Benneth Bronson, “Exchange at the upstream and downstream ends”

Benneth Bronson, “Exchange at the upstream and downstream ends: Notes toward a functional model of the coastal state in Southeast Asia”, in Economic exchange and social interaction in Southeast Asia – Perspectives from prehistory, history, and ethnography, edited by Karl L.Hutterer. Michigan papers on Southeast Asian studies, The University of Michigan, number 13, pp.39-52.

By: Do Truong Giang, National University of Singapore

In this paper, I will first examine Bronson’s main arguments and assumptions. I will then try to apply this model to understand the social and economic exchange in one certain area in maritime Southeast Asia – mandala Vijaya of Champa kingdom in ancient period.

B.Bronson’s main arguments

In his influential article, Bronson proposes a model of exchange at the upstream and downstream along the river network in ancient coastal states of Southeast Asia. He suggests applying such a model to examine the social and economic history of Southeast Asia island world, or “the thinly-populated coastlines of the large insular and peninsular land masses of Malaysia, the Philippines, and western Indonesia” with the exception of Java Island[1].

According to Bronson, these littoral entities shared several widespread features, such as “they left few archaeological trace of themselves”, “their hinterlands were infertile which limited cultivation”, “ their populations were not large”, “their historically known successors – Mallaca, Brunei, Palembang, Jambi, Banjermasin – were unusually dependent on commerce for obtaining even such necessities as clothing and food”, “their economic production was specialized and, small”, and except Srivijaya, these states “tended to be impermanent” in comparison with Java or mainland counterparts.[2] These observations lead him to assert that, there was a distinction between the trade-oriented, coastal or pasisir societies of maritime regions and the agriculture-oriented societies of the drainage basins of the Irrawaddy, the Chao Phraya, and the Tonle Sap in the mainland region.[3] Java Island, in his view, though belongs to the maritime world but shares familiar features with mainland counterparts rather than island neighbors. As a consequence, his model is not applicable to those societies of Java Island.

Bronson proposes a diagram of ancient exchange network along a major river system, of which almost of main political, economic and religious centers locate along this network. He points out key elements in this diagram, including:

A – The center at the river mouth;

B and C as “second and third-order centers located upstream and at primary and secondary river junctions;

D as “the most distant upstream center to participate in the A-based system of market exchange and the initial concentration point for products originating in more remote parts of the watershed”;

E and F as “the ultimate producers of these products and perhaps centers on a separate exchange system based on non-market institutions, involving goods only part of which come from or go to the marketized system centered on A”;

X as an “oversea center which serves as the main consumer of goods exported from A and the principal supplier of its imports”, and

A*, “another river-mouth center some distance along the coast, controlling a hinterland similar to that of A.”

Above are key elements in Bronson’s model. These components interact and relate to each other, constituting an exchange network. Several constraints in such a network could be listed as:

(1) Bronson defines such a model as a dendritic pattern formed by a major river and its tributaries. In this pattern, ‘the inter-fluvial countryside of the drainage basin is sufficiently marshy, forested, or mountainous to confine all movements of goods to water routes’.[4]

(2) The point X in Bronson’s model normally is an overseas center with large population, more productive and technologically advanced economy. Such a center impact economically and politically to coastal states. In the case of Southeast Asia polities, China and India are generally seen as major overseas economic markets with strong influence on regional kingdoms. The rising and declining of these super-markets played an influential role in the prosperity and fall of Southeast Asian polities.[5]

(3) According to Bronson, the lack of concentrated cultivable land in the river basin preventing the development a peasant society like those in mainland areas where the revenues derived mainly from land-bounding farming population rather than from commerce.[6] In trade-oriented polities, Bronson argues, almost of monumental constructions are concentrated in the capital – the point A.  He suggests that in these systems ‘as distinguished from one with a developed peasantry and a numerous sacrally sanctioned elite, monumental construction would seem to have little utility beyond maintaining the status of A’s rulers vis-à-vis their counterparts in other coastal centers’.

Bronson provides an insight observation that, the impermanence and insubstantiality could be seen as the distinguished characteristics of trade-centered coastal states in comparing with the capitals and hinterlands of mainland states. The lack of archaeological findings in these coastal states, with the exception of Srivijaya, should be the case supporting for his assumption.[7]

Examining the relation between elements in reverine exchange networks, Bronson argues that the relations between A and D will be ‘rather more egalitarian and less consistently coercive than is usual in relations between high-and low-order centers in an ordinary state’, this is because, he explains, that ‘A needs a steady flow of exportable goods from D and that it cannot easily assure this through direct political measures’, in the meantime, the point D is ‘a simple concentration point for forest-gathered and swidden-grown goods produced by populations which are inherently dispersed and mobile, any coercive solution will require an impractical expenditure of capital and military manpower’. As a result, “non-political solutions must be sought, among which the most obvious is to develop a trading system offering manufactured or maritime products capable of inducing D to enter the regional economy voluntarily’.

