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Oceans Unbounded: Transversing Asia across "Area Studies"

April 2, 2007
Volume 5 | Issue 4
Article ID 2410

Oceans Unbounded: Transversing Asia across “Area Studies”

Barbara Watson Andaya

Recent endorsements of maritime history as an integral part of world history should be central in any attempt to transverse the academic divides separating the study of “South”, “East” and “Southeast” Asia (AHA Forum. 2006; Buschmann 2005). Nonetheless, envisaging an interconnected maritime Asia that is not subservient to the boundaries of area studies and modern nations, and yet does not descent to the simplistic and overly general, is a formidable challenge. A number of studies have tracked trading diasporas and economic linkages, but the place of the oceans in the cultures of Asia’s littoral societies has received much less attention. It may not be difficult to locate the reasons. Although in simple terms, “maritime history” is the history of human interaction with the sea in all its facets (Finamore 2004, p. 1), most Asianists have reached adulthood located within a nation-state with identifiable territorial borders and carry inherent intellectual biases that privilege a land-based perspective.

In modern times, when long-distance ocean travel is normally envisaged in terms of a holiday cruise, it is difficult to imagine daily existence among the communities of boat dwellers who once occupied an important economic niche in Asia’s maritime environment. Today the groups Malays called orang laut or sea people are marginalized in the nation-states that claim jurisdiction over them, yet in the past they were essential as suppliers of the marine products so critical to Asian trade, especially between Southeast Asia and China (Andaya 1975, pp. 29-52, 256; Chou 2003; Ivanoff 1997; Sather 1997; Sopher 1965; Zacot 2002) Individuals whose experience had been shaped by the land were amazed at the degree to which water was the natural environment of these peoples; as a twelfth-century Chinese account puts it, “they can dive in water without closing their eyes” (Hirth and Rockhill 1911, p. 32). Orang laut knowledge of local conditions was especially critical in places where navigation was difficult, and in the Straits of Melaka and other offshore areas they traditionally helped to guard the sea lanes, often compelling passing ships to stop and trade in certain ports. The respect once accorded them (evident, for instance, in the titles bestowed by Malay kings) shows that what one scholar of modern China sees as a typically inferior status for boat people has not always applied. In coastal China and Vietnam their relegation to the lower ranks of the social system may be very old, but one could argue that it can ultimately be traced to the advent of land-based kingdoms with their land-based orientation (Andaya 1975, p. 322; Anderson 1972, p. 7; Ptak 2001, p. 398).

Orang Laut houseboat,
Riau Archipelago 1991. Courtesy of Cynthia Chou

Orang Laut woman preparing food,
Riau Archipelago 1991. Courtesy of Cynthia Chou

Though now rarely attempted, the possibility of cross-cultural comparisons among such sea-oriented cultures opens up interesting potentials for research. For instance, the concept of compass coordinates is not necessarily congruent with the indigenous knowledge of non-Western societies; the spatial orientation of peoples who spend most of their time at sea has therefore been a topic of considerable interest for specialists in Indonesia and the Pacific. It might be illuminating to ask whether directions such as north and south are related to “up” and “down” among sea-going communities in other areas of coastal Asia as they are in the huge Austronesian linguistic family that covers most of the Pacific and island Southeast Asia. (Blust 1997, pp. 38, 48; Adelaar 1997, pp. 53-81; Sather 1997, p. 93). Let me provide a visual example from the Galela people of Halmahera, in eastern Indonesia. The map shown here, drawn by a Japanese scholar, represents Halamahera and the surrounding area upside down because according to the Galela orientation system, which is related to the monsoon winds and a land-sea axis, “up” lies in a southerly direction, and “down” is to the north (Yoshida 1980, pp. 36-37).

Galela perspective on the world (Yoshida
1980: 36)

The inherited vigilance of societies whose existence is closely calibrated with the rhythms of the sea, and who maintain an ability to read nature’s portents, was dramatically demonstrated nearly two years ago, when a terrible tsunami devastated so much of the area around the Indian Ocean. It was reported that isolated groups on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal recognized warning signs like changes in bird cries and the behavior of land and marine animals. They therefore moved to higher ground well in advance of the destructive walls of water that penetrated so far inland. Nonetheless, although many communities are still living with the tragic results of December 2004, the Asian seas are known less for their ferocity than for their long function as a medium for connecting quite distant regions through the exchange of people, goods, and ideas. It is the human dimension that makes this interlocking relationship between land and ocean such a compelling teaching device. If we insist that the sea and those who live with the sea deserve a more prominent place in our study of Asia, we will take an important step in developing the framework required for any comparative overview. In turn, this framework will go a long way towards overcoming the confines of so-called area-studies while redressing the scholarly preoccupation with land-based societies that has so informed the presentation of Asian cultures.

