Emeritus Professor Merle Calvin Ricklefs 1943-2019

Emeritus Professor Merle Calvin Ricklefs 1943-2019

Obituary: Merle Ricklefs

Merle Ricklefs, who passed away in Melbourne on 29 December 2019, was the pre-eminent scholar of Javanese Islam of his generation and, more broadly, one of the leading historians of Indonesia.  He also played a significant leadership role in Asian Studies in Australia as well as the development of Aboriginal tertiary education programs. 

Born in Iowa, USA, in 1943, he gained his PhD from Cornell University and went on to hold appointments at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, Monash University, The Australian National University and the University of Melbourne as well as at the National University of Singapore.

The hallmarks of Merle’s scholarship were a meticulous attention to historical accuracy, an unswerving interpretative rigour and an ability to connect narratives to broader themes, particularly relating to the role of religion in social and political life.  He specialized in Old Javanese texts from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries as well as Dutch archival sources, establishing his career with three influential books on this period: Yogyakarta under Sultan Mangkubumi, 1749-1792 (1974); Modern Javanese Historical Tradition (1978); and War, Culture and Economy in Java, 1677-1726 (1994).  He also published A History of Modern Indonesia since 1300, in 1988, which became probably the most widely read general history text on Indonesia, spanning four editions and translation into more than a dozen languages.

The crowning achievement of Merle’s career was his trilogy on Javanese Islam, published between 1998 and 2007.  The first volume dealt with Islamisation till the early nineteenth century, the second with the 100 years from 1830 and final volume with the post-1930 period.  These works showed him at the height of his scholarly powers.  His command of complex source materials and historiographical issues was convincing, and he brought to his analysis a concern for the deeper significance of spiritual and cultural phenomena when viewed from a longer historical perspective.  The third volume, Islamisation and its Opponents in Java, in particular, has a magisterial sweep that gives context to many of the defining forces that shaped Indonesia from the late-colonial period.  It is, by some measure, the most comprehensive and authoritative account of Indonesia’s modern Islamic history.

In addition to his scholarly output, Merle was a gifted teacher, supervisor and academic executive.  He headed the History Department at Monash and was director of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at ANU, before becoming the founding director of the Melbourne Institute of Asian Languages and Studies at Melbourne University.  In all of these roles he was a tireless champion of Asian Studies.  He was also much respected for his initiative, while at Monash, to improve Aboriginal access to tertiary education, which led to the foundation of the Monash Orientation Scheme for Aborigines.

Merle’s attainments were recognized in numerous awards and prizes.  The Australian government awarded him a Centenary Medal in 2001 and an Order of Australia (AM) in 2017.  The Indonesian government’s Ministry of Education and Culture also presented him with its prestigious Culture Award in 2016.

Merle has left an enduring legacy of groundbreaking scholarship and he had immense influence on those fortunate enough to be his students and colleagues.  He is survived by his wife, Margaret, and sons Charles and Norman. 

Greg Fealy, The Australian National University, Canberra.

Greg Fealy is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political & Social Change, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University

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