Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Period; Twenty-Five Years On

Article excerpt

The identity of "Southeast Asia" has been debated since the 1950s, when the region began to develop as an area of academic viability around which courses could be constructed, programmes built, and research published.(1) Much less controversy has accompanied the growing use of "early modern", a term which seems set to displace "precolonial" in periodizing Southeast Asian history. The phrase, of course, comes from scholarship on Europe, where it was popularized as a result of efforts to find shared "periods" that would facilitate the writing of a general history.(2) It would be surprising if questions as to the applicability of "early modern" in Southeast Asia do not spark off some debate, especially in light of subaltern writings that reject the notion of modernity as a universal. For such historians the very invocation of the word implicitly sets a "modern Europe" against a "yet to be modernized non-Europe".(3) But whatever decision is made regarding terminology, scholarship on Southeast Asia is increasingly viewing a period that stretches from about the fifteenth to the early nineteenth century as rather different from those traditionally described as "classical" and "colonial/modern". The term "early modern" itself is at present a convenient tool for historical reference, and only time will tell whether it will find general acceptance.

The apparent need to label this period reflects the fact that until recently it has been largely ignored. In 1944 Georges Coedes published the first edition of his Histoire ancienne des etats hindouises d'Extreme Orient(4), in which he argued that the fourteenth century marked the end of the "Indian" period. Harry Benda in 1962, using structural change within Southeast Asia itself as a basis for determining periodization, similarly took the fourteenth century as a divide. He also suggested that "a new epoch" began sometime "between the middle and the end of the nineteenth century". Aware of the lack of studies on the fourteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, Benda hesitantly proposed that this could be "a possibly distinct, if only transitional, period in Southeast Asian - or at least Malaysian - history".(5)

Nearly twenty-five years later convenors of an international conference were still willing to accept the fourteenth century as the boundary of a general period which they considered had begun about five hundred years earlier.(6) While participants in the conference acknowledged that these dates might not apply to all parts of the region, there was general agreement that the fifteenth century ushered in a new historical phase. At the other end of the spectrum, scholars contributing to the 1971 publication, In Search of Southeast Asia, saw "modern" history as marked by a process of unabated change that could be dated from "the middle of the eighteenth century".(7) The four hundred years caught between these two major divisions, already identified as somehow different, were characterized at a 1973 conference as "pre-colonial".(8) Sixteen years afterwards the period was again the focus of a scholarly gathering, but on this occasion the resulting volume was published with the explicit title, Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Era.(9) The ease with which the term "early modern" was introduced reflected a growth since the 1970s in relevant local and regional studies that had expanded existing knowledge of historical developments. Recent scholarship has further focused attention on the period by generating a healthy discussion on methodologies, approaches and interpretations.

An understanding of the kinds of issues which currently preoccupy practitioners of early modern history requires an appreciation of the cumulative effort that has helped shape the historiography of the period. When the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies was inaugurated some twenty-five years ago, D.G.E. Hall's monumental History of South-East Asia, first published in 1955, had just appeared in its third edition. …


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