Relief from Borobudur, central Java. Courtesy of John Miksic

A shift in orientation is not necessarily an easy task, for the polities and governments whose narratives dominate historiography have rarely seen the oceans as an integral part of their territorial domain. More frequently, the sea is regarded as a boundary, separating land inhabitants from other land inhabitants. As John of Gaunt proclaimed in Shakespeare’s Richard II, the “silver sea” served England, “in the office of a wall/ Or as a moat defensive to a house/Against the envy of less happier lands” (Shakespeare 2003, pp. 96-97). In India, despite a long tradition of maritime trade, Hindu insistence on the need to maintain ritual purity judged sea travel polluting for those of high caste, and by the twentieth century self-imposed restrictions were even being accepted by some Sudra groups (Bindra 2002, p. 36). Ming prohibitions forbidding coastal dwellers to cross the seas except as a member of an official mission were clearly ineffectual. Nevertheless, a perception of the ocean as marking off an imagined set of land dwellers from the “other” are apparent in a sixteenth-century Chinese map, in which the cartographer inserted a stylized sea separating China from the area we now know as mainland Southeast Asia (Teng 2004, p. 37; Wade 2004, p. 6).

Even as representatives of land-based kingdoms took to the sea with the goal of reaching places only dimly imagined, the sheer immensity of the earth’s oceans was daunting; after all, they cover 70.8 percent of the earth’s surface. In these ventures the trepidation aroused in contemplating the unknown could be allayed through explanation and classification that made the unfamiliar imaginable. In the tenth century, for instance, the geographer Al-Muqaddasi affirmed that “the realm of Islam” was encircled by just one ocean “and that this is known to everyone who sails,” but he also acknowledged that Muslim treatises often spoke of three, five, or eight seas (Chaudhuri 1985, p. 4; Collins 1974, pp.148-64; see also Lewis 1999). On the other side of the world China’s scholars also became caught up in efforts to categorize the known “oceans” and “seas”. Within a larger “Western” and “Eastern” Ocean, Chinese cartographers identified smaller sectors on the maritime routes to Africa, a technique that allowed large expanses of water to be visualized simply as highways linking one land area to another. A map produced following Zheng He’s expeditions thus depicts the Indian Ocean as a schematized corridor between India to the north and Arabia to the south (Needham 1954, 3, p. 560; Ptak 2001). A similar privileging of the land appears among early Portuguese and Dutch cartographers, who scattered the names of rivers, mountains, and towns across their maps of Asia, but presented the sea as a fanciful domain of belligerent whales, pitching ships and seductive mermaids (Suárez, 1999, pp. 166-67).

Ultimately, however, it was European cartography that identified and named the world’s oceans as we know them today– the Atlantic, the Arctic, the Indian, the Pacific and, in 2000, the Southern Ocean – with boundaries created when necessary; in the Southern Hemisphere, for instance, the Atlantic is separated from the Pacific by an artificial line drawn from Cape Horn to Antarctica. Even so, the human capacity for categorization is indefatigable, and within these five oceans the International Hydrographic Bureau currently identifies as many as fifty-four different seas.

To a considerable degree this desire for categorization, like national borders on the land, has created boundaries and subsets for academic inquiry. Several universities maintain Centers of Pacific Studies; we have a center for Arctic Studies in Washington, D.C. and various Centers of Atlantic Studies are located in European and U.S. institutions. We are all familiar with Braudel’s notion of the special character of the Mediterranean, “a sea . . . so alive, so eternally young” (Braudel 2001), and his work has inspired many disciples. Barry Cunliffe has spoken of an “Atlantic mystique” linking coastal peoples like the Celts, Bretons, and Galicians, who had more in common with one another than they did with their inland kin. (Cunliffe 2001)[1]

In Asian Studies the fine detail this focused research can produce is most evident in regard to the Indian Ocean, the world’s third largest. A subfield in its own right, “Indian Ocean Studies” can now support dedicated journals, conferences, and summer institutes. Further refinements are possible even within what would seem a very specific domain, and we thus find specialists on the “Eastern” and “Western” Indian Oceans. As Asianists, we are more familiar with the “eastern” orientation, although our view might change somewhat if we were interested, for instance, in the extensive networks of Arab trade that connected Africa to India and beyond.[2] Indeed, in his latest book, A Hundred Horizons, Sugata Bose joins others (2006; Pearson 2003) in arguing for the organic unity of the Indian Ocean by tracing the economic and cultural communication that made it an integrated and interregional arena well into the twentieth century.

