Port cities have long played a critical role in the circulation of peoples, commodities, and ideas within and across the maritime spaces of Southeast Asia. Although an indelible component of the islands and archipelagos of this region since at least the 15th century, the rise of global empires in the 19th century rejuvenated these communities by the sea, giving rise to thriving metropolises from Rangoon to Singapore, Bangkok to Penang. Historians recognize that 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 how historians understand these port cities; bustling docks, diverse populations, and lively scenes of popular culture take precedence over the imperial coercion unfolding within and beyond their shores.
Port cities and urbanization, in fact, were intimately intertwined with the violence of conquest and Islamic insurgency enveloping various corners of the Southeast Asian countryside. When armed conflicts such as the bitter Dutch-Aceh War in the Netherlands East Indies (present-day Indonesia) and the Moro Wars in the southern Philippines engulfed venerable Muslim sultanates, the maritime metropolises of the Straits Settlements 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 and German, Arab and Turkish, 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 becomes possible to gain new perspectives and suggest reconfigured research paradigms for understanding the connected histories of colonial conquest.
Michael W. Charney
Warfare in premodern Southeast Asia, roughly that fought up until the end of the 19th century, was shaped by the environment across the region. Maritime trade connections brought the introduction and circulation of external models of warfare that would help to frame the way warfare in the region was depicted in some of the indigenous literature and art (including the influence of the Indian epics on shadow puppet theater). Firearms played a more direct role in determining the development of warfare in the region over the course of the early modern period. As a result of better firearms, the elephant declined in battlefield importance and was increasingly replaced by cavalry. In the 18th century, Southeast Asians fielded some of their best-organized armies, and in the early 19th century there was a temporary revival of naval strength in parts of the region, particularly in Vietnam. Nevertheless, the introduction of the steamship and better European military technology from the 1820s ushered in the decline of the remaining Southeast Asian armies by the end of the 19th century. Although indigenous states would attempt to modernize and catch up with Europe militarily, all of Southeast Asia, save for Thailand, fell under European control.