Trying to cram the long and gripping history of Bali into anything less than mammoth tome will never do the famed Hindu island any kind of justice. But this brief outline of key moments in Bali’s history should give a good general picture of how the island has arrived into the present day.
Middle ages history of Bali
The earliest surviving records of life in Bali date back to the ninth century showing strong Buddhist and Hindu influences. At this time Bali was a series of autonomous regencies presided over by royal households and constantly at odds with each other.
The most influential kingdoms were at Singaraja and Karangasem which had constantly expanded their territories through war and marriage. In 1343 the island was colonised by the powerful Hindu Majapahit kingdom of east Java ruled by the Balinese king Airlangga.
A long period of relative stability ensued as the Balinese adopted many Javanese cultural practices, art and traditions and its complex system of rice cultivation and irrigation. The rise in influence of Islam throughout the archipelago eventually signalled the end of the Majapahit Empire which finally collapsed in 1515.
Many influential members of the Javanese ruling classes, along with legions of artisans and priests, fled to Bali to continue living under Hindu influence, which remains as strong today as it was back then.
Dutch colonial rule
The next 100 years became a golden age for the development of the arts and culture in Bali and many of its most evocative temples were constructed at this time. Bali even found time to expand its territories, controlling much of the neighbouring island of Lombok.
Although Dutch colonial forces had most of Indonesia under their control by the 1700s, they didn’t start to show an interest in Bali until the 19th century.
The first significant battle took place in Singaraja in 1846 but it took until 1909 for the Dutch to have complete control over the whole island. They were faced with two historic incidents of ‘Puputan’ – the ritual suicide of the entire royal courts of Denpasar and Karangasem rather than surrender to the Dutch. Under Dutch rule some improvements were made to everyday life such as ending slavery, introducing coffee as a cash crop and improving irrigation.
The Japanese wartime occupation
In 1941 Japan entered the Second World War and quickly swept through Bali unopposed after landing at Sanur beach. Although the occupation was brief it showed that Dutch colonial power was not invincible. The end of hostilities saw the Dutch return again to resume control but the seeds of the independence movement had already been sown.
In August 1945 Indonesia, led by charismatic Achmad Soekarno, made a declaration of independence but the Dutch refused to concede defeat. It took four more years of heavy fighting and pressure from the international community before the Netherlands finally withdrew from Indonesia. In 1949 Soekarno became Indonesia’s first ever president.
Modern day Bali history
Although many Balinese people believe the island has been neglected by successive pro-Islamic governments in Jakarta, Bali has flourished as a popular holiday destination and is undeniably the jewel in Indonesia’s tourism industry. Bali’s emergence as one of the world’s most popular holiday islands has not been without its difficulties.
Modern times have seen disaster strike, firstly in 1963 with a devastating eruption of Mount Agung which engulfed most of east Bali claiming 2,000 lives. More recently the terrorist attacks in Kuta of 2002 and 2005 dealt Bali’s tourism a major blow. It has recovered remarkably well from these setbacks and continues to inspire a new generation of travellers.