As the geographer Martin Lewis has noted, these divisions of “sea space” do allow for effective communication among people with like interests. There is, however, a danger that our imaginations can be directed “along certain preset pathways . . . that reflect specific cultural and political outlooks” (Lewis 1999, p. 211). In light of this comment, it is interesting to note that Southeast Asia – located between two of the world’s great oceans – remains a shadowy presence even when the theme of “maritime Asia” is employed. Nearly thirty years ago Donald Emmerson made a strong case for a “maritime perspective” on Southeast Asia (Emmerson 1980), and if we agree that greater attention should be given to the role of the sea in Asian communities, then Southeast Asia is a good place to begin. In the Malay-Indonesian and Philippine archipelagoes, for instance, between 95 and 100 percent of the population lives within 100 km of the coast and these cultures still posses the world’s “richest residue” of ancient maritime technology (Lewis 1978, p. 63). Historical discussions of mainland Southeast Asia typically emphasize the cultural and economic base in agriculture, but it is worth remembering that 40 percent of Thailand’s population, and over 80 percent of people in Vietnam, live in areas designated as coastal.[3] As one geographer has put it, “the degree of marine influence over the environment, settlement, communication and development of resources, both in Mainland and Island Southeast Asia, is probably unmatched in any other part of the world.” (Barrow 1990, p. 78)

In this context, the uniqueness of Southeast Asia can also be attributed to its location at the crossroads of Asia’s seaborne trade. The maritime connections between China and India through Southeast Asia are well documented (Hall 2006), but it is also useful to remember that winds and ocean currents linked southern Japan and the Ryukyu Islands to Taiwan and the Philippines, and that there are a range of linguistic and cultural similarities that go well beyond coincidence (Kumar and Rose 2000; Toichi, 1974; Waterson 1990, pp.15-17). Although the policy of sakoku under the Tokugawa shogunate institutionalized the idea of the sea as a barrier, the Japanese effort to present itself as a maritime power after 1941 can be seen as an attempt to revive earlier traditions. Included in a royal Ryukyu anthology of 1531, the chant of a priestess who summons the spirits of Japan, China, Java and “the southern seas” is compelling evidence of this older vision (Hokama 1998, p. 256).[4]

As innumerable studies have shown, one of the most effective means of tracking such connections in early times is through a consideration of trade. It is not enough, however, just to talk about port cities and maritime routes, and to treat the oceans as simply a “transport surface,” a medium by which products and trade goods moved from one place to another. If we accept that explorations of resemblance and divergence may themselves be illuminating, we need to imagine the human reality that initiated and sustained commercial exchanges along ocean pathways. In viewing the seas as a space for creative human activity (Lowe 2003, pp. 121-122; Steinberg 2001, p. 46), we can only wonder at the human ingenuity that developed the sailing technology required to link far-flung areas, and that located and provided much-desired products for distant and unknown consumers. Is it not amazing, for example, that early communities in tropical Asia discovered how to roll the fibers of the sugar palm (Arenga pinnata) together sufficiently tightly even to lash a boat together? Or that resin from the Rhus vernicifera (Japanese lacquer) tree mixed with sawdust, shredded bamboo, or water-buffalo dung could be used for caulking (Burningham 1994, p. 223, Manguin 1985, p. 336)? Equally remarkable is the distance traversed by certain items that may have little significance in today’s commercial world. Human cooperation over thousands of miles thus meant that beads made in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India, China or Java could become prized heirloom possessions of buyers as far afield as Timor and Palau (Francis 2002).

Bamboo basket boats,
Vietnam, 2000. Traditionally caulked with resin
and fillers such as sawdust, shredded bamboo or cattle dung. Courtesy
University of Hawai‘i Center for Southeast Asian Studies picture archive

Let us take as another example the case of cowry shells. Although the species of cowries used for money (Cypraea moneta) was widely distributed through the Indo-Pacific area, the best come from the Maldives, and it was the commercial production here (breeding shells on palm fronds and other leaf matter lying in shallow water) that supplied Cypraea moneta for most of the world’s trade until the eighteenth century. The tentacles of these operations were far-reaching; in Yunnan a cowry-based system of exchange for paying taxes, buying land, and making donations was well established by the ninth century CE and continued until the seventeenth century (Yang 2004). Another area where cowries were much used was northern Thailand, with local rulings that were often very precise: for example, one law code specifies that if an officer “grasps the breasts of a woman who is willing” he should be fined 22,000 cowrie shells, but (to our mind, paradoxically) only half the amount if he puts his hands inside her blouse (Wichienkeeo and Wijeyewardene 1986, pp. 22, 29). It seems that these networks linking Bengal and coastal Southeast Asia only declined with the expansion of Han control into Yunnan and an expanding globalized market based on coinage.

