This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Please check back later for the full article.
Port cities have long played a critical role as nodes in nascent processes of globalization and in the circulation of peoples, commodities, and ideas within and across the maritime spaces of Southeast Asia. Although port cities had been an indelible component of the islands and archipelagos of this region since at least the 15th century, the rise of global empire in the 19th century rejuvenated these communities by the sea, giving rise to thriving metropolises from Rangoon to Singapore, Bangkok to Penang. These ascendant cities served as “imperial bridgeheads” connecting the products and peoples of the Southeast Asian hinterlands to world markets. Yet, the idea of “cosmopolitanism” arguably pervades our understanding of these port cities; bustling docks, diverse populations, and lively scenes of popular culture take precedence over the imperial coercion unfolding within and beyond its shores.
Port cities and urbanization were also intimately intertwined with the violence of conquest and Islamic insurgency wracking the countryside beyond their borders. When armed conflicts such as the bitter Dutch-Aceh War in the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia) and the Moro Wars in the southern Philippines engulfed venerable Muslim sultanates, maritime metropolises emerged as critical nodes, sites for the dissemination of weapons and smugglers, spies and diplomats, contentious ideas and theologies. These circulations were facilitated not just by Muslim networks or colonial agents, but by the very cosmopolitan nature of port cities. Chinese, Arab, and German, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian, all became drawn into the whirling vortex of “Islamic insurgencies.” By highlighting the integral position of port cities in the conduct of various armed conflicts, it will become possible to gain new perspectives and suggest reconfigured research paradigms for understanding the connected histories of colonial conquest.