Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Discourse without Discussion: Representations of Piracy in Colonial Indonesia 1816-25

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Discourse without Discussion: Representations of Piracy in Colonial Indonesia 1816-25

Article excerpt

In Almayer's Folly, Joseph Conrad's first novel, Captain Tom Lingard is presented to the reader as ruler of the waves and opponent of pirates. During one of his fights he finds a young girl among the dead pirates in a captured prahu (ship). She is prevented by her wounds from defending herself or escaping. He takes her with him, while the prahu is set on fire and cast adrift; the orphan, bereft of her relatives and her past, is renamed Nina. He treats her as his daughter, has her brought up in a convent, and eventually gives her away as a bride to his manager Almayer as a seal on their business relationship. Nina regards herself as a child who was captured--not rescued--who resisted in vain; she remembers with great respect 'those brave men she had so much admired and so well helped in their contest with the redoubtable Rajah-Laut'. (1) Although Lingard is at first introduced as an adversary of pirates, the opposition between 'rescue' and 'capture' immediately places him in a critical light as the captor of the child. The introduction of Lingard as a naval hero fits the conventional expectations of the Western reader; at the same time, doubt is raised about the legitimacy of the enforced fatherhood that was presented as well-intended but was by no means disinterested and would eventually fail lamentably. The image of Lingard as both rescuer and captor can be seen as a powerful metaphor for colonialism in general and as a clue to the problem of perspective in the study of the preeminently colonial historical theme of piracy and anti-piracy.

Like the word 'crime' itself and so many other terms in the criminal field, 'piracy' is a term that both describes and passes a (negative) judgement. Research on the history of piracy addresses an object that is a priori normatively defined, and is based primarily on sources in which this value judgement goes without saying. The researcher can thus expect many treacherous rocks on his course through the history of piracy, which can only be skirted by looking from more than one angle. A lateral perspective can clarify obstacles and pitfalls in the same way that a floodlight brings out unevenness in a track. That is why an indirect approach has been adopted in the present case: the transformation of the definition of piracy by members of the colonial administration actively involved in native and colonial state formation.

Piracy neither was nor is an unchanging phenomenon; rather, it is a concept in development. The colonial definition evolved under the influence of changing legal concepts, political interests, administrative practices and local conditions. For instance, the British usage of the term piracy to refer to Malay maritime practices in the Straits Settlements was subject to constant modifications of a formula of international law that had been developed in Europe not very long before. Around 1830, for instance, 'piracy' was expanded to include depredations in land territory of the Malay Peninsula along with the corresponding sanctions. To give another example, the British naval officer Sherard Osborn openly admitted that in 1838 the Kedah fleet, which was in revolt against Britain's ally Siam, 'was styled by us as a piratical one'. (2) In that sense, terms like 'piracy', 'banditry' and 'terrorism' can be regarded as labels that one party applies to the actions of the other, even though this is usually done in a less transparent way. This gives the concept of piracy the character of a social construct.

At first glance, this poses an obstacle to a clear view of the factual phenomena that were collectively labelled with the term 'piracy'. However, studying piracy by means of changes in perceptions is an effective way of penetrating biased language usage, and the same is true of propagandist claims to legitimacy based on its suppression. (3) Upon closer inspection, its character as a construct actually makes it possible to describe, compare and deconstruct representations of piracy, thereby throwing the phenomenon itself into clearer relief. …

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