It is certain that the island of Bali was inhabited in very early prehistoric times. Fossilized humanoid remains from western neighboring island Java date to as early as 250,000 years ago. The earliest human artifacts found on Bali are stone tools and earthenware vessels estimated to be 3000 years old. Some bones have been found that are estimated at 4000 years but have not yet been carbon dated. Artifacts indicate that the Bronze Age began on Bali before 300 B.C.
Indian traders brought Hinduism to the Indonesian archipelago and it was embraced on Bali by the 7th century. Balinese practice an unusual form of Hinduism that allows the eating of beef; Bali is the only place in the world where this form of Hinduism is practiced. Most of Indonesia is staunchly Muslim but Bali is the exception. Balinese are fearful of having the island government overtaken by practicing Muslims and this continues to be in issue at every election. Those on Bali who do practice Islam do not insist on women wearing veils or covering themselves head-to-toe. They observe a more relaxed version of Islam that allows each woman to decide for herself the degree of modesty she wishes to observe with her clothing. We have seen dozens of women wearing the head-coverings but no one wearing the complete head-to-toe coverings. The next island eastward is Lombok, where the vast majority of the population is Muslim. Lombok also has its own special form of Islam that allows the eating of pork. They are not concerned with dietary restrictions that were imposed before refrigeration.
They believe that all things made by Allah are good; therefore, pork is good.
The population of the island of Bali is approximately 3.3 million. Population of neighboring Lombok is approximately 3.1 million. Indonesia is an extremely heavily populated country consisting of hundreds of islands, probably thousands of islands if one counts the tiny ones. Total population is comparable to that of the United States, somewhere between 270,000,000 and 310,000,000. It isn’t like they take a true census on a regular basis so exact figures are not possible. In Bali there is now a population control program promoting having only 2 children rather than the customary 7 to 9 children. Indonesia spreads east-to-northwest for about 3600 miles, and north-to-south for about 1000 miles at its widest point. The island of Bali is sort of in the middle on the southern edge of the Indonesian archipelago. Bali appears quite prosperous but there are many areas of extreme poverty throughout Indonesia. Bill was kidding around with a taxi driver and commented that every family in Bali must own 4 motor-scooters. The taxi driver laughed and said: “No, that would be a very, very poor family. Every family on Bali owns at least 6 motor-scooters.” He might be right because these little scooters are everywhere and skirt amongst the cars and trucks in traffic with impunity. They don’t obey normal traffic laws but somehow manage to get where they are going without accidents. One-way streets don’t seem to mean a thing. The traffic signals and signs appear to be merely suggestions that one follows if one chooses. I would not want to drive a vehicle in a city here.
The earliest written records on Bali are inscriptions on a stone pillar near the village of Sanur which date to the 9th century A.D. By that time Bali was much as it is seen today outside the cities. Rice was grown on terraced hillsides with the help of a complex irrigation system. And the rich cultural and artistic traditions of Bali were already strongly in place – stone carvings, wood carvings, intricate working of gold and silver, paintings, special fabric weavings and the very distinctive Balinese forms of music and dancing. The Balinese are very proud of their continued artistic abilities.
The first Europeans to arrive in Bali were Dutch seamen in 1597. They fell in love with the island and when the captain prepared to set sail to depart, several of his crew refused to leave. At that time Bali was so prosperous and the artistic beauty so unique that it was hard not to fall in love with the island. The king had 200 wives and a chariot pulled by 2 white buffaloes. He also had a retinue of 50 dwarfs whose bodies had been bent to resemble the handle of a kris (traditional dagger). Poor little guys!! Very quickly, by the early 1600s, the Dutch had established trade treaties with the Javanese princes and controlled much of the incredibly profitable spice trade. But they were interested in profit, not culture, and so the Dutch barely gave Bali a second glance. By 1710 the Dutch were finally beginning to move in on Bali, using the old strategy of divide and conquer to overthrow the Balinese princes. In 1846 the Dutch used Balinese salvage claims over shipwrecks as a pretext to land military forces in northern Bali. Their cause was aided by various Balinese princes who had gained ruling interests in Lombok. In 1894 the Dutch, the Balinese and the people of Lombok collided in battles that set the course of history. These battles resulted in enormous losses of men and arms for the Dutch. It finally culminated in street-to-street fighting against Balinese and the Balinese crown prince was killed. The Balinese retreated to Cakranegara, which was eventually attacked by an overwhelming force of Dutch. Rather than surrender, the Balinese men, women and children opted for the suicidal puputan (a fight to the death). They burned their homes and set out for suicidal war. They didn’t last long.
