Eurasian connections and the transformation of diplomatic practices

Eurasian connections and the transformation of diplomatic practices
01 September 2021

In this conversation, Ariel Lopez, Hans Hägerdal, Peter Borschberg, and Benjamin Khoo provincialize European diplomatic practices and Eurocentric narratives of diplomatic encounters in maritime Southeast Asia. They point at how interaction between representatives of different political backgrounds created room for interaction and flexible linguistic categories which in turn facilitated the diplomatic encounter. Their reflections indicate the artificial divide into early modern and contemporary foreign relations.

Ariel Lopez explores the entanglements between contemporary politics and historiographical layers in the perception of early modern diplomatic participation. To underline his argument, he presents an example of the southern Philippines.

The traditional view of early modern Southeast Asian history seems to place undue prominence on European actors and institutions to the detriment of equally important Southeast Asian ones. This is not only a result of colonialism or the paucity of indigenous sources but also of the post-colonial fixation on anticolonial national revolution of a later period. An ‘indigenous turn’ in diplomatic history should aim to provincialize Eurocentric narratives and globalize modern diplomatic history. It is worth noting that decades of imperial violence in southern Philippines was halted temporarily following the Spanish-Maguindanao-Sulu treaties of the 1640s. These treaties were likely a gambit aimed against the Dutch with whom the Spanish were in conflict during the Eighty Years War. The entanglement of these relatively small coastal polities in a war that ended in the Peace of Westphalia—the fountainhead of modern international relations—is an example of an underexplored aspect of diplomatic history.

It seems to me that one fruitful method to achieve such goal is through a close reading of the existing European-language sources. It is time-consuming—but certainly not impossible—to reconstruct the local realpolitik played between various actors: Islamized chiefs, low-ranking colonial functionaries, Christian missionaries, indigenous uplanders (Subanen) and maritime peoples (Sama Bajau) who were all key actors in the emergent political system in the southern Philippines. Through a microhistorical view, one could examine how imperial legal categories (e.g., ‘Christian’, ‘Muslim’, ‘slave’, etc.) were played on the ground. In my ongoing research, I found out that such categories were flexible and often give way to immediate political exigencies. Analysing the local nuances of imperial categories is important in provincializing Eurocentric narratives.

Hans Hägerdal starts off by reflecting on how the arrival of European merchants and colonial powers caused the changes to the ruling practices in Maluku, with both short and long-term consequences. He picks up on Ariel Lopez’s comment on underexplored maritime polities in extending our understanding of regional transformations of diplomatic practices.

The arrival of the first Portuguese vessel in Maluku in 1512 was doubtlessly a disruptive and rapacious event for the people of the region. However, the continuous Iberian intrusion did not have the same negative consequences on all members of the Malukan society. The central rulers of the segmentary polities could even strengthen their status: One reason for this development lies in the way the Portuguese and Spanish treated the sultans: In fact, turning them into (vassal) kings in the European understanding came with a status upgrading them via the use of paraphernalia and diplomatic practices. There are examples of sultans who learnt Portuguese, some drew up formal documents of vassalage and even converted from Islam to Catholicism. Even after 1599, when the Dutch arrived, local rulers kept this open and adaptable attitude towards collaboration with the foreign power. After 1633, diplomacy between the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the sultans of Ternate, Tidore and Bacan was grounded in agreements that ensured trade advantages for the Europeans but left the kingdoms formally independent. Gradually, however, contracts paved the way for stricter monopoly regulations and formal vassalage.

While European historical records inevitably overwrote Malukan viewpoints, a critical analysis of diplomatic letters reveals that Malukan stakeholders actively made use of the situation. The Ternatan elite propagated among dependent populations that the Dutch Prince of Orange stood under the Sultan of Ternate in rank—a perception that went contrary to what the Dutch thought. The Dutch indeed had to respect local traditions when it came to fomenting alliances. This was not least the case on the Aru Islands in southern Maluku. Here, the absence of writing limited legal means to enforce colonial rule. Therefore, treaty-making meant a continuation of a pre-conquest bond between the Arunese and the Banda Islands (before 1621) and obliged the Dutch in 1623 to participate in ancestral ritual practices.

In this conversation, Peter Borschberg too stresses the need to approach legal traditions and rulership from the vantage point of Southeast Asian rulership. He notes that in terms of transformation it was the European colonial powers whose practices transform as a result of the encounter.

Two key facets set Southeast Asia apart from Europe: adat and tributary relations. A ruler is deemed to be circumspect and successful when he is able navigate customary law (adat). Observing and preserving adat was upheld as a core political objective, and this meant preserving balance, recognizing status, or getting relationships right. These relationships are often expressed in ceremony and ritual and essential to a given ruler’s status and merit. The hierarchy of rulers expresses itself in the dynamics of tributary relations. Such relations are best known from the context of Imperial China, but Southeast Asian rulers also collected tributaries of their own. On the surface these relations were political, but in practice they often represented economic synergies. While tributary relations could mean different things in different contexts, this set of practices provided an alternative to European diplomatic norms and as such challenge the universalist claims of European analytical frameworks. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Europeans made visible efforts at accommodating local practices and understandings. Take the governor-general in Batavia, for example, who portrayed himself as an Asian ruler (Raja Batavia), collected tributaries of his own, and in turn became a tributary of China. He surrounded himself with the opulence and visual trappings of a Southeast Asian prince, something that would have raised eyebrows in the Dutch Republic at the time.

Finally, Benjamin Khoo zooms in on the semantics of legal agreements between European and Southeast Asian negotiation parties, offering concrete suggestions as to how we can overcome misconceptions based on dominant Eurocentric frameworks.

Broad stroke world/general history narratives have often emphasized that Europeans introduced a legal basis to Southeast Asia that had hitherto operated only on the basis of ‘promises and friendship.’ There are three ways that this could be challenged: first by contesting the terminology employed. There is much room to understand how local rulers (mis)understood the legal terms used. Very often these terms and concepts were alien to their cultures, which raises pertinent questions of translation, deception, and commensurability. Similarly, whether terms like ‘tribute’, ‘sovereignty’ or ‘vassalage’ with legal and linguistic connotations originating from Roman legal institutions can be transposed to Southeast Asia stands to question. Second, by broadening the range of case studies we get a better understanding of the impact the introduction of this legal basis had on Southeast Asia.

If polities like Singora, and those situated on the Malay Peninsula would welcome (or had to grapple with) the introduction of these new legal concepts, sometimes using them to improve their position, the larger polities of mainland Southeast Asia (or even in the remote, in- or upland areas) operated on vastly different legal bases. Developing difference and nuance would help us to gain a better understanding of the overall impact of European law had on foreign relations. Finally, there is a greater impetus to understand Southeast Asia’s foreign relations outside the shape and context of European interaction and frameworks. This can perhaps be done by using other Asian powers as points of reference. In short, alternatives to the prevailing narrative can be developed by questioning the terminologies, broadening the case studies at hand and creating more referential points within Asia at large.