Richard Harry Chauvel was a noted Australian historian of Indonesia. Known for his pathbreaking research on Maluku (the Moluccas) and Papua, Chauvel was a dedicated and generous scholar, deeply respected by his peers and much loved by his many graduate students.
Chauvel’s association with Indonesia began during the mid-1960s, in the very early stages of a period of growth in the study of Indonesia in Australia. Starting at the University of Sydney as an undergraduate in 1964, he learned Indonesian at the university and first visited Indonesia in 1969. According to his future wife, Janet, he later said that he fell in love with her and Indonesia during that year. In 1970, Chauvel travelled to London, where he obtained a master’s degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, under the supervision of noted historian of Indonesia Ruth McVey.
During a visit to the Netherlands, he encountered the Republic of the South Moluccas (Republik Maluku Selatan, RMS), whose exiled supporters were engaged in sporadic violent unrest – including two dramatic train hijackings in 1975 and 1977. This experience sparked a lifelong fascination with the politics and history of this part of Indonesia.
In 1975, Chauvel returned to Sydney, where he worked as a tutor in the Indonesian studies department and began work on a PhD on the origins of the RMS. Through his University of Sydney connections, as both an undergraduate and graduate student, he became close to many individuals who went on to become major figures in the development of Indonesian studies in Australia, including Peter Worsley, Michael van Langenberg, the late Angus McIntyre, Max Lane, and David Reeve.
His PhD, under the supervision of Rudy de Iongh, was completed in 1984. He revised his PhD thesis and published it in 1990 as Nationalists, Soldiers and Separatists: The Ambonese Islands from Colonialism to Revolt, 1880-1950.
Based on deep archival research, this book is still regarded as the standard work on the RMS revolt of 1950, when former soldiers of the Netherlands Indies colonial army and their supporters rose against the formation of the Republic of Indonesia. The book does much more, however, than provide a meticulous account of the origins and course of the revolt. It also includes a sweeping account of the history of Maluku, and Ambon in particular, in the decades leading to the uprising.
Despite these successes, Chauvel took some time to develop a conventional academic career – perhaps in part because the politics of places like Maluku were at this time considered peripheral to the focus of Australia-based Indonesian historical studies on the Javanese heartland. In the mid-1980s, while still completing his PhD, he worked for several years as researcher for the Institute of Multicultural Affairs in Melbourne, co-authoring reports on the provision of government services to migrant communities in Melbourne.
After that, between 1987 and 1992, he worked at Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta, teaching in the departments of politics and history and directing the Centre for Australian Studies. Joined by his family in Jakarta, this was a career high point and an experience Chauvel relished, deepening his connections with Indonesia, and putting him in contact with Indonesian scholars with whom he would maintain attachments for decades to come.
Upon returning to Australia, Chauvel was appointed as a lecturer in history at Victoria University in Melbourne. Although sometimes a lonely figure in pursuing the study of Indonesia and Southeast Asia at the university, he became head of the Department of Asian and International Studies and Associate Professor, and director of the Australia Asia Pacific Institute.
He retired from Victoria University in 2015 and thereafter the locus of his intellectual life shifted to the University of Melbourne and the Asia Institute in particular, where he found a stimulating and supportive environment, connections with many Indonesia scholars, and opportunities to continue working with Indonesian students.
Throughout these decades, Chauvel was a dedicated supervisor and guide of graduate students, supervising to completion 27 PhD students, many of whom went to on to develop important careers in Indonesian universities and government. At a doa bersama (joint prayer) for him held a few days before his death, former students spoke movingly about their affection for their supervisor, and his family, and about the debts of gratitude they owed him for his guidance and support.
Chauvel also served from 2007-2013 and in 2016 as a member of the Joint Selection Team for Australian Development Scholarships/Australia Awards Scholarships in Indonesia, interviewing countless applicants for Australian scholarships, an experience he enjoyed for the opportunity it provided to meet with Indonesians from different walks of life and to discuss their varied backgrounds and research interests.
Meanwhile, after the downfall of President Soeharto in 1998, the focus of Chauvel’s scholarly research shifted eastwards: to Papua. At this time, waves of political mobilisation and unrest were sweeping through many outer regions of Indonesia, making Chauvel’s interest in “peripheral” regions suddenly and undeniably central to the study of Indonesia. For the last two decades of his life, most of his research focused on Papua, and he rapidly gained a reputation as a world-leading expert on the politics and history of this part of Indonesia.
In fact, his interest in Papua had begun some years earlier when, after completing his PhD and book on Maluku, he had begun archival research on the decolonisation of Dutch New Guinea (as it was then known) and the Australian role therein. This background prepared him well to analyse what proved to be a short-lived “Papuan spring” after 1998, the associated revival of Papuan nationalism, and the subsequent return of repression.
Greatly moved by what he witnessed, Chauvel was incredibly productive in the early 2000s, and he wrote a series of highly regarded papers and articles on the contemporary politics and modern history of Papua. For example, a short book published in 2005 as part of the East West Center’s Policy Studies series, Constructing Papuan Nationalism: History, Ethnicity, and Adaptation, presents a deep and sensitive account of the rise of Papuan nationalism, marked by Chauvel’s characteristic attention to historical sources and his drive to understand multiple points of view.
As well as producing this series of short pieces and papers, Chauvel had for several decades been working on a book on Papuan history. The manuscript was almost complete when he passed away. His family hope to be able to publish it posthumously.
Chauvel was not only a first-rate scholar, he was also a deeply humane one, dedicated to treating others fairly and to understanding the experiences and motivations of those he encountered both through his research and in everyday life. Despite producing works on Maluku and Papua that are second to none, he was also a modest scholar, writing without bombast or exaggeration. He exemplified these traits, too, in his relations with students and colleagues, whom he treated with such generosity and respect. He therefore leaves a lasting legacy, not only in his important works of historical and political analysis, but in the impact he had on numerous students and colleagues, and in the great affection he generated among those who knew him.
Richard Chauvel passed away as a result of a brain tumour on 1 April 2022. He is survived by his wife, Janet, his two children, Hugh and Emily, and four grandchildren.
Edward Aspinall, Canberra. 11 April 2022. With thanks to Janet Chauvel for her input.