THE ASIAN SEAS (1599-1800): local societies, European expansion and the Portuguese

Jorge Manuel Flores*

The Asian Seas (1500-1800) has been born out of a trend which has been growing over the last decade to produce general ideas and views concerning the Orient and its seas.

In 1979 The Age of Partnership: Europeans in Asia before Dominion1 came off the press. In 1987 two important studies were published: India and the Indian Ocean, 1500-18002; and The Indian Ocean: Explorations in History, Commerce and Politics. 3 Over the same period, a proliferation of works appeared, proposing an all-embracing examination of the Asian seas and at the same time highlighting discussion of a common theme. One of the most eloquent examples of this trend must be the work directed by Denys Lombard and Jean Aubin, Marchands et hommes d'affaires asiatiques dans l'Océan Indien et la Mer de Chine, 13e-20e siècles. Thanks to this work, we are now able to make detailed comparisons between merchants and businessmen in areas as diverse as the Swahili region, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, India's coastal regions, the Southeast Asian islands, China and Japan. 4 Along the same thematic lines, Merchants, Markets and the State in Early Modern India by Sanjay Subrahmanyam appeared very recently. 5 Other authors have emphasized the port cities6, while some have chosen to focus on Portuguese Asia. 7 The wide range of projects which have been undertaken means that this brief outline runs the risk of becoming outdated in a very short space of time.

Therefore, the purpose and advantages to be gained from this kind of collective publication are obvious and undeniable. In a period when we are witnessing increasingly narrow research fields, a result of the progressive fragmentation of historians' goals8, we must make time to contemplate the whole without having to concern ourselves with producing or imposing a text book version. Rather, we are trying to provide some space for a wider perspective which can, on the basis of comparing situations, explain phenomena of a similar nature which occur in the most varied places. A few years ago, referring to the issue of the State in South India and Southeast Asia, Sanjay Subrahmanyam noted and regretted the lack of dialogue between specialists in the two regions. 9 His concern is still relevant today.

The period of time and physical space with which we are concerned are dangerously immense. Nevertheless, our central concern is not to touch on every point, nor to cover all the different regions and issues. It is up to the reader to establish links between the articles published, to discover gaps and to follow up new paths. Our intention was not, obviously, to produce a general, definitive history as was formerly common practice. Nor did we want to imitate Frank Braudel's approach to the Mediterranean Sea. Certainly, there is always the temptation to do with the Indian Ocean what Braudel did with the Mediterranean. 10 An examination of the Indian Ocean in the context of maritime history, however, is enough to show that the two situations are different and that it is not possible to transport Braudel' s model to the area with which we are concerned. The Asian Seas bear absolutely no resemblance to the Mediterranean Sea. There is no single 'Asian World' which could be compared with Braudel's admirably dismantled 'Mediterranean World'.11

Why did we choose 1500 to 1800? This issue of the magazine deals with the societies in the Asian Seas and European expansion(s). Despite the fact that other objectives may be just as valid, the fact remains that we must be guided by the Seminar on Indo-Portuguese History which covers basically the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. It would not make sense to go further back in time. On the other hand, the late eighteenth century marks the beginning of the 'Age of Partnership' (an expression coined by Blair King and Michael Pearson12). 'The Age of Partnership', of pre-European colonization, gave way, however, to the 'Age of Confrontation', of domination by purely colonial empires created by an industrialized Europe. From that point on, the impact of the West was to be much stronger and the nature of the problems presented was very different.

