Counting islands

Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelagic state (although Canada has twice as many islands in its Arctic archipelago). East to west, the archipelago stretches more than three thousand miles (that’s more than the continental United States); it’s more than one thousand miles north to south. Its islands range in size from Borneo and Sumatra, respectively the third and sixth largest islands in the world, to tiny uninhabited islets with only local names.

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How many islands? It depends on whom you ask. A 2002 survey by Indonesia’s space agency concluded that the archipelago had 18,307 islands; in 2010, Indonesia’s mapping agency offered a more conservative estimate of 13,466. The CIA’s World Factbook uses a 1996 Indonesian government figure of 17,508. Bottom line: no one knows for sure, but the answer has important geopolitical and economic implications.

The problem, of course, is defining an “island.” Do you include tidal islands, such as reefs and sand spits that are submerged at high tide? Then there’s all that earthquake and volcanic activity that keeps blowing islands apart and creating new ones.

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Despite these challenges, Indonesia has good reason to count all its islands and have the United Nations officially recognize them under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Once an island is recognized, Indonesia can claim an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for two hundred nautical miles around it, giving it fishing and mineral rights. This brings it into conflict with neighboring countries that also claim outlying islands.

In 2002, the International Court of Justice ruled against Indonesia in a dispute with Malaysia over two islands; the same year, two islands were ceded to Timor Leste (East Timor) when it became independent. Indonesia has a long-standing spat with Australia over the maritime boundaries of the Timor Gap, the three-hundred-mile strait between Timor and the Northern Territory. The more serious territorial disputes are to the north, where Indonesia faces off against Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam, and, most ominously, one of its largest investors, China. Since 2014, Indonesia has blown up hundreds of foreign fishing vessels seized while illegally fishing in its waters. It has beefed up its military presence in the Natuna Islands, northwest of Borneo, a region with large fish stocks and undersea oil and gas resources. Indonesia renamed the northernmost part of its EEZ the “North Natuna Sea,” a defiant challenge to China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

According to Susan Herawati of the Coalition of People for Justice for Fisheries (Kiara), 60 percent of Indonesia’s islands “don’t have a name or official legal status, so they can easily be taken or claimed by another country.” UN status may also protect islands from being grabbed by developers. Herawati says more than one hundred families were expelled without compensation when an island near Lombok was leased to develop a private tourist resort. Although Indonesia officially bans the private ownership of islands, several online real estate companies list islands for sale.

The Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries wants to add at least seventeen hundred islands to the UN’s approved list. The UN defines an island as a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is still exposed at high tide. That takes tidal islands off the list but leaves a question mark over low-lying islands that may be submerged as sea levels rise. The ministry team must also come up with a name known to local people (even if the island is uninhabited), and a description of the island’s history and geography.

Indonesia has strong motives to claim as many islands as it can—not so much for the islands themselves, most of which are not worth inhabiting, but for the maritime real estate all around. “This is about our identity as a nation,” Herawati told the BBC. “By clearly listing our islands then our fishermen have legal protection and rights over the islands and our ancestral seas.”

Shipping news

From Taman Fatahillah, the central cobblestone square of Batavia, the former capital of the Dutch East Indies, it is a short walk along Kali Besar to the old port of Sunda Kelapa at the estuary of the Ciliwung River. For three centuries, trading ships and military vessels sailed from the port as the Dutch expanded and consolidated their control of the Dutch East Indies, fighting off the English, the Portuguese and the pirates.

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The harbor entrance was too narrow and shallow to accommodate larger vessels which had to anchor further north. Rowboats and smaller ships, known as lighters, were used to transport cargo and passengers to the port. In the 19th century, the condition of what the Dutch called the Haven Kanaal (Harbor Canal) deteriorated. It became costly and time-consuming to carry passengers and cargo into the port, and dangerous during stormy weather. In 1885, partly to accommodate increasing traffic following the opening of the Suez Canal, the colonial administration built a new port five miles to the east.