The point B and C, on the other hand, relate to A rather differently. Bronson describes B and C as ‘larger and more concentrated population than a D-level center, and is physically more accessible’, so that in certain of time, these points might ‘hope to attain equivalent status and so become A’s direct rival’.[8] The competition between the upstream and downstream centers, or the local rulers and royal family is regular in these polities.

In the riverine exchange model, the point X is essential from A’s standpoint. It provides A with revenues in the form of export and import duties, state trading profits, and whatever service and protection fees can be extracted from traders en route to X from more distant centers. Moreover, the goods or gifts from X could be seen as ‘political instruments’, as symbol of legitimation that A look for.

The applicability of this model to investigate the social and economic history of Champa – a typical coastal state in Southeast Asia.

In his article, Bronson raise the idea of applicability of such a kind of social-economic system outside of Southeast Asia, West Africa and northern Europe for instance. A number of scholars have tried to apply this model to explore the history of the ancient kingdoms of island Southeast Asia – Srivijaya, Champa and Malay world. Applying the model of Bronson in studying Champa social-economic history also provides fruitful results. One typical study might include W. Southworth in his article named ‘River settlement and coastal trade: Towards a specific model of Early State development in Champa’.[9] In his work, Dr. Southworth uses archaeological and fieldwork evidences to show the applicability of Bronson’s model to study the history of Thubon river system of Champa. Besides, Tran Ky Phuong also uses Bronson’s model, combines with other archaeological and ethnographical sources to explore the riverine exchange system along the Thu Bon river (the Amaravati region of Champa).[10] The application of model of Bronson in the research, have brought new perspectives for economic and social history of the ancient kingdom of Champa.

Vijaya mandala once served as the largest center of the kingdom of Champa in a long period of time, from 10th century to the 15th century – before being merged into the territory of Daiviet. The structure based on topography, the historical and ethnographic, along with the archaeological traces distributed in this region, also contributed to demonstrate the applicability of the B’s model.

Kon river is the longest river of the Vijaya region, and almost of economic, political and religious centers distributed along this river. Kon River could be seen as the main axis of a “riverine exchange network” in the Vijaya mandala.

Thi Nai commercial port located in the downstream coastal areas, is seen as a major economic center of the Vijaya. Thi Nai Port was the gateway to the sea of the vast plateau. In this sense, Thi Nai port trade can be seen as the connection point between the sea to the continent, a hub, a center of the entrepot trade port network along the coast of Champa. In the model of Bronson, the Thi Nai port is considered as point A.

Along the Kon river basin, Vijaya region can be divided into two sub-regions: the upstream region of the Kon River, or the western highland, is home of the upland communities, who live and work in an forest-oriented economic. These communities exploited the forestry and native products of the plateau region (such as frankincense, cinnamon, tortoise shell, horn cells, ivory …) in exchange for outside commodities. The lowland region in the basin of the Kon River, is home of the royal political, economic and religious centers with the presence of the Cha citadel, a wide range of Hindu-temple-towers, and Thinai Port in the river mouth.

Thus, a riverine exchange network has been set up along the Kon river. The prosperous of the Thi Nai port, along with the alluvial Kon river delta had contributed to the domination status of Vijaya mandala over other mandala or riverine networks. In fact, each mandala in Champa territory has a riverine exchange network; the riverine system of Vijaya region certainly had close relationships with other networks (the points A’) and always compete for the supremacy position. ThuBon riverine network of Amaravati region in the north, and the network along the Cai river in Paduranga region in the south could be regarded as the competitors Vijaya’s network. Notes left on inscriptions give us clear evidence of the Rulers in Vijaya regularly invaded the riverine network in Panran.

During the history of the mandala Vijaya and the entire history of Champa kingdom, foreign trade always played an extremely important position. Therefore, establishing relationships with regional economic centers, and getting involve into the international trade networks were considered as a top priority of Champa mandala(s). China, Vietnam and Java functioned as the point X, the major economic centers outside of Champa kingdom, and had a profound impact on the development of Champa’s economic and politic as well.

Thus, as can be seen, model B is really an important contribution to the study of social and economic history of the Southeast Asian Islands in general, the history of Champa in particular – or even the history of the mandala in the kingdom of Champa.


[1] Benneth Bronson, “Exchange at the upstream and downstream ends: Notes toward a functional model of the coastal state in Southeast Asia”, in Economic exchange and social interaction in Southeast Asia – Perspectives from prehistory, history, and ethnography, edited by Karl L.Hutterer. Michigan papers on Southeast Asian studies, The University of Michigan, number 13, p.40.

[2] Ibid., p.40.

[3] Ibid., p.41.

[4] Ibid., p.43.

[5] Ibid., pp.43-44.

[6] Ibid., p.44.

[7] Ibid., p.51.

[8] Ibid., p.45.

[9] William Southworth, ‘River settlement and coastal trade: Towards a specific model of Early State development in Champa’, in Tran Ky Phuong and Lockhart, The Cham of Vietnam – History, Society and Art. Singapore: NUS Press, 2011, pp.102-119.

[10] Tran Ky Phuong, “’Riverine exchange network’: An exploration of the historical cultural landscape of central Vietnam”; biblioasia, vol 4, Issue 3, Singapore, 2008.

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