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Where the East Begins

Asia in the Making of Europe, Vol. III: A Century of Advance Book 1: Trade, Missions, Literature; Book 2: South Asia; Book 3: South-east Asia; Book 4: East Asia

by Donald F. Lach and Edwin J. Van Kley
University of Chicago Press, 2,077 four volumes pp., $300.00 the set

Between 1965 and 1977, Donald Lach published the first two volumes of his Asia in the Making of Europe, an illuminating and erudite survey of the various ways that Asia has affected scholarship, literature, and the visual arts in the West. Beginning with a survey of the first glimmers of knowledge of Asia that filtered into the Roman Empire and medieval Europe, Mr. Lach devoted most of his discussion to what he termed the “century of wonder,” the sixteenth century, when the savants of Europe began a more systematic exploration and analysis of these bewildering cultures, with their apparently endless possibilities for trade and Christian conversion.

These first two “volumes” (which consisted of five large separate books) were so meticulously researched and comprehensive that they left readers wondering if he would be able to pull off the same feat for the seventeenth century, which he announced he would turn to next. With the publication of this Volume III: A Century of Advance, Mr. Lach has made good on his promise. Once again, the scale is epic, for Volume III contains four separate books, totaling 1,917 pages of text, with 433 plates (many with lengthy, almost essay-like captions), 158 pages of bibliography, and a 112-page index. This time Mr. Lach, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, has chosen to collaborate with a younger scholar, Edwin Van Kley, a skillful bibliographer and historian of the seventeenth century in Asia. When one reflects on this entire enterprise, it becomes clear that Mr. Lach can justly lay claim to have produced the most comprehensive work on the history of Western perceptions of pre-modern Asia ever written.

The first book is devoted to the authors’ own account of European commercial and religious expansion and to a summary of the main European literature on seventeenth-century Asia whether Iberian, Italian, French, Dutch, English, Germanic, or Danish). Each of the subsequent three books is given over to a more leisurely survey of the seventeenth-century material on the three main regions of Asia, defined here as South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. The one problem here is that the amount of information is so huge, the bibliography (though patiently cross-referenced) so complex, and the amount of names so immense, that the reader’s mind is threatened at many turns by simple overload.

The main lines of the story that Lach and Van Kley have to tell can nevertheless be summarized fairly simply. In the sixteenth century, the Spanish and the Portuguese dominated the patterns of global exploration—and the commercial and religious fruits thereof. In the seventeenth century, as Spain became mired in bitter, expensive, and protracted wars in the Low Countries, and Portugal lost much of its independence of action owing to the union of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns, new Western rivals appeared on the scene who destroyed the old order. One group of rivals came from within the Catholic Church itself, from those who resented the system known as the “Padroado” in Portuguese (“Patronato” in Spanish), which by papal fiat had given to Portugal in 1514—via the ecclesiastical establishment at their base in Goa on the western coast of India—virtually complete control over the Catholic Church and its mission in Asia. This arrangement echoed the powers in the New World granted to Spain by papal bulls of 1493 and 1508.

The attacks came in various forms and for various reasons: from Italian Jesuits resenting Iberian criticism of their methods as missionaries; from popes who wanted to bring mission efforts more effectively under the control of their own new organization, the Propaganda Fide, established in 1622; and, later in the century, from French missions working closely with their newly expansionist monarch Louis XIV, through their own “Société des missions étrangères” and the royally backed French East India company, both founded at Paris in 1664.

The second group of rivals came from within Protestant Europe, especially British merchants (Queen Elizabeth chartered the English East India Company in 1600) and the Dutch, whose various competing companies trading in Asia were joined together into one United East India Company by a resolution of the States General in 1602. Thereafter the Dutch became ruthless and consistently dangerous enemies of the Portuguese and the Spaniards, wresting Taiwan from Spain and Ceylon from Portugal. They carved out their own string of bases throughout today’s Indonesia, and—for good measure—destroyed in 1623 the important British East Asian foothold on the Moluccan island of Amboina. (Thereafter, the British concentrated most of their expansionist energies in the East on the Indian subcontinent.) Predictably, Protestant missionaries moved with the flags of their mother countries, spreading churches and schools, and offering their own “purifications” of local customs, with growing vigor as the century progressed.

