Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Age of Partnership

Book Cover

Book Title

The Age of Partnership: Europeans in Asia before Dominion. Honolulu: University Press of Hawai'i, 1979


Kling, Blair B. and M.N Pearson.


Essays contained in this book explore encounters of Europeans and Asians before the colonial expansion that began in the late eighteenth century. With the relevance of the past bearing consequences for the present and future, there was a need for a fundamental reordering of Asian-Western relations in the post-imperial world. Europeans are seen as not progenitors of predestined colonialism, but played other roles in Asia. Essays on the failure of early European missionaries in China, the mixed successes of the Dutch in Malaya and Peter Marshall's essay written in the context of growing British influence in Bengal illustrates the variety of European-Asian encounters. Thus, this book seeks to reflect upon the period prior to European colonization without carelessly inserting value judgment relating to the later dominion of Europeans.

The exploration of pre-European dominance adds nuance into the story of the arrival of Europeans in Asia, diminishing the misguided belief that the Europeans had imposed control and brought Asia into their domination within a short period of time, whether it was planned consciously or not. Das Gupta's study of the organization of massive Gujarati trade to the Red Sea revealed that early European traders had not been able to access the paramount trade of the cotton cloth. However, its decline cannot be directly attributed to the Europeans. Rather, in the regional context of India, political instability in Yemen and Gujarat had created an opportunity for Europeans to take advantage of the fragile situation to enter the highly profitable trade.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The books remains focused on the religious and intellectual contact, as well as other roles that the Europeans played in Asia besides that of a colonizing role. The period of focus was before the eighteenth century. However, the scope remains limited since other topics such as economic development cannot be explained without looking at the larger developments from the indigenous perspective.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

While every book has its limitations, an important outcome of this collection of essays is its ability to move away from the single-minded perception of Europeans as colonizers. Thus, the study marks out European colonization of Asia as one of many different degrees of interaction and establishment of relationships with rulers in Asia, rather than completely burying the history of Asia before the arrival of the Europeans. While the essays promise to provide different perspectives of the arrival of Europeans to Asia, the substantiation of some authors may be outdated in light of the increasing revelation of important documents pertinent to the era. The value of the work, however, lies in how the essays point learners of imperialism towards the direction of recognizing the other important roles of the Europeans prior to the period of High Imperialism. A more well-rounded discussion of European arrival in Asia is achieved by examining different levels of interaction of Europeans who are operating, successfully or otherwise in their various roles.

Yet, the editor recognizes that questions such as why manufacturing techniques in seventeenth-century India had failed to change despite a sophisticated merchant community remain unanswered. Given the sophisticated trading and market networks of the Mughal empire, authors were unable to explain why trading activities of Mughal officials declined late in the seventeenth century, without first examining the internal Mughal developments and conflicts. The book has much to offer in identifying the patterns of European roles in Asia, which would have created the conditions or environment for European colonialism.

Annotated by Michelle Djong