Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Era

Book Cover

Book Title

Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Era: Trade, Power and Belief. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993


Reid, Anthony (ed.)


This collection of essays consider the development—or contraction—of Southeast Asia in the loosely defined “early modern period”, which is generally understood to refer to the 16th and 17th centuries with some extension into the 15th and 18th centuries. In attempting to characterize this period, various authors consider the consequences of European arrivals and the opening up to international commerce on Southeast Asian polities, but also examine regional relationships and indigenous patterns. Comparisons between Southeast Asia and Europe from an economic perspective are also made; for instance, one author questions why the early modern period did not result in European-style accumulation of capital in Southeast Asia. The book approaches discussion about early modern Southeast Asia from various angles: political, economic, commercial, cultural, and most uniquely, religious.

The focus of the book is on the period from the fifteenth century to the eighteenth century; a period of intense change in Southeast Asia and its implications for the region as a whole. This period was seen as that of awkward transition and divergent tendencies - yet it illustrates the differences among the indigenous and external faiths and preoccupations that have dominated the modern period. Reid proposes the argument that in the period between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, Southeast Asia played a critical role as a maritime region, serving as a vital trade route and becoming influenced by the global commercial expansion of the "long sixteenth century".

The book illustrates the transition period of the region when Europeans became a player in the Southeast Asian commerce. They changed the delicate balance between commerce and kingship. Hence, Southeast Asia was unable to insulate themselves from the negative side of expansion of global commerce and the rapid advance of military technology.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The scope of the essay covers approximately the period of the fifteenth century to the eighteenth century and the topics covered include the formation of new states, commerce, religious change as well as the key problems surrounding the seventeenth-century transition. These questions are aimed in exploring the cultural, political and economic forces that were present in the Southeast Asian communities, as well as the changing nature of the state in response to commerce within the stipulated time period.

Reid concedes that the “early modern” period has never been satisfactorily defined, although most historians tacitly agree that it means the 16th and 17th centuries, with some leeway to move a few decades forward or backward. The bulk of discussion in this collection falls into the 17th century, often cited as a watershed point in Southeast Asian history—although this claim in itself comes under close scrutiny by several authors from several perspectives. Geographically, the emphasis is on “Southeast Asia”, although Reid also notes the ambiguity in the label, given that there is no common language or culture to bind the region’s states together.

The collection focuses on several overarching themes: the formation of states, regional and global patterns of commerce, religious change, and Southeast Asian military strength vis-à-vis the Europeans and East Asians. The series closes with a discussion about whether the 17th century can be considered a watershed point at all, specifically in Burma and Thailand. The significance of 1650 as a pivotal moment in Southeast Asian is a running theme of the book.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The concept of "early modern" is seen as another periodization imposed on Southeast Asia by outsiders. It is argued that Southeast Asia had only recently begun to apply the term to their region, and it remained unfamiliar to all but a few insiders. Thus, the periodization of "early modern" functions as a link between regional history and global history. Its implication is that this period sees the emergence of the forces that would shape the modern world (like the Renaissance or Age of Discovery) is plausible for Southeast Asia, provided that modernity is understood in a broad and pluralistic sense.

Reid argues that any conclusion should zoom in upon examining Southeast Asia as a region united by environment, commerce, diplomacy, and war; but diverse in its fragmented polities and cultures. In this it had more in common with Europe than with the larger mainland polities in Asia. The balance of evidence in the book seems to suggest that the seventeenth century, particularly its middle decades, was critical in the study of Southeast Asia's reactions to increased military and economic pressure from the new Dutch-dominated world-system. These reactions involved a degree of retreat from what came to appear an excessive reliance on international commerce. In global terms, the share of Southeast Asians in that commerce was undoubtedly reduced, yet when the region is seen in its own terms, however, words such as "decline" and "stagnation" are entirely inappropriate. There was constant change and adaptation to difficult circumstances.

Reid first introduces the reader to the complexities of defining “Southeast Asia”. He argues that it is divided by language, culture and history, but united by ecology and commerce: it is distinguishable from China and India due to natural barriers, and had established an intricate network of trading relations long before the Europeans entered the picture. It was both a beneficiary of international commerce and a victim of European ambition.

Crucially, Reid argues that it is not useful to assume a dichotomy between Europe and the “Third World”-like Southeast Asia; such a value judgment is heavily misguided. While there is merit to the claim that the 17th century saw an overall decline in Southeast Asian commercial engagement with the rest of the world, this did not necessarily mean absolute “stagnation”, just a change in circumstances. The achievements of Southeast Asian states in other areas—the establishment of modern states, for example—also cannot be overlooked. He also points out that the major factors of the early modern period in Southeast Asia are all rooted in times prior to European arrival, and that the Europeans did not necessarily trigger the monumental developments of the period.

Comparisons between Europe and Southeast Asia’s performances in the early modern period, and examinations of the reasons behind these differences, are also a major feature of the collection. It is argued, for instance, that Southeast Asia did not go down the same capitalist path as Europe did because it lacked the institutional conditions for capitalism. The economic and financial system’s reliance on political patronage, and the incompatibility of monetary practices with commercialization, made Southeast Asia incapable of following in Europe’s capitalist and industrialist footsteps. Furthermore, characteristics of this period may not always be explainable in European terms. The development of Theraveda Buddhism in Thailand and the emperor’s extensive use of its tenets and symbols resulted in the imposition of centralized control for the first time in Thai history, in the form of the Narai reign. Likewise, the emergence of the Southeast Asian state is not solely rooted in the benefits of participation in global commerce; it was the utilization of the local myths of the Maluku region which made the establishment of Ternate possible.

Annotated by Michelle Djong/Jennifer Yip