Reflecting on these broad themes in the context of seventeenth-century history, Lach and Van Kley point up the significance of two important subsidiary factors: firstly, bloody though this entire process was, it was very often a situation in which Europeans were killing other Europeans, rather than one in which Europeans were in any way working in unison to kill or subjugate indigenous peoples even though many of the latter were also killed, and not only in the cross-fire.

Secondly, the movement of European powers into Asia in the seventeenth century was still largely a process of the limited occupation of archipelagoes or coastal enclaves; it was not marked by successful continental conquests, and even the “occupations” that were successful were often carried out by some form of co-operative agreement with local rulers, which rendered most of the European enclaves consistently vulnerable. This argument will doubtless be challenged by those who seek a more consistent pattern of exploitation and abuse at the heart of European expansion. But Lach and Van Kley are certainly persuasive that in the seventeenth century, at any rate, the European pressures were indeed so diffuse, and their fire-power—though awesome when used—so limited, that the specific details of cooperation between Europeans and native rulers and elites need closer scrutiny than they have usually received.

The authors make the additional point that the European interest in Asia was intimately entwined with the spectacular growth in the publishing industry at this same time, and the development of a commercial publishing market that reached out in new ways for new readers, whom it sought to attract by dramatic tales of the strange or the unknown. The Frankfurt “book fair” was already a major force in the distribution of books in Europe, and the number of publishing houses was growing dramatically. Dutch overseas expansion, for example, was accompanied by the rise of their own print industries, which in turn reflected the economic decline of the Spanish Low Countries. Between 1570 and 1630, we are told, sixty-nine printers and book dealers moved to Amsterdam from the southern Netherlands, and a further fifty-six to Leyden. By the end of the century, the United Provinces (with a population of around two million) were probably producing more books than the rest of Western Europe combined.

Many of these books are the travel accounts that are listed and analyzed in such exhaustive detail in the body of Lach and Van Kley’s work. The authors remind us that though there was much overlap in these publications, and much conscious or unconscious plagiarizing, the basic fact is that an astonishing number of these seventeenth-century books were first-hand accounts based on acute observation, so that cumulatively they form an indispensable body of material for understanding the history of the times:

Seventeenth-century travelers were usually far less insulated from local populations than are most travelers today. They traveled more slowly, had much more contact with local people, and generally stayed in one place longer. What they report, therefore, frequently reflects not only their own observations and preconceptions, but also the impressions they received from talking and living with natives.

The strength of Lach and Van Kley’s work, however, lies not in its presentation of any broad analytical hypotheses, but in its comprehensiveness. They are generous in their praise of their great predecessors in the art of assembling travel literature—Richard Hakluyt, Samuel Purchas, and Awnsham Churchill in England, Theodor de Bry and Levinus Hulsius in Frankfurt, Melchisédech Thévenot in France, Isaac Commelin in the Netherlands—but they also offer us their own judgments on the value of works by seventeenth-century writers that hold special insights or show unusual sensitivity of observation concerning Asian civilizations, among them Simon de La Loubère on Siam (published 1691); Abraham Roger on South Indian Hinduism (1651); Johann Nieuhof on China (1665); Robert Knox on Ceylon (1681); and Richard Cocks on Japan (1626). sometimes, too, as Lach and Van Kley tell us, the best seventeenth-century account of a given country is by someone whose identity cannot be traced, as is the case with the mysterious Scotsman David Wright, who wrote extremely well on Formosa and the folk religious practices on the island. Giving the reader these qualitative guidelines to the literature is an invaluable service to those interested in any of the countries or subregions covered in Asia in the Making of Europe.

How then should we read this formidable work? Though some will have the time and tenacity to read it straight through, most might well be daunted by the extent of the task. For Volume III is an encyclopedia as much as a book; it circles in and around itself, treats similar topics by different routes, and does not often indulge the reader by breaking its density with enticing quotations from rare sources. At the same time it is a book full of amazements, even to those who might feel jaded by their knowledge of human experience. In that sense, the wonders of discovery are still here, perhaps all the more so because Lach and Van Kley present their most astonishing material in such a matter-of-fact way.

