Southeast Asia in the age of Commerce 1450-1680, Vol.2

Reid, Anthony, Southeast Asia in the age of Commerce 1450-1680, Volume Two, Expansion and Crisis. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1993.

Anthony Reid’s two-volume series of ‘Southeast Asia in the Age of commerce’ is a significant contribution to the field of Southeast Asian studies, and Indian Ocean studies in a larger extend. If the volume I deals with the “deep-seated structures of history” by investigating the physical, material, cultural, and social structure of the whole region, the second volume provides numerous economic, political, as well as military events that create the “surface excitement”[1] in a period as he defines as ‘Age of commerce’. In Reid’s book, Southeast Asian region, as a coherent entity, was put into a global context, in which the growth of demands in major market of Europe, South Asia and Northeast Asia became the external factors for the trade boom in Southeast Asia, consequently led to major changes in all aspects of life in the region.

According to A.Reid, commerce has been always play a considerable part to Southeast Asia due to its geographical position connecting China – one of the largest international markets, with India, Middle East and Europe. Southeast Asia – the ‘land below the wind’ also produces a number of high-demand commodities supplying for international market, i.e spices, pepper, clove, nutmeg, sandalwood, camphor, and lacquer.[2] The period from fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, however, witnessed the unprecedented expansion of maritime trade in the region, or a ‘peculiarly dominated by commerce’ in Southeast Asia. The rising of trade in this period, the author suggests, is attributed to two major factors: Firstly, Southeast Asia – like numbers of other regions, was affected profoundly from the boom of trade during the ‘long sixteenth century’, in which high-valued items originated from Southeast Asia played a crucial part;[3] and secondly, Southeast Asia merchants, rulers, cities and states took advantages effectively and played a central part in the trade that flowed from and through this region. A number of regional trading ports, such as Pegu, Ayuthay, Hoi An, Melaka, etc… reached their apogee in this period, and served as prominent entrepôts in East-West maritime commercial network.[4]

In A.Reid’s view, the years around 1400 could be seen as the moment of trade take-off in Southeast Asia, and Zheng He’s maritime expedition in early fifteenth century marked the beginning of Southeast Asia’s ‘age of commerce’[5]. After these trading missions, Chinese traders largely and permanently appeared in almost of Southeast Asian trading ports, and contributed significantly to the prosperity of these commerce hubs[6]. The profits gain from the tribute voyages to Chinese court did encourage regional kingdoms to get involve profoundly in this tributary system.[7] Besides China – the traditional market of the region, early fifteenth century also observed the demand for Southeast Asian produce of new market – European, Ryukyu and Japan. The age of commerce in Southeast Asia, as Reid observes, reaches its peak in the period from 1600 to 1630. The development of maritime trade during this period led to profound and momentous changes in all parts of Southeast Asian region. There was a “Religious revolution” in the region during this period, embodies in the Islamic conversion in almost of Malayu world, the spread of Christianity in Filippin, Eastern Indonesia and Vietnam; the changing of Theravada Buddhism towards ‘rational’, universalist and moralist.[8] As a main consequence of trade boom, a large number of new cities were established and developed; the region experienced a period of high urbanization, even higher than the colonial period.[9] Numbers of more centralized states were formed during the ‘Age of commerce’, such as Laos, Aceh, Banten, Makassar. The age of commerce in Southeast Asia, however, came to an end coincidentally with the European’s Seventeenth century crisis.

