonesia as well as, of course, the Malay peninsula. How long the process was of their settlement of the region it is difficult to specify but let us say it took place over a very long period.

Again, much would have depended on maritime skills, including of boat-building and knowledge of winds and tides.

Over the first two millennia of the human presence outside or ‘foreign’ influences were absorbed from China and India. These included, perhaps needless to say, religious influences, most particularly Buddhism and Hinduism , both from India.

Buddhism was first on the scene, probably in its Therevada form, as known today in Thailand and Sri Lanka. Hinduism appeared in its Vishnu and Shiva varieties.

In the first millennium AD the Buddhist state of Srivijaya, based on modern Palembang, was pre-eminent in the region and exacted tribute from far and wide. The Riau and Lingga islands were obviously not exempt from Srivijayan power, nor indeed were north coast Java states such as Banten and Demak.

Srivijaya attracted the devout from as far away as China to study in its schools and temples so there is every reason to believe that Chinese ships carrying Buddhist devotees passed through Riau and stopped off there.

One of the earliest records of a Chinese traveler through the region is of the seafarer Fa-Hsien who made the journey from China to India in 413-414 AD.

Srivijaya, it might be noted, fell in the eleventh century AD to the Tamil Chola kingdom of southern India so we can reasonably surmise that the Tamils were also in Riau and Lingga.

The Arabs probably were amongst the earliest visitors. Any of them discovering the Sunda Straits and heading east and then north would have passed through Riau and Lingga.

Arab knowledge would have been passed to the Romans. Were they here? “The geographer Ptolemy, who lived about the middle of the second century AD, under the reigns of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, describes the limits of the earth as far as they were known in his time,” says one account. “Soon after Ptolemy’s time the whole coast of Malacca and the Siamese Sea was explored (by whom, it is not stated) and the Romans appear to have had some knowledge of the Indian archipelago and its great islands, Java, Sumatra and Borneo.”

If that is so, did they acquire it first-hand?

Fa-hsien, it must be said, reported that “the waters of Southeast Asia are full of pirates“. Piracy has a long, long history in and around Riau and Lingga, the many islands providing a multitude of bolt-holes.

Chinese travelers were especially wary of “these bandits of the sea“. Merchants plying the waters in search of valuable commodities such as Sumatran gold and  pepper had every reason to be so wary.

Pepper, incidentally, still plays a role in the economy of the Riau islands, notably the white variety cultivated around Muntok on the island of Bangka.

Piracy was noted over a millennium later by the Portuguese Tome Pires in ‘Suma Oriental‘ (1515) when he drew attention to the Bajau Sea Gypsies, a people very familiar in the Riau. Pires may have been in error here if we are to believe the modern historian of piracy, the Swede Stefan Eklof who says, “In contrast to many other ethnic groups in the region the Sea Gypsies do not have a strong tradition of violence and only rarely carry firearms.” Indeed the Bajau today rank high amongst the victims of armed piracy.

The Bugis of South Sulawesi would come to play a major role in piracy in all the waters of Southeast Asia, especially once the Europeans established themselves in the spice trade whose routes crossed the Riau and Lingga waters. So feared were they in time that the name Bugis spawned the English expression ‘bogey man’!

As one observer puts it, “Often pirates were entrusted by the rulers to ensure security within the region.”

Indeed, the Bugis have been highly influential throughout the western Malay world and in the early nineteenth century played a pivotal role in the power struggles within the Johor-Riau-Lingga sultanate.

It must be noted that piracy, whilst it certainly came to have an anti-colonial dimension as the pirates haunted the shipping and ports of the European powers, was not exclusively a local phenomenon, not at all. The Portuguese and the English certainly indulged in it in Southeast Asian waters.

Piracy was tied up with slavery. All the islands of the region were subject to raids by slave-taking pirates and Riau was no different. Sailors from Magellans ships left stranded in Southeast Asia were known to have been sold into slavery.

If the presence of the Romans in the region is debatable, then that of a much later Italian, the Venetian traveler Marco Polo is not. Polo is probably the most famous of all pre-modern travelers. Making his famous journey to China in the thirteenth century, he returned from there via the Straits of Malacca and could very well have stopped off in Riau.

The Venetian famously reported he had seen a unicorn in Sumatra. It is not difficult to surmise that this was a Sumatran rhinoceros, then much more plentiful than today.

He is also reported to have introduced the Italians to the business of noodle-making, which skill he is said to have picked up in China, but the writer Peter Robb in his excellent ‘Midnight in Sicily‘, essentially a treatise on food, argues that he witnessed on the island of Bangka locals making noodle-type food from the substance of the sago plant. Italian noodles, as we know them, came, Robb argues, from the Arabs.

It would be more than two centuries after Marco Polo that Europeans arrived on the scene. The first were the Portuguese, who overran the Sultanate of Malacca in 1511 and proceeded to maraud on both sides of the Straits and of course the Riau and Lingga.

