If you were asked to name ‘the world’s biggest, most important archipelago’, to quote the first sentence of this book, your answer would probably not be Nusantaria. I suspect Nusantaria would not be your answer to any question, because you’ve probably never heard of it. Neither had I until I read this engaging book. But that is no reason for dismay, for you and I already know it by other names: the Malay Archipelago, the East Indies, ‘maritime Southeast Asia’ – that vast scattering of islands and coastlines from the Strait of Malacca to New Guinea. The region has no common name simply because it isn’t obviously there in the way that, say, a continent is. It comes into view only when we choose to see it and name it. And so Philip Bowring, former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of this relaxed overview of the long-term history of the region, has dubbed it Nusantaria.
Bowring has reason to christen the region anew. He wants a name that will persuade us to see it on its own terms, not as Asia’s extremity (‘the Far East’) or Europe’s opposite (‘the Indies’) but as a zone with a coherence and significance of its own. He derives the name from a Malay term used by Javans in the Majapahit empire during the 14th century to mark the greater maritime world with which they were in contact. Bowring’s Nusantaria is not so much a new word for an old place as an old word for a place newly conceived.