Imagining Alternative Immigration Realities

Books from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

As I research Indonesian immigration and the evolution of the concept of citizenship in the United States, I am looking at three time periods for my research:  Pre-1965, 1965, and 1998 to today.

Early on, I knew that I wanted to focus on the years 1965 and 1998.

The year 1965 was a pivotal year for both Indonesia and the United States. It was the year of the failed coup and subsequent coup d’etat that put the military in power in Indonesia.  It was also the year that The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was passed in the United States that phased out the quota related to country of origin and made way for increased immigration to the United States from Asian countries. It was not a coincidence that the situation in Asia may have contributed to the passing of the Act, as the United States needed allies in that part of the world during the Cold War.

The year 1998 is significant due to the fall of President Suharto and his New Order government in Indonesia, and the beginning of the period of Reformasi. Indonesia was hardest hit by the Asian Economic collapse of 1997 and the result was a political fallout, with riots and violence that targeted Chinese Indonesians and Christians, and resulted in the most significant wave of Indonesian immigration to the United States, with a large number of Indonesians settling in Philadelphia and applying for asylum.

But I wasn’t sure what I would find before 1965, and although it seemed far-fetched, I wanted to know what relationship, if any, there was between what is now the United States of America and Indonesia in their former forms: The British Colonies and the Dutch East Indies.  This became my third time period, the time of European colonization up to 1965.


Research Timeline; Graphic by the Author


I started my research online on the Historical Society of Pennsylvania website. As Indonesia did not exist until 1945, I entered the following names of Indonesia’s five largest islands in the finding aid:  Java, Sumatra, Borneo (what is known to Indonesians as Kalimantan), Celebes (Sulawesi) and Netherlands New Guinea (This part of the island is now called West Papua. During the Suharto government, Indonesians referred to it as “Irian Jaya”). I also entered ‘East Indies’ into the search terms in hopes of capturing all the various East India Companies during the time of colonization.

As the results came in, I was not surprised at the dearth of material  regarding Indonesia.  As an Indonesian who grew up in a small college town in America surrounded by farmland, I was used to people outside of our hamlet looking at me with a blank face as I answered where I was from. Even today, I am met with the same confusion when I say I am from Indonesia, until I mention Bali, or that it is a country north of Australia, or ‘you know the word for coffee or the computer script? that is a real island in the world’s 4th most populous country, and I’m from there’.


The books I was able to find in the HSP were written between 1811 through 1830, and were available online:

The History of Java, Thomas Raffles, 1830

Memoir of the Conquest of Java; With the Subsequent Operations of the British Forces, in the Oriental Archipelago. To which is Subjoined a Statistical and Historical Sketch of Java with an Account of Its Dependencies, William Thorn, 1815

Sketches, Civil and Military, of the Island of Java and Its Immediate Dependencies: Comprising Interesting Details of Batavia, and Authentic Particulars of the Celebrated Poison-tree, John Joseph Stockdale, 1811

The expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the suppression of piracy : with extracts from the journal of James Brooke, esq. of Sarawak (Now Agent for the British Government in Borneo), Henry Keppel, 1846

And a most interesting one:

Account of Japan and Java: Description of the Island of Chipangu and the Great Kaan’s Despatch of a Host against It, Marco Polo, 1298

Published in an anthology called Old South Leaflets in 1892, the footnote explains that the text is from the book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East (We know it as Marco Polo’s Travels). An excerpt is below:

When you sail from Chamba, 1,500 miles in a course between south and south-east you come to a great island called Java. And the experienced mariners of those islands, who know the matter well, say that it is the greatest island in the world, and has a compass of more than 3,000 miles. …The island is of surpassing wealth, producing black pepper, nutmegs, spikenard, galingale, cubebs, cloves and other kinds of spices. 

Polo, Marco. Account of Japan and Java: Description of the Island of Chipangu and the Great Kaan’s Despatch of a Host against It, Historical Society of Pennsylvania


It is for these spices, that the history of the Americas and the Indies started to become intertwined. Every time I think about the role that the islands of my homeland had in the age of European colonization, for some reason, I feel guilt. If we hadn’t had such riches, would the natives of the American continent have been spared? Would I sometimes say a silent meditation for the natives of this land:  I’m sorry, they were looking for me, and found you instead. They even named you after us because they were so confused about where they were, so confident they were in their own delusion. And somehow there are now two Indies, East and West, I was there, and now I’m here.

I look through the books to find illustrations such as these:

A Javan Women of the lower Class from History of Java, Historical Society of Pennsylvania


Aside from the books available online, I was also able to get physical copies of these books:

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, or, The true and incredible adventures of the spice trader who changed the course of history, Giles Milton, 1999

Asian American Experiences in the United States, Joann Faung Jean Lee, 1991

Destiny: a Southeast Asian Saga 1928-1953, Laurence C. Berquist, 1994

A summary of  Nathaniel’s Nutmeg on the HSP website was truly intriguing:

The tiny island of Run is an insignificant speck in the Indonesian archipelago–remote, tranquil, and, these days, largely ignored. Yet 370 years ago, Run’s harvest of nutmeg (yielding a 3,200% profit by the time it arrived in England) made it the most lucrative of the Spice Islands, precipitating a battle between the Dutch East India Company and the British Crown. The outcome was that Britain ceded Run to Holland but in return was given Manhattan–leading to the birth of New York and to the beginning of the British Empire.

I had no idea that there was such a direct relationship between Manhattan and Run, between the British Colonies and the Dutch East Indies. I think about what this means, about the value of such a transaction, and it’s hard not to think about alternate realities. What would Manhattan be like now, if it hadn’t changed hands?

The Route to Run, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, Historical Society of Pennsylvania

I think a lot about what-ifs, of alternate realities, and I think many immigrants do the same. What if we didn’t come here? Were things so bad at our home countries? Is the price our families pay worth it? What kind of people would we be if the Conquest of Java had not been not successful? What would we have been without 350 years of colonization?

Perusing the books in the archives stirred up a wave of emotions in me,  even the titles are a bit upsetting. As I read how Europeans tell the history of my island, look through maps of the survey of our lands, page through illustrations of our people, I feel a sense of urgency to tell our own stories, of our own narratives.

Katherine Sarwopeni Antarikso (she/her) is an architect, artist, and activist. She was born in Jakarta, on the island of Java, Indonesia, and moved to the United States at the age of 10. As an architect, she is interested in issues of equity in the design of urban spaces. She performs traditional Indonesian dance and writes poetry and essays focusing on themes of home, migration, and displacement. She is an activist for immigrants’ rights and is a founding member of Pejuang: Indonesian Social Justice Coalition.