Sunday, 29 November 2015

Artillery in Melaka, 1511 CE

       In 1511, a Portuguese force under Afonso de Albuquerque successfully invaded the city-state of Melaka on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. At the time, Melaka was one of the world's foremost emporia. Peoples from throughout Eurasia appear in the Portuguese accounts of the conquest, including various groups from India, Java, China, Myanmar, and the Muslim world (likely grouped together as mouros in the Portuguese accounts). The capture of the city, followed by the construction of a fortress on the Straits, was intended to take the Eurasian spice trade out of Muslim hands.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Marco Polo's Unicorn

      We've looked at a few of the marvels recorded in Polo's Devisement and Odoric's Relatio over the past couple of weeks. It's important to bear in mind that marvels are what the European travellers were interested in: accurate commercial and political information was considered less important than a good marvel, at least until some point in the fifteenth century, when Western European exploration became serious business. Before that, marvels were travel-writing gold.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

The Kutai Inscriptions - Introduction

     The earliest inscriptions from Indo-Malaysia are generally considered to be the Kutai inscriptions from eastern Borneo (now a national park), dated on stylistic grounds to the fourth century CE. There are inscriptions in a similar script from West Java from around the same time, documenting the existence of the state of Taruma (or Tarumanegara), but they are generally considered to be slightly younger than the Kutai stones - from perhaps the fifth or sixth century, apparently. I'm not sure what evidence is used for this, as the scripts in both sets of inscriptions are similar, although I expect the experts are right.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

'Lamori' & 'Lamuri'

      A short while ago, I wrote that Odoric of Pordenone's name for the north of Sumatra, Lamori, came from the Arabic al-Rāmnī, a name commonly given to Sumatra as a whole by Arab geographers. This was Henry Yule's supposition, and it seemed fairly reasonable to me.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Mpu Prapanca and the 'Desawarnana'

      It was my birthday yesterday, and my lovely girlfriend bought me a copy of Stuart Robson's translation of the Desawarnana, the famous Old Javanese kāvya, or poem, of 1365 that gives us a lot of useful information about medieval Java. Also known as the Nagarakertagama (Desawarnana is the original title), the poem was written over the course of about six years by a guy named Prapañca, commonly known as Mpu Prapañca. It doesn't seem to have been a particularly popular kakawin poem despite its historical importance, and the few manuscripts in existence all come from Bali and Lombok (and not Java, where it was written). I first read Robson's translation when I was studying for my master's, but it's nice to have my own copy. The introduction is short but very informative, the translation is surprisingly easy to read, and the notes are comprehensive. It's a great book.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Polo & Odoric on the Pole Star

        One of the many marvels noted by both Odoric of Pordenone and Marco Polo is the disappearance of the north star, presumably Polaris (α Ursae Minoris), when going south across the equator along the Sumatran coast. In the context of his/their general discussion of Sumatra ('lille de iana la menour'), Polo/Rustichello says:

Monday, 16 November 2015

'Monsoon Marketplace' vs. 'Silk Roads'

      I want to look again at the importance of Southeast Asia in world history, which I do with some regularity on this blog. Peter Frankopan's view of Central Asia and the Middle East as the 'central nervous system' of our world seems totally wrong to me. I'm sure a more nuanced view is presented in his book (I now have a copy), but in any case the view that the stretch of land between Mesopotamia and Xinjiang is of utmost importance to the world is surprisingly common. Central Asia is prominent in world histories, and the Middle East even more so; they take up pages and pages, while Southeast Asia barely gets a mention. I was amazed looking through the index of Andrew Marr's popular History of the World that Angkor, the world's largest preindustrial city (by area), was totally absent. That's an extraordinary absence.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Industrialisation Was A Big Change - Anthropology/Sociology

       There was a brilliant article on Aeon recently about male tears in European history and how men appear to have wept just as much as women until only a couple of centuries ago. The writer, Sandra Newman, tells us that medieval and pre-industrial men and women across Europe were expected to cry in all manner of situations, and that men experienced no embarrassment at weeping openly. The exception to this was Scandinavia, where (presumably) men had a different view of stoicism and masculinity to the rest of Europe. What's remarkable is that there seems to have been a huge cultural change over the course of the eighteenth century, unnoted except post-hoc, whereby male tears became shameful and unmanly, leading to the present unlachrymose state of things.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Anthropology != Ethnography

      I was talking in the pub about the fundamental nature of anthropology with one of my classmates during my master's course a few years ago after a departmental seminar. I said that I didn't think ethnography could be the only method employed in anthropology because a) part of the subject matter of anthropology is human cultural diversity and b) people's activities were significantly more diverse in the past than they are today.

