Printing was an ancient invention of the Chinese. Europeans made the press a major tool of intellectual life with the advantages of a twenty-six-letter alphabet and a measure of freedom in some western European cities. Within four decades of printing the Gutenberg Bible in Mainz in 1455, printing was introduced into Islamic lands by Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. The Ottoman Turks banned setting Arabic into type, so the first Muslim press of the Arabic world was not set up until 1822. As a result, books from the Islamic heartland that found their way to the Indonesian archipelago before the middle of the nineteenth century were hand written, few in number, and costly.
Printed books arrived in Indonesia through the Dutch. From 1617, presses in Holland published books and pamphlets in Dutch and Malay for communities in the Indonesian archipelago. Because Arabic had been printed in Europe since 1530, the Dutch were able to set Malay in Arabic script too. Devotional texts, such as the Bible, prayers, and catechism, were printed in Malay in both Roman and Arabic scripts and exported to VOC settlements in Asia. The first printing press was shipped from Holland in 1624.
Presses were portable. They consisted of a wooden frame and a tray for the type and were operated by turning handles. Draftsmen and supplies of paper, printer’s ink, lye baths, and proof plates had to be sent from Holland.
Regulations and notices were printed by the Batavia presses, while daily record keeping was handwritten. As in Europe, printers in Indonesia combined academic interests and artisan skills with commerce. Dutch men who ran presses employed Indonesian assistants, and they published books intended for Indonesian as well as Dutch readers. For instance, Lambertus Loderus held the license for government printer in Batavia in the first years of the eighteenth century. He printed official documents under contract and also published and sold books. He researched, wrote, and published a Dutch-Malay dictionary in 1707. Another publisher, Harmanus Mulder, brought out a Malay-language catechism in Arabic type in 1746.
The Indonesians for whom printed books had the greatest impact were Christians and men who worked in VOC offices as clerks and assistants. Most Indonesian scholars rejected the press until the mechanical production of books became acceptable in Islamic countries. Sumatran and Javanese printers borrowed techniques developed by Muslim publishing houses in India for typesetting Arabic to produce books that closely resembled manuscripts. From the middle of the nineteenth century Indonesian publishers printed books in Malay on Islamic topics for a clientele in religious schools and mosques and used the traveling scholar and catalogue as their publicity and distribution network. This different history of access to printed books meant that Christian Indonesians were exposed to sources of Western knowledge two hundred years before most Muslim Indonesians. All publishers, Dutch and Indonesian, worked under government surveillance.