Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

State Formation and the Evolution of Naval Strategies in the Melaka Straits, C. 500-1500 CE

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

State Formation and the Evolution of Naval Strategies in the Melaka Straits, C. 500-1500 CE

Article excerpt


Developing along the shores of a critical Southeast Asian shipping and trade route, the coastal, largely Malay, societies flanking the Strait of Melaka and connected marine channels and riparian waterways (henceforth collectively, the 'Melaka Straits') had long relied on the sea and sea-borne power and trade for their survival and prosperity. (1) Over centuries, the establishment and development of each port-polity and its attendant sphere of influence and interstate relations was intricately tied to the evolving maritime environment.

Historians such as O.W. Wolters, Pierre-Yves Manguin, Leonard Andaya and Anthony Milner have argued that maritime / naval strategies were indivisible from ethnicity and society in the Melaka Straits, both qualifying as well as distinguishing the seafarers from their land-based compatriots in these port-polities. (2) Anthony Reid in his study of Southeast Asian navies of the sixteenth century onwards through European sources, and Manguin, through analyses of indigenous sources, have argued that there was continuity between the premodern and modern eras in a geographical and operative environment that remained largely unchanged until at least the eighteenth century. (3)

The underlying assumption has been that successful state formation and regional hegemony in the Straits was directly linked to the extent to which these states were able to partake in the international maritime economy that was funnelled through this body of water. The means by which these littoral states expanded and maintained their spheres of influence was assumed to be through navies which grew correspondingly in size and sophistication. (4) Along with these assumptions are studies demonstrating that the ability of European colonial powers to expand, and connect and administer widely dispersed territories by the nineteenth century, was commensurate to the size and operative range of their navies and merchant marines. (5) Given Braudellian assumptions about an unchanged maritime environment--in this case, the Straits as a centuries-old traversable sea lane--the implication was that the continually evolving navigational knowledge, shipping technology and naval capability of these indigeneous littoral states directly affected the trajectory of regional geopolitics.

However, a survey of the available information from multiple sites and eras on the use of sea power as an active tool of social and state policy in the premodern Straits region reveals that such Braudellian assumptions may be misplaced. To begin with, there is a paucity of data on the topic. Direct references to such activities prior to the second millennium CE are sporadic, with only oblique references to navies being made in disjointed sources. Maritime coercive capabilities are only mentioned in some detail from the late twelfth century onwards, while naval strategies remain largely absent in textual records. Even the material aspects of Southeast Asian navies, given that scholarly attention has hitherto focused solely on the shipbuilding techniques of commercial vessels, are not known until the fifteenth century. (6)

This article sheds light on the evolution and role of armed fleets in diplomacy, state formation and economic development in these premodern port-polities. What was the correlation between state formation and naval capability in the Melaka Straits? How did the evolving international and intraregional context change the way in which indigenous Malay societies and states developed and deployed their navies and naval personnel? The article will seek to answer these questions by reconstructing naval strategies and roles in the Straits region over three distinct periods during the first and early second millennia through a survey of extant Chinese historical records, Indian inscriptions and Malay inscriptions, epigraphy and literature.

Seventh to eleventh centuries: The navy as a tool of state formation and expansion

There is clear evidence of contact and exchange between China and Southeast Asia since the Han period (206 BCE-220 CE), and between the Indian subcontinent and the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra from as early as 500 BCE. …

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