Nov 2, 2007

Book Review: Asian Trade and the European Influence in the Indonesian Archipelago between 1500 and 1630

Roelofsz, Marie Antoinette Petronella, also known as M.A.P. Meilink-RoelofszM.A.P. (Marie Antoinette Petronella) Meilink-Roelofsz
The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1962, 471 pages

M.A.P. (Marie Antoinette Petronella) Meilink-Roelofsz is an oft-overlooked historian and archivist of European expansion, and perhaps her greatest contribution to the field was her inventory of the Archives of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), which was not translated into English until 1992. She began the inventory, which bears the now-familiar moniker of Archives of the Dutch East India Company (1602-1795) in 1937, her work being briefly interrupted by the Second World War.

The first third of Asian Trade and the European Influence in the Indonesian Archipelago considers the development of trade in South Asia – which she terms the “Malay-Indonesian archipelago” - in the centuries prior to the arrival of European expeditions. The author explores the role that Muslim merchants played in the rise of Asian Islam as well as the concurrent growth of Arabic and Persian trading concerns. Unlike traditional historians, Meilink-Roelofsz argued that converts to Islam did not always do so for political reasons, but that many new Muslims were attracted to the innovative religion for its spiritual qualities or out of a sense of economic opportunism. She also excoriated historian J.C. van Leur for his reference to Muslim merchants as “little men” with scant real effect on the evolution of South Asian trade.

Meilink-Roelofsz spent several chapters describing Malacca’s growth as a major Asian port city, tracing its roots from the decline of the kingdom of Çrivijaya, which stretched from the islands of Sumatra and Borneo through the Phillipines. The commercial port grew out of a small pirate enclave on the Strait of Malacca, and became a formidable trading center under Muslim rule.

Map of the Strait of MalaccaMap of the Strait of Malacca; click for larger image

The author debunks another argument developed by van Leur regarding the character and sophistication of Asian trade at the end of the 15th century. The traditional view, supported by van Leur and his concept of the “small peddler trade,” was that Asian trade in the pre-Portuguese centuries, such as it existed, was of a primitive, small-scale nature, consisting mainly of lesser merchants, inexpensive goods, and watercraft designed only for coastal trips of short duration; Asian trade, according to van Leur, did not become advanced until the Europeans arrived. Meilink-Roelofsz argued that, on the contrary, a highly-sophisticated system of trade existed in Asia long before the Europeans arrived. She pointed out that Arab, Gujarati, and Javan ships sailed long distances throughout the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, and that the Portuguese disdain for Asian ships centered on the fact that they were not armed for war, not that they were unseaworthy or poor trade vessels.

The author next examined the arrival of the Portuguese in the Malay-Indonesian archipelago. Meilink-Roelofsz credited the Portuguese with bringing to Asian trade the idea that a naval sea power could exploit its military prowess for economic benefit, something that had previously been accomplished only on land by Asians.

Meilink-Roelofsz used a wide variety of sources in her work. The author made extensive use of Portuguese and other European sources (especially Tomé Pires), but also sought out Chinese, Indian, and Malay texts to provide a more balanced view of early modern Asian trade. When Meilink-Roelofsz used European sources, she made effort to interpret them from an Asian perspective. She noted the inherent Eurocentric bias in her European sources:
As there are practically no Asian sources providing the sort of information about contracts, accounts, customs registers, and so on, in which western economic history is so rich, our knowledge of Asian economics is bound to be founded largely on indirect sources or European origin…their authors were nevertheless observing Asian situations through European eyes.
Despite the author’s archival wizardry, however, there are a number of occasions in the book where the traditional anti-Portuguese historiography is upheld. For example, the oft-repeated (but inadequately documented) charge of rampant Portuguese corruption is made, as Meilink-Roelofsz made the following claims:

Large numbers of Portuguese left public service. Their departure was legal when they went to live on their own money (mostly gained through illegal private trade)…[a]t best, most of the Portuguese and Portuguese half-bloods though of nothing but their own private trade, at worst, of piracy, with all possible gradations in between.
This passage is second-rate scholarship, made all the more glaring by the author’s hitherto impeccable research. However, historians can easily slip into the mode of reading for a particular research agenda, and can overlook evidence that contradicts their arguments. In Meilink-Roelofsz’s case, she admittedly read the sources with an eye toward the larger economic and political forces that shaped trade in the Malay-Indonesian archipelago.

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