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Today, Sunda Kelapa is lined with brightly painted wooden pinisi, the traditional two-mast wooden schooners that for centuries have carried cargo and people between islands. The first ships, said to be modeled on the Dutch pinnace, were built for the spice trade at Makassar, the VOC trading fort on the island of Sulawesi.

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The modern version, with a crew of a dozen, is similar in design but longer and larger (up to 350 tons), with navigational equipment and a diesel engine. The pinisi no longer carry cloves, nutmeg, and other spices. Most were unloading tropical hardwoods such as camphor, meranti, and mahogany, logged in Kalimantan or Sulawesi, and taking on cement, sand, bricks, and other building materials.

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I asked my port guide to describe a typical voyage. “One week from South Sulawesi to Jakarta with a cargo of wood,” he said. “Load up with cement and then three days to Jambi [a river port in central Sumatra], and back to Jakarta with a cargo of coconuts.” Although a few small cranes and winches were in operation, most of the loading was done by laborers, hoisting wooden planks on their shoulders and cement sacks on their backs. For transporting bulk materials across the archipelago, pinisi are still the cheapest and most efficient option.

Going Dutch

It’s a quiet corner of Indonesia’s bustling capital, Jakarta, away from the traffic snarls, street markets and mega-malls. It has a cobblestone central square, canals and stately 17th and 18th century houses with gable fronts. Ignore the palm trees and the tropical heat and you could be, well, in Amsterdam.

From its modest origins as a trading post, Batavia, named for an ancient Germanic tribe, the Batavi, became the thriving commercial center of the jewel in the Dutch imperial crown—the East Indies. Over almost three centuries, administrators and military commanders sailed out of the port of Batavia to expand their dominion throughout the archipelago by conquest and alliance.


The Dutch imperial mission was driven by economic motives, although trade and politics soon became intertwined. From the mid-sixteenth century, the Dutch were duking it out with the Portuguese, Spanish, and English for control of the East Indies trade and sea routes to China. Each established fortified trading posts along the main sea passages; the Portuguese were first to claim the famed spice islands of the Moluccas (Maluku). Realizing the potential of the East Indies trade, the Dutch government merged competing merchant companies into the Vereenigde Osst-Indische Compagnie (VOC), the United East India Company. By 1605, the VOC had driven the Portuguese out of the Moluccas.

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In 1610, the prince of Jayakarta (Jakarta) granted trading rights to both the VOC and the English. Relations between the two powers were never cordial. In 1619, the English defeated the Dutch in a sea battle and, with the support of the prince’s army, besieged the VOC fort. Reinforced by troops from the Moluccas, the Dutch governor Jan Pieterszoon Coen kicked out the English and razed Jayakarta. The VOC named its fortress and trading post Batavia.

Batavia was a closed community, with a mixed population of Europeans, Asian laborers, and slaves; Javanese were not allowed inside the walls for fear of an insurrection. The Dutch built canals from the Ciliwung River and lined them with stately mansions.


Today, many are abandoned and in poor repair, their roofs leaking and trees sprouting through cracks in the floors. Jakarta’s city government wants to revitalize the district, now called Kota Tua, but has offered property owners few incentives to restore the buildings. Some Indonesians say good riddance: the country should not be spending money to spiff up relics of its colonial past.

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The best example of colonial-era architecture is the palatial Stadhuis (City Hall), built in 1710 to serve as the headquarters of the VOC and later the Dutch colonial government. Since 1974, it has housed the Jakarta History Museum. Viewed from Batavia’s central cobblestone square, the Taman Fatahillah, it is easy to imagine how Batavia might have looked three hundred years ago when its streets bustled with traders and laborers, hurrying between the harbor, warehouses, and trading offices. One block west of the square is what used to be Batavia’s high-rent district. The main canal, the Kali Besar, is lined with stylish three- and four-story eighteenth-century mansions with balconies and arched roofs. The last remaining Dutch drawbridge, dating from the seventeenth century, crosses the north end of the canal. In Batavia, the Dutch created a little corner of Amsterdam, albeit with palm trees and better weather.

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