What are the Asian Seas? This is a very general label indicating the disjointed world stretching from the East African coast and the Straits along to the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan. How else can we describe the waters that lap against the shores of the Asian continent? The Indian Ocean goes no further than the seas around the Indonesian Archipelago13 and the line between it and the Pacific Ocean is tenuous, irregular and difficult, if not even impossible or irrelevant from an historical point of view, to define. Furthermore, the region where the two oceans meet is now recognised as a single entity in its own right as expressed in the highly appropriate name and concept of 'Southeast-Asian Mediterranean'.14

As to the rest, we can construct a small world in each comer of the Asian Seas, each one different from all the others. 15 The Asian Seas are the sum of a myriad of small seas, complex realities which cannot be split into major geographical divisions. There are numerous examples: the Sea of Ceylon16, the Straits of Malacca, the Boqueirão da Sunda17, or, if we look to even more detailed examples, the mouth of the Ganges, the Pearl River delta... worlds, most of which are still waiting for an historian, or, better still, an interdisciplinary team which can bring together data on history, geography (there is a tremendous amount of work to be done in the field of historical geography), economics, architecture, urban planning, anthropology, literature-the areas of research proposed are limited only by the talents of those who suggest them.

The twenty-four articles presented in The Asian Seas (1500-1800): local societies, European expansion and the Portuguese satisfy an initial ambition to make this issue a meeting point for different generations and disciplines. There are well-known names and other names which are new to the research scene; historians who deal in detail and those who analyse global phenomena; those who examine oriental texts and those who delve deep into European documents; those who emphasise their study of techniques and those who prefer to concentrate on the people involved. There is also something else worth pointing out: the appearance, after so many years of indifference, of the start to a new wave of Portuguese orientalists, most of them linked to the Master of Arts degree course in the History of the Discoveries and Portuguese Expansion at the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences in Lisbon's Universidade Nova. These researchers, alert to the importance of local sources, inspired by their study of oriental languages, sensitive to the academic work being produced abroad, have been studying under the enthusiastic direction of Luís Filipe Thomaz. Within a few years it will not be difficult to put together a publication of this kind with contributions from a predominantly Portuguese background.

We have attempted, in the "Port Cities and Trading Networks", "Merchants" and "Routes and Ships" sections, to throw some light on the maritime trading life of the geographical region in question.

The first section opens with an article by Roderich Ptak in which he compares the Portuguese and Chinese trade and navigational networks in the Asian Seas, demonstrating that the line dividing the European and pre-European period can be tenuous and, in the last analysis, not particularly useful.

The following six texts contribute towards a rigorous understanding of the relevance of maritime cities in the life of the Asian Seas. 18 Geneviève Bouchon looks at the city of Calicut in the early sixteenth century while Sanjay Subrahmanyam examines the fortunes of the city of Thatta located on the delta of the Indus in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. John Villiers studies the commercial power of Ayutthaya over the same period. Luís Filipe Thomaz and Claude Guillot take a look at two cities/trading posts, Malacca and Banten, in the 'Southeast-Asian Mediterranean' each of which were exposed to the effects of early European expansion. Manuel Bairrão Oleiro offers a description of a Portuguese-style sea trading city in the early nineteenth century. Here we have a portrait of Macau at the turning point from the 'Age of Cooperation' to the 'Age of Confrontation'. The group closes with a gen-eral article by R. J. Barendse on port cities in the Western Indian ocean in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in which he discusses important issues such as the relation between cities living off maritime trade and their hinterland.

Following on from the cities, we have the merchants. Om Prakash discusses the participation of European and Asian merchants in the intra-Indian maritime trade and offers some suggestions about the documents which allow us to examine their practices. Using an early seventeenth century trade and navigation manual, the Tung Hsi Yang K'ao written by Chang Hsieh, Leonard Blussé and Zhuang Guotu write about the fortunes of the Fukien merchants and Yuehkang port. Sinnapah Arasaratnam shows the relationship between the powerful merchant communities of the Coromandel coast, political power and European competition during the second half of the seventeenth century. Catherine Manning throws some light on the links between the Coromandel merchants--Hindus and Muslims, Armenians and Portuguese, the East India Company and the private French merchants (1720-1750). Ashin Das Gupta shows the importance of the broker in Surat during the 1740's. Ernestina Carreira follows the career of Pierre Blancard, a merchant from Marseilles operating during the final decades of the eighteenth century, whose interests stretched as far as Canton. Her study is an apt reminder of the relevance of biography in the study of this human mass which, during the centuries we are concerned with, gave life to the Asian Seas. Biography is no longer a synonym for panegyric: the career of a man can help us to understand the anxieties and behaviour of a large and sufficiently representative group. 19

