A South Sea Renaissance

Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680: Vol. I, The Lands below the Winds

by Anthony Reid
Yale University Press, 275 pp., $25.00

Of impossible books asking to be written, a “total history” of Southeast Asia in the manner of Fernand Braudel, immediately before the region came under European dominion, would seem very near to the top of the list. The materials are sparse: a traveler’s tale here, a merchant’s report there, some shipping records, some religious inscriptions, various myths, legends, dynastic chronicles, a scattering of half-worked archaeological sites. The region is a hodgepodge of languages, religions, races, civilizations, economies, and microstates strewn through forests, along deltas, and across archipelagoes. It usually includes the places that now go under the names of Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines, among others. A continental edge and a maritime crossroads, its identity was imposed on it by encroaching outsiders searching out its riches: “The Southern Ocean” of the imperial Chinese, “The Lands below the Winds” of the Arab, Persian, and Indian navigators, the Achter-Indië of the oncoming Dutch. Yet it does seem a place, a period, and a cast of mind unlike others, and one of rather special significance, before the Fall: a Grand Something, somehow graspable.

Anthony Reid, senior fellow in Southeast Asian History at the Australian National University and author of two useful but standard monographs on northern Sumatra, emboldened, he says, by Braudel’s call for “historians who are ambitious,” has tried to grasp it by inventing an epoch, advancing a thesis, and erecting a frame.

The epoch is “The Age of Commerce,” a period when intraregional trade links, largely maritime, “were more dominant…than either before or since” and knit the area into “a human unit”: Javanese were in Malacca, Siamese in Manila, Makassarese in Siam, and Malays were everywhere. The thesis is that within this unit Southeast Asians confronted Europeans, and other outsiders as well, on even or better than even terms. Western preponderance came only later, with the trading company monopolies of the seventeenth century, and the transformation of them into political hegemony in the eighteenth and nineteenth. And the frame is made up of the classical categories of the Annales school in Paris, économies, sociétés, civilisations: first, the foundations, “Physical Well-being” and “Material Culture,” then the institutions, “Social Organization,” then the mentalité, “Festivals and Amusements.”

The present volume is devoted to setting out the abiding characteristics that define the period, what Braudel called, in his famous work on the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century, “structures of the long run” (longue durée). The next volume will be devoted to the middle-run processes (Braudel called them “conjunctures”) and the short-run happenings (Braudel called them “events”) that took place against the background of these constants.

This history with a French accent is intended to replace and correct the two most familiar approaches to the Southeast Asian past: that of European triumphalism, which tells a story of dynamic Dutchmen, Englishmen, Spaniards, and Portuguese conquering sporadically contentious but basically inert Javans, Burmans, Malays, and Filipinos; and that of the triumph of nationalism, which describes centuries of popular resistance to Western domination leading, just…

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