      And she said that people do all kinds of stuff now - just look at Japan (a place she studied and is still studying). Look at kawaii culture, all of the sub-cultures, all the responses to American movies and animation and so on. The world is full of people, and it's bound to be diverse because they're all exposed to different things.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Peter Frankopan's 'The Silk Roads' - a talk at Blackwell's

       Yesterday afternoon I went to Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford to see the Byzantinist Peter Frankopan talk about his new book, The Silk Roads, which seems to be a really excellent piece of work. The gist of the talk - I can't comment directly on the book, as I haven't read it - was that:
  1. History as taught in British schools has tended to focus on events in Britain which, on a global scale, meant very little
  2. The real heart of civilization and of great events is much further to the east, closer to the eastern Mediterranean, Iran, Central Asia, and northwestern India than to Britain and western Europe
  3. That's because our languages (Indo-European, Semitic (Afroasiatic?), even Sino-Tibetan) all come from or meet there, our religions come from there, food products and domesticates, and so on
  4. Control of this 'heart' has been a determining factor in the foreign policy of both ancient and modern states and empires, including imperial Britain, Russia, the United States, and China

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Java and Mongols in the Medieval European Sources

       In 1292, towards the end of his reign, Khubilai Khan sent a fleet of ships from Quanzhou in southern China to invade East Java, then governed by a king named Kertanegara, ruler of a state now known as Singasari (Singosari/Singhasari). Kertanegara had imperial ambitions, seeking to control not only the entirety of Java but also the Melaka Strait and the spice trade from eastern Indonesia.

       In 1289, Khubilai had sent ambassadors to request tribute from him, and Kertanegara felt insulted by the request. To demonstrate his displeasure, he had the ambassadors' faces disfigured before sending them back to the Khan. It is then claimed that Kertanegara attacked Malayu, a powerful successor state of Srivijaya based on the east coast of Sumatra. Malayu had had good relations with the Chinese/Mongols, so this attack and the disfigurements led eventually to the attempted Mongol conquest of Singasari in 1292/3.
Candi Singosari, a Majapahit-era temple dedicated to the kings of Singasari, Malang, East Java. h/t Edi W.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Odoric on Sago

      Last week I wrote a post about sago (Metroxylon sagu), one of the most important tree crops in Indonesia, especially in Borneo, parts of Sumatra, and the east (including New Guinea). It was considered a 'marvel' by Rustichello da Pisa, although we can't know Marco Polo's true opinion of it (Rustichello had a tendency towards exaggeration).

Monday, 9 November 2015

Chinese Sources on Indonesia - Romanisation!

       Perhaps the most important language for working out a narrative history of ancient Indonesia and Malaysia, besides Malay and Javanese, is classical Chinese. It might actually be the most important overall, and the ability to read classical Chinese, or even to understand something of the intricacies of Chinese pronunciation, is certainly useful. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, it's a skill most modern scholars of Indonesia are lacking. That's fairly obvious from the books that get written about ancient Java: it's rare to find one in which pinyin romanisation is used consistently. Actually, it's quite rare to find one in which any proper system of Chinese romanisation is used consistently. That's a problem.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Marco Polo on Sago (Metroxylon sagu)

      There is no single authoritative edition or manuscript detailing Marco Polo's travels. The consensus is that the first editions of what became Le Devisement du Monde were composed by a man named Rustichello da Pisa, whom Polo met in prison after fighting the Genoese on his return to Venice at the very end of the thirteenth century. Rustichello was a writer of romances in Old French, and he carried a lot of tropes from the medieval romance over into his narrative of Polo's adventures, but as soon as the work was published it was augmented with commentary and additions that reflected western European understanding of Asia at the time. Polo continued to live for another twenty-five years or so after the initial publication, so he could certainly have influenced the way the story developed afterwards, but the manuscripts we have tell us that it soon took on a life of its own. Editions were eventually published in all of the languages of Europe, although the Old French and Latin versions were most widespread. Christopher Columbus took a Latin edition with him on his first voyage.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

De' Conti on the Durian

        Yesterday I said that Niccolo de' Conti was perhaps the first European to write about the durian (Durio sp.), a fruit native to the Malay Archipelago and known internationally for its strong odour. It's also a little less famous for its hard outer rind, which is covered in tough spines.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Niccolo de' Conti (and others) on the Lontar Palm

      Yesterday I put up a post about Niccolo de' Conti, one of the more interesting Europeans to visit Indonesia before the sixteenth century. His account is useful because he wrote about things no one else noticed, and so we know he wasn't copying any other European travellers. Unlike Odoric of Pordenone and even Antonio Pigafetta, he doesn't seem to have been influenced much by Marco Polo (except in a few details). 

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Niccolò de' Conti on Malays

      Niccolò de' Conti was a fifteenth-century Italian traveller who visited parts of what is now Indonesia, including, apparently, Badan, probably meaning 'Banda', the small archipelago in eastern Indonesia where nutmeg and cloves grow. He would have visited the area in the 1420s, and I suppose that would make him the first European to visit that part of the archipelago if the account is true. De' Conti travelled in the guise of a Muslim trader in order to avoid trouble, which was a technique used by some later travellers (including Richard Burton).

Monday, 2 November 2015


       I like spiders a lot. I think they're brilliant: not only do they look gorgeously primeval, they help to keep the house free from flies and mosquitoes, and if the spider population gets too large they tend to get in fights and eat one another, and it seems like a sensible group of creatures that can perform such population-reducing strategies without excessive emotion. Spiders don't tend to spread diseases and they're relatively clean creatures.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

European Primary Sources for Ancient Indonesia

     I've recently been delving into the European primary sources on ancient Indonesia, including Pliny the Elder, Marco Polo, Niccolo de' Conti, Antonio Pigafetta, Afonso de Albuquerque (the elder and the younger), Odoric of Pordenone, and Tome Pires. It's actually quite easy to find most of their works in the original languages, or at least an early version if there's no single original language edition (Pigafetta is supposed to have written in French and only afterward published an Italian edition, but actually it's easier to find the Italian).