Finally, we have the ships and the maritime routes. Lotika Varadarajan discusses the meeting of local and Western navigational techniques in the Indian Ocean, demonstrating that it is wrong to belittle the former. José Alberto Barata examines Peregrinação from an innovative perspective: Fernão Mendes Pinto's work is, in fact, an essential resource for studying ships and life on board the ships in the Asian Seas. In the last analysis, "a good part of Peregrinação takes part on board..."

Throughout these sixteen articles, the Portuguese rarely figure as protagonists. They show up here and there, to improve or impair the fortunes of one trading city or another, doing business with local and other European merchants. The phenomenon is intentional, its advantages obvious. The Portuguese expansion in the East can be more easily understood if we place it beside other waves of European expansion and, particularly, when diluted in the various local worlds which were so often more deeply influenced by the second wave of Islam20 rather than by the arrival of the first Europeans. This is an attempt to demonstrate that by the time the Portuguese arrived there were already trading cities similar to those in the Mediterranean or in Northern Europe; merchants who adopted practices which were just as sophisticated as those used by the Europeans; men who displayed tremendous skill in the art of navigation; in other words, organized societies to whom the recent arrivals were of little importance. The image of an Asia radically changed by the arrival of the first Europeans does not fit in with reality.

This is not, of course, an attempt to deny the impact of the Portuguese. How could we forget their role in the rise of the kingdom of Cochin, their promotion of the Paravas, a caste of fishermen in Southern India, or their part in the admirable metamorphosis of the Malaccan Mappilla who over a brief period of time went from being merchants to warriors with ambitions of winning political power? Let us remember, moreover, that these are only examples of the Indian Peninsula. The influence derived from the first wave of European expansion in the fortunes of any particular kingdom or community is unquestionable. It is, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating areas for oriental historians but in many other ways the impact should be seen in relation to the context in which it occurred.

These are, however, axioms of the recently developed history of Portuguese expansion in the Orient. There is no way of understanding the Portuguese presence in the Orient other than studying the history of the 'contaminated' regions. 21 We cannot understand the history of these regions if we ignore the Portuguese texts. Jean Aubin and the Mare Luso-Indicum group have, to a great extent, been responsible for this. This magazine came into existence in the early seventies22 and set out to highlight the study of the local societies with which the Portuguese came into contact through a skillful matching of Portuguese documents (regarded as being the most fresh and accurate23) and Oriental texts which Western historians had, until then, tended to belittle rather than use to their own advantage. 24

The last two sections of this magazine concentrate solely on the Portuguese in the Asian Seas. The history of diplomatic relations between Portugal and Ceylon is examined in two important articles: C. R. de Silva discusses relations with the kingdom of Kotte in the first half of the sixteenth century while António Vasconcelos de Saldanha looks at a later period highlighting the issue of the incorporation of various kingdoms in Ceylon into the Portuguese Crown. João Paulo Costa discusses Japan in the era of Oda Nobunaga and diplomatic relations with Portugal. George Winius defines the Shadow Empire in the Bay of Bengal, the other side of Goa. Mark Vink uses Dutch documentation (with which many orientalists are still not sufficiently familiar) to clarify the effects on the strategic Straits of Malacca of the entente cordiale between the Portuguese and the English soon after the Restoration. Carmen Radulet discusses the diplomatic views of the Estado da Índia during the time of Marquês de Pombal using D. António José de Noronha as a base.

