Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Historiography of Europeans in Africa and Asia, 1450-1800

Book Cover

Book Title

Historiography of Europeans in Africa and Asia, 1450-1800: An Expanding World, Volume 4. Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1995


Disney, Anthony (ed.)


As the title suggests, the focus of this publication is to examine the different ways that the period of European colonialism in Asia has been examined by historians. Academics works evolved in the last 50 years largely in response to a series of enormous changes - economic, social and above all political - that have transformed both continents since WWII.

In Part One, essays are geared towards producing a thorough investigation and understanding of the beginning of the European presence, in the process revealing historiographical change and continuity on this particular topic. The book begins with van Leur's famous piece, 'On the Eighteenth Century as a Category in Indonesian History'. Van Leur was the first historian to have argued that in the eighteenth century, major Asian countries were stable, had larger population and was almost equal to European technology. Yet, the thesis of European impact in Asia evolved after P.J. Marshall argued that van Leur had underestimated the importance of Europeans powers since British infiltration in Bengal in the eighteenth century had laid the foundation for nineteenth century European dominance.

As a complementary part of the investigation into various relationships that existed between Europeans and Asians, Part Two discusses the initial contacts between European explorers in Asia and Charles Boxer attempts to enlighten readers with a fuller understanding of European commercial relationships and processes in the trading world of Asia and of the Asian contexts of European expansion.

Part Three consists of essays discussing 'formal' European presences, broaching the topic of organized settlements and the trend towards dominion. Finally, Part Four examines the informal presences of European explorers, who before the eighteenth century did not necessarily see themselves as a part of a formal imperial process, expanding the premise of European and Asian experiences which may occur outside the imperial framework.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

This book is a good introductory to the historiography of empires in general. However, specific to empires in Asia are the works of van Leur; 'On the Eighteenth Century as a Category in Indonesian History', essays on the Portuguese colonial historiography and early English trade and settlement in Asia 1602-1690, to state a few. These essays emphasize the general trend of historiography, beginning from the end of the 1930s. Western empires in Asia and Africa were still largely intact and thus viewing the history of the European presence in these regions from a non-imperial or non-Eurocentric standpoint was still an anomaly.

Pre-1945 historians focus overwhelmingly on formal presences, especially on the forging of political dominion and they interpreted what preceded it as a background, preparation, and a source for explanation for the triumphs of imperialism. Yet, in the post-1945 era, historians realized that empire was not the crowning climax of European presence overseas, but a passing phase For example, D.K. Bassett's overview of the English presence in Asia in the 17th century was concerned primarily with the functioning of the EIC in Asia as a formal economic institution. C.A. Bayly also argued that internal changes within the indigenous Asian and North African states in the 18th century had brought about decline of the non-European empires, which was replaced by 'Sultanist states' with neo-mercantilist policies that conflicted with European interests, encouraging European intervention and conquest. The works remain limited to Europeans who approached the two continents by sea, as the continental expansion through Eastern Europe into Asia is not represented in this book.

Essays include the informal European presence before 1800 as well as individuals such as Constant Phaulkon who attained high status and wealth. - one of the many Europeans who attained positions of power and prominence at Asian courts as technological experts, interpreters, military commanders.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

A.J.R. Russell-Wood outlines two primary objectives for the entire collection of volumes: 1) to cover a specific aspect of European initiative and reaction across time and space, 2) provide an overview and reference source on the European presence beyond Europe in the early modern period, interaction with non-Europeans as well as experiences of peoples of other continents, religions and races in relation to Europe and Europeans.

The revisionist interpretation aims to diminish the influence of the historiography of the 'expansion of Europe', which traditionally bore the hallmarks of a narrowly Eurocentric perspective, focusing on the achievements of individual European nations and characterization of the European presence as one of dominance, conquest, control.

The debate among historians is based on trying to discuss the colonial period in the Asian context rather than using parts from European history. Thus, the approach was to revamp the historiography of the period and to recognize European dominance in Asia for what it was - a short passing phase that needed to be set in perspective against the longer duration of indigenous histories.

However, the approach of the writers are still narrow in that the focus remained largely in the perspective of Europeans within the Asian context. For example, the process of Dutch colonialism of Indonesia was seen as a gradual process where VOC officials established the Company's control in Java and edged in to the traditional Javanese patron-client relationships. Thus, the book remains confined to the perspective of the colonial powers, i.e. the Dutch VOC, who progressed from an institution with privileged trading rights, to a protecting and finally an administering power.

Annotated by Michelle Djong