Cowry trade (Yang 2004. Used with permission)

A third trade item that might pique student interest is the edible holothuria, the sea slug or teripang. Again, tracking the distances covered by what early Europeans called a “repulsive” product requires us to think far beyond area-studies boundaries, and serves, if we need it, as another reminder of the great lengths to which human beings will go to satisfy the demands of commerce. Although teripang occur throughout the world’s oceans – there are in fact about 1200 known species – the greatest diversity and the largest numbers were found among the islands of Southeast Asia and adjacent areas. The primary consumers in the early modern world were in China, where by the late Ming period sea slugs were standard in most banquets. The increasing demand fueled an expansion of the teripang trade, particularly in eastern Indonesia, where remote islands became drawn into a global exchange. As the market grew, even northern Australia became a major area for teripang collection, primarily by Bugis and Makassar traders from Sulawesi. Evidence of stone fireplaces, tamarind trees, and Muslim graves supply material evidence of their presence, as does Aboriginal art, linguistic borrowings, and legend (Macknight 1976). The gathering of sea cucumbers, still an important trade today, provides an intriguing example of a complex train of relationships that, as in the case of beads or cowries, encourages us to think of the manifold ways in which the sea has facilitated human interaction.

Makassar fishermen smoking teripang for the China trade, 1845.
Port Essington,
North Australia,
(Macknight 1976, plate 11. Used with permission)

Comparisons of the cultural environments that are enmeshed in these attenuated chains of communication also deserve attention, for it is here that the human dimension most clearly emerges. I can only reiterate that there are interesting possibilities for comparison across Asia and for testing the proposition that littoral societies “have more inc common with other littoral societies than they do with their inland neighbors (Pearson 2006, p. 353). Does the received wisdom that women in seagoing communities are relatively independent still hold among, for instance, the pearl divers of Japan and South Korea (Cho 1989; Martinez 2004, p. 47; Norr and Norr 1974, p. 249)? In what ways do cultural singularities explain the differences between female fish traders in southern India and those in the coastal areas of Vietnam or Indonesia (Pham 2004; Ram 1989; Volkman 1994, pp. 574-76)? Although an anthropologist might urge her colleagues to accept the sea as a “place” that, like the land, generates “creative human activity,” any historical investigation faces real challenges; as Roderick Ptak has pointed out, official Chinese sources dealing with seafaring rarely reflect the views of ordinary sailors and merchants, and there is little room for integrating China’s coastal towns and provinces into a maritime setting (Lowe 2003; Ptak 2001, p. 401). Nevertheless, because our academic orientation is normally territorially grounded, we may have overlooked material that is available to us and in the process have underestimated the importance of the sea-land experience in our representations of Asia. In a recent article Charles Wheeler calls for a “re-thinking” of the place of the sea in Vietnamese history. In his words, “We typically invoke the centrality of water in Vietnamese cultural life, whenever we talk to our students.” However, with few exceptions, he goes on, the historical evidence of the sea’s significance has remained only supplementary to interpretations that present Vietnam as an “enclosed, earthbound, agrarian society” (Wheeler, 2006, p.126)

In responding to this comment, I turn to the island-rich environment of insular Southeast Asia, [5] and particularly to those areas of the Austronesian world where the symbolism of the sea and of boats is integral to political and social systems (Coedès 1968, pp. 3-4). The intimate relationship between land and sea so clearly articulated in these systems should encourage participants in larger conversations to think more seriously about the place of the oceans in Asian states traditionally characterized as agrarian. In a 1984 conference on Southeast Asia, Pierre-Yves Manguin (1986) spoke of “ship-shape societies” and the range and variety of references he assembled remains impressive. Although some scholars have cautioned against over-reading this symbolic language (Waterson 1990, pp. 20, 93), one cannot deny that the migration of ancient Austronesian-speaking peoples from southern China or Taiwan would have been by boat or that words connected with boating and sea travel are prevalent in linguistic reconstructions of proto-Austronesian vocabularies (Pawley and Pawley 1994, p. 329; Zorc 1994, pp. 543-45). More than three thousand years later, when the Spanish first reached the Philippines in 1521, boats were still the only means of long-distance transport, and there is no evidence of wheeled vehicles (Scott 1994, p. 5).

Southeast Asia

In this context, historians can gain much from conversations with archaeologists. The boat-shaped coffins found throughout this water-connected world, often in locations that face the sea, provide convincing evidence that many early societies thought of the afterlife as a place that would be reached after a voyage across water. Indeed, the words for “boat” and “coffin” are sometimes interchangeable, and from very early times “ships of the dead” are a recurring motif in Southeast Asia’s indigenous art (Ballard et al 2004, pp. 394-97; Glover 1972, p. 42; Manguin 1986, pp. 193, 196). A striking example of this imaginaire is found on the cover of a well-preserved burial jar discovered in a cave complex on the island of Palawan in the Philippines. Shown in their voyage to the next life, both boatman and passenger wear a band tied over the head and under the jaw, a style of laying out a corpse still found in the southern Philippines centuries later (Fox 1970, pp. 113-114, 123). It is unclear whether any parallels exist between the boat coffins in Southeast Asia and ancient boat burials found in China’s Sichuan province, although in both places this mode of interment seems to have been associated with the elite. In the seventeenth century Spanish missionaries thus talked of Filipino chiefs buried in boats “which the natives call barangay”; in one such instance, the body was surrounded by seventy slaves, ammunition and food “as if he were to be as great a pirate in the other life as this” (Blair and Robertson 1903-9, 7: 194; 40: 81; Quirino and Garcia 1958, pp. 396, 415-16; Sage 1992, pp. 67, 140)