The north of Bali had long been under Dutch control and the successful conquest of Lombok meant that the rest of Bali would soon fall to the Dutch. As during the past 200 years, it was the ransacking of wrecked ships that brought the differences to a head and gave the Dutch a reason to move in and take over all of Bali. In 1904 a Chinese ship was wrecked off the village of Sanur on Bali and the Dutch demanded that the rajah (prince) pay 3000 silver dollars because of this Chinese shipwreck. The Balinese rajah refused to pay the Dutch for the Chinese shipwreck, and in 1906 Dutch warships appeared at Sanur. The Dutch landed and marched to the outskirts of Denpasar (the current capital of Bali). They mounted a naval bombardment on Denpasar and then began their final assault. The 3 rajah realized that defeat was inevitable; but, like their counterparts on Lombok had done in 1710, they opted for the suicidal puputan (fight to the death). First the princes burned their palaces. Then, dressed in their finest jewelry and waving ceremonial gold kris daggers, the rajah led the royalty and priests out to their deaths facing the Dutch. The Dutch implored the Balinese to surrender rather than make their hopeless last stand, but the Balinese nobility marched forward into the Dutch guns. Nearly 4000 Balinese died. They would rather die than be subjects to another government. The Dutch now had control of all Bali.
In 1942 during WWII the Japanese invaded Bali at Sanur. The Balinese could offer no resistance. When the Japanese left in August 1945 Bali was suffering extreme poverty. But the occupation had fostered several paramilitary, nationalist and anti-colonial organizations that were ready to fight the returning Dutch. After almost 350 years the Balinese had had enough of Dutch rule. Just days after the Japanese surrender, in August 1945 the Indonesian leader proclaimed the nation’s independence. But it took 4 years to convince the Dutch that they were not going to get their colony back.
The next invasion of Bali was by tourists! And they continue today in even stronger numbers. Beginning in 1920 the Dutch government realized that Bali’s unique culture could be marketed internationally to the growing tourism industry. They devised rigid 3-day itineraries that featured canned cultural shows at a government-run tourist hotel in Denpasar. Then some western artists discovered Bali and the tourism increased slightly. In 1936 an American unmarried couple (Robert Koke and Louise Garret) arrived in Bali after having worked in Hollywood. Horrified at the stuffy strictures imposed by the Dutch tourism authorities, the couple built a couple of bungalows out of palm leaves and other local materials on a deserted beach at Kuta. A few guests dribbled in. The couple introduced the local boys to surfing. Word spread and the bungalows soon were booked solid. Guests came for a few days and ended up staying for weeks. The Dutch had at first totally dismissed Koke’s Kuta Beach Hotel as “dirty native huts” but they soon realized that the increasing numbers of tourists were good for everyone. WWII wiped out tourism, of course. But once people began traveling again after the war Bali’s appeal made its popularity a foregone conclusion. Bali was destined to be a tourist haven.
There was a coup in 1965 involving the communist party, which was eventually outlawed. But this coup crystallized existing differences between traditionalists and radicals. After the failed coup, religious traditionalists on Bali led a witch-hunt for the “godless communists.” Eventually the military stepped in to control the anti-communist purge; but no-one on Bali was untouched by the killings, estimated at between 50,000 and 100,000 out of a population of about 2,000,000 at that time. After the failed coup, General Mohamed Soeharto established himself as president of Indonesia and took control of the government. He copied the West in foreign policy and goals of balancing budgets and controlling inflation and attracting foreign investment. But being military, he banned political parties. Regular elections maintained the appearance of a national democracy, but until 1999 the Golkar party established by Gen. Soeharto won every election.
In 1999 Indonesia’s parliament elected a new president. The majority of the votes were cast for a woman named Megawati Sukarnoputri. She was enormously popular because of her family connections on Bali and partly because her party was essentially secular. The mostly Hindu Balinese were at that time and still are very concerned about any growth in Muslim fundamentalism. However, Soeharto’s Golkar party was still in force. In a surprising development, Abdurrahman Wahid, the head of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, emerged as president. So much for fair and transparent elections. Outraged supporters of Megawati took to the streets of Java and Bali. There was a tense stand-off and then a surprising compromise. Wahid took the office of president and Megawati assumed the office of vice-president (even though she had received the most votes and really should have served as president). Wahid was an uncharismatic leader who made minor progress on issues like the economy and was less-than-successful in tackling the ethnic, religious and regional conflicts that have plagued Indonesia. In July 2001, after a tense stand-off, parliament finally gave the presidency to Megawati.
The October 2002 Bali bombings in Kuta by terrorists were a tragedy that severely affected the tourism industry. The bombings fueled the ever-present suspicions of the Hindu Balinese that the predominately Muslim Indonesians (especially Javanese) are trying to muscle in on the profitable Bali scene. This shattered the myth of isolation enjoyed by many Balinese locals. Fortunately, the elections of 2004 were remarkably peaceful. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (popularly known as SBY) beat incumbent Megawati by garnering 60% of the vote. He is a former general and government minister and is known as an intellectual and an economist. SBY managed to garner strong support even on Bali, a former Megawati stronghold, by his promises of strong and enlightened leadership. We wish him luck in his endeavors. Rampant corruption, uncertain legal processes, widespread ecological destruction, poverty and a sputtering economy are his most urgent concerns.