Diplomacy and the circulation of knowledge

Diplomacy and the circulation of knowledge
30 March 2021

In this series of conversations on diplomacy in Southeast Asia, the turn has come to the connection between diplomacy and the circulation of knowledge. The history of diplomacy has always been intertwined with that of the access, interpretation and use of knowledge: those who functioned as diplomats or emissaries would spread and gather knowledge, and intelligence on foreign lands and technological advances could be used as hard currency in interstate relations, jealously guarded and cautiously traded. In this conversation we ask Hans Hägerdal , Tristan Mostart, and Matthew Mosca whether their research revealed cases when the spheres of art, medicine, geography, legal information, or economic norms influenced diplomatic relations, or functioned as diplomatic currency.

Hans Hägerdal starts off this conversation by highlighting how the will to regulate colonial trade also placed demands on military knowledge. What is more, this kind of circulation of hands-on use of knowledge on the ground was always accompanied by stories. Such narratives of distant lands and distant times helped construct the world, as much as any fort.

In Ternate, Tidore, Ambon, Banda, and later the southern Malukan islands, European merchants and colonial officials regulated economic activities through contracts and other formal agreements. For maintenance and control the colonial administration also introduced  politico-military bases: colonial control thus relied on the application and spread of military knowledge. Fortress-building was an important aspect in this regard  and is explicitly mentioned in several contracts. Even relatively modest forts like the Portuguese Fort of the Magi in Tidore built in 1578 could normally not be stormed by indigenous adversaries—only  the Dutch succeeded in doing so . These constructions were means of subordination but also ways to safeguard a polity, and knowledge of building techniques was taken over by a leading power like Ternate. Likewise, knowledge of firearms and protective armour, though not unknown in pre-colonial Southeast Asia, was quickly disseminated after the early diplomatic bonds had been created. Already by 1536 indigenous groups in northern Maluku had large depots of European-style arms, partly delivered by the Spaniards, rivals of the Portuguese.

Diplomatic contacts also brought selective parts of current world history to the Malukan rulers. For example, a Dutch diplomatic letter to the Sultan of Tidore in 1609 described the Iberian atrocities in New Spain, ravages in the Netherlands during the revolt, injustices in the Malay world, and various Catholic plots including the assassinations of William the Silent and Henry IV. The Portuguese, in contrast, brought idealized versions of the past achievements of the own nation to Maluku, spreading stories of their victories over Spain.

Consequently, the circulation of knowledge is not a parallel process to that of diplomacy, but part of it. As Tristan Mostert stresses, a great added bonus to conducting diplomacy with foreign powers was that it provided various ways of access to foreign knowledge and technology.

The rulers of Gowa and Tallo, seated in Makassar in South Sulawesi, provide a clear example of how diplomacy and access to foreign knowledge and technological know-how were intertwined. English sources provide insight into the diplomacy between the English EIC and the Makassar rulers in the years following 1615, when the English were the only European company allowed a factory in Makassar. The rulers of Gowa and Tallo were keen on receiving European gifts, requesting specific items from the English. Firearms were always important: in March 1621, for instance, the English presented the ruler of Tallo with a brass demiculverin—which the ruler felt was too small, but he was appeased by the addition of several barrels of gunpowder, cannonballs, a ladle and a sponge. The admiral describing this episode also impressed the need for such gifts, as they were a precondition for trade.

The Makassar interest in foreign knowledge seems to have reached new heights in the chancellor Pattingalloang. He was an ardent collector of books and scientific instruments. He procured these through his international contacts, in which trade, diplomacy and knowledge exchange were inextricably intertwined. Francisco Vieira, his principal Portuguese aide and advisor, often served as a ‘knowledge broker’. His name repeatedly comes up in relation to various orders Pattingalloang placed with the Dutch East India Company. In July 1644, Vieira was given passage on a VOC ship from Makassar to Batavia, accompanying 11 bahar (about 3000 kg) of sandalwood from Pattingalloang. Pattingalloang expected part of the payment for the sandalwood to be in kind, as Vieira brought a shopping list of objects and books he hoped to receive in return: a pair of globes of 168 or 170 duim (roughly corresponding to inches) in circumference, as well as a large world map in either Spanish, Portuguese, or Latin, an atlas in one of those languages, two good telescopes, a large magnifying glass, twelve prisms, 30 or 40 thin rods of iron and an armillary sphere. On later errands, Vieira requested, among other things, a new ephemeris book (containing the positions of the celestial bodies and astronomical events) over the year 1650, old ones for the years from 1625 onwards, one Latin-Arabic dictionary, one viewer with which to look into the sun, two hourglasses of four hours each, and a bearing compass ‘of the best and largest kind’. These were orders, rather than suggestions for diplomatic gifts, and the chancellor was prepared to pay for them in full. Access to foreign books, maps, scientific instruments, curios and medical knowledge seems to have been an integral and valuable part of contacts with Europeans.

Like in Europe or the Moghul Empire, a huge globe would have primarily been a curiosity and a prestigious object—an object befitting an ambitious, self-conscious Asian court of the early modern period, rather than a practical cartographic tool. Pattingalloang’s interest in optics, mathematics and astronomy had parallels at other seventeenth century Asian courts, such as the Mughal court, the Siamese court of Phra Narai, or the Chinese court. However, like at other Asian courts, the Makassar rulers would also have been keenly aware of the practical applications of such knowledge. In Europe, mathematics had become increasingly important in warfare in the early modern period. Some of the fruits of the new quantified approach to warfare also made their way to Makassar, in the form of European military handbooks.

