Tradition and local foreign policies

Tradition and local foreign policies
01 December 2021

Do indigenous forms of intermarriage really disappear when European merchants arrive and what does the European take on strengthening alliances through marriage and other personal ties mean for certain polities and surrounding regions? One of the empirical questions to ask is how revealing it can be to use the European newcomers as a prism for showing local developments. Would it not be more insightful to challenge their reputation as game-changers by tracing how locality shaped their strategies. In addition, change over time must be taken into consideration. What local elements have survived throughout the eighteenth century, and can one seriously talk about colonial rulers as foreigners in the nineteenth? The participants of this conversation discuss the watersheds we are concerned with, and to what degree are they historical shifts, and to what degree they are products of the dominant historiography?

Benjamin Khoo elaborates on how Singora’s foreign relation policies were dominated by questions of inter-polity alliance and commercial agreements.

Singora’s relationship with the polities in the Gulf of Siam, viz. Siam, Pattani and Ligor was complex and thus had to be carefully navigated. The most obvious example are the regional conflicts of the 1630-50s, in which Singora proved adept in forming alliances in its quest for survival. In the early 1630s, Singora was nominally allied with Siam in its war against Pattani, Johor and the Portuguese. After it had declared its own autonomy, Singora built up many military alliances with various polities against the more formidable kingdom of Siam. The notable high-point of inter-polity alliance success came in 1649 during one of these later campaigns. Singora managed to occupy Ligor and unite it with Patthalung and Pattani in an alliance to resist the Siamese. It would not be remiss to say that commerce was the lifeblood of the fledging polity. Seaborne trade took on added importance in a region wrecked by war and conflict. Singora had grown on the back of commercial agreements with the Dutch for the delivery of pepper in the early decades of the 17th century. In 1675, an official embassy was sent to Batavia in order to test the VOC’s affection and to attempt to obtain trade and military assistance from it since the commercial relationship had waned after the 1650s. Later on, Singora actively courted the English to develop their commerce there towards the last years of the 1670s. Commercial alliances with European Companies were thus important for strengthening Singora’s chances for survival and helping it to thrive. Finally, the arena of Singora’s kinship networks is still poorly understood within the region. Whether or not there were inter-marriage alliances is a subject that requires further research but the historical record did point to a close relationship with polities such as Kedah and Phatthalung. 

Hans Hägerdal traces parallels with patterns of alliances such as ceremonial dualism in Maluku and New Guinea.

Traditions of trans-local alliance, as found in early Maluku, have parallels with other parts of the Southeast Asian Archipelago. These included ritually anchored alliances sealed with solemn oaths – often entailing bloodletting – that were taken very seriously by the partners. They also included the systematic exchange of wives, which in turn involved a hierarchy of wife-givers and wife-takers. Thus, Ternate and Tidore, though rivals and often at war with each other, maintained a system of ceremonial dualism where Ternate received Tidore princesses and unwritten rules regulated war and peace. Similar dualisms on a smaller scale are found in other places, such as the islands close to New Guinea. Malukan alliances often followed economic relations so that village clusters in the Aru and Kei Islands, far to the south of New Guinea, would form alliances called pela with faraway settlements in Ceram Laut and even with the Tidore sultanate in the far north.

While such bonds were highly functional, the relatively small dimensions of Malukan communities, far removed from the rice economies of Java and Bali, made them vulnerable to external force. Within this setting, Western intruders were essential strangers, often with frightening and potentially dangerous features, but were also seen by some local communities as “stranger kings”. That is, the colonial apparatus enjoyed a functional role in keeping a complex of communities in order, where their position as outsiders was seen as an asset in mediating and forcing an equilibrium among small and rivaling societies. The basic need for security and survival ushered in the acceptance of colonial overlords in spite of inevitably oppressive features. The VOC upheld such roles in minor island societies as Wetar, Leti and Aru, but to an extent also in the northern Malukan spice sultanates where Ternate and Tidore often competed for the favors of the VOC (after 1657). At the same time, it must be stressed that traditions of matrimonial exchanges and pela coexisted with the colonial structures throughout the early-modern era.

Ariel outlines intermarriage as an essential feature of pre-European diplomatic relations between indigenous polities.

In insular Southeast Asia, political alliances were often cemented by marriage ties with accompanying bride wealth exchanges. The royal silsilah/tarsila (or royal genealogies) of Maguindanao for instance is not only a mere unilineal record of male rulers but also a record of cognatic kinship ties. It illustrates the importance of women and marriage in building and maintaining political relationship with other polities. Gift-giving is another important aspect of indigenous diplomacy before European arrival. Some of the gifts that indigenous rulers gave to each other to establish or improve relations include t’nalak (hand woven musa textilis cloth) and tulus (a kind of headgear for sun protection). One Dutch East India Company (VOC) document records that in 1707, the ruler of Bolaang in north Sulawesi sent t’nalak to the raja muda (heir apparent) of Maguindanao. Such gifts were markers of status and were often reserved for use in important life events such as wedding and funeral ceremonies. T’nalak is still being produced by the upland peoples of Mindanao up to the present.

With the arrival of the Europeans, previous mechanisms of diplomacy were modified if not completely transformed. The bureaucratized Spanish and Dutch institutions rendered indigenous marriages almost irrelevant to diplomacy. Furthermore, the Dutch forbade its vassal chiefs in eastern Indonesia to inter-marry with Maguindanao chiefs for political reasons. Inter-polity marriages were seem to have been functionally supplanted by European practice and technologies of diplomacy. Maguindanao and Sulu chiefs communicated through diplomatic letters which were likely developed in response to the European tradition of diplomatic letter-writing. With European trade, luxury items were added to the list of gifts recorded being redistributed by Maguindanao (and likely Sulu) to their putative vassal chiefs, including metal European-style headgears  and Indian textiles.