Education About Asia: Online Archives

Maritime Southeast Asia to 1500

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This book grew out of a team-taught course in world history at Tufts University. Shaffer believes that “Southeast Asia’s maritime realm is an excellent vantage point from which to watch the events of world history go by” (p. xv). Indeed, the author believes that “a general knowledge of the early history of maritime Southeast Asia should be common knowledge among those who study and teach world history” (p. xv). Southeast Asian specialists would certainly agree with her, and this book could well be used in any world history course. Despite the involvement of the United States in the Philippines and Vietnam, information on Southeast Asia rarely appears in world history courses except in an idiosyncratic and usually fragmented way.

Shaffer relates the emergence of Southeast Asia as an important, integral, and enterprising part of worldwide trade networks more than a millennium before European ships ever sailed on Asian seas.

In the introductory chapter, she gives the reader an idea of the immense size of Southeast Asia, superimposing it on a map of Europe. For American readers, she might have pointed out that from one end of Indonesia to the other, for example, is slightly farther than from New York City to San Francisco. One end of the Philippines to the other is about equal to the distance from New York City to Kansas City.

Chapter two tells about the emergence of Funan, the first kingdom of any distinction in Southeast Asia, which existed from the first through the sixth century around the current Cambodian-Vietnamese border. The kingdom’s interest in maritime trade was primarily as an exchange market for Chinese silk. In this chapter, Shaffer correctly focuses on the indigenous uniqueness of Southeast Asia, in contrast to some who view the area as simply some amalgamation of Indian and Chinese cultures.

Most of the rest of the book is devoted to the kingdoms found in the contemporary nation of Indonesia, for example, Srivijaya on the southeast coast of Sumatra, and Singasari and Majapahit in East Java. Majapahit illustrates the height of these kingdoms, whose wealth and power were based largely on their control of the spice trade. However, this “market became so large, and it offered so many opportunities, that Majapahit could not control it indefinitely” (p. 99). Eventually the royal center was moved to Jogjakarta in Central Java, and an Islamic kingdom known as Mataram was established.

Specialists may quibble with various segments of the book, e.g., Shaffer uses the long out-of-date term Malayo-Polynesian, she spends several paragraphs emphasizing the dense populations of some areas of Southeast Asia even though until 1500, Southeast Asia was relatively sparsely populated, and less than the best sources are often cited. In general, however, her juxtaposition of local and global events in explaining the importance of maritime Southeast Asia is successful in filling this particular void in premodern world history.

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