Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Southeast Asian History and the Mediterranean Analogy

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Southeast Asian History and the Mediterranean Analogy

Article excerpt

Many a scholar wrestling with the complexities of time, space and 'the rise of the West' has found a reassuring point of departure in the authoritative works of Fernand Braudel. Academic entrepreneurs also know that the 'Braudel' brand consistently claims an impressive degree of recognition in the intellectual marketplace. Most students could probably link him with the Annales school and something called 'structural history', and many might even be able to describe his famous division of time into three levels -- roughly identifiable with geographical and social change (the longue duree and conjonctures), and the course of events (evenements). (1) To the prosaic Anglophone historian, there seems something quintessentially French in Braudel's flair and ambition. However, the attraction of Braudel's books is, I suspect, due more to the great themes he tackled and to the power of his prose than to the precision of his thought or his contributions to methodology. In fact, his collected writings On history only pr oduced a slim and rather limited volume. But in his two great works on The Mediterranean and on Civilization and capitalism, he combined a sweeping vision of history with a rich accumulation of detail and anecdote that is tremendously seductive. (2) Moreover, he anticipated major intellectual concerns of the second half of the twentieth century, when 'progress' was no longer seen as totally beneficent, and decolonisation demanded a new approach to world history. Immanuel Wallerstein, for example, whose theory of the 'world-system' did much to shape scholarly and radical debate in the 1970s and 1980s, drew his primary inspiration from Braudel. (3)

If early twentieth-century German historiography emphasised the state, jurisprudence and administration, the historians of the Annales looked more to geography, economics and anthropology. They focused on material and cultural linkages at either regional or supra-national levels, while their abandoning of linear time was informed by a questioning of progress and Western superiority.4 This sensitivity to the local and personal, and their refusal to privilege the state, were very appealing to postwar historians seeking new paradigms. More recent preoccupations with globalisation, community and identity only strengthened this appeal. Like their colleagues, students of Southeast Asia also questioned a 'regnant paradigm' whereby they were expected to validate the movement towards nationhood and modernisation. (5) Indeed, Southeast Asianists seemed to have a particularly acute need for a legitimising lineage, as their region's independent states and national identities seemed uncertain when compared to those of the ir Asian neighbours.

Southeast Asia's ambiguous boundaries

A look at a modern map of Asia seems to reveal the reasons for this insecurity. To the west is the solid thrust of the Indian sub-continent, to the east the bulk of China, while Southeast Asia straggles in between, with its ragged coasts, elongated peninsula and scattered islands. The primary arena for much of Southeast Asia is the South China Sea, together with the smaller Sulu, Celebes, Banda and Java Seas which flow into it. These waters connect the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, Vietnam, southern China, and the Philippines. The other great marine focus of the region is the Bay of Bengal, which not only links Sri Lanka, the Coromandel Coast and Bengal to Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, the western Malay Peninsula and northern Sumatra, but also offers indirect access to other rich markets further west. Around the tip of India lies the Arabian Sea, leading to the harbours of the Gulfs of Persia and Oman, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

These fabled waters might have seemed remote from Southeast Asia, but in reality goods moved so frequently between the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea that both formed part of the wider Indian Ocean trading system. (6) Each had its own specific integrating rhythms, but the links between them helped determine their internal patterns of exchange. …

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