This was, of course, highly consequential. The Sultan of Malacca fled across the peninsula to east coast Pahang and then with his entourage made his way south to pitch camp in Bintan in the Riau, establishing influence over this and neighbouring islands and from 1528 heading the Sultanate of Johor, which would later become Johor-Riau-Linnga.

There are some deep ironies involved here. The Catholic Portuguese had been spurred into finding a route to the Orient and its source of spices, including of course the “trinity” of cloves, nutmeg and mace by insistent pressure from the Church, which had condemned commerce with the Muslim Ottomans as “sinful”. It was the Ottomans who at the beginning of the 16th century controlled what Europe knew of the spice trade.

Equally, it is ironic that the navigational means that would bring the Europeans to parts of Southeast Asia recently converted to Islam had passed to the Portuguese from Muslim science. In particular, note the astrolabe, the “salient emblem of Islamic science“, as it has been called.

The Sultan of Johor was not one to let the Portuguese have an easy ride and Bintan became a base for Malay raids on Malacca and on Portuguese vessels in the waters nearby. The Portuguese, inevitably, retaliated, where, in fact, they did not initiate the violence and razed the settlement on Bintan to the ground.

The next Europeans to put in an appearance were the English (as opposed to the British, the unification of the English and Scottish crowns coming at the beginning of the eighteenth century), who did not scruple in plundering Portuguese cargoes. Piracy pure and simple was their modus operandi, as Francis Drake had so ably demonstrated off South America. Indeed, the English monarch Elizabeth 1 dubbed Drake mine own pyrate.

Riau and all the neighbouring islands began to take on a higher and higher commercial profile, especially from the eighteenth century on and we see that there was a huge increase in the number of Chinese vessels trading in the ports of the archipelago during that century. Chinese junks carried away crop products such as Muntok pepper, the areca or betel nut grown locally (it was also traded to India) as well as gambier, a common ingredient used by Asians in chewing betel nut. It was to process this last crop that Chinese laborers were recruited to the Riau, thus increasing the ethnic Chinese presence in the region greatly.

Tanjung Pinang today has a strong Chinese presence that owes something to that influx.

As British naval power increased in the eighteenth century so did British influence in the region and thus competition with the Dutch East India Company (VOC).One source of interest to the British in Riau was tin, mined on the island of Bangka for centuries. The British Orientalist William Marsden noted in his (1811) ‘History of Sumatra’, Tin is called ‘timar’ and is a very considerable article of trade & many cargoes of it are yearly carried to China, where the consumption is largely for religious purposes. (The historian does not say what these latter purposes were.)

Tin mining remained an important industry on Bangka until recent times. Indeed, one of the principal Japanese war aims in Tokyo’s attack on the colonial powers in Southeast Asia in 1941-42 was seizure of that industry and they duly headed straight for Bangka.

Competition between the VOC and the Calcutta-based British East India Company increased further with the unraveling by the English clockmaker John Harrison of the problem of the measurement of longitude and in due course many more merchant ships appeared in the Riau and elsewhere.

The VOC went bankrupt in 1799. The Netherlands was subsequently under the occupation of Napoleonic France and this caused a major shift in the European power balance in Southeast Asia which was also consequential for local powers such as the Malay sultanates. These of course included Johor-Riau-Lingga.

When in 1811 Thomas Stamford Raffles was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Java by the East India Company (this following the defeat of a French army at Meester Cornelis, now Jatinegara, Jakarta) British power was projected across the region. Raffles held the position for five years until the end of the Napoleonic War when Britain restored Dutch colonial rule.

The Dutch were anxious to consolidate themselves in the region and in 1818 signed a treaty with one of the competing factions in the Sultanate of Johor-Riau-Lingga, giving recognition to one Abdul Rahman as Sultan in exchange for his recognition of their Riau trading post.

Raffles, meanwhile, had returned from London, where he had been cleared of corruption charges, to a post in Bengkulu, Sumatra. Alarmed at Dutch intentions, he then took a sharper interest in the islands of the Riau and in early 1819 brought off the deal with the Sultan that secured a British trading post on the island now known as Singapore.

The rest, one can safely assume, is widely known. British merchant and naval power became the pre-eminent force in the region.

It is a matter of some conjecture how different Southeast Asia would look today if the Dutch had negotiated a deal for Singapore.

As we have noted, the Japanese swept into the Dutch East Indies, forcing a Dutch surrender on March 8 1942. Bangka was one of their principal targets, along with the oil installations of Kalimantan and Sumatra. The island became yet another location for a Japanese prison camp, this one at Muntok, and the waters of the Bangka Strait a graveyard for Allied shipping as the Japanese sank dozens of vessels fleeing Singapore.

Most notoriously, however, it was the scene of a massacre by the Japanese Imperial Army of Australian women nurses who had escaped Singapore aboard the ‘SS Vyner Brooke’ as well as retreating British troops. (see Captain Judith Spence ‘Return to Bangka Island‘)

Riau and Lingga, needless to say, have not moved. They still occupy the same strategically important position they have always occupied.

Theirs is a record rich in stories. The spice trade, piracy, slavery, Malay, Chinese, Arab, European and Asian interventions.

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