Cover of burial jar representing souls sailing
to the afterworld,
Palawan, Philippines
(Fox 1970:114)

The symbolism that linked the sea to the land is also apparent in the house architecture of numerous Indonesian cultures. Though the derivations of curved and allegedly “boat-shaped” roofs in certain societies have been debated (conversely, the best known are the inland societies of Minangkabau and Toraja), studies of communities in eastern Indonesia, notably between Timor and Tanimbar, persistently employ boat terminology in reference, for instance, to the main posts (“masts”) of the house and the space under the high roofs (“sails”) as well as to other architectural features like the “keel” or “rudder” (de Jonge and van Dijk 1995, pp. 33-34, 74-77; Manguin 1986, pp. 190, 204 n17; Vroklage 1940, pp. 263, 265, 266;). Even when villages are located at some distance from the coast and the economy is based on agriculture rather than seafaring, the association between boats and the human community can still apply, albeit adjusted to an inland environment. In the Sahu (northern Halmahera) village described by Leontine Visser, the ceremonial house is compared to a perahu pulled up on land (kagunga tego-tego) rather than a seagoing boat (Visser 1989, p. 177). Equally, it is not uncommon to find that household relationships are expressed in terms of shipboard life. An early seventeenth-century Bicol dictionary from the Philippines thus glosses the word laygay as both “in command of a ship” and “to issue orders in charge of servants and slaves in the house” (Mintz 2004, 2: 704). More intimately, a kelong, a genre of traditional Makassarese poetry, imagines the union of a husband and wife as being “like two fishing boats/Fishing together the big shiny fish /Tied together for life’s long voyage” (Knappert 1999, p. 94; cf. Gonda 1947, pp. 101-05).

Minangkabau house near Bukkitinggi,
Sumatra, 2004.
Courtesy of Sara Orel

As one might expect, similar metaphors also can be found in regard to community organization. The earliest historical references again come from the Philippines, where Spanish friars noted that the smallest political unit of Tagalog society was called a barangay, or boat (Blair and Robertson 1903-9, 40:83; Manguin 1986, p.189). The same heritage, however, is found through much of eastern Indonesia, and it is against this background that we read the names of villages in central Flores, like Laja (sail), Udi (rudder), Mangu Lewa (high mast), or Kutu (great oar length), and of headmen honored with titles such as “steersman,” or “leader of the great perahu” (de Jonge and van Dijk 1995, pp. 40, 55; Röder 1939, pp. 100-1; Vroklage 1940, pp. 268-269). As Visser (1989. p. 177) has noted, the metaphorical conception of the village center as a perahu is widespread in the Austronesian world, but the cultural dynamics of a community built around the concept of a boat have been most graphically described in the Tanimbar Islands in eastern Indonesia. In 1940 Petrus Drabbe published his remarkable account of pre-Christian villages located on cliff-top sites, where the center and place of worship was built in the shape of a stone boat, and in one case was even equipped with an anchor taken from a shipwrecked Dutch steamer. When men were absent on long-distance trading voyages a “crew” of women maintained watch on land. Assuming the same positions as men on a ship – captain, jurumudi (in charge of steering), or jurubatu (responsible for the anchor) – they followed prescribed rituals until the boat returned (Drabbe 1940, pp. 47-51, 140-41). A more recent study by Susan McKinnon has recorded the persistence of many of these practices, including the ceremonial language and dance formations that celebrated the unity of a boat and its crew, and the “friendship voyages” by which intervillage alliances were renewed. Encoding the village as a perahu lying at anchor, she suggests, the stone boat imparted a sense of unity and stability to a people whose cultural memories were infused with legends of migration and resettlement (de Jonge and van Dijk, pp. 76-81; McKinnon 1988, pp. 165-66; 1991, pp. 68-83).

Singing and dancing, people from
Sera Island (Tanimbar archipelago)
set out to renew their alliance with a village on
Yamdena Island,
1980. Courtesy of Susan McKinno

Tanimbar women dance on a stage built
in the form of a boat (from Drabbe, 1940)

Boat-shaped stage, Tanimbar (from Drabbe, 1940).

