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Commercial Networks Connecting Southeast Asia with the Indian Ocean  

Tom Hoogervorst

Southeast Asian history has seen remarkable levels of mobility and durable connections with the rest of the Indian Ocean. The archaeological record points to prehistoric circulations of material culture within the region. Through the power of monsoon sailing, these small-scale circuits coalesced into larger networks by the 5th century bce. Commercial relations with Chinese, Indian, and West Asian traders brought great prosperity to a number of Southeast Asian ports, which were described as places of immense wealth. Professional shipping, facilitated by local watercraft and crews, reveals the indigenous agency behind such long-distance maritime contacts. By the second half of the first millennium ce, ships from the Indo-Malayan world could be found as far west as coastal East Africa. Arabic and Persian merchants started to play a larger role in the Indian Ocean trade by the 8th century, importing spices and aromatic tree resins from sea-oriented polities such as Srivijaya and later Majapahit. From the 15th century, many coastal settlements in Southeast Asia embraced Islam, partly motivated by commercial interests. The arrival of Portuguese, Dutch, and British ships increased the scale of Indian Ocean commerce, including in the domains of capitalist production systems, conquest, slavery, indentured labor, and eventually free trade. During the colonial period, the Indian Ocean was incorporated into a truly global economy. While cultural and intellectual links between Southeast Asia and the wider Indian Ocean have persisted in the 21st century, commercial networks have declined in importance.

Article

The Dutch East India Company and Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean and Indonesian Archipelago Worlds, 1602–1795  

Matthias van Rossum

Slavery and slave trade were widespread throughout the empire of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Asia. The VOC was not only a “merchant” company but also functioned as military power, government, and even agricultural producer. In these roles, the VOC was involved in the forced relocation (and forced mobilization) of people in direct and indirect ways. This entailed commodified slavery and especially slave trade, in which persons were considered property and sellable, but also a wider landscape of forced relocations (deportation, non-commodified transfers) and coerced labor regimes (corvée, debt, and caste slavery). Much more research into the histories of slavery, slave trade, and wider coercive labor and social regimes is needed to shed light on the dynamics and connections of local and global systems.

Article

Port Cities and Islamic Insurgency across Southeast Asia, 1850–1913  

Joshua Gedacht

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.

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Malagasy Diaspora in the Indian Ocean  

Jane Hooper

Since at least the 15th century, people from Madagascar have been leaving the Big Island and living in communities located around the Indian Ocean. Most of these migrants were unfree, having been forcibly transported to labor in East Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the ocean, an unknown number of enslaved Malagasy had left the island on African and Arab vessels. Between 1500 and 1930, an estimated half a million people were carried from the shores of Madagascar, many of these Malagasy purchased by Europeans. The island’s west coast was frequented by Portuguese, Dutch, Arab, and English merchants, while the east coast was dominated by French slavers. Enslaved Malagasy comprised a sizeable proportion of slave populations on Mauritius, Réunion, and at the Cape during the 17th and 18th centuries. After the abolition of the slave trade, Europeans transported about 18,000 contract laborers from Madagascar to labor in plantations on Réunion, Mauritius, Mayotte, and Nosy Be. Throughout these centuries of intense migration, Malagasy contributed to the linguistic, religious, and cultural practices of their new homes. Memories of Malagasy ancestry remained potent into the 21st century and are made visible in performances such as sega that remind descendants of their continuing links with Madagascar.

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Qubilai’s Maritime Mongols  

Paul Buell and Francesca Fiaschetti

The Mongols, creators of the largest continuous land empire in history, who initiated an unprecedented era of international exchange, are mostly known for their land conquests and contacts, but, they also actively participated in maritime and land trade. The key event in this development was a Mongol commercialization ongoing with the Mongol conquest of key coastal areas in China and Iran that brought them face to face with the trading world of the South Seas and Indian Ocean. There was a military aspect of this, starting in Japan, Southeast Asia, and Java, and there was the diplomatic and informal initiatives of Qubilai-qan to expand Mongol influence over the seas as far as the Red Sea and Africa, in ways not achievable with military means alone. A thesis is that the Mongols in China ended by creating, with the help of the Mongols in Iran, a first maritime age, paralleling those established by the Portuguese and others that came later.

