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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, by 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.

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