The ancestors of modern humans (homo erectus) first made their way to the Indonesian Archipelago, including Bali, during the Ice-ages of half a million years ago, when land bridges provided little in the way of obstacles to passage. Their eventual progeny, Homo Sapiens, are known to have lived in the Eastern Archipelago for 40,000 years, and by 3000 BC, the pottery and advanced tool making of the Neolithic era had left their evidence in the soils of Bali.

The spread of bronze-age technology from China during the 7th century BC brought with it the roots of Bali’s fame for craftsmanship, epitomised by Southeast Asia’s largest decorated bronze drum, the Moon of Pejang, still the guest of honour in the Moon temple close to Ubud. 



As is visible in the histories of all Southeast Asian countries, the vast influence of the Hindu culture of India commingled with the sucession Buddhist beliefs governed much of the early civilisations of the archipelago, and indeed still does in modern Bali. Though maritime trade is known to have plied the waters of Bali from around 200 BC, the earliest written Balinese records date from the ninth century AD.


Balinese recorded history begins with the marriage of its king, Udayana, to Java’s princess Mahenndratta, with their separate kingdoms eventually united under their son, King Erlangga. The island later fell under Javanese control until Balinese rule briefly resumed in 1300 AD.


The mighty Hindu Majapahit kingdom of Java conquered both Bali and its neighbour Lombok in 1343 AD, imposing the caste system upon the Balinese people, though many of its inhabitants fled into remote areas, establishing villages to protect traditions that still persist today.


It would not be long before Java itself succumbed to the wildfire of Islam that spread through Malaysia to Indonesia, with the Majapahit Kingdom eventually collapsing in 1515, leading many Majapahit nobles and artisans to seek refuge in Bali.


Although the pervading influence of Islam spread far beyond, Bali managed to hold on to its Hindu identity, a cultural feature that to the present day affords the island its charming uniqueness within Islamic Indonesia.


Bali continued to maintain its independence and prospered under a succession of Hindu ‘God Kings’ (Dewa Agung), even gaining control over a small area of Eastern Java and the neighbouring eastern islands of Lombok and Sumbawa. 




The arrival of a Portuguese vessel off the shore of Bali in 1588 was not the triumphant trading conquest for which they had hoped, with their ship foundering on the reef to much loss of life. In 1597, Dutch vessels arrived at Bali, and three sailors were dispatched to parley trade. So beguiling was the island’s charm, as many modern visitors know, that only one returned to ship.


The Dutch East India Company set up shop in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, in 1602, and driven by the West’s insatiable appetite for spices, plundered much of the archipelago, but Bali, devoid of these highly desired and fabulously profitable commodities, was spared much of the effects of greedy warfare between rival European powers, though many of its population did become victims of the European slave-trade.


Nevertheless, Balinese refusal to surrender salvage rights of the many vessels wrecked upon their coral reefs, from which had gaily profited, drew anger from the Dutch who in retaliation mounted military invasions of Bali, which, after the third attempt and much bloodshed, resulted in the islanders forcibly accepting Dutch sovereignty in 1849.


Balinese resistance sparked many rebellions, particularly in 1906 and 1908, which were consistently replied to with brutality by the Dutch occupiers, but such was the Balinese taste for ritual suicide (Puputan) in preference to surrender, that Dutch actions drew a clamour of criticism from the emerging ‘International Community’ that had begun to evolve at the dawn of the mass-media age.


In common with other Southeast Asian nations, the notable exception being Thailand, who alone escaped colonial rule, the opportunity to reclaim their lands was afforded by the invasion of the Japanese during World War ll.

After the brief and predictably harsh Japanese rule, President Sukarno declared Indonesian independence on August 17th, 1945. The price paid by the Balinese would be their absorption into the Muslim state, though their long Hindu traditions were guaranteed protection.


In March, 1946, the Dutch made an attempt to regain ‘their’ Indonesian colony in actions that would cost many Balinese lives, but the post Nazi world was a very different place from the colonial era, and the newly formed United Nations organisation that emerged from that conflict insisted in 1949 that the Dutch relinquish their claim to the archipelago, through which the modern Republic of Indonesia was finally left free to determine its own destiny. 


Indonesia’s early life as an Independent state was marred by economic woes and corruption, and following the British plan for withdrawal from neighbouring Malaysia, fear of territorial loss on the island of Borneo induced Indonesia to become embroiled in conflict over the issue in 1963. 


In 1965, Major-General Suharto seized power in Indonesia and waged internal war on ‘communist sympathisers’, which would see a staggering half million Indonesian citzens killed, including an estimated 100,000 Balinese, in a move that would secure his absolute control of the country for thirty years.


Whilst there can be no doubt of the economic improvements brought about during Suharto’s period in power, the price paid by its inhabitants for increased living standards was near-total political and media control and the complete suppression of dissent. 


By 1998, however, following the Asian economic crisis and attendant impoverishment of that time, widespread rioting broke out across Indonesia, which would eventually bring down Suharto’s regime amid a welter of corruption allegations. It is estimated that the ruling family siphoned off as much as US $35 million, but Suharto was never successfully prosecuted.




Tourism in Bali began in 1924, with the Dutch steamer KPM, enticing Dutch visitors with images of traditionally topless Balinese women. Soon hotels would start to appear on Kuta beach and surfing, for which the island is now world-famous, was introduced. By the 1960’s, mass tourism exploded around the world, with Bali benefiting greatly, particularly due to its relative proximity to Australia.


The tourist trade in Bali took a substantial knock following the volcanic eruption of Gunung Agung in 1963, which caused considerable devastation in eastern Bali, and two years later, by the killing spree that resulted from Suharto’s acquisition of power.


Following the return of political quietude, Bali’s unique charm ensured that it recovered to become one of the world's most popular destinations, attracting huge numbers of tourists annually, until the shock of the Islamist terrorist attacks of 2002 and 2005, which specifically targeted western tourists. 


The Balinese economy suffered a resultant 60% drop in visitor numbers, which led to necessary diversification of local industries, but Bali continued to recover, and with it’s wealth of beauty and its much admired culture and art, remains a global favourite for travellers.


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