Thus, one way to enjoy these books is to use them as a guide to the varieties of seventeenth-century human experience in Asia. The first, and simplest, approach to doing this is to read the narrative with an open heart, not worrying about the details, but looking for people or moments that seem to capture the adventurousness of the past in especially telling ways. From the huge cast of characters here assembled, for example, we can select three Europeans whose experiences seem almost inconceivable to us today. The few paragraphs that Lach and Van Kley dedicate to each of them serve merely to underline the mystery, for such life stories are impossible to explain. They seem to demand a larger imaginative setting than history continuously provides—that of fiction, film, or even opera—to test out all their unspoken implications.

One of these three was Thomas Coryate, born in London around 1577, a man of mis-shapen appearance and sharp wit, who became de facto courtjester to both King James I and to literary London. Drawn by what he described as the twin impulses “to ride upon an elephant and to deliver an oration to the Great Mogol,” Coryate left England in 1612 and traveled via Constantinople, Damascus, Aleppo, and Isfahan to Lahore, Delhi, and Agra. Proceeding to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s court of Ajmer, Coryate both rode an elephant and learned enough Persian to salute the emperor in that language, a feat for which he received a purseful of silver from the gratified monarch.

Coryate also grew famous for his knowledge of Persian invective and for his anti-Muslim antics, once climbing to the top of a minaret during morning prayers and chanting, there is “no God but one God and Christ the Sonne of God, and…Mohamet…an imposter.” He continued to travel in India, exploring Agra and the Ganges, writing up his travels and experiences, and earning an Indian sobriquet as the “English Fakier” until he sickened and died in Surat in November 1618. Suitably or not, he was buried near the ground normally reserved for Muslim tombs.

A second adventurer was Constantine Phaulkon (1647-1688), a Greek merchant, who traveled to the Siamese capital of Ayut’ia in 1678. Converted to Catholicism by a Flemish Jesuit who happened to be passing through Siam en route to China, Phaulkon subsequently married a Japanese-Christian woman who lived in the same city. Immersing himself in local political intrigue, by 1683 he had become the confidant and de facto minister of foreign affairs to the Siamese King Narai. In 1685 and 1687 Phaulkon had a main part in the negotiations conducted by two French embassies that came to Siam in those years, hoping to establish a French presence in Southeast Asia and to speed missionary successes there. Apparently at the peak of his power, Phaulkon was decapitated by Siamese political rivals in 1688.

A third example, Jeronymus Corneliszoon, was the Dutch business agent on the ship Batavia, that left the Netherlands as part of a small trading fleet in 1629. Separated from the fleet in the Indian Ocean, the Batavia was driven far to the southeast until it was grounded on the rocks of the north Australian coast, at 28 degrees south latitude, in the region known then as Houtman’s Abrolhos. While the captain made the arduous trip back to Batavia in the ship’s boat to get help, Corneliszoon was left on a rocky island in charge of the surviving crew members and several ministers’ daughters (who had apparently come aboard in Amsterdam, destined to marry into the ranks of the mostly bachelor Dutch male residents of Batavia). During the captain’s protracted absence, Corneliszoon looted the ship for its supplies, and set up his own establishment, with the ministers’ daughters as his and his cohorts’ mistresses, in this way initiating what was perhaps the first lengthy settlement by white people on northern Australia’s red-rock and surf-battered shores. But this community was not to endure. When the ship’s captain managed to return safely to rescue the castaways, he had Corneliszoon executed and took the other survivors back with him to Batavia.

A second approach to the volumes would concentrate on the nuances of the cultural attitudes adopted by differing Westerners in their contacts with Asia. Sometimes these were merely dismissive, as in the case of John Saris, who pops up for a brief moment in the pages of Lach and Van Kley. Captain of a small British East India Company fleet that reached Japan in 1613, Saris liked to keep a painting of Venus and Cupid—“some-what wantonly set out”—in his cabin. He was sardonically amused when a number of the womenfolk of the local feudal lord, or daimyo, were permitted to visit the ship and, being Christian converts, proceeded to worship the picture, believing it to be of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child.

