Majapahit's overseas empire


 From about 1347, Majapahit began a campaign of overseas expansion. Gajah Mada, as prime minister, is said to have been the architect of this policy: he reportedly vowed to abstain from ‘palapa', which may have been a fruit, a drink, a religious ceremony or even sexual relations, until he had brought the ‘Nusantara', literally the ‘islands between', that is, the Indonesian archipelago, under Majapahit's authority.

The precise nature of Majapahit's empire has been a source of controversy. The Nagarakertagama (Desawarñana) claimed for Majapahit an empire of 98 tributaries, stretching from Sumatra to New Guinea, but some scholars have seen this claim as representing only a sphere of limited influence or even as being no more than a statement of geographical knowledge. There is no doubt, however, that Majapahit fleets periodically visited many parts of the archipelago to obtain formal submission, or that the splendour of the Majapahit court led many regional rulers to send it tribute, in much the same way as they sent tribute to China, without any intention of submitting to orders from eastern Java. The trading power of Majapahit gave it a powerful sanction against defiant rulers. The eastern Java kingdom established especially close trading links with pepper suppliers in Sumatra and with other spice-producing regions in eastern Indonesia. It is probably best, therefore, to see Majapahit's claims of empire as representing real authority, with the proviso that such authority never gave Majapahit significant administrative power outside Java, Bali and Madura.

Further reading

Hall, D.G.E., A History of South-East Asia. New York: St. Martin's Press, 4th ed., 1981.

Munoz, Paul Michel, Early kingdoms of the Indonesian archipelago and the Malay Peninsula  Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2006.

Pigeaud, Theodore G. Th., Java in the 14th century: a study in cultural history. The Hague: Nijhoff, 5 vols, 1962.

Robson, Stuart, Desawarñana. Leiden, KITLV Press, 1995.

Gelpke, J.H.F. Sollewijn, ‘The Majapahit dependency Udama Katraya’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 148 (1992), pp. 240-246.

Map number from Cribb, Historical Atlas of Indonesia (2000)


Year span

1300 - 1400