“Oh! Look who controls all the islands. It’s the Mahajapit! [X] Majahapit! [X] Mapajahit! [X] Mahapajit! [X] Mapajahit! [X] Maja-pahit? [✓]” – Bill Wurtz in “history of the entire world, i guess”
About two years ago, a strange phenomenon occurred: friends and family members from across the United States suddenly seemed to be aware of the historical existence of Majapahit, a politically and culturally significant polity based in East Java in present-day Indonesia that exercised influence and authority across much of Southeast Asia from the late 13th to mid-16th century. Majapahit infiltrated their jokes and memes. Knowing that I study Southeast Asian history, a few people even asked me about the history and culture of the Javanese polity and its influence in present-day Indonesia. Of course, I was excited that people were showing interest in Southeast Asian history. Yet, this development begged the question: how did Majapahit enter the consciousness of these people, most of whom have never been to Southeast Asia nor have taken a Southeast Asian history course?
As a millennial, social media-user, occasional computer game player, and student of history, I already knew the source of this interest.
In May 2017, YouTuber Bill Wurtz uploaded his massively popular “history of the entire world, i guess”. As of the writing of this post, the video has over 78 million views. The just-short-of twenty-minute video comedically narrates the history of our world from the Big Bang to the present utilizing surrealist and psychedelic graphics, lo-fi music, and deadpan delivery. Historical events, figures, and polities are only given a few seconds of attention with little to no contextualization. This is understandable given the limitations of narrating the history of the entire world in less than twenty minutes. However, it is at the end of the twelfth minute that Wurtz gives one of his longer and more memorable/memeable segments: his inability to properly remember the name “Majapahit”, which he mispronounces five times before hesitantly providing a correct(-ish) pronunciation.
(Approximately, in Indonesian/Malay, Majapahit is pronounced “mah-jah-pah-heet”. In Javanese, it is pronounced almost as “muh-joe-pah-eet”. Still not perfect, but closer.)
The memorability, or memeability, of this section is further enhanced by the fact that it seems to slow down Wurtz as he races through other historical topics.
Despite my desire to give Bill Wurtz all of the credit for introducing millions of people outside of Southeast Asia to Majapahit, it appears that much of the basis for this interest or awareness was actually established in the world of computer gaming. In particular, 2013 stands out as an important year with the release of Sid Meier’s Civilization V: Brave New World expansion pack and Europa Universalis IV.
In the turn-based grand strategy Civilization series, which collectively have sold tens of millions of copies, a player leads a civilization (Egypt, India, Japan, Russia, France, etc…) from prehistoric times into the future on a generated map. The players direct cultural, technological, and political development; collect resources; found settlements; engage in diplomacy and warfare; and so on. The original fifth installment of Civilization was released in 2010 and included 18 playable civilizations. However, in the 2013 expansion pack Brave New World, the playable civilization “Indonesia” was introduced.
Despite being called “Indonesia”, the civilization’s imagery is distinctively Majapahit and the representative historical figure of the civilization is the 14th century Majapahit minister Gajah Mada. Each civilization features a historical figure with whom the player consults. For example, the historical figure for France is Napoleon. In addition, each civilization comes with a brief summary of its history for players to access via the game’s menu, allowing players to learn about Indonesia, or really Majapahit. Of course, the information provided is rather limited. No one should expect playing a computer game to be comparable to taking a class or reading a history book. Nonetheless, from its original release in 2010 until 2016, over 8 million copies of Civilization V and its expansions have been sold.
In October 2016, Civilization VI was released, again featuring “Indonesia” as a playable civilization, albeit with 14th century Majapahit Queen Tribhuwana Wijayatunggadewi (called in the game by her birth name Gitarja) as the representative historical figure. As of August 2019, this game has sold over 5.5 million copies.
Europa Universalis IV, also released in 2013, is another game to feature Majapahit as a playable civilization/state/nation. Moreover, unlike Civilization V and VI,this game explicitly calls the playable polity “Majapahit”. The game is the fourth installment of the grand strategy Europa Univeralis series, where players lead one of hundreds of playable polities on a detailed map of Earth from the end of the 14th century to the early 19th century. Over the course of these centuries, the player can lead their state/nation through an alternate timeline determined by their actions and decisions. Originally, the series focused on Europe and its overseas expansion during the period, hence the name, but has since expanded its scope in later installments. The game is not nearly as popular as the Civilization series. Nevertheless, as of the writing of this post, Europa Universalis IV has sold around one million copies.