In A.Reid’s book, the European sources, including Dutch and Portuguese travel memoirs, play a dominant role in reconstructing the history of the region. However, though these resources are certainly important, researchers also need to use them critically. Westerners, when writing about a new land, they definitely wrote from their conventional viewpoint – European culture. Besides, European adventurers used to visit one or several specific locations, and then they saw as universal feature of the entire region, which normally lead to misunderstanding. One important thing, that European astronauts tend to exaggerate what they encountered in reality with the aim of stimulating the curiosity of readers in Europe, and also to get the further supports from the Royal Court for their next adventures. Regarding to this issue, Professor Barbara Andaya questions the reliability of sources are used in Reid’s book. She wonders, “is Reid, in effect, still viewing Southeast Asia from the Deck of a trading ship?” and “Reid as interlocutor rather than master narrator”.[10] Besides the use of travel resources for the European explorers, A. Reid also has exploited the resources in Bahasa Malaya since he is a prominent expert on the history of Indonesia. Malay-language documents, along with travel documents for Europe to become the two main sources that Reid relies on to build his theory. Whether the importance of these resources is undeniable, but relies primarily on these two sources to write the history of the entire Southeast Asian region – including the Mainland and Island South East Asian, might lead to the risk and confusion. Especially in the case of Java and mainland Southeast Asia, the inscriptions and the royal family is using relatively common and give researchers a lot of useful information.

Another issue that could be discussed in Reid’s book, is the unity of the Southeast Asian region since he writes about the history of the whole region, he, however, over concentrates on examining the Archipelago world. According to him, all parts of Southeast Asia region share common features in term of environment, ethnicity, language and culture. Reid particularly strengthens the central role of maritime links in entire region, and during the ‘age of commerce’ the interconnected maritime cities of the region were more dominant than either before or since. Basing on the Malay sources as well as on the presence of Malay traders in coastal cities during this period, Reid sees Malay language as the main language of the trade throughout the region, and the Malay traders became the ‘cosmopolitan trading class’ in  both Malay world and mainland Southeast Asia. However, when studying the history of Southeast Asia, we necessitate emphasizing the diversity of the region, the differences in historical, cultural and ethnic differences between the sub-regions. Geographically, Southeast Asia is clearly divided into two different geographical areas, including the island and the mainland regions. In each geographical region, with differences in ethnic distribution, economic environments, diversity of religion … lead to different development paths, the different choices and different characteristics. For instance, for the countries in mainland Southeast Asia, such as Dai Viet, Angkor or Pagan, agriculture is considered the foundation for the economy, which led to the social, cultural and political consequences. Meanwhile, countries in Island world, like Java, Champa or Srivijaya in history, share many similarities in terms of ethnicity, language, economic environment, and religion. In these countries, due to the lack of huge plains and a sustainable agriculture to ensure the maintenance of a stable source of income, therefore, integrated into the international sea trade is very important. The rise and fall of the maritime trade network had direct impact on the prosperity or declining of these countries. In this sense, the concept of Reid’s “Age of Commerce” seems to be accurate in the Maritime Southeast Asian rather than its mainland counterpart.

Questions also could be raised about the valid of “Religious revolution” in Southeast Asia during the Age of commerce, as well as the “Seventeenth century crisis” in Southeast Asia that marked the end of Age of commerce. In his book, A.Reid proves persuasively the so-called “religious revolution” in the Archipelago region – conversion to Islam in Malay world and Christianity in Philippines Archipelago, and it might be true to these regions, since they ignored the conventional rituals and beliefs – mostly Hinduist religion and indigenous rituals, to adapt new religions. The situation, however, was very deferent in the mainland region, in Vietnam particularly. In those countries like Vietnam and Thailand, the Confucianism and Theravada Buddhism continued to play the leading role in religious life, and there was in fact no major shift during this period.  

[1] Reid, Anthony, Southeast Asia in the age of Commerce 1450-1680, Volume Two, Expansion and Crisis. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1993, p.2.

[2] Ibid., p.1.

[3] Ibid.,

[4] Ibid., p.2.

[5] Ibid., p.12.

[6] Ibid., p.12.

[7] Ibid., p.14.

[8] Reid, Anthony. “An ‘Age of commerce’ in Southeast Asian History”. Modern Asian Studies, Vol.24, No.1 (Feb.,1990), p.2.

[9] Ibid.,  p.3

[10] Barbara Watson Andaya, “The Unity of Southeast Asia: Historical Approaches and questions. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. Vol.28, No.1, (March 1997)

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