In eastern Indonesia a cultural order that tied the sea to the land has been most clearly identified in relation to villages, but the same models could be easily elevated to higher levels of governance. On the other side of the archipelago the notes accompanying a precolonial map of the Malay state of Perak thus explain that the raja is the captain and that the duties of ministers mirror those of crewmembers, with one identified as “he who wields the starboard paddle” and another “the person who bales the boat if she leaks (Andaya 1979, p. 28; Manguin 1986, p. 193; Shellabear 1885, pp.19-20). By the same token, it was these ruler-centered courts that produced Southeast Asia’s impressive corpus of maritime law, providing judicial advice for a multitude of problems that could develop during a voyage, during trading negotiations, or when a ship made landing. “The captain is as a king on board his ship; the steersman is like the prime minister; the person in charge of casting anchor and taking soundings is like the chief of police.” Crewmen were expected to follow the same standard of conduct as they would on land, particularly in regard to married women, and one article reads: “Anyone using a mirror facing towards the bow of the ship commits a serious offence, since the captain’s wife or concubine might be on board [and her image be reflected]. The punishment is seven lashes and a fine of gold” (Winstedt and de Josselin de Jong 1956, pp. 32, 49, 51, 58).

In promoting the comparative framework that lies at the heart of area studies, one obvious approach would see differences and similarities among sea-oriented communities primarily in economic terms, because their livelihood is so clearly reliant on access to the water and its resources. In the words of a female fish trader in Mandar (southwest Sulawesi), “our garden is the sea” (Norr and Norr 1974; Volkman 1994, pp. 567, 569). There are however, more intangible dimensions. As Raymond Firth and others have emphasized, the uncertainty of a fishing-based economy is great, since “the yield is precarious, the risk considerable,” and the spirits of the sea required constant and unremitting propitiation if the fisherman (or occasionally fisherwoman) was to be successful (1984.p. 1147; Kalland 1995, pp. 42-50). In the Philippines the Spanish friar Francisco Colin mentioned the many offerings made to the anito of the sea and the gifts necessary to conciliate other spirits associated with the “rocks, crags, reefs and points along the seashore” (Blair and Robertson 1903-9, pp. 40, 70, 72). Such spirits were particularly prone to anger if a crew ignored prescribed ritual or employed inappropriate words, especially those associated with the land. Traditionally, for example, Acehnese fishermen at sea could not call a mountain by its proper name, gunung, lest waves as high as mountains overwhelm their vessel (Barnes 1996, pp. 295-97). Still today male pearl divers in the eastern Indonesian island of Aru believe that their success depends on developing a rewarding and productive relationship with a demanding “sea-wife” who will guide them to places where the most valuable pearls are located. Because a diver’s “land-wife” and his “sea-wives” work together, a man’s domestic relations must be harmonious (Spyer 2000, pp. 17-18, 137-38). A belief in the ability of underwater deities to affect the well-being of an entire community is perhaps best attested in central Java, frequently and misleadingly categorized as an agrarian kingdom. Its royal center (today identified with Jogjakarta), however, was located not far from the beach of Parangtritis, home of Ratu Kidul, goddess of the southern ocean. Periodically, her mystical sexual union with the Javanese ruler rejuvenated the realm and guaranteed its prosperity (Ricklefs 1998, pp. 6-13).

The intimate association that correlates the fertility of the sea with the fertility of the land is nicely illustrated in the ritual attached to boatbuilding itself, and of the many examples available I use here Michael Southon’s case study from the island of Buton, near Sulawesi. Here the whole construction of the boat mirrors the union of men and women, and it is understood that an owner and his wife should have sexual relations before the keel is joined to ensure good fortune. In this sense the boat symbolizes the partnership implicit in marriage; in the words of one informant “The husband is like the leader or captain . . . [but] it’s the woman who knows the contents of the perahu . . . it’s the woman who orders things in the perahu.” The presence of a pregnant woman at a launching can thus be a potent sign of the boat’s birth and an expression of hopes for its future cargo-laden prosperity. Further, the relationship between those who wait at home is supposed to mimic the father-son relations that ideally operate while the boat is at sea; a captain’s wife should thus treat the family of her husband’s crew members not as employees but as her children and relatives (Southon 1995, pp. 93-119; see also de Jonge and van Dijk 1995, pp. 40-41, 54-55, 70-71; Liebner 1993, p. 25).

In the constant and finely-tuned interaction between land and sea, seasonal shifts in the patterns of winds and currents were critical to the timing of agricultural as well as maritime activities. In several areas of eastern Indonesian and the western Pacific the swarming of sea worms (nale or palolo) occurs once or twice within a given period of the lunar year and for this reason has traditionally been used as a calendrical marker. In some places one even finds the appearance of the worms – themselves a symbol of fertility – personified in a female spirit, Inya Nale (Ecklund 1977, pp. 4-11; Hoskins 1993, pp. 90-91, 342-44; Mondragón 2004, p. 293). Before their conversion to Islam or Christianity, sculptors in eastern Indonesia represented this sea/land/fertility nexus in statues of the founder-mother (luli), often carved against a tree rising out of a boat, which in turn calls up associations between male-female unity and the womb itself. In combination, the boat, tree and ancestress become a forceful image of fecundity and new birth (de Jonge and van Dijk 1995, pp. 54-55).