The remaining contributions open up the forum for debate on an issue which has been all but ignored until now. A great deal (perhaps too much) has been written about the 'Other', about the way in which the Portuguese regarded the Asian, but the inverse relation, how the Portuguese were seen by the Asian, has been little studied. 25 A. Jan Qaisar leaves behind the field of written documentation to show how the Portuguese were portrayed in Moghul paintings during the time of Akbar while K. C. Fok uses Chinese texts as a starting point to understand the light in which the Ming regarded the settlement of the Portuguese in Macau. This is one of a plethora of roads to be studied further.


1. Edited by Blair B. King and M. N. Pearson, The University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu.

2. Edited by Ashin Das Gupta and M. N. Pearson, Oxford University Press, Calcutta.

3. Edited by Satish Chandra, Sage Publications, New Delhi.

4. Published by École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, 1988, cf. also the recently published Emporia, Commodities and Entrepreneurs in Asian Maritime Trade, c. 1400-1750, Roderich Ptak and Dietmar Rothermund (eds.), Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1991

5. The Indian Economic and Social History Review. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1990.

6. Brides of the Sea: Port Cities of Asia from the 16th-20th centuries, New South Wales University Press, Kensington, 1989; The Southeast Asian Port and Polity: Rise and Demise, ed. J. Kathirithamby-Wells and John Villiers, Singapore University Press, Singapore, 1990.

7. Roderich Ptak (ed.), Portuguese Asia: Aspects in History and Economic History 16th-17th centuries), Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart, 1987.

8. Denys Lombard's recently published work -- Le carrefour javanais. Essai d'histoire globale, 3 vols. (I. Les limites de l'occidentalisation; II. Les réseaux asiatiques; III. L'héritage des royaumes concentriques), ed. EHESS, Paris, 1990 -- is ample proof that orientalists can expand their temporal and spatial horizons with no detriment to their own field of specialization. Another good example, strangely enough in the same region, is Anthony Reid's work, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1540-1680, I (The Lands below the Winds), Yale University Press, New Haven, London, 1988.

9. "In fact, historians of the pre-colonial period of history in the two areas tend to ignore the existence of another potentially useful historiography, from which elements and ideas might be drawn, even if a single 'unified theory' is not generated": "Aspects of state formation in South India and Southeast Asia, 1500-1650" in The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 23/4 (1986), pp. 357-377 [361-362].

10. Océan Indien et Mediterranée (SEVPEN, Paris, 1964) indicates by its title that it compares two worlds. K. N. Chaudhuri tried out, to a certain extent, the application of Braudel's model on the Indian Ocean in Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean. An Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985). This was the target of strong criticism (perhaps excessive) from John Villiers (c. f. "Braudel, Chaudhuri and the Indian Ocean" in The Indian Ocean Review 1/1, March, 1988, pp. 4 and 18-22).

11. Michael Pearson, one of the orientalists who has studied the Indian Ocean extensively in its historical context, shows this in two fundamental essays: "The Indian Ocean and the Portuguese in the sixteenth century", in Actas do II Seminário Internacional de História Indo-Portuguesa ed. Luís de Albuquerque and Inácio Guerreiro, Lisbon, 1985 pp. 101-117; id, "Introduction I: the states of the subject", in India and the Indian Ocean, cit supra (note 2), pp. 1-24.

12. Cf. supra, note 1.

13. Although there are now those who defend a much wider definition of the Indian Ocean which corresponds to our interpretation of the "Asian Seas" with the exception of the Far East. For more on this subject, see S. Subrahmanyam, Improvising Empire: Portuguese Trade and Settlement in the Bay of Bengal, 1500-1700, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1990, p. xiii.

14. This concept (which also includes the China Sea) originated with Denys Lombard and forms the basis of his studies on Southeast Asia.

15. The problem of the narrow Mediterranean seas has, of course, been explored by Braudel in Mundo Mediterrâneo na época de Filipe II, (Portuguese translation), I, Publicações Dom Quixote, Lisbon, 1983, pp. 128 et seq.

