Now published

Empire in Asia: A New Global History

NUS History Department Seminars


24 August 2016, Wednesday

Suzerainty and Sovereignty in the French Conquest of Indochina

A/P Bruce Lockhart

CHAIRMAN Professor Brian Farrell

The French colonization of the various territories of what became French Indochina combined a series of military campaigns and diplomatic protocols. While these treaties – in theory, at least – represented agreements between sovereign states, they were signed within a geopolitical framework based on more than just sovereignty as it was understood in the West. Each of the countries which came under French control – Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Lao kingdoms – had been previously subject to one or more suzerains or overlords. France could not ignore these suzeraintributary relationships and understood clearly that it would have to nullify them in order to maintain unchallenged authority over its newly acquired ‘protectorates’. Thus it sought to remove Siamese suzerainty over Cambodia and to end the centuries-old tributary relationship between Vietnam and China. At the same time, however, it utilized Vietnamese claims to overlordship in Cambodia and the Lao regions to justify its acquisition of those territories. Thongchai Winichakul, in his seminal work Siam Mapped, has shown how Western concepts of sovereignty interacted and clashed with Southeast Asian views of suzerainty. Thongchai provides an excellent account of how the Siamese elite succeeded in turning Asian suzerainty into Western sovereignty over what remained of its territory, which became the nation-state that we now call Thailand. The seminar will concentrate on the other side of the story, to examine French interpretations of suzerainty – Siamese, Chinese, and Vietnamese – as part of their strategy of colonization.

28 September 2016, Wednesday

Commanding the ‘Highways of the Ocean’: British Maritime Power in Asia in the Long Nineteenth Century

Dr Donna Brunero


Land and land frontiers often form the focal point when we explore the British empire in Asia. This seminar argues that a turn to maritime history can reveal new perspectives on the imperial ‘re-ordering’ that Asia experienced in the long nineteenth century. This seminar investigates the idea of British maritime power and the ways in which it was developed and exercised in Asia. Maritime networks enabled the movement of people, goods and ideas throughout Asian waters in what was increasingly a British world system by the 1800s. The oceans were also a frontier: Britain’s maritime empire in Asia was complex, comprising multiple layers, and often relying on British and Asian merchants and local labourers to sustain their networks of trading centres. To uncover this complexity, this seminar has two key aims. First it will examine the key elements of British seapower in Asia and how they constituted what the Victorians understood as a thalassocracy. For instance, why did the British draw on the classical notion of the thalassocracy and the exploits of ‘heroes’ such as Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh to explain their maritime prowess in Asia? And second, this seminar explores how empire was viewed from the sea itself, most specifically the deck of a ship. This, arguably, can give us a microcosm of the British maritime empire in Asia. By following the journey of an East Indiaman, the Lady Campbell, from Gravesend to Calcutta in 1825 we can garner insights into the British imperial maritime world as experienced at the time.

12 April 2017, Wednesday

In Search of Malay, Muslim “Empire” in Insular Southeast Asia

Dr. Sher Banu A.L. Khan

A/P Timothy Barnard

This seminar examines the structures of power of insular Southeast Asia and traces the evolution of Malay maritime littoral polities from being harbour/port-polities in the seventh century to “absolutist states” in the seventeenth to assess whether these could be approached from the lens of “empire-building”. It interrogates the received view that the revivals of archipelagic power in the forms of political consolidation and territorial expansion in insular Southeast Asia, compared to mainland standards, were short-lived, even ephemeral. This seminar argues that if one were to shift from a Euro-centric understanding of “empire” based on a specific track of European historical development, to a more global vocabulary of empire, insular Malay/Muslim Southeast Asia reflects certain features that could be seen as localized constructs of empire, which can tell us much about the region and the unfolding connections between it and the wider world.