Much more complex was the case of the Jesuit Father Antonio de Andrade, who managed to reach the Western Tibetan city of Tsaparang in 1624: once he had had a chance to study Tibetan Lamaist Buddhism, Andrade concluded that Tibetan reverence for the “three precious things”—the Buddha, the sacred doctrine, and the community of monks—was reminiscent of the Christian Holy Trinity. Furthermore, Prajñaparamita—whom Tibetans called the Mother of God—was clearly the Virgin Mary, while the figures displayed in Tibet of the “Lha,” gods of the sky armed with breastplate and shield, seemed surely to be a Tibetan version of St. Michael.

During this same period of the early seventeenth century, the Tuscan Jesuit Roberto de Nobili was living in the Southern Hindu state of Vijayanagar. Realizing that Europeans by definition could have no caste in the eyes of the Brahman elite, who would therefore reject conversion to Christianity absolutely, de Nobili adopted the role of a Hindu “holy man” or “sannyasi,” leaving his origins vague but emphasizing his own aristocratic lineage. Having acquired a good knowledge of courtly Tamil, de Nobili proceeded to learn Telugu (the language of the local ruler of Madura) and Sanskrit. Claiming now to be a guru of the lost fourth veda (the first three vedas presented respectively the laws of Vishnu, Brahman, and Siva), de Nobili proceeded to build a church on the architectural model of a Hindu temple, reserved exclusively for the use of high-caste converts—Portuguese and lower-caste Christians were not admitted. Before each mass, he would purify himself with a ritual bath, and to each of his high-caste converts he gave a set of the sacred Brahman triple threads, worn diagonally across the body and over the left shoulder, to which he attached a tiny cross inscribed with the Latin name for Jesus.

A third strategy for negotiating these volumes, and this is perhaps the one that exploration-minded but nonspecialist readers might prefer to take, is to turn to the one of three area books that interests them most, and then either read it through or take up the sections on a specific country within the region, gaining thus a detailed knowledge of pretty much everything—absorbing, unusual, mundane, or inaccurate—that was written on that country during the seventeenth century. The twenty-three bibliographies at the end of the volume will then give a condensed form of “further readings,” though owing to space limitations there are also numerous titles in the footnotes that may not appear in the specific bibliography for a given chapter.1

Perhaps the most manageable approach to the books, and the one most likely to avoid indigestion, is to use the first broad volume on general background and on historiographies, which are arranged by the various authors’ European national origin, in order to identify the past travelers, adventurers, missionaries, or historians (often they were one and the same person) who seem most interesting today. Readers can then use the admirable index to the books on specific regions in order to find other writers they may want to pursue at leisure in years to come.2

The result of this strategy will be to considerably increase almost any reader’s knowledge of first-rate historical writing. Simon de La Loubère, for example, sent to Siam as envoy-extraordinary by Louis XIV, spent only three months in Siam in 1688, but by doing such background reading as was then possible, by talking with Siamese informants, by quizzing local missionaries and accumulating rare maps—as well as by simply keeping his eyes open—he was able in 1691 to publish a two-volume work, Du royaume de Siam, that is still of great value.

Our knowledge of Ceylon has been comparably enriched by the remarkable work of Robert Knox, whose fourpart Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies (1681) is praised by Lach and Van Kley as “the least biased and best informed source for the study of seventeenth-century Ceylon.” This is especially interesting because of Knox’s own background. Whereas La Loubère was a shrewd courtier, born to cosmopolitanism and privilege, Knox was a crewman on his father’s ship when it was captured by the Raja of Kandy in 1659. Kept by the raja in an odd kind of countryside imprisonment Knox managed to obtain a plot of land and a small house, to learn the local language and customs, to raise animals, and profit from lending and trading in grain, before he finally escaped in 1679.

No less remarkable an observer was the Dutch Protestant minister from Amsterdam, Abraham Roger, who lived and taught at Pulicat on the Coromandel Coast of Southern India from 1632 to 1642. Clearly an able linguist—Roger delivered his weekly sermons in a sequence of Tamil, Portuguese, and Dutch—Roger echoed the Jesuit de Nobili’s strategy of enlisting the aid of a local high-caste Brahman, from whom he learned how to read the Sanskrit classics. During the same decade Roger accumulated an astonishing knowledge of Indian society that enabled him to write what Lach and Van Kley call “still one of the most complete and objective accounts of South Indian Hinduism produced by a foreigner.” In the case of Roger’s book, we also have a rare example of a woman playing an acknowledged part in the historiographical adventures of the time. When Roger died in 1649 he left only a mass of unco-ordinated material and notes, which were organized into a coherent whole by his widow, who also saw to the publication of the book in 1651.

