Associate Professor Peter Borschberg

A/P Peter Borschberg is the polyglot, award-winning Historian scouring libraries around the globe to piece together the early modern history of Singapore, the region and the importance of trade. Here Peter shares a synopsis of his work and some fascinating anecdotes about his career as an historian.

Peter attending the Ortelius Lecture in Antwerp, Belgium.

1. Please could you describe your current research on Singapore?

Currently I am working on this history of Singapore and the surrounding region during the early modern period. The period under review is framed by the founding of Melaka around 1400 and the ratification of the Anglo-Dutch treaty in 1624. I am working on several larger and smaller projects concurrently. The big project is an anthology of written testimonies and cartographical materials touching on the early modern history of Singapore.

From the autobiography of Jacques de Coutre: Here is a passage in book 1, chapter 4, where he describes his voyage through the Old Strait of Singapore in 1594. He describes the orang laut who lived in the waters between Sentosa and the Harbourfront area. Madrid: National Library of Spain

As some of the materials identified are not only long, but also of broader interest to researchers across the Southeast Asian region, I am preparing edited translations of materials penned during the early seventeenth century by Jacques de Coutre and Admiral Cornelis Matelieff de Jonge. De Coutre was a gem merchant from Bruges in Flanders who spent eight years in Melaka, Siam and Manila between 1594 and 1603. He left an autobiography and also some memorials he addressed to the King of Spain that really showcase his grasp of how trade was conducted around the Indian Ocean region and the South China Sea. One of these memorials contains a concrete plan to construct fortresses in Singapore – one on Sentosa (at the location of today’s Fort Siloso) and another along the east coast around Bedok. Until now there has been no English translation of de Coutre’s manuscripts, and readers have been limited to working with a faulty Spanish edition printed the early 1990s. This is now very difficult to obtain on the open market and was misleadingly published in a series titled “Chronicles of the Americas”[!] I’m in the process of finishing up the edition in the first leg of my sabbatical and the manuscript should go into production in a few months.

Admiral Matelieff was one of the early fleet commanders of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and was in Southeast Asia between 1605 and 1608. He is best remembered for signing two landmark treaties with the sultan of Johor in May and September, 1606. Matelieff is particularly interesting because he realized that the company’s business model was problematic. So he sat down to write a series of memorials and letters in which he proposed changes to the early VOC’s business model and operations.

Eureka! Handwritten draft letter dating from the early 17th century addressed to the Sultan of Johor

Among his proposals is his idea to create a permanent base in Asia. Matelieff shortlisted five suitable locations: Aceh, the Singapore-Johor River region, Palembang, Banten and Jeyakerta. With the benefit of hindsight we know that Jeyakerta (subsequently renamed Batavia, now Jakarta) was chosen. But that location was by no means a given, and the Singapore-Johor River region remained on the shortlist almost until the end. I’m currently in the process of completing a long chapter titled “Singapore’s Near Miss? The VOC’s Selection of a Rendezvous in Asia, 1608-19”. I also hope to finish up the edited translation of Matelieff’s memorials and letters sometime next year.  

2. How did you get interested in the History of Singapore? What led you to do this research?

Had anyone told me when I joined NUS almost twenty years ago that one day I would become an historian of Singapore, I probably would have just stared back in sheer disbelief. Over the years I have learnt that life – and research – can take you along some unexpected paths and sometimes also on fascinating detours. I started my academic career working on the Dutch humanist Hugo Grotius. While I was working on my first book, I discovered several key references to Johor. I recall having called up and joked with one of my colleagues, Paul Kratoska, at the time: “You know, had I not moved to Singapore, I probably would not even know where Johor is.” With hindsight, that turned out to be a career-changing conversation. While penning a few articles and chapters on early seventeenth-century Johor, it was inevitable that I would start finding things on Singapore as well.  
 
3. Were there any challenges you faced in carrying out this research?

Almost every historian of the early modern period will tell you the same thing: the sources are widely scattered and often difficult to retrieve or access.

Interior of the iconic 18th century library within Senate House, Macao, China.

