Skip to main content

Indigenous agency

Bird’s eye view of Makasar by Johannes Vingboons, c. 1665. The image is generally held to depict the situation of the late 1630s. Collection Nationaal Archief, inv. nr. 4.VEL 619.96.

Indigenous agency

This conversation engages with the role of indigenous agency in diplomatic encounters. It starts from the premises that in cross-cultural settings any form of negotiations, alliances, trust-building, and intelligence gathering involved local people by default. Yet while indigenous agency self-evidently shaped diplomatic relations, it has long been ignored in the narratives about encounters in Southeast Asia. Several reasons could be named for such empirical imbalance, one of them being a misguided understanding of what counts as diplomacy, as well as a distinction between soft cultural affiliations and hard military power. The examples discussed here come from the Philippines, Siam, Maluku, Makassar, and Johor (Malay peninsula), and all reveal a high degree of local willingness to adopt foreign practices providing they would provide material gain or a rise in status.

Hans Hägerdal begins with a reflection on how indigenous Malukan agency adapted to the dramatic changes following the Portuguese conquest of Melaka in 1511 and consequent Iberian expansion in the region. He provides a concrete example how local people gained diplomatic momentum from the presence of a foreign power.

The Portuguese capture of the commercial hub Melaka in 1511, brought a major crisis to the Malukan clove trade, the very raison d’être of recently Islamized sultanates. For the Malukan elite, approaching Western powers diplomatically was therefore a strategically sound way to both secure their incomes and gain a free hand to increase political power in the Malukan periphery. Local rivalries served the Portuguese and Spanish crowns and the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to impose their own diplomatic framework on the Malukan polities and settlement clusters. Iberian sources of the sixteenth century suggest that recently Islamized rulers readily subscribed to the Portuguese or Spanish political order. In the seventeenth century, the village clusters of southern Maluku similarly accommodated to Dutch diplomatic forays out of political and economic interest. In 1623, the VOC signed a first contract with Aru. In this contract, the ‘Indonesian’-oriented western villages secured privileges of trade with the Dutch hubs in Banda and Ambon. Meanwhile, the interior and eastern settlements with a strong Papuan heritage (the ‘Alfurs’), delivered forest and sea products such as birds-of-paradise, turtle-shell, trepang and pearls, to the western villages but remained largely autonomous. The contracts gave the western villages an edge over the Alfurs as they were the VOC’s main partners on Aru. The contracts moreover meant additional agency: when the power equilibrium on the Aru Islands was disturbed, villagers could call on the Europeans to settle matters, as happened in the years 166–-63 and 1684, when they received military escort of Dutch troops when heading towards the geographically inaccessible eastern side to fight the perceived troublemakers.

Similarly, Benjamin Khoo’s exploration of the diplomacy of Singora, in southern modern-day Thailand, in the 1670s reveal how the sultan both skilfully and creatively adapted recently studied European practices to protect his threatened polity and increase the status of his realm.

Singora’s indigenous agency can be gleaned from its interactions with the Dutch around the period 1673–75, which is a fascinating story in and of itself. Alarmed with Siam threatening its autonomy and embroiled in conflict with Patani, the Sultan of Singora, Sultan Mustapha took the initiative to send two letters and two embassies to Batavia, the seat of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). This was an attempt to renew friendship and obtain assistance. Using the pretext of a rescue of a shipwrecked Dutch crew, Singora appealed to the friendship that had formerly existed ‘since the time of Van Diemen’ and referenced a contract between the two which made the VOC beholden to help them in return. What makes this letter and the sultan’s initiative unique is that no such contract formally existed between the two parties. Singora had learned through almost seven decades of commercial interaction that Europeans operated on the basis of contracts. Sending such a letter to Batavia was a clever attempt to get the VOC to provide material and military assistance on the basis of an ‘invented’ contract.

