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Who Are The Nusantarians?

July 10, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

With 400 million people inhabiting a vast geography, Nusantarians should be recognized among the world’s largest nationalities. But who are they?

For author and journalist Philip Bowring the Nusantarians–their name derived from an old Sanskrit word for “outer islands”–are the combined Indonesian, Filipino, and Malaysian nationalities who occupy a great archipelago. This distinct population traces its origins at some point between 15,000 and 17,000 years ago when the last Ice Age came to an end. The resulting climactic upheaval, from tsunamis to immense flooding, left a collection of lush islands on Eurasia’s edge.

In his new book Empire of the Winds the Nusantarians are given an origin and a unified history that challenges the reader’s own assumptions about Asia’s past. Bowring clarifies that his Nusantarians are the people whom today’s historians and anthropologists consider “Austronesians” whose definitive trait is a language group unconnected to a racial identity. It’s these same Austronesians who played a vital role in 2,000 years of global trade as their cultural footprint reached as far as East Africa and the Middle East. The singular activity that united the Austronesians, who spoke different languages and worshipped different gods, was their expertise in navigating the high seas.

The emphasis on maritime travel wasn’t accidental but inevitable. As Bowring explains in his book taking to the seas was a matter of survival since the islands of the great archipelago couldn’t support large-scale agriculture. “Sailing and trading were integral to life, and previously the afterlife,” Bowling wrote about his Nusantarians for The Globalist in May. “Even today these people remain the world’s leading seafarers, albeit in subordinate roles.”

To make his point Bowring devotes whole chapters of his book chronicling the Nusantarian golden age. Their culture shaped by India’s spiritual traditions, the Nusantarians of the Malay Peninsula and Java built flourishing coastal cities that drew adventurers and pilgrims from as far away as Europe. It was commodities such as aromatic wood and varied spices–cloves and peppers–sourced among Nusantaria’s remote islands that connected them with pre-modern world civilization. Nusantarian exports were being delivered to Europe since the days of the Roman Empire and it was the maritime route from the Malacca Strait until the Red Sea rather than the precarious “Silk Road” that upheld the world’s economy.

Indeed, when the Europeans did arrive by the early 16th century the Nusantarians met their greatest challenge. The first to disrupt their pattern of civilization were the Portuguese, who had already established a foothold along India’s western coast, and this was followed by the Spanish and the Dutch. Each faction was more conniving than the last. Far from peaceful adventurers, the Portuguese expedition led by Alfonso de Albuquerque laid waste to Malacca in 1511 and kicked off Nusantaria’s gradual decline. The next four centuries would be difficult for Nusantarian societies as invasion and large-scale social engineering happened at a frightful pace. The end of World War 2 offered no respite as resurgent nationalism in the Dutch East Indies and Indochina led to unbelievable mass violence.

Though far from peaceful island dwellers and possessing their own distinct martial culture, the Nusantarians failed to resist Europe’s quest for raw materials and markets. Bowring manages to compress the extent of Western imperialism in Southeast Asia within a few chapters but his point is clear: it did more harm than good and an ancient pattern of life was nearly destroyed. A specific outrage was the deliberate collapse of oceanic trade as European merchant fleets replaced the age old Nusantarian shipping and their highly trained crews. By inventing the Nusantarian identity Bowring hopes a regional awakening can take place that embraces a common past, inspiring both citizens and leaders alike to assert Nusantara’s importance for global stability. This should prove useful at a time when great powers are once again vying for dominance over Southeast Asia and attempting to rearrange its borders. Philip Bowring’s Empire of the Winds is now available wherever books are sold.

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