Indonesian Population Density c.1500
Indo-Malaysia is very big and very diverse. These days the population of the region is enormous: 145 million people live in Java, about 50 million in Sumatra, 20+ million on the Malay Peninsula, and a further 20 million in Borneo. That’s 235 million people, and that’s before the populations of smaller islands are included (taking the number closer to 300 million). Depending on how it’s defined, Southeast Asia has over 600 million inhabitants. This is not a trivial or obscure part of the planet.
But in 1500 the population density of the region was probably very low indeed, and Leonard Andaya quotes a figure around six million for the population of all of Southeast Asia at the turn of the fifteenth century. Assuming this figure is even close to accurate, Portugal alone probably had more inhabitants than all the islands of Indonesia. The intensification of wet-rice agriculture in the last couple of centuries is likely responsible for the change; Indo-Malaysian dietary staples were certainly more diverse in the past than they are at the moment, and tree crops like sago were probably consumed even in major population centres like Melaka on the Malay Peninsula before this occurred. Sago (Metroxylon sagu) is now confined largely to eastern Indonesia and inland Borneo and rice has taken over nearly everywhere.
This had political consequences: because land was abundant, warfare in medieval Indonesia was seldom about the control of territory. Farmers to work the land were rather lacking, however, and this meant that slavery was commonplace. Debtors were often enslaved by their creditors and raids to capture slaves were constant in parts of eastern Indonesia beyond Dutch control even into the nineteenth century.
This also meant that states were centred on large villages rather than big cities. Ancient and medieval Indonesian cities seem to have been sprawling low-density affairs, with houses interspersed with orchards and vegetable plots, rather different to the densely-packed cities of the region circa 2017 CE (Jabodetabek in particular). The early European sources (Pigafetta on Brunei, for example) tell us that a ruler’s ‘palace’ in most pre-colonial states was a house almost like any other in the village, only a little grander. It’s not that hierarchy wasn’t important — just that it found expression in other ways.
Most early Indonesian states were made up of small urban centres like Melaka and Brunei extracting tribute from villages governed by their traditional rulers. These states depended for their muscle on local mercenaries paid for by the proceeds of foreign trade; professional bureaucracy was limited even where it existed, and seems to have revolved around regulating foreign trade and religious affairs. Power came principally from distributing and displaying the proceeds from overseas trade. In such a political climate theatrical displays of power and supernatural oaths of loyalty were more important than in the comparatively solid stable states of medieval Europe.
The tributary villages could be tiny indeed. Tomé Pires, a Portuguese apothecary who wrote about Melaka shortly after the Portuguese conquest in 1511, tells us that the largest villages on the Malay Peninsula providing goods to the metropole had barely 500 inhabitants each. The foreign merchant population of Melaka in 1511, meanwhile, was estimated at around 4,000, a quarter of whom were Gujarati; such figures leave little doubt that foreign trade was the engine of prosperity at the time. Additionally, the largest village Pires lists — a tin-mining place known to Pires as Mjmjam apparently located on the Dinding River — had a foreign population of its own, consisting of 500 Luzonians who must have been involved in the tin trade. (These figures, incidentally, come from Paul Wheatley’s excellent 1961 study of the historical geography of the Malay Peninsula.) The association of foreigners with power was consequently ubiquitous in ancient Indonesia, and throughout the archipelago we find myths and stories that attempt to reconcile indigenous political authority with the foreign roots of power.
There were of course some areas where population density was quite high, especially in East and Central Java, and it is notable that it was in these parts of Indo-Malaysia that written literature and the state were most highly developed before the sixteenth century. Many Javanese rulers lived in walled palace compounds clearly differentiated from the dwellings of their subjects, unlike the Sultans of Ternate or Brunei c.1520 whose houses were much more humble. Large populations were fed by the produce of the river valleys, especially the Brantas and its tributaries in East Java. As I mentioned recently, the ejecta of Javanese volcanoes makes for pretty good rice-growing soil when irrigated.
However, Javanese coastal cities involved in the Indian Ocean/South China Sea trade became richer and more politically prominent from the thirteenth century on, and the potential for conflict between the Hindu-Buddhist agricultural interior and the mercantile increasingly Islamized pasisir (north coast) played a significant role in shaping especially the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century history of Java and its neighbours.
Indo-Malaysia is an enormous region, comparable in scale and diversity in ancient times to Europe or India, although not in population. Any generalization will inevitably have its exceptions, and there’s a lot more to this topic than will fit in a single blogpost. But if you’re new to the academic study of Indonesia then it’s important to recognize the ways in which the region varies from the rest of the world. Generally speaking, island Southeast Asia had a lower population density overall than Europe, China, or even the Valley of Mexico during the pre-Columbian era.
I’ll leave you with Bujangga Manik’s take on Bali (Sundanese, fifteenth century), showing that you don’t need to grow up surrounded by a lot of people to find human beings en masse unbearable:
Moha teuing nu ti heula,
teka sarua reana
na lanang deungeun na wadon.
Hidepeng karah mo waya,
ja dini di tengah nusa,
gumanti leuleuwih oman,
rea manan urang Jawa,
timbun manan di Malayu.
Di inya aing teu heubeul,
Satahun deung sataraban.
Pulang deui ka uruting.
So much chaos — more than ever.
There were so many of them,
both men and women.
I had thought there wouldn’t be so many
here in the middle of [Bali].
On the contrary, there were many more,
more people than in Java,
more crowded than Malayu [in Sumatra].
I wasn’t there long,
a year and a bit.
Then I went back to where I came from.