The practice of Asian powers wisen  up to how Europeans (in this case the VOC) operated and getting them to abide by their own contracts has long been evident in places like Ternate and Makassar and is part of a larger trend of understanding indigenous agency, not only of Asian responses to European practices but also of how they were also adept at using them to their own advantage as well. As Peter Borschberg and Leonard Andaya have argued, such contracts proved to be useful vehicles to co-opt Europeans to accomplish their own political goals, such as maintaining order or supressing rebels, and to improve their standings among other polities. To this we can add the case of Singora, who tried to co-opt the European powers into its domestic squabbles.

Ariel Lopez portrays the case of the Southern Philippines, an area that had long been outside Spanish colonial control. For that matter it had long been falsely viewed a marginal or peripheral region. He shows that local people were by no means passively subscribing to imported practices, nor should be seen as inferior negotiators, but instead as skilfully exploiting diplomatic capital.

It is not difficult to unravel the role of indigenous agents in the diplomatic relations between the sultanates and the Europeans in the southern Philippines. They are often mentioned in the archival sources emanating from European outposts (e.g. Zamboanga or Ternate) written by the Europeans. Indigenous agents are central in the story of imperial expansion and competition in this seemingly marginal region. One needs to be reminded that the sultanates of the southern Philippines remained autonomous longer than some comparable polities in the region. In addition, they succeeded in negotiating their political existence despite or perhaps because of the conflictual European monopolies in their neighbourhood which included the Dutch control of spices in Ternate, the Spanish domination of Manila-based silver exchange, and British business in opium and tea in north Borneo. A survey of indigenous historical agency against the backdrop of these global commercial and political competition would certainly be productive.

In an environment of constant mutual distrust between Southeast Asian sultanates and European parties, both utilized informants to collect sensitive political and military information on each other. The same dynamics created a modus vivendi. Indigenous agency is clearly represented in the sources describing knowledge gathering and diplomatic negotiation. While indigenous information networks relied on familial ties, the Spanish relied on converted Christians as well as ethnic groups who were likely dissatisfied with their Sulu or Maguindanao overlords. These include the uplanders (Subanen) and maritime peoples (Lutaos/Sama Bajau) who traditionally collected forest and maritime produce respectively as tributes which were then exchanged by their overlords to Chinese or European traders. In addition, the Spanish in Mindanao cultivated existing local hierarchies by appointing indigenous chiefs as maestre de campo, a prestigious title accompanied with a fixed salary from the Spanish crown. These maestres de campo facilitated Spanish political negotiation—and military advance—into the interior.

Tristan Mostert provides examples from his research on the spice wars in the eastern Indonesian archipelago in the seventeenth century. In line with his colleagues, he shows how well indigenous rulers in South Sulawesi played the game of negotiation with Europeans.

My personal favourite source giving texture to this notion is an elaborate report of an unofficial conversation between Dutch East India Company (VOC) official Arnold de Vlamingh and the chancellor of Gowa, Pattingalloang, dating from 1651. At the time, the Dutch tried to avoid Makassar intervention in the Great Ambon War (1651–1656), and were trying all available official and unofficial channels to ensure this. De Vlamingh’s report of this conversation shows that Pattingalloang was aware of, and interested in, developments in the Portuguese Restoration War, the role of the French and how Spanish debts would affect the outcome of the conflict, thereby revealing an impressive knowledge about global politics. Being aware of the effect that renewed hostilities between the VOC and the Portuguese might have on Makassar, he seemed particularly interested in the truce between Portugal and the Dutch Republic, which had been agreed upon ten years earlier and which had officially expired a few months ago.

The city Samboppe, Makassar

Makassar, it should be noted, was not unique in this regard: other rulers of the period in the eastern archipelago, such as Sultan Hamzah of Ternate, were similarly adept at navigating negotiations with Europeans to make these work to their advantage. Accounting for this also requires complicating the notion of ‘indigenous’. The early modern eastern archipelago was a very cosmopolitan place, visited by traders from all over the Indian ocean world, but also filled with Europeans of various backgrounds. This left its mark on the rulers in the region. Chancellor Pattingalloang was fluent in several languages, both European and non-European, was an ardent collector of books and scientific instruments, and enjoyed outwitting visiting catholic missionaries in theological discussions. He had several Portuguese advisors, there were Venetian free traders frequenting the court, the head of the artillery of the capital was a renegade Englishman who had converted to Islam. Sultan Hamzah of Ternate, for his part, had even been raised in Spanish Manila and educated by Jesuits, as he had been taken prisoner by them as a child. Only later did he convert back to Islam and became Sultan. In the light of the intimate familiarity many rulers had with European practices in the broadest sense, it very much stands to reason that statesmen such as Pattingalloang or Hamzah would be perfectly capable of navigating negotiations with Europeans to their own best advantage, and this additionally raises the question whether it is helpful to make a sharp distinction between ‘indigenous’ and European in this context.

