Hand carved mirrors, furniture and oil paintings in traditional European styles

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Indonesia & UK - An important 500 year relationship

The relationship between Indonesia and the UK is rich and complex, spanning centuries. It all began when the legendary English sailor, Sir Francis Drake, first reached the spice island of Moluccas in 1579. This arrival marked the beginning of a long-lasting connection which has changed much over the past 500 years and has encompassed trade and investment, education, arts and culture.

When Sir Francis Drake reached Indonesia, it was on the Golden Hind, the world-renowned ship on which he became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. The epic expedition of discovery and adventure took Drake 1,020 days and saw him sail between Europe, Africa, North America, South America and, of course, Asia- where he first encountered the Moluccan people of eastern Indonesia.

Trade between England and Indonesia soon expanded, and the country became an important point of the East India Trading Company’s route. In 1685, the British established a garrison at Bencoolen- in what is today Bengkulu City. A trading post was established in Riau, Sumatra.

One of the most significant figures in the history of relations between the two nations is Lord Stamford Raffles. Indonesia was administrated by the British between 1811 and 1815 and, during this time, Raffles served as the governor of Java. A renowned enthusiast of Indonesian- especially Javanese- culture, Raffles is perhaps best remembered for leading the expeditions which uncovered the temple of Borobudur, Trowluan and other ancient archaeological wonders and, subsequently, publishing The History of Java.

A forward thinker, with a vision ahead of his time, Raffles abhorred the colonial attitudes and opinions displayed by the Dutch rulers towards the indigenous Indonesians. Unlike other imperial officials, Raffles embraced the culture of the native people and particularly admired their art, architecture and designs- something which could be seen in his own home with his furniture styled as a combination of Eastern imagery and classic English design. Raffles also embraced the tradition of intricate had-carving which has been prevalent across Indonesia for centuries, one striking gothic throne commissioned for him featured large mahogany hand-carvings of British royal court symbols and growling lion heads, which would have required weeks of work by a single Javanese artisan.

Lord Raffles’ most enduring legacy is perhaps the excavation of Borobudur. The largest Buddhist temple in the world, this pyramid-shaped ancient wonder features 2,000 elaborate carvings detailing the story of the Buddha’s life. For more than 1,000 years, Borobudur lay lost and forgotten amid dense rainforest in central Java. One day, along with the usual daily reports he received as governor, Raffles received one of special interest. A giant deserted temple had been discovered deep in the jungle. He went on to investigate, determined that-unlike other colonial archaeologists and explorers- he would not desecrate the temple by breaking it apart or stripping it of its treasures. Instead, it took two months and 200 workers to clear away the overgrowth to reveal and restore the monument. He had the temple surveyed and sketched in incredibly precise detail, including the exact measurements, the number of steps in each set of stairs, the number of stupas and each carved image.

This monumental excavation project and the details of Borobudur are recorded in Raffles’ History of Java, 1817. In addition to this, almost every aspect of life on the island is covered in great detail. The book included detailed illustrations of the tools used by farmers, household equipment, tools used for carving, printing, painting etc, the written language, musical instruments, careful reproductions of traditional wall carvings and more.  The artist who accompanied Raffles produced exquisite portraits of Javanese people, documenting the styles of dress worn by all walks of life including ordinary everyday people, children, soldiers in war regalia and chiefs. A large fold-out map also accompanied the publication. From all these meticulous depictions, it is apparent that Raffles was dedicated to documenting, preserving and celebrating the culture of Indonesia- a sentiment which still prevails today in the links between Britain and Indonesia. Although not a commercial success, The History of Java is now considered an invaluable written record of life in Java 200 years ago. Historians have said that the masterpiece is unequalled in the quantity and quality of its information.

Today, much of Raffles’ lifeworks and the artefacts he collected throughout his life can be seen in museums. Traditional masks, theatre puppets, gamelan musical instruments and Hindu and Buddhist sculptures are a few of the pieces from Raffles’ personal collections which are exhibited in museums around the world today.

In the years since colonialism ended, the relationship between Great Britain and Indonesia continued to grow and change. In the 1940s, the Dutch officially recognised Indonesian independence and now, for 70 years, the country has enjoyed a strong diplomatic relationship with the UK.

Today, an average of 400,000 British passport-holders visit Indonesia each year and, as Indonesia’s economy continues to improve, the relationship between the two nations has become a much more equal partnership. A recent meeting between Indonesian and British leaders resulted in an broad and detailed agreement which covered such factors as:

  • The two countries working together to counter terrorism and counter violent extremism
  • An agreement for the UK to assist Indonesia in its efforts to work against climate change and low carbon development
  • A shared commitment to maintaining responsible timber trade
  • Joining forces to ensure that Rohingya refugees are returned from Myanmar safe, voluntary and dignified
  • UK support in the Indonesian effort to develop its education sector

… and much more.