Southeast Asia is not passive. It never was.

“The discovery of America, and that of the passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest events recorded in the history of [human] kind”

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

In telling the story of Southeast Asia’s development, we might be tempted to adhere to a tale of the struggle to independence after decades and centuries of colonial rule. We’d start with lush, but impoverished, lands, of welcoming, but disunited, people – a tale of redemption as the peoples found strength in nationalism, courageously fought colonists with minimal resources, and eventually claiming independence.

Countries which faced relatively peaceful decolonization processes may instead recite stories of successful negotiation processes with the colonists, allowing the people independence.

A staple in Southeast Asian history lessons, especially for younger pupils, these stories, although inspiring, is prone to a misconception that Southeast Asians were docile, ‘passive beneficiaries of successive waves of civilizing invaders’[1] before the anti-colonial struggle. In students’ vivid imaginations, the region, pre-colonial involvement, may be romanticized as a resource-rich, tropical utopia populated by quite simple villagers.

Though some places in Southeast Asia do reflect this sleepy, idyllic characteristic, what is missing from the story is the active role that Southeast Asian civilization had in shaping global trade before the colonial era. To fill in the gaps, what we need is an ‘autonomous history’ for Southeast Asia[2], which I shall attempt to summarise in this essay.

What life might have looked like in Majapahit, the largest empire in Southeast Asia, uniting the Indonesian archipelago.

Between the 14th and 18th century, Southeast Asia underwent a golden age of increased prosperity and growing trade links, with a number of regional powers vying for dominance: among others, the Toungoo Dynasty in Myanmar; the Tai state of Ayutthaya, where Theravada Buddhism grew and flourished; the Majapahit Empire, dominating much of the Indonesian archipelago; and the Malacca Sultanate, occupying the Malay Peninsula and a portion of modern-day Sumatra.

Maritime Routes and Port Cities

Port cities along the Strait of Malacca. © nach Hornidge et al.

Southeast Asia’s strategic location as a maritime crossroads played a significant part in the development of major port cities. One example is Malacca, which connected the Bay of Bengal to the South China Sea. An all-sea route through the strait of Malacca avoided the tedious process of transporting goods across land routes, which faced the problem of narrow canals and treacherous grounds.

As such, it became a prime connector of two massive economic powers at the time: India and China. Equipped with safe warehousing, food, and water, ports became a region of cross-cultural interaction. Polyglot seafarers rested, conversed, and traded, before carrying on with their journey. Europeans, at this point in time, did not possess an imposing status, but were treated simply as trade partners. 

An illustration of trade in port cities, with the the Dutch flag visible on boat masts.

It can be difficult to look into the past and think of ‘what-ifs’ and ‘what-could-have-been’s. Thinking of European hegemony in Southeast Asia as being preeminent, for many historians in the past decade, may be a comfortable viewpoint. Taking the perspective that European hegemony is not overdetermined, however, but rather ‘multi-causal and contingent’[3] can provide us with a fresh perspective on how colonialism came to be in the region.

Cloves, Capitalism and Conquests

Nutmeg, one of the most, if not the most, valued spice by European traders. The Dutch East India Company gained a monopoly of nutmeg production in the Banda Islands after coercing Bandanese rulers to sign the Eternal Treaty.

Southeast Asia’s largely agrarian population, and its fertile lands, were integral to its export production: a long boom in pepper and spice exports to Europe and China, Reid juxtaposes[4], was the driver to Southeast Asia’s prosperity during this period. According to Reid, it was Southeast Asia’s wealth of spices which drove China and Europe’s quests to conquer the world.

Rather than merely a footnote, Southeast Asia played an undeniably crucial role in setting the stage for capitalism to grow and flourish. It was during this period that advanced economies were shifting to increasingly capitalist modes of organization, responding to the need for efficient structures to support an increasing volume of goods traded.

Southeast Asia played an undeniably crucial role in setting the stage for capitalism to grow and flourish.