Over the years my research travels have taken me to some obscure and definitely unexpected places. Once you have the materials before you, there are two new problems: handwriting is one. The most interesting documents are often those that are not neat scribal copies, and even those neat copies can prove challenging, as handwriting in the early modern period tended to be very regional. So it is critical to reconstruct a given scribe’s handwriting by carefully following the strokes of his pen. Deciphering the handwriting is one problem, understanding the language of a given document is a different matter altogether. The Romance languages such as Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese were already quite developed by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and so terminology, grammar and spelling did not differ substantially from today. The serious challenges come with vernaculars such as Dutch, German or even the Scandinavian languages. There was no standard for spelling, and scribes just jotted down what they heard or thought they had heard, or copied what they saw or thought they had seen. You can sometimes have three or four different spellings of the same name or word on the same page, and people were even inconsistent how they spelled their own name. My more distant ancestors in Dresden are a case in point here: one time they spelled the family name as “Borschberg” and on the same page a few lines down they wrote “Borsberg” or even “Porsberg”. In short, you need several ancillary skills and lots of patience to work with early modern sources.  

4. Was there anything memorable or that surprised you when doing this research?

I suppose the surprise is, when you start digging, you realize how much is actually out there. For sure the most memorable events are associated with tracking down rare prints, manuscripts or cartographic specimens.

 

Some libraries and archives are a sheer joy to work in, while others are clearly more challenging. I recall having worked in library in Lisbon. There was a rare cold weather snap, and inside the unheated reading room it was just freezing. The librarian took pity on me and went to fetch some blankets so I could keep myself warm. Then I’ve been to institutions that appeared to be straight out of Umberto Ecco’s “Name of the Rose” – complete with the librarian.       

This is not Brazil or Europe - it's St. Joseph's in Macau, China

5. What are your future plans with your research?

At some stage I would like to return to working on the origins of international law, especially by looking at the history of maritime regimes from an intercultural perspective. One of the reasons why I decided to spend my current sabbatical in the Baltic region has to do with the way Sweden, Denmark and especially the Hanseatic League understood maritime spaces.
6. Apart from your work, what else do you enjoy doing?

Cooking, music, traveling, and photography. I generally like to pursue creative activities with my hands outside of the classroom and the office. That helps create a balance in life.
 
7. Who or what has been a key influence in your work and/or life?

There have been a few important inspirations and influences along the way. As a person it was my parents who both grew up in continental Europe during World War II. They always cautioned me against accepting what I saw, heard or read uncritically and without asking lots of targeted, probing questions.

As an historian it is probably my history teacher from high school in Switzerland. Angelo Zanini was probably the first accomplished historian I met. He was first and foremost a scholar; but he was also a teacher, a librarian and a museum curator. He just had this incredible, boundless passion for all things historical and he also had a photographic memory which never ceased to amaze me. I remember going back to him years later as a PhD student enquiring about a fairly obscure Italian reformer who made an impact on the Reformation in mid-16thcentury Poland. “Ah – Fausto Sozzini – yes – Delio Cantimori’s book.” He walked to the shelf, pulled out the title and there was the first page of the chapter.

On sabbatical: View from Peter's office at the University of Greifswald facing the old Aula and the Dom of St. Nicholas. There are still things to be found behind the old Iron Curtain. Greifswald (founded 1456) ranks with Heidelberg (1386), Cologne (1388) and Rostock (1419) among the oldest universities in Germany. Fortunately the city was never bombed during the last war so the university library's pre 1800-prints are still intact.

His private library was something to behold. No student walked out of his office without carrying a pile of books he had persuaded them to read. He was simply brilliant at sharing ideas and he was also a very good listener and he listened very carefully to the questions students raised without ever being dismissive. I’ve never met anyone quite like him again. If he did not know how to answer your question he immediately admitted it, and then invited you to embark with him on a “joint exploration”, a “Cliometric adventure” as he once called it. That adventure was never one-sided and could last weeks or even months, and he certainly relished the personal challenge that came with it. It was all very hands on learning, and he did it with such genuine fire and enthusiasm it was contagious.
 
8. If there is one thing you’d like to be remembered for, what would that be?

As an academic I want to be remembered for moving the field along. I see myself as a researcher who is driven by a very natural, deep-seated sense of curiosity. As an historian you have to be a Jack of all trades, resourceful, patient, thorough; and you often have to pick up on details of carefully nuanced, cogently-formulated language. Some of my publications started because I stumbled across a name or a term which was unfamiliar and for which I found few or even contradictory references in dictionaries and glossaries. This was especially true of some of the commodities and medicinal substances found on cargo lists of the early east India voyages. Also, some of my articles and later my book on the Singapore Straits (especially the first chapter on historical cartography) were inspired by entries on maps and charts that others may have just brushed aside as inaccurate. There is often a long and fascinating history behind a given map entry. 

9. In one sentence, describe your personal motto.

Take nothing for granted. Never stop asking questions.

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Interviewed by Victoria Giaever-Enger,