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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 now, to the recovery of authentic national identities. Whiggism of any sort, including the conception that there is a plot to history as opposed to a shape or outline, is, in the Braudelian dispensation, set aside, and Reid shows no trace of it. It is a likeness that he wants to convey, not an epic: a picture of the past.

As such his project has problems of its own. Given the internal diversity and the lack of any clearly dominant power, simply deciding where to draw the line around sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Southeast Asia and, that done, what to emphasize within it, is extremely consequential. Does Vietnam, which had become pervaded by Chinese culture, belong within the boundaries? How far toward Melanesia does one want to go? Are Sri Lanka’s Theravada Buddhist connections with Burma, Siam, and Cambodia strong enough to dislodge it from Voor-Indië and attach it to Achter? And how should one distribute one’s attention among the Austronesian-speaking southern areas, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula, and the Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic–speaking northern ones? Is the Java Sea, the South China Sea, the Gulf of Siam, the Straits of Malacca, or even the Bay of Bengal the pivot of “The Age of Commerce”?

Reid deals with the first issue by leaving northern Vietnam out and central and southern in, mainly on cultural grounds: he draws the eastern edge of Southeast Asia at the Moluccas, mainly because international commerce dropped off beyond them; and he finesses the Sri Lanka problem by not raising it. He deals with the second only implicitly, but nonetheless definitely, by centering most of his discussion on Asia’s Mediterranean, the Java Sea, and its Gibraltar, the Malacca Straits.

There is not much point in questioning these decisions in themselves. One could quibble with them forever, and partisans of Papua or Ayutthaya (north of present-day Bangkok), armed with arcana, doubtless will do so. What does raise questions is that Reid makes his decisions in so offhand a way, scarcely attempting to justify them and considering the alternatives hardly at all. The exclusion of northern Vietnam and the inclusion of southern Vietnam occur in a paragraph, decided on the basis of a few isolated culture traits: northern chopsticks and mandarins versus southern pole houses and “the prominence of women in descent.” The role of Buddhism, and indeed of all the great religions, in the integration of the region is almost negligently addressed: a matter of a few rules, a few amusements, and a few institutions. Nothing here of dogmas and eschatologies. Reid justifies his view that the trade system was centered in the south only by referring to the spread of Malay as a lingua franca in the major ports, and he makes no attempt to evaluate traffic patterns, treaty relations, or power balances.

Unlike the Annalistes, and especially unlike Braudel, Reid gives very little attention to methodological issues; he just goes ahead and does it. This ought not to work, especially in a study that seeks to reconstruct an enormous block of history and describe it in a comprehensive way. The book indeed is more of a series of short takes, passing glances (“Land Tenure,” “Meat Eating as Ritual,” “Female Roles,” “Furniture and Lighting,” “Writing Materials,” “Popular Games”), than a panoramic account of a form of past life. Yet though the whole never comes very clearly into view, and the “total history” never quite adds up, the brilliance of the separate parts, or at least of many of them, is such that the picture more or less comes through, however spasmodically. What Reid calls Southeast Asia’s Renaissance is evoked in pieces.

In view of his general thesis—that an enormous, locally dominated commercial expansion transformed Southeast Asian social life in virtually every aspect after about 1450—the most important of such pieces are inevitably those having to do with one or another variety of commodity trade. The movement of rice, textiles, ceramics, gold and silver, iron, copper, tin, and lead, spices, and various craft objects from places that produced them to ones that consumed them, or even more important, scattered them onward in entrepôt traffic, gave the entire civilization its public shape. There has been, in fact, a thirty-year great debate, often fierce and still continuing, over the nature of this trade in the scholarly literature, and thus, at least implicitly, of the civilization it generated. Was it a kind of exalted peddling, a fitful, opportunistic traffic in small-bulk luxury goods—Yeats’s “golden grasshoppers and bees”—carried on between otherwise disconnected and self-contained port towns, as the monsoons, ships, and availability of cash permitted, by a vagabond trading class largely isolated from local cultures and polities? Or was it a steady, organized, large-bulk trade in foodstuffs and other practical necessities, carried out by larger and smaller magnates under the protection of politically competitive harbor princes? Sea ramblers or trade barons? The oriental bazaar or the Venetian countinghouse?*

Nervous again of general questions, Reid does not confront this debate as such or, more oddly, even acknowledge its existence. But he seems to come down with some force on the larger bulk, political trade side of things by stressing the importance of the movement of rice from the inland granary regions to the cities and the coasts, the role of metals (iron, tin) and “the key to power,” and the general circulation of cheap cotton textiles and earthenware pottery. Gibbon’s famous remark that “the objects of oriental trade were splendid and trifling” is dismissed as “absurd.” The spices, the silks, the Ming porcelains, the lacquer boxes, the dyewoods, the dried parrots, the umbrellas of beaten gold decorated “The Age of Commerce” and set off its magnificoes; they did not drive it. If anything, it was the European hunger for these things, especially for spices, that finally brought the age to an end.