European trade with the region began with the Portuguese in the 15th century, with the Dutch, French and English rapidly in tow. Each European power aimed at monopolizing trade routes and production sites, hence the oft-quoted violence involved in European conquests of indigenous regimes.

However, ships and cannons could not do much but intimidate – and in order to obtain favourable prices, it would not be wise to do so. Instead, European traders had to curry the favour of local chieftains and political leaders to gain their trust.

Caricature of The Macartney Embassy, 1793. Diplomatic interchange between the British and the Chinese Qing dynasty. British diplomats are seen kowtowing on the right, an obligatory practice in greeting the Chinese emperor. Though European relations with Southeast Asia before colonialism are rarely depicted, similarly, diplomats and traders had to appease local rulers.

The Dutch East India Company (VOC) understood that in order to sustain its operations in Southeast Asia, it had to adopt a quasi-state status. As a company, the Dutch did not have much standing in the region, as negotiations, trade and otherwise, were generally a privilege reserved for states.

Regional kingdoms formed alliances, sent each other gifts, and created mutually beneficial trade agreements. European interlopers were outsiders in this context, thus the necessity for net-positive tradeoffs with states. This strategy proved to be successful in later years, as the Dutch gained dominance in maritime Southeast Asia.

Trade in maritime Southeast Asia generally had to pass two straits: Sunda and Malacca. Both were lucrative, and so indigenous states had for centuries attempted to seize control of these prime spots and their port cities. The East India Company, observing this potential, joined in the race and eventually won – but not without help.

The rise of Dutch power in the East Indies, now Indonesia, was bolstered by making strategic alliances with local partners: Chinese traders. The Chinese, who had settled in Java for the past century or so, ran heavily profitable regional trade networks, contracting with the Dutch to collect local taxes along the way.

The small states in the East Indies were also significant influences for Dutch expansion in the region. Inter-state and inter-generational rivalry within these kingdoms were common; and a rival may call for Dutch fortification much like they would call for assistance from other indigenous states. Wills Jr. pointed out that a conflict between the Young King of Banten and his father, wherein the Young King called for VOC aid, resulted in the state becoming a client state.

Banten in the 17th century. A bustling port city, with the palace on the left side of the background.

A Nuanced View of Colonial History

Indeed, the Europeans may have had an edge in shipbuilding and weaponry, but its dominance in Southeast Asia culminated due to strategic interactions with Southeast Asians, and its capitalization of local political regimes and elites. Although they did succeed in colonizing Southeast Asia in the 18th century, it is not because of the passive compliance of kingdoms and states in Southeast Asia, but a product of their individual interests and personalized rivalries.

The Europeans followed an existing trade model in the region, and succeeded in monopolizing core industries in Southeast Asia. But by no means were local leaders simply deluded into signing agreements with European traders and eventual colonizers. Perhaps they were motivated by self-preservation, or rapid expansion through a powerful political ally, or simply personal envy and rivalry (the Javanese court, for instance, had highly personalized politics). But the notion that colonialism came about due to the sheer strength of European seafarers is not only misguided, but also severely limiting.


[1] Sutherland, H. (2007) Geography as destiny?: The role of water in Southeast Asian history. In Boomgard, P. (Ed.) A World of Water: Rain, Rivers and Seas in Southeast Asian Histories (pp. 27-56). https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004254015_003

[2] Andaya, L. and Andaya, B. (1995). Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Period; Twenty-Five Years On, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 26(1), pp. 92-98

[3] Wills, J. (1993). Maritime Asia, 1500-1800: The Interactive Emergence of European Domination. The American Historical Review, 98(1), pp. 83-105. doi:10.2307/216638

[4] Henley, D. (2015). Ages of Commerce in Southeast Asian History. In Henley D. & Nordholt H. (Eds.), Environment, Trade and Society in Southeast Asia: A Longue Durée Perspective (pp. 120-132). LEIDEN; BOSTON: Brill. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1163/j.ctt1w76vg1.11

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