Feudalism in Pre-Colonial Malaya: The Past as a Colonial Discourse

By Kheng, Cheah Boon | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, September 1994 | Go to article overview

Feudalism in Pre-Colonial Malaya: The Past as a Colonial Discourse


Kheng, Cheah Boon, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


What of the "feudalisms" throughout the world from China to the Greece of the beautifully greaved Achaeans? For the most part, they bear scarcely any resemblance to each other. That is because nearly every historian understands the word as he pleases.

- Marc Bloch, The Historian's Craft(1)

Introduction

The term "feudal" has been used by British writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to refer to the territories of Brunei, Sumatra, Java and the Malay peninsula. What were the factors which had led to its usage? Was it really an attempt to understand the cultures of these societies, or to prepare the ground for their eventual appropriation? Because Clifford, Maxwell and other British writers were colonial officials, should the truth value of their analyses on "Malay feudalism" be rejected out of hand as "colonial"? Should all writings on Malay feudalism be dismissed as "Western" and thus are not worthy of study?

Colonial analyses of pre-colonial societies, however, have much of value to say, and this paper proposes to consider some of the orientalist discourse and its context in the case of pre-colonial Malaya. It consists of three parts. The first part will deal with several other questions, one of which is whether, in constructing the term "Malay feudalism", British writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries displayed a Western ethnocentric bias. Were they also influenced by European theories which cast British society as "advanced" and "modern" in contrast to Malay society as "backward" and "traditional"? Did such knowledge have any deep complicity with British institutions of power, or help to explain the break-up of the Malay world into imperialist spheres of influence? The second part of the paper discusses the aptness of the term "feudal" to the pre-colonial Malay states, while the third part looks at the limited acceptance of the British concept of "Malay feudalism" in the writings of some local writers in the post-colonial period. Colonial discourse analysis - as pioneered by Edward Said in his work Orientalism (first published in 1978) - has proven one of the most fruitful and significant areas of research in recent years. Said extended his study to discursive forms, representations and practices regarding the Third World, with reference to the colonial past, to nineteenth century forms of knowledge, and to the language and idioms of colonial discourse. To quote Said:(2)

For the Orient idioms became frequent, and these idioms took firm hold in European discourse. Beneath the idioms there was a layer of doctrine about the Orient; this doctrine was fashioned out of the experiences of many Europeans, all of them converging upon such essential aspects of the Orient as the Oriental character, Oriental despotism, Oriental sensuality, and the like....

The terms "feudal" and "feudalism" are very recent creations. According to one source, they were clearly unknown to those who had lived under the so-called "feudal system".(3) The discovery of feudalism in France and in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is regarded as one of the most important landmarks in modern historical scholarship.(4) The seventeenth century antiquarian, Sir Henry Spelman, through his discovery of feudalism in England, is said to have brought about a "revolution" in English historiography.(5) In France, the works of the Renaissance scholars subsequently paved the way for the later philosophers to improve on the definition of feudalism. However, according to Marc Bloch, one of Europe's leading authorities on feudalism, the labelling was still loose and "rather awkward":(6)

"Feudal" and "feudalism" were originally legal jargon, taken over from the courts of the eighteenth century by Boulainvilliers, and then by Montesquieu, to become the rather awkward labels for a type of social structure which was itself rather ill-defined.

Like medieval European feudalism, Malay feudalism was invented by British historians and other European writers to describe a certain social system or a particular period in history. …

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