The enormous ambition of the task that Donald Lach and Edwin Van Kley have set for themselves has an ironical twist to it, for despite all their erudition they can never be definitive. Their subject is just too vast, and new material is being discovered and published in astonishing volume at an equally astonishing rate. To take just the one region with which I have some familiarity, that of China in the seventeenth century, during the year or so since our two authors must have sent off their final copy, the world of China-related seventeenth-century Church archives has been significantly expanded by the materials and catalog assembled for the fine exhibition at the Library of Congress, entitled Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture.3 An entire book has been devoted to one of the Jesuits of special interest to Lach and Van Kley, Philippe Couplet, who brought with him in the 1680s one of the first Chinese travelers ever to reach Europe, Michael Shen Fu-tsung; one of the essays in that book specifically addresses a number of cases in which the Protestant Dutch worked closely with the China-based Flemish Jesuit missionaries, considerably blurring what has usually been seen as the sharp distinction between the Protestant and Catholic camps in their commercial and religious strategies.4 The whole question of Catholic mission activities and commercial interests in Fukien province, and of Confucian and Buddhist reactions to Catholic doctrine, is now seen differently thanks to the numerous essays in E.B. Vermeer’s recently edited compendium on that province.5 While the even more ideologically complicated question of the different approaches of the Chinese secular authorities toward Catholicism on the one hand or indigenous Chinese but politically suspect sectarian groups such as the White Lotus on the other, has been meticulously dissected by B.J. Ter Haar.6

Such studies can only continue to expand our knowledge, they will never be able to “solve” the conundrum of the relative weight we should give each aspect of this story as we try to explore the whys and wherefores (let alone the rights and wrongs) of Europe’s middle period of intersection with Asia’s many political, economic, social, and cultural universes. What Lach and Van Kley have done is to give us a straightforward series of categories that bring a preliminary order to an utterly daunting mass of material. Their contribution in its way is parallel to the achievement of Joseph Needham and his later collaborators in bringing system and bibliographical underpinnings to the multifarious ventures of Chinese science.7 The type of scholarship these works represent is at once exhausting and exhilarating to contemplate, a tribute to human tenacity and to the obduracy of human achievement. By giving us these glimpses of many hundreds of Europeans, and the residents of Asian countries whom they encountered, Lach and Van Kley have made their chosen period of tangled and contrasting cultural and commercial relations at once infinitely more accessible and yet still bafflingly remote.

  1. 1

    The specific chapter bibliographies are preceded by no less than fifty pages of bibliography on seventeenth-century “source materials;” plus a further sixteen pages of published seventeenth-century Jesuit letterbooks. (Lach and Van Kley’s “tentative list” of these latter yields 119 separate titles, though these of course include translations of similar materials or material partially overlapping other titles.) 

  2. 2

    The University of Chicago Press has grandly provided a separate index to each of Books 1, 2, and 3 and a cumulative index to all four at the end of Book 4. 

  3. 3

    Edited by Anthony Grafton (Yale University Press and Library of Congress, 1993.) Especially relevant here is the magnificently illustrated essay by Howard L. Goodman, “Paper Obelisks: East Asia in the Vatican Vaults.” See the review by Garry Wills, New York Review, February 11, 1993. 

  4. 4

    Jerome Heyndrickx, editor, Philippe Couplet, S.J. (1623–1693): The Man Who Brought China to Europe (Nettetal: Monumenta Serica and Ferdinand Verbiest Foundation/Steyler Verlag, 1990). The Dutch-Flemish story is illuminated in the essay by Paul Demaerel, “Couplet and the Dutch.” 

  5. 5

    E.V. Vermeer, editor, Development and Decline of Fukien Province in the 17th and 18th Centuries (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1990). 

  6. 6

    B.J. Ter Haar, The White Lotus Teachings in Chinese Religious History (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1992). 

  7. 7

    Science and Civilisation in China, (Cambridge University Press, 1956 to the present), in six volumes, totaling sixteen separate books so far.