Crossroads and Inroads
Southeast Asia’s reputation as a crossroads is anchored in histories of trade and empire, which, of course, also includes piracy. While these play important roles in the study of the region’s maritime history, advances in recent decades include other themes and approaches as well. Southeast Asian source material remains vital to countering scholars who neglect or underutilize such sources and portray the region as dominated by the actions of outsiders. In addition, two broad shifts in scholarly trends have impacted the study of maritime Southeast Asia’s history: a turn from nation-bound frameworks to studies of networks and a move from viewing cultures on the model of a patchwork toward analyses of practice and meaning among interpretive communities or “publics.” In this essay, I hope to assist history teachers in understanding why the region’s portrayal as a crossroads can be a double-edged sword, demonstrate the importance of the two shifts in scholarship, and offer constructive suggestions for how to show students what is “maritime” in the history of maritime Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asia is widely known as a crossroads for good reasons, yet its maritime history involves more than just being a stopover or destination for the journeys and aims of people coming from elsewhere—whether between India and China for the early period or later imperial powers’ procurement of resources and labor extraction. Its histories of trade, migration, literature, and religion underscore the tremendous extent to which things, ideas, and people have transited the region. Famed as the locale of “the spice islands,” traders shipped nutmeg, cloves, and later pepper across the Indian Ocean to the Middle East and the Mediterranean long before such products drew Europeans to the region in the early sixteenth century. The trade with China for maritime goods such as trepang (sea cucumbers) and forest products such as aromatic woods and resins have a similarly long history. The image of Southeast Asia as a crossroads thus provides a useful metaphor for illustrating how the region has been linked into wider economic systems.