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.
The Bay of Bengal has had long history of commercial and cultural circulation across its maritime space, a lesser-studied region in the emerging discourse of Indian Ocean Studies, and extended much beyond, in both eastern and western directions. However, this maritime space has conventionally been regarded as separating contours of peoples, cultures, and economies, particularly in the realm of area studies which has been deeply embedded in academic scholarship as well as political discourses. On the contrary, the region presents us with fascinating stories of integration through family trees, kinship networks, family firms, financial exchanges, intra-community and inter-ethnic bonding, and other facets of circular movements around the Bay. The political and economic narrative of Asia transformed into one of Western colonial dominance in the 19th century, a process that had begun about almost two centuries earlier. The British emerged as the most powerful of the Western powers in this space having gained strong political footing in India, their most prized possession in the East. The long years were marked by consolidation of their political conquests and economic prowess not only in the Indian subcontinent but also in and around the Bay of Bengal region. The technological innovations and inventions further facilitated their economic aspirations. The 20th century brought about different kind of changes. The ideal of laissez-faire along with the geopolitical discourse on rising maritime powers unleashed a new direction of policies, collaboration, conflicts, and negotiations. An important feature of the century was the dynamic rise of the ideology of nationalism, which worked differently in Europe and Asia. While it led to the world wars in Europe, for Asian powers, it opened doors of opportunity to break the fetters of several years of colonial domination. In the framework of a narrative of subjugation and domination, a macro-view of the Bay brings forth several circuits of circulation in the maritime space. While some of these circuits had been visible and dominant, others existed on the margins, connecting to the larger circuits obliviously, or existing in independent and almost invisible circulatory loops that did not find any place in Western historiography. This article attempts to provide a broad overview of different circulatory movements under four subthemes—acquisition and development of port cities that facilitated the circulatory process, merchants, banians, and capitalists—as both visible and also invisible actors of circulation in the Bay. It also discusses communities that were displaced, integrated, or acculturated around the rim of the Bay, and intellectual exchanges that motivated, influenced, and incorporated participation of a large number of people all over Asia. There is a focus on the mobile Indian communities in particular, both voluntary and involuntary migrants who were the dominant participants in the colonial economic narrative on both sides of the Bay. The legacy of these long years of exchanges and interactions has often been undermined in the postcolonial nation state centric discourses and needs to be revisited with a fresh perspective in view of the increasing geopolitical significance of the Bay in the 21st century.
Leonard Y. Andaya
Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) consists of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, East Timor, and the Philippines and was the midway point in the vibrant East–West international maritime trade route that stretched from Europe, Middle East, East Africa, and South Asia to its west; and China, Ryukyu, Japan, and Korea to its east. The favored stop was along the Straits of Melaka, a calm haven protected from the force of the northeast and southwest monsoon winds. The stream of traders in the Straits enabled local ports to develop into international port cities, whose inhabitants created mixed communities and cultures: commodities were re-fashioned or re-packaged into hybrid forms to accommodate the distinctive tastes of different groups, while frequent and lengthy sojourns by traders resulted in liaisons that produced mixed offspring and cultures. Enhanced economic opportunities encouraged mobility and establishment of diaspora communities in the littoral. More sinister were the forced mobility through wars and slavery that produced reconstituted ethnic communities and new ethnicities and identities in the early modern period (c. 1400– c. 1830s).