Luli carving, Indonesia. Courtesy of Jerome Feldman

In a different medium and always the work of women, a similar correlation is evident in the Lampung ship-cloths from southern Sumatra. The boat motifs for which these textiles are rightfully famous are obviously far more than ships. The masts sprout leaves and the hulls are decorated with luxuriant tree-like forms; ancestors crowd the decks, while dugong and turtles swim in the surrounding sea. Conceived as a total design, each piece becomes an individual affirmation of the centrality of procreation and the absolute necessity of continuing the lineage (Gittinger 1976; Solyom 2004, 95).

Example of a Lampung “ship-cloth.”
Courtesy of Bronwen and Garett Solyom

As we place this maritime-oriented world in a larger framework, it is also understandable that the legitimacy of influences from outside is often enhanced through an association with the ocean. Accordingly, legends found throughout Southeast Asia frequently recall some legendary figure, a “stranger-king” who arrives by sea, marries a local woman and becomes the conduit by which a new cultural order is instituted. In explaining the acceptance of Indian ideas, an oft-cited example comes from the middle of the fifth century, when two Chinese envoys to a “country” called Funan, apparently located in southern Cambodia, recorded a myth of origin that tells how a local princess paddles out to meet the vessel of an incoming Brahman. The latter gives the princess a cloth to cover her naked body and makes her tie her hair in a knot; following their union he becomes ruler of Cambodia (Coedès 1968, p. 37). The spread of Islam, too, is commonly attributed to merchants and traders who appear on ships, but one particularly graphic image from the Chronicle of Kutai (eastern Borneo) dating to about 1620, describes how the first teacher of Islam arrived from neighboring Makassar riding on the back of a swordfish (Jones 1979, p. 147). The use of the maritime metaphor to present Islamic mysticism in ways that were intelligible to local audiences is effectively captured in a seventeenth-century Malay poem that speaks of the gnostic setting sail on a perilous sea where “many ships sink/Its surges are immensely fierce/Its reefs are as sharp as spears/If [the seafarer] is not experienced and skilled enough,/[His] ship will strand and break into pieces” (Braginsky 1975; 2004, pp. 148-49).

A similar pattern could be tracked in the Philippines, where the incorporation of pre-Christian iconography is evident in statues of the Immaculate Conception; one of her attributes, the stylized crescent moon, was at times thickened so that she appears to be standing on a curved boat (Gatbonton 1979, p. 105; Zóbel de Ayala 1963, p.109). Presumably, such associations would have been helpful in the missionizing project. Vietnamese fishermen, for instance, readily likened the Madonna’s swirling veil and surrounding clouds to a small boat riding on the waves, and saw her as possessing protective powers like those of Mazu, the goddess of the oceans (Forest 1998, 3: 286). The picture of Christ as a friend and guardian of fishermen would have been equally compelling. A boat-shaped lectern in a church on the main island of the Sangir group north of Sulawesi, with an attached plaque bearing the biblical reference Mark 4: 35-41, reminds the congregation of how Jesus calmed the storm, much to the awed amazement of his disciples: “Even the wind and waves obey him.”

Pulpit at a church in Desa Mala,
Sangihe, Indonesia, 1999.
Courtesy of Jennifer Munger

In sum, the Southeast Asian examples suggest that the real and symbolic communication between sea and land merits closer attention from those who study the region we term Asia. This is far from saying, of course, that the oceans were seen as an unquestioned bearer of positive influences or that their frightening and unpredictable powers were ever regarded with anything less than deep respect. The tragedy of the 2004 tsunami still hangs over us, but the region has since experienced numerous other destructive typhoons and tidal waves. Even in normal times tropical storms could bring about shipwreck, and the shallow waters could hide reefs and rocks on which vessels could well founder. One of the most interesting areas of maritime studies has been the growth of underwater archaeology, sometimes producing quite spectacular discoveries (e.g. Flecker 2002). Nor do I mean to present coastal societies as Utopian communities, living in harmony with each other and exemplifying a mutually beneficial relationship between land and water. In her study of the South China Sea, Dian Murray (1987, pp. 14-19) notes that pirates were often former fishermen, and for many orang laut groups in Southeast Asia raiding under a ruler’s auspices could be a seasonal occupation. From the late eighteenth century, fleets of Ilanun raiders from Mindanao annually swept down into the Indonesian archipelago, and the terror felt by their victims is vividly portrayed in a Malay account of how one trader “was strangled with his shoulder sash and left to rot. His penis was cut off and stuffed into his mouth” (Ali Haji 1982, p. 262). Yet a great sea raider could still be respected, and the perception of the ocean as a pathway to fortune is encapsulated in the Malay phrase “mencari rezeki”, to seek one’s fortune, which became a code-term for officially sanctioned piracy. Indeed, it was the image of a journey by sea that an unknown Sufi poet (probably from Sumatra) felt best conveyed the idea of a spiritual path that would lead to personal enlightenment: “Oh youth, know thyself!/ Like a boat is thy body . . . Avail thyself of a rudder and compass/Equip thy boat:/Such is the way of perfection for man” (Braginsky 1975, p. 414; Maier 1992, pp. 2-5). What Australians of my vintage called “o.e.,” or overseas experience, remained for Southeast Asians a source of prestige and new knowledge, whether it was simply to a neighboring island, to Mecca, or in the colonial period, to study in Europe. Ultimately this enlargement of an individual’s world almost always involved travel by sea.