Peter Borschberg transfers the approaches of scholarship that has been advocating an autonomous history of Southeast Asia to the field of diplomatic history, as a way to write indigenous agency into larger processes. His example of the diplomatic correspondence between Malay rulers and the Dutch emphasizes issues of indigenous agency in rather unexpected contexts.

For the purpose of recovering the agency of the local rulers and their peoples, we should study diplomatic encounters from a local vantage point. This is possible even through colonial sources. For the period before 1800 European authors concede agency to the local rulers who were proactive in soliciting Europeans to trade in their ports, despatched diplomatic missions to colonial and European capitals. Local sources are doubtlessly an even richer resource when looking for indigenous agency. Anthony Milner discussed how, from the viewpoint of Southeast Asian rulers, it was inconceivable to find any form of prosperity or stability outside the kerajaan, referring to the felicitous state of having a king. He explained that in ‘Malay writings (…) the condition of not ”having a raja”, could mean huru hara, or utter confusion, including rapes, mass killings and even disease.’ Even the allied tribes at sea, in the jungle or deep in the hilly wilderness found some stability and prosperity by forging synergies with the coastal Malay rulers who co-opted them for harvesting the fruits of the soil (oil, gems, metals), jungle and sea.

Several letters survive in Dutch translation in which the Malay rulers address the ‘king of Holland’ as ‘my/our brother’. In practice such letters were received and read in the Netherlands by the States General, the Stadtholder, or both. The Dutch were wary of explaining their recent political past in more detail than was necessary. How a given ruler or court might have reacted to the Dutch raising their hand against their aristocratic ruler and deposing him was difficult to fathom, especially since the Malay rulers held export monopolies in key commodities. In other words, foreign merchants were in some cases only able to procure export goods from the king’s warehouses, similar to the practice in Siam.

Stefan Eklöf Amirell adds an example of the early twentieth century- Sulu Sultanate—in the region already introduced by Ariel Lopez—after the annexation by the United States. The example shows how an official treaty, something which is often interpreted as a Western imperial instrument, in fact allowed the sultan to maintain significant indigenous agency.

The so-called Bates Agreement—also, and more accurately, known as the Kira-Bates Treaty—was signed by the last sultan of the Sulu Sultanate in the Southern Philippines Jamalul Kiram II and Brigadier-general John C. Bates on behalf of the United States on 20 August 1899. Researchers have mainly studied the Nachleben of the treaty as it reached the United States, where it triggered a major controversy because it implied that slavery was permitted in the Sulu Sultanate, despite being under US sovereignty, which to the anti-imperialist opposition looked like a blatant violation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The treaty was never ratified and was unilaterally abrogated by the United States in 1904.

The negotiation process certainly bore the marks of an exercise in gunboat diplomacy, initially involving only one small ship, but by the end of the six-week negotiation process the Americans had gathered five armed vessels in the archipelago. It was a drawn-out process, and the Sultan did his best to stay out of sight, first by excusing himself for needing to attend to his religious duties, then to having boils on his neck and arm and then to having to consult with his headmen. For the Americans, the purpose of the negotiations was to get the Sultan to recognise the sovereignty of the United States over the Sulu Sultanate, which it seemed like they achieved by the treaty, although the differences in the English and Tausug (Sulu) languages gave rise to ambiguity and controversy over the exact meaning of the agreement. For the Sultan, meanwhile, the aim of the negotiations was to keep as much of his autonomy as possible. In this, he was arguably quite successful, and for close to five years, the colonial authorities had little influence over the affairs of the Sulu Sultanate.

Add new comment