Among Europa Universalis IV players, a popular starting region outside of Europe is Island Southeast Asia. This is because of the region’s access to valuable commodities, namely spices, and its strategic position along global trade networks. Aside from Majapahit, players may opt to start as Melaka, Aceh, Brunei, or Pagarruyung, among other Island Southeast Asian polities. Yet, due to its strength and location at the center of the archipelago, Majapahit is one of the most popular of these choices. If the player manages to conquer most of the territories of Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and the Malay Peninsula, they achieve the ability to form “Malaya”, a formidable country that has developed a reputation as one of the game’s richest.
Given the popularity of these games and the publicity provided by Bill Wurtz’ video, Majapahit has elicited some popular interest. This can be seen in the development of a series of five short videos (roughly ten minutes each) by the educational Extra Credits channel on YoutTube in Fall 2018. Currently, the first of these videos has over one million views suggesting that more than a few people are curious about Majapahit. That said, from an academic standpoint, the videos are riddled with cringeworthy errors and mispronunciations. (If you are a historian of Indonesia, you have been warned!) The Extra Credits channel did publish a follow-up video acknowledging and correcting some of these errors, but that video was still insufficient. Regardless, I am happy to see that people are watching these videos and, hopefully, seeking out more information.
In present-day Indonesia, Majapahit acts as one of the country’s important sources of national myth, symbolism, and heritage. With its authority or influence over much of Island Southeast Asia, the Indonesian government and media often portray the polity as a sort of proto-Indonesia which existed prior to the era of European colonization in the region. Academically, this analogy is far from perfect and, to many critics, is Java-centric. Still, it is a powerful and prevalent image in the country. Majapahit is depicted in art, film, television, and pageantry. The memory of Majapahit even extends to Malaysia and Singapore, albeit not in the same romanticism present in Indonesia. Outside of Southeast Asia and certain corners of academia, Majapahit remains either unknown or insufficiently understood. Very few students in schools and universities outside of Southeast Asia will ever encounter the influential historical polity in their classes. It is very likely that these games and YouTube videos are the first exposure that these people have to Majapahit. As such, historians and educators should, to an extent, be aware of their impact.
Over the course of the past few years, I have mentioned Majapahit (as well as some other Southeast Asian polities) in World History lectures and discussion sessions. On these occasions, a handful of students, the vast majority of whom are Gen-Z, indicated that they had heard of Majapahit before. Granted this is a handful out of hundreds of students. When I asked a couple of them where they heard about Majapahit, they snickered. Yet, knowing those students, I am certain that many of them first encountered Majapahit in the media mentioned in this post. Obviously, watching a few seconds of a YouTube video or playing a computer game does not compare to taking a Southeast Asia history course, reading a book of Javanese history, or visiting Majapahit sites in Indonesia. Those forms of media do, however, familiarize many with the name Majapahit and, perhaps, teach them that Southeast Asia does have some grand history even if that history is not thoroughly explored. For those students of mine, the name Majapahit rings a bell. They are able to follow the lecture or discussion because of this surface-level recognition. The same cannot be said of Sriwijaya, Mataram, or Gowa, to name a few other historically important polities in Island Southeast Asia.
Some suggested English-language readings for Majapahit:
Bade, David. Of Palm Wine, Women and War: The Mongolian Naval Expedition to Java in the 13th Century. Singapore, ISEAS Publishing, 2013.
Cœdès, George. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 1968.
Hall, D.G.E. A History of South-East Asia. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 4th ed., 1981.
Noorduyn, J., ‘Majapahit in the fifteenth century’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 134, nos.2/3 ( 1978), pp. 207-274.
Pigeaud, Theodore G. Th. Java in the 14th century: a study in cultural history. Volume IV. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1962.
Mpu Prapañca. Deśawarṇana (Nāgarakṛtāgama). translated by Stuart Robson. Leiden, KITLV Press, 1995.