This brings me to my last point. Although generalizations are always problematic, I follow O.W. Wolters (1999, p. 46) in suggesting that an environment of acceptance and openness to the outside, “a tradition of hospitality,” was generally characteristic of coastal and seagoing communities. The sailor who has a wife in every port may be a cultural cliché, but it had very real significance in a trading environment where a family base was absolutely vital for a merchant to pursue his business. Kinship relations, both real and fictive, were key elements in creating and maintaining the personal relationships that underpinned an economy where land and sea were interdependent. The vignette I use to illustrate this point is one of my favorites. It concerns John Pope, a young Englishman, whose insightful and well-written diary records his experiences as a seventeen-year-old apprentice sailing between India, Burma, Sumatra and Melaka in the 1780s. An early port of call after leaving India was Kedah on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, where he was received in an audience by the ruler and the king’s merchant, a Tamil Muslim from Coromandel. The latter’s son (probably born of a Malay mother) was about the same age as John, and they became quite close, spending a good deal of time in each other’s company and even discussing matters like religious differences. “My new friend Dul Baddul,” wrote John, “wishes much that I should stay here, promises me everything that I can wish.” On John’s departure Dul gave him a kris “inlaid with gold”; in return, Pope presented his “new friend” with his own silver buckles and a pencil case, “the only things of any value in my possession,” and promised to learn to write Jawi (Malay in modified Arabic) so that they could exchange letters. “We parted,” he wrote, “not without many tears on both sides” (Bulley 1992, p. 60).


The year 2005 marked the 600th anniversary of the first of Zheng He’s voyages, an impressive vision of a world that could be connected via water. At the same time, these voyages contributed to the goal of knowing, describing and taming the oceans and thus of confirming their conceptual subservience to the land. Today we live in communities that have little appreciation of the importance of the sea in the social and economic lives of early societies. Roads have replaced rivers, airplanes have displaced long-distance ocean travel, and cartographic traditions and the demands of modern states have asserted the supremacy of land-based cultures. In this essay I have tried to make a simple point: Given the physical environment in which most of us operate, we have to work hard to imagine how it might have been in Manguin’s “ship-shape societies.” Yet regardless of whether the goal is to engage students or interact with colleagues, I would argue that the effort is worthwhile. More than twenty years ago Wolters remarked that “the sea provides an obvious geographical framework for discussing possibilities of region-wide [Southeast Asian] historical themes.” He went on to stress, however, the unity of “‘the single ocean’ – the vast expanse of water from the coasts of eastern Africa and Western Asia to the immensely long coastal line of the Indian subcontinent and on to China” (Wolters 1999, pp. 42, 44). The “transocean” standpoint may enable us not merely to work with a larger canvas, but to capture something of the human encounters that underwrite the communication between areas and between peoples. Although there is probably no way we can be what Rhoads Murphey once termed a “complete Asianist” (Murphey 1988), we can do our best to think across the boundaries of disciplines, areas and a presentism that privileges the land. As we work ever harder to bring Asia into the academic mainstream, an understanding of the ocean and of how it shaped the lives of real people may open up new perspectives on the intertwined histories that should be integral to our projection of “Asia.”

Barbara Andaya is Professor of Asian Studies and Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Hawai’i. She was president of the Association for Asian Studies, 2005-6.

This article is a revised version of her presidential address, delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in San Francisco, April 2006. The original was published in the Journal of Asian Studies 64, 4, (2006). It is reproduced here with permission from the Association and from the publisher of JAS, Cambridge University Press. Posted at Japan Focus on April 17, 2007.


[1] In a similar mode, Paul D’Arcy argues that the oceanic environment transverses the divisions traditionally employed in Pacific Studies by linking Polynesia and Micronesia (D’Arcy 2006: 9). See also Pearson 2006, who argues for a world-wide consideration of littoral societies.

[2] References here are extensive, but for a recent work see Barendse 2002

[3] “The Seas of East Asia,” p. 19; see also Wheeler 2006.

[4] Reference kindly supplied by Anna Nagamine

[5] Currently Indonesia is said to comprise over 17,000 islands and the Philippines around 7100. In both cases the definition of “island” is open to debate. One needs to remember that there are areas, like Timor, that lack a sea-faring tradition (McWilliam 2002:6).


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