Religion and diplomacy

Magellans Cross, one of the most famous landmarks of Cebu City.

Religion and diplomacy
15 October 2021

Scholars agree on the key role played by religion in society at large in the early modern world. The actual impact of religion on political relations and decision-making, however, does not only differ from case to case but is not only a but also a topic of scholarly disagreement. The diplomatic relations of Southeast Asia offer a particularly exciting chance to do take up some of these debates: In addition to animism and spiritual beliefs, Christianity and Islam were imported and spread over the region since the sixteenth and thirteenth centuries respectively. After the arrival of the Europeans, religious conflict (in particular between the Abrahamic religions) came to affect rulership on the spot and geopolitics at large. The establishments of Muslim networks also show the intercultural development of diplomatic practices: in the early seventeenth century religious and political concepts were being fused across the Indian Ocean world, a process in which Aceh in north Sumatra functioned as a node from at least 1561 and onwards: the Ottoman empire saw a number of Acehnese Hajjis in the Ottoman empire by 1600. Eric Tagliacozzo has argued that the Hajjis were instrumental for the evolution of religion and diplomacy alike in Southeast Asian sultanates at the time, and that the political and religious developments were intimately intertwined. Isaac Donoso and others have emphasised the obvious continuity of pre-colonial Islamic connections in economic, political, and cultural processes in the region long after the arrival of the Europeans. That political backdrop included the European groups in the region—among them the Dutch, who from an early point were well aware of the importance of the religious networks, and kept them in careful view. In this conversation, Hans Hägerdal and Peter Borschberg discuss the role of religion in inter-polity relations, and illuminate how and in which contexts religion influenced, or at times even dominated, diplomatic discourses in premodern Southeast Asia.

Hans Hägerdal initiates this conversation by showing how the diplomatic relations between the different European powers also differed in their approach to the importance of conversion. Introducing the case of the spice trade, he argues that to understand the international political game of Southeast Asia during the sixteenth and seventeenth century requires an apprehension of the conflict, and co-existence of Christianity and Islam, as well as the remaining power of animist practices.

The Portuguese and Spaniards were driven by a strong Catholic agenda entwined with concerns for the spice trade. This imprinted all their diplomatic efforts in Maluku although their ambitions to convert the Muslim elites largely failed. Although one Sultan of Ternate and one Sultan of Bacan converted in the mid-sixteenth century, the Iberians had to accept that Islam dominated North Maluku—in fact, increasingly so due to the religiously tainted anti-European stance of several sultans.

When the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) initiated diplomatic contacts with Malukan sultanates in the early seventeenth century, they famously adopted a live-and-let-live policy and made no efforts to convert Islamized areas to Reformed Christianity. For example, a contract with Muslim Banda in 1605 specifies that both partners ‘shall serve the almighty God, each according to the grace and gift that God has allotted to them, without standing in the way of each other.’ Nevertheless, the VOC did have religious obligations inscribed in their official octroy and made efforts to reserve still non-Muslim areas for proselytizing.

The contracts with the sultans and lesser Malukan polities from the seventeenth century clearly indicate the Dutch concerns to protect potential converts from Islamic pressure. In the ‘animist’ islands of southern Maluku, the Christianity was sometimes part of the parcel when new contracts were drawn up. As the 1658 contract with Aru points out, ‘as the orangkayas of Aru called Tammelola, Zanay and Ebalwal have requested to be educated in the Christian religion, and receive the holy baptism, a schoolmaster called Joost de Staan goes there.’ Indeed, Christianity was accepted by small sections of the South Malukan populations, often presumably to maintain a diplomatic lifeline to the white strangers. Thus, the main rajas on Wetar and Kisar governed for long periods as Christians among mostly ‘animist’ islanders.

Peter Borschberg also highlights the coexistence by different religious and spiritual practices. He reminds us that when discussing the interrelationship between political and religious practices, also the definition of religion comes into play. In Southeast Asia, the spiritual and mystical beliefs also represent its own form and parallel form of authority. The way in which these beliefs and their political affects were practiced, but also how they were understood, by the contemporary locals and foreign visitors, is a complex matter in and of itself.

Religion certainly played a role in maritime Southeast Asia’s diplomatic relations during the early modern period, so the question focuses not on whether, but on the degree to which that may have been the case. Rulers in maritime Southeast Asia worked hard to keep their polities together by managing their subjects (or followers) as well as in allying with the tribes of the sea and hinterland to procure the marine and jungle produce for barter or sale. While the rulers and their grandees may have been Muslims, these allied tribes of the sea and hinterland often still practiced a form of animism. I would also like to emphasize the tradition of hospitality, of welcoming foreign guests to one’s shores. Many of these foreign merchants who exchanged their goods for the produce of the sea and jungle, were not Muslims but Chinese, South Indians, Siamese, Burmese, and later even Europeans. The result was a fairly open and plural society that could survive and prosper precisely because it was open. Needless to say, this created a certain way of life in these polities of maritime Southeast Asia, not least for the urban Muslims. Ibn Majid, the Arab pilot and navigator, explained in 1462 that on arrival at the Sultanate of Melaka:

‘They have no culture at all. The infidel marries Muslim women while the Muslim takes pagans to wife. You do not know whether they are Muslims. There are thieves for theft is rife among them and they don’t mind. The Muslim eats dogs for meat and there are no food laws. They drink wine in the markets and do not treat divorce as a religious act.’

These are the observations of a Middle Easterner feeling alienated—and alarmed—by the comfort and ease which people of different backgrounds and religions interacted in daily life. We can infer all sorts of things from this, but one observation probably stands out: Southeast Asia was connected by networks of port-polities in a globalizing world of the Indian Ocean and beyond. These were long-term developments. Just as Islam helped connect the Straits region in the fifteenth century with the Islamic world in India and Western Asia, so too Buddhism in an earlier time helped connect Srivijaya with a Buddhist network that spanned from India across Java and Sumatra to China. Note my use of the word ‘helped’ in this context: I see religion as a facilitator and not as a primary mover in these commercial and political relationships.