16. Cf. Jorge Manuel Flores, Os Portugueses e o Mar de Ceilão, 1498 1543: trato, diplomacia e guerra, thesis for Master of Arts degree in the History of the Discoveries and Portuguese Expansion to be submitted later this year to the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa.

17. João de Barros' name for the straits which separate Sumatra from Java.

18. A line of research which has come up with results, especially as far as concerns the urban history of Southeast Asia (cf. Archipel, 36 ["Villes de l'Insulinde", 2 vols.], 1988). See also supra, note 6.

19. For a prime example of a solid biography of an outstanding figure in the Asian World, see David Shilman and Sanjay Subrahmanyam's fine study "Prince of Poets and Ports: Citakkati, the Maraikkayars and Ramnad, ca. 1690-1710", presented in the ASAA Conference (July, 1990). For the Portuguese, in addition to a splendid collection of biographies of men linked to the early stages of the Portuguese expansion in the Gulf of Bengal put together by Luís Filipe Thomaz (G. Bouchon and L. F. Thomaz, Voyage dans les deltas du Gange et de l'Irraouaddy. Relation portugaise anonyme, 1521, Paris, 1988, pp. 365-413), see Charles Boxer, Fransisco Vieira de Figueiredo, a Portuguese Merchant-Adventurer in South East Asia, (1624-1667), Nijhoff, The Hague, 1967. Soon to be published is an anthology directed by Kenneth McPherson and Sanjay Subrahmanyam which shall certainly make a decisive contribution to reinforcing the image of biography as an essential tool for social history (From Biography to History: Essays in the Social History of Portuguese Asia. 1500-1800, to come off the press simultaneously in Portuguese and English).

20. This is what Denys Lombard, amongst others, has shown, "Y a-t-il une continuité des réseaux marchands asiatiques?", in Marchands et hommes d'affaires, cit. supra [note 4], pp. 11-18.

21. As early as the late nineteen forties, Vitorino Magalhães Godinho recalled that "in order to understand any kind of expansion, we must balance... the internal conditions... of the patient" (História Económica e Social da Expansão Portuguesa, one volume, Terra Editora, Lisbon, 1947, p. 9). In the last instance, this is all connected to a wider phenomenon: that of the increasing tendency for European historians to look outwards towards other regions on this globe and to link their own work into other civilizations and societies (cf. François Furet, A oficina da história, (Portuguese translation), Gradiva, Lisbon, n. d., p. 35).

22. Sadly, only four issues were published (1971-1980) although the project is still ongoing, now under the name of Moyen Orient & Ocean Indien XVIe-XIXe S. (I, 1984)

23. Cf. Jean Aubin, Quelques remarques sur l' étude de l'Océan Indien au XVIe siècle, set of studies on ancient cartography, Overseas Research Board, sep. LXXV, Coimbra, 1972.

24. For one of the best examples of this method of producing history, see Geneviève Bouchon, "Les Musulmans du Kerala à l'époque de la découverte portugaise", in Mare Luso-Indicum, II (1973), pp. 3-59; Jean Aubin, "Le Royaume d'Ormuz au début du XVI siècle", ibid., pp. 77-179.

25. For one of the best approaches to this issue, see Geneviève Bouchon, Luís Filipe Thomaz and João Paulo Costa, "Les miroirs asiatiques", in Lisbonne hors les murs, 1415-1580: l'invention du monde par les navigateurs portugais, Autrément, Séries Mémoires, n°1, Paris, September 1980, pp. 253-266; Sanjay Subrahmanyam also discusses this issue in "Through the looking glass: some comments on Asian views of the Portuguese in Asia, 1500-1700", a speech given in the VI International Seminar on Indo-Portuguese History.

* Graduate in History from the Arts Faculty of Lisbon University. Currently preparing his M. A. thesis on the History of the Discoveries and the Portuguese Expansion in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Universidade Nova in Lisbon, Jorge Flores is employed as an assistant lecturer in the University of Macau. He provided the original idea and subsequent technical advice in the production of this special issue of Review of Culture.

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