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Ships and Shipwrecks in the Pre-Modern Indian Ocean  

Pierre-Yves Manguin

The Indian Ocean and its adjoining seas, from the Middle East and East Africa to Southeast Asia, have been witness to the nautical ventures of most, if not all, major sea powers of world history. Progress in nautical archaeology in the past few decades has brought about a much better understanding of shipbuilding traditions of the Indian Ocean, until then limited to textual and ethnographic sources. Only a few shipwreck sites and terrestrial sites with ship remains have been studied so far along the shores of the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, or the Indian Ocean proper. Many more were found in recent excavations in the Southeast Asian seas, which were built along Southeast Asian or Indian Ocean shipbuilding traditions. Two main technical traditions can now be clearly identified for pre-modern times: the Arabo-Indian sewn-plank ships of the western Indian Ocean, which survived into our times, and the Southeast Asian vessels that evolved from a distinctive sewn-plank technology to fully doweled assemblages, as could still be observed in Indonesian vessels of the late 20th century. The still limited number of shipwrecks brought to light in the Indian Ocean as well as the considerable imbalance in archaeological research between the Indian Ocean proper and the Southeast Asian seas have hindered the advancement of the discipline. Considerable difficulties and interpretation problems have moreover been generated by biased commercial excavations and subsequent incomplete excavation records, not to speak of the ethical problems raised in the process. Such deficiencies still prevent solid conclusions being drawn on the development of regional shipbuilding traditions, and on the historical role of the ships and people who sailed along the essential Indian Ocean maritime networks.

Article

The Spice Trade in Southeast Asia  

Bryan Averbuch

The history of the “Spice Trade,” much like that of its overland counterpart, the “Silk Road,” has long been imbued with an aura of romance. It has evoked fantasies of dhows, junks, and East Indiamen plying monsoon seas, tropical islands with swaying palms and coastal forts, swaggering pirates, and ports brimming with fragrant exotica—the maritime versions of camel caravans crossing deserts, menacing bandits, distant cities graced with minarets and pagodas, and merchants haggling for silks in bazaars. In the case of the spice trade, these exotic images are haunted at times by less agreeable visions of unbridled princely and corporate greed, ruthless exploitation, and emerging colonial empires. Beyond fantasy, these visions of the spice trade have their roots in very real and complex historical phenomena, whose importance to Southeast Asia’s economic, political, and cultural history, and indeed to global history, are difficult to overstate. Until their gradual early modern diffusion to other regions of the planet, the trees which produced Southeast Asia’s most coveted spices and aromatics, especially the cloves, nutmeg, mace, and white sandalwood of eastern Indonesia, were largely confined to the unique tropical ecoregions in which they had evolved, and were effectively unavailable anywhere else. This fact, combined with their unique and powerful aromas and flavors, ensured that Southeast Asia would remain a nexus of the spice trade for the better part of two millennia. Following their discovery and cultivation by Indigenous peoples, Southeast Asian spices and aromatics began to circulate in the trade networks of the Indo-Malay archipelago in pre- and protohistoric times. By the 4th and 5th centuries ce, seafaring merchants were regularly carrying them to emporia across the Indian Ocean and western Pacific Rim, and they became coveted luxuries in India, China, West Asia, the Mediterranean, and northern Europe. By the 14th century, peoples across much of the Eastern Hemisphere had become regular and avid consumers of Southeast Asian spices and aromatics. Their popularity in India, West Asia, and China was a major factor in the development of permanent commercial ties between the three regions, which in turn helped to facilitate the diffusion of Hinduism, Buddhism, and subsequently Islam to Southeast Asia. Conversely, the relatively peripheral position of Europe in the lucrative Southeast Asian spice trade was a major factor in prompting the Iberian maritime voyages of exploration beginning in the 15th century. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, a range of European and Indigenous polities engaged in a complex and often violent series of struggles for control of the spice trade. Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English armed trading expeditions lay the groundwork for their respective colonial empires in Southeast Asia, while regional peoples and polities adopted and adapted elements of European technology, culture, and in some regions, Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Over time, changing tastes in Europe and the transplantation of nutmeg, cloves, and white sandalwood to the Caribbean, East Africa, and India, respectively, diminished the relative importance of the traditional Southeast Asian spice trade, while new aromatic crops introduced from elsewhere, such as black pepper and later coffee, became increasingly important to the region.