Matthew Mosca ends this conversation with a dramatic turn: he turns our attention to the defeat of the Qing empire at the hands of the British empire in the first opium war. This famous historical shift became symbolic for the start of a new imperial era in the larger Sinosphere. It might be, however, that it has been understood all wrong: can a focus on information turn this story around?

Historians have long taken the Qing defeat in the first Opium War (1839–1842) as evidence of a profound intelligence failure. If the Qing state was surprised by the capacity of the British Empire to mount a sustained assault on its coastline, this argument runs, it must have either neglected external developments or had a deeply flawed system for monitoring them. Does the development of Qing knowledge about maritime Asia support this argument?

If the Qing state had been well-informed of developments in maritime Asia, at what moment should it have recognized the challenge posed by the British Empire? While Chinese observers had recognized since the mid Ming period that Europeans possessed cutting-edge technology in navigation and firearms, they also recognized that even the most formidable European ships, operating far from their bases, posed at most a fleeting and local danger. Between 1500 and 1800, from the Ming and Qing perspective, a European imperial presence in Southeast Asia did not fundamentally challenge China’s coastal security.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can identify the British conquest of Bengal between 1757 and 1764 as the harbinger of a major shift that would eventually imperil the Qing coast. Still, if we adopt a Qing perspective—and remember that Indian affairs had never before had direct implications for China’s security—it is no surprise that the long-term consequences of events in Bengal were not immediately apparent to observers in Beijing or Canton. Only during the course of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815) did the EIC both emerge as the hegemonic power in India and decisively eclipse other European empires in maritime Southeast Asia. Given this chronology, even 1792 would be a early date to expect a major Qing reevaluation of the geopolitics of maritime Southeast Asia. The British occupation of Java (1811–1814), or even the founding of Singapore (1819), would be a more reasonable moment to expect serious Qing alarm about a future British threat to coastal security. In short, if the Qing state was to be indicted for informational negligence, the case must be made specifically regarding its response to novel developments between the early nineteenth century and 1840.

There is another sense in which indicting the Qing state for failing to recognize the threat posed by ‘European’ imperialism misses the mark. The early modern trends amplifying British power in Asia in the early nineteenth century did not transform the other European empires already present in maritime Southeast Asia into a significant threat to China. It is ahistorical to expect Ming and Qing observers to have identified a long-term, secular trend of rising ‘European imperialism’ starting in 1500 and culminating in the coastal warfare of 1840. Rather, from a Ming and particular Qing perspective, European empires in Southeast Asia before 1800 were relatively anodyne regional actors whose strategic influence had long dwindled from a (relatively moderate) early peak.

In fact, Qing intelligence gathering does appear to have responded to the rising British threat roughly according to the timeline sketched above. As Henrietta Harrison has shown, when the Macartney embassy reached China in 1793, the aged Qianlong emperor and his high ministers already recognized Britain as by far the strongest and most threatening maritime European polity. The decisive turning-point for information gathering, however, came with the ramified consequences of the Guangdong tongzhi (‘Comprehensive Gazetteer of Guangdong’) compilation project, which began in 1818. The impetus of this project significantly changed the interface of Qing intelligence networks concerning maritime Asia: it made Guangdong rather than Fujian the main site of research about the maritime world; it forged new contacts with Chinese and foreign informants; and it helped shift maritime affairs from a concern primarily of coastal elites to one demanding attention in the intellectual heart of the empire. Within a decade, there had emerged a specific research interest in the British Empire as the Qing state’s most dangerous enemy.

It is also important to recognize that political and military defeat does not necessarily betoken an information failure, just as an abundance of information does not ensure success. Before information can influence policy, it is often filtered through outdated assumptions, vested interests, precedents, and competing priorities. There is no reason to think that Qing officials in 1840 were not quite aware of the British Empire’s rising might. However, information, for all its importance, is only one element in diplomacy and strategic planning, and its historical role needs to be considered with nuanced attention to political and intellectual context.

Ultimately, the argument that the Qing defeat in the Opium War represented an intelligence failure is significant because it has led historians to approach the topic Qing maritime intelligence gathering and information flows—if they approach them at all—with the presumption that explaining this failure is a primary task. Several considerations stand as a counterweight to this presumption of failure. First, historians are now coming to appreciate the great organizational skill allowing the Zheng regime to flourish while competing with (some would say outcompeting) European empires in Southeast Asia. A considerable portion of the expertise underpinning Zheng success found its way into Qing service, so the Qing state did not lack for seasoned maritime officers and advisors. Second, the Junghar wars in Inner Asia show the deftness with which the Qing state used informants and maps to track developments in distant parts of Eurasia. There was no reason in principle why the same acumen could not have been applied to the maritime world. Third, Chinese merchants and laborers migrated into maritime Southeast Asia in large numbers between 1500 and 1840. They often interacted closely with both European imperial authorities and Southeast Asian political leaders. Many of these emigrants maintained close ties to their native places in China. We can confidently assume that very little of geopolitical significance took place in Southeast Asia without at least some Qing subjects having a clear understanding of it. Knowledge and the flow of information are complex topics, and a crude state-society dichotomy cannot capture the subtle dynamics of when and how individuals chose to disclose information or keep it private. If we begin with the presumption that information was shared extensively, this will draw us into the complex social history of the coastal and overseas environment. Although only traces of this traffic in knowledge may survive in our sources, even these traces reveal the ramified networks by which emigrants, humble sailors, and low-ranking soldiers were connected by degrees to the Ming and Qing political and intellectual elite. Information circulation is, among other things, a topic of social history, and one that will continue to reveal much about China’s human ties to maritime Southeast Asia.


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