Barbara Watson Andaya
The 21st century has often been touted as the “Asian century,” largely because of the remarkable resurgence of China as an economic power. There are nonetheless other developments afoot, foremost among which is the rising numbers of individuals who identify as Christians. Apart from the Philippines, Timor Leste, Asian Russia, Cyprus, Armenia, and Georgia, Christians are still a minority in the forty-eight countries that the United Nations classifies as “Asia,” a vast region that stretches from the Urals and the Caspian Sea to Papua New Guinea. However, over the past two decades, a marked increase in Asian Christians, especially in Korea, India, and China, has led to predictions that by 2025 their numbers, now estimated at 350 million, will escalate to 460 million. Yet for many Asians, Christianity is still tainted by a “foreign” past because it is associated with the European arrival in the late 15th century and with the imposition of colonialism and the influence of the West in the 19th and 20th centuries. A historical approach, however, shows that such perceptions are countered by centuries of local adaptations of Christianity to specific cultural contexts. Although the processes of “accommodation” and “adaptation” have a complex history, a long-term view reveals the multiple ways through which millions of Asian men and women have incorporated “being Christian” into their own identities.
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.