The formation of this great trade emporium, better integrated by “the warm and placid waters” of the South China and Java seas than southern Europe, the Levant, and North Africa were by the Mediterranean, brought as much change to Southeast Asia as the similar development at about the same time brought to Europe, “though by no means in the same directions.” Outside powers—China, India, Japan, Persia, Arabia, Turkey, Iberia, northern Europe—found themselves drawn, one hot upon the heels of the other, into the region. Great port cities—Pegu in Burma, Ayutthaya in Siam, Perak and Malacca on the peninsula, Aceh and Pasai in Sumatra, Banten, Japara, and Gresik in Java, Makassar in the Celebes, Brunei, Manila—sprang up, their polychrome populations connected by a common acquaintance with “market Malay,” and a common interest in distant prices. “Arabic, Persian and Indian ideas and literary styles,” commonalities in “popular beliefs, legal systems,…clothing and building styles,” gongs, masks, cockfights, kites and shadow puppets, and flamboyant political displays (hundreds of elephants “carrying rich silks, their tusks gilded,…in silver”; tournaments between tigers and water buffalos; nearly continuous warfare more ceremonial than strategic) gave to the region a distinctive air: it had a vivid, vigorous, composite culture to fit its rich, teeming, composite economy.

With respect to various facets of this culture, seemingly almost randomly selected, Reid produces the series of four-or five-page synoptic essays, some forty in all, crowded with odd facts and passing observations, that make up most of his book and manage, for all their brevity and disconnectedness, to catch a great deal of the age’s temper.

In “Water and Wine,” he notes that “water was the everyday drink of Southeast Asians, much to the surprise of both tea-drinking Chinese and alcohol-addicted Dutch and English,” an observation that he then broadens into a discussion of the spiritual role of clear water in Southeast Asia (the Balinese still call their religion “the water practice”), the confinement of alcohol consumption to intense binges on ritual occasions, and the importance of fresh water provision in exercising political control. In “Hair,” he notes the minimal distinction between male and female hair styles as an index of a more general softening of differences between the sexes. He connects the obsessive concern with hair care by both sexes with the reverence for the head as the spiritual seat of identity (in Thai, the word for hair serves as the first-person pronoun), and points out that the length of hair became a mark of status to the point where short hair was imposed on dependents, captives, and slaves. He argues that the egalitarian effects of Islam and Christianity included the widespread abandonment of very long hair.

In “Clothing,” the general absence of sewn garments is connected to the sense of the body as “a work of art,” to be oiled, perfumed, colored, and tatooed—“when in full dress…almost naked.” In “Warfare,” the emphasis on trickery and deception as opposed to head-on battle is related to the gestural, almost choreographic, quality of military engagement: a civil war mobilizing thousands on each side in which almost no one is killed, wars ending when a single leader falls, Javanese battle array laid out in the form of a crayfish. In “Sexual Relations” Reid describes the struggle, in the symbolic expressions of manhood, between Muslim circumcision and pagan penis balls—small beads, bells, or pins, implanted in the foreskin to increase the pleasure of women. In “Marriage,” we learn that female virginity is an impediment to a proper match. In “Contests and Tournaments,” we encounter the baiting of tigers by rings of courtiers armed with spears conceived as civilized resistance to “danger, disorder, wildness, and the enemies of the state.” In “Popular Games,” there is the gambler as the man of virtue (“He has the spirit of a great nobleman, who gives away money and property without considering the amount,” “[who] even if [reduced] to naked poverty…remains…magnanimous…fully at peace”). Peasant houses mirror the cosmos (“Light Houses, Noble Temples”), percussive music seeks a steady state (“Theatre, Dance, and Music”), formalized betel chewing is the essence of courtesy (“Betel and Tobacco”).

The aura of the culture, thus, is there, and any Southeast Asianist who knows the nature of the materials and the interpretative battles that have been fought over them will both recognize it and appreciate what Reid has accomplished. There are more detailed and more deep-going accounts of almost all the matters Reid treats, and most particularly of the heart of his analysis, long-distance trade. There are intellectually more adventurous, less discipline-bound approaches, especially in the treatment of indigenous narratives—myths, annals, epics, and the like, which Reid, who depends almost entirely on European sources, seems not to know what to do with. But there is nothing that catches better the general look of things on the eve of European hegemony or evokes more effectively what Southeast Asia was like when Southeast Asians themselves bestrode it.

Reid’s first task, to establish the reality of “The Age of Commerce” and something of its character, has been, rather against the odds, thus pretty well achieved, and its preoccupations have been established, like those of the European Renaissance, as the heritage and cumbrance of all that has followed it. But an aura conjured up from aperçus is not, or at least not yet, the “total history” Reid proclaims in his opening sentence: “the history of man [as] a seamless web.” The structures de la longue durée, the “human units” and “collective destinies,” for which he is searching do not, in fact, very clearly emerge, and the interrelationships between économies, sociétiés, and civilisations remain insubstantial and indistinct, neither exact enough to be fertile nor explicit enough to be arguable. It may just be that Reid will find that the connective tissue that is missing here will be found in the medium-run processes and short-run happenings, to which he now will turn, rather than in material and cultural continuities. If he must have a Europeanist Virgil (a matter itself that might be questioned) as he descends even further into Southeast Asian confusions, he may find himself better off with the likes of Burckhardt than with Braudel and that there is more to be learned from a connoisseur of surprising forms and unobvious affinities than from a celebrant of fixed realities and immobile forces.

  1. *

    For the first view, see J.C. Van Leur, Indonesian Trade and Society (The Hague, 1955); for the second, see M.A.P. Meilink-Roelofsz, Asian Trade and European Influence in the Indonesian Archipelago Between 1500 and About 1630 (The Hague, 1962).

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