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.
When composed of hunter-gatherers, Asia’s population numbered perhaps 1–2 million. But the emergence of agriculture saw population growth, and it appears likely that by 1 CE the continent’s population exceeded 100 million. For China and Japan, there are data which shed light on their population histories during pre-modern times. Moreover, both countries experienced rapid demographic transitions in the 20th century—substantially limiting the associated extent of population growth. For the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, there are almost no population data prior to the late 18th century, although what happened subsequently is better recorded. Both these diverse regions experienced fairly protracted modern demographic transitions and substantial population growth. West Asia’s population is thought to have been of similar size in 1900 as in 1 CE. During the 20th century, however, most countries in West Asia experienced late birth-rate declines and very substantial population growth. Throughout history, the level of urbanization in Asia has generally been extremely low. Nevertheless, the continent contained most of the world’s most populous cities, though that situation changed temporarily in the 19th and 20th centuries. That said, after 1950 mortality decline fueled urban growth. As a result, by 2020 Asia once again contained most of the world’s largest cities, and about half of the continent’s people lived in urban areas. The population history of Asia has generally involved very slow population growth. The main explanation has been that death rates were high, marriage was early and universal, fertility was uncontrolled, and so birth rates were high too. However, research has increasingly suggested that in some areas the levels of fertility and mortality which prevailed in pre-modern times are better described as “moderate” rather than “high.” Moreover, as in Europe, there were regulatory mechanisms which helped to maintain a degree of balance between human numbers and the resource base.