Is There a Batak History?

18 Pages Posted: 19 Dec 2008

See all articles by Anthony Reid

Anthony Reid

National University of Singapore (NUS) - Asia Research Institute

Date Written: November 1, 2006


The 8-10 million Bataks of northern Sumatra are one of Indonesia's most important and intriguing groups. They have been in Sumatra for thousands of years, and in recent centuries have attracted anthropologists and students of religion and missiology. Yet in common with most of Southeast Asia's highland groups, they remain a people without history. The essential reason is the absence of a recognisable state to form the subject of such a history. The failure is particularly glaring in terms of academic work by outsiders, with almost nothing to show on the centuries before the late nineteenth-century encounter with western missions and colonialism. Bataks themselves have sought to work back from Singamangaraja XII, the priest-king who became a nationalist hero by resisting the Dutch, to construct a Batak state which remains speculative, notably in the work of Mangaradja Parlindungan and Sitor Situmorang. This paper surveys the little that we do know from external sources about Batak History before 1850, and points to some promising ways ahead. It suggests that pride in the Batak past might not need to centre on some surrogate for statehood, but rather might stress the success of managing a complex society without bureaucracy.

Keywords: Batak, Toba, Sumatra, highland societies, statelessness, Indonesian history

Suggested Citation

Reid, Anthony, Is There a Batak History? (November 1, 2006). Asia Research Institute Working Paper No. 78, Available at SSRN: or

Anthony Reid (Contact Author)

National University of Singapore (NUS) - Asia Research Institute ( email )

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