Believing Is Seeing: Perspectives on Political Power and Economic Activity in the Malay World 1700-1940

Article excerpt


Western historiography assumes a chronological linear unfolding of progress, and early Western commentators on Asian societies tended to see them as stagnant variants of earlier phases in European history, as feudal despotisms and passive, unchanging village communities. In assessing levels of "development" or "progress" such observers looked for recognizable specialist institutions in politics and the economy; finding few such institutions, they saw only "backwardness". To most Europeans, trying to make sense of unknown societies and cultures, the alien could only be made comprehensible by identifying it with the familiar. It was then all too easy to proceed as if the unknown was simply a mutant or primitive version of the known. Ideas, social relationships and values which were literally beyond their ken, were often simply not seen at all. In their observations of both political and economic systems, they saw decline, corruption and confusion because they failed to recognize the patterns which structured society. So it seemed natural that the West should dominate such societies and guide them on the correct path.

Writing of Indonesian trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, J.C. van Leur describes a bustling world of peddlers; his account is often seen as the beginning of "Asia-centric" Indonesian history. But Braudel disagrees. Where van Leur saw peddlers, Braudel saw agents, wholesalers and travelling private traders, comparable to the men who did so much to transform the economic system of mediaeval England. Where some saw picturesque Orientals in chaotic conversation, Braudel recognized the equivalent of powerful Venetian merchants, closing deals as they paced the Rialto. He noted: "The difference in our estimates is so great . . . it is as if in the west one found it difficult to distinguish between a village market and an outdoor stock exchange."(1)

As Chaudhuri has observed, some parts of Asia, including Ming China and Mughal India "were working towards intensification of the market, development of commercial capital, a greater degree of industrial control exercised by merchants over artisans, and monetization of state fiscal arrangements".(2) In areas of Asia associated with long distance trade, there were parallels with developments in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, though not always recognized as such. Some have asked, why then did Asia "fail", why did no Western-style middle class or industrial capitalism develop? Although the question may be both naive and arrogant in its assumptions as to the centrality of a simplified Western model, it has stimulated interesting polemics.(3) Possible explanations have ranged from accounts of the deindustrialization of India, the development of underdevelopment, to Weberian emphases on religious factors. Economic decline has also often been seen as rooted in the failure of Asian societies to maintain the "proper" distinctions between political and economic spheres (a view based on ideologically inclined misreadings of European history). Consequently, elite intervention, manipulation and corruption prevented the development of a healthy independent middle class. While there is no doubt that early Southeast Asian trade was subject to close political control,(4) the idea that European economic activity in the region retained a market purity is naive at best.

This debate falls beyond my brief, though I will note that Braudel describes the discussion on the nature of Asian trade as being "the essential problem of the history of the modern world".(5) My more modest aim - which nonetheless must be set against this background - is to trace developments in the periphery of the Malay world over two hundred years, focusing firstly upon the relationship of political power and economic activity, and secondly on how our perceptions of that past have influenced our judgment. There are several reasons for undertaking this exercise. …