Pulau Bentan Pulau Daik
Mercu bertaut nampak berkilau
Kalau asal benih yang baik
Jatuh ke laut menjadi pulau

O Bintan Island, Island of the Daik range,
Your linked peaks that appear to glow;
As long as the seed is good, even as it
falls into the sea, it becomes an island.

- Excerpted from a 1950 book by Qalam Publishers

Bintang Beridar sudahlah nyata,
Datang membawa berbagai2 brita;
Perkhabarannya benar bukanlah dusta,
Lagi berfadeh smata2.

A moving star across the sky turns visible
it heralds news and tidings of all kinds;
These are messages of truth rather than lies,
for the simple reason of bestowing benefits.

- Bintang Timor, 2 July 1894

Time-scale + Location Place

in the Malay World

The focus of this resource guide is on digital resources that tell us something about the Malay Archipelago in the 19th and early 20th century. It also includes resources that stretch further back in time, covering the early modern period (17th and 18th century) or propel forward into the mid-20th century decolonial moment. In addition to this listing, the guide also offers tips and ideas on how to find materials online, an introduction to historical thinking, as well as a guide to various communities, projects and initiatives related to the colonial history of the Malay World.

To provide users with a sense of the time frame in which we might locate some of these materials, this introduction will sketch out the larger historical context of colonialism in a geographic region that called the Malay Archipelago.

The term Malay Archipelago is a loose and fluid category; it roughly describes a geographic and cultural region made up of coastlines and islands that corresponds to maritime Southeast Asia today. Other names that have been used to characterize this region include the Malay World, Malaysia (not the nation-state we know of today), Indonesia (also not the nation-state we know of today), the Indian archipelago, the East Indies, etc.

Non-European traders, who have been coming to conduct businesses in this part of the world, have also described the region using different terms. For the Indian traders, the Sanskrit toponym Survanabhumi describes a ‘land of gold’ that was associated with various places in Southeast Asia. The term was relayed to Greek sailors and recorded by Roman geographer Claudius Ptolemy as ‘Chersonesus Aurea’ or the ‘Golden Chersonese’.

For Chinese and Japanese sojourners, this was known as the nanyang, or the ‘south seas’. For the Middle Eastern traders, the Persian term zirbadat was used and translates as ‘the countries below the winds’ or ‘the countries one arrives at when carried by the winds’. This Persian concept survives in the Malay language as ‘negeri dibawah angin’. Therefore, in early modern Malay geography, the term ‘negeri diatas angin’ (countries above the wind) was used to describe countries located far away that can only be reached by following the wind patterns of the seasonal monsoon.

While the establishment of European bases in the region began with the Portuguese conquest of Malacca in 1511 and the Spanish settlement in Cebu in 1565. Trade competition between the two European Kingdoms during this period brought not only material enrichment, there was a religious dimension to then race. China was a significant destination for their respective evangelical missions.

Unlike the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors who travelled under the sponsorship of a monarch and church since the late 15th century, trading companies established at the beginning of the 17th century – namely the Dutch, English and French – saw the rise of a new type of multi-national enterprises, created out of capital raised from joint-stocks. These royally chartered ventures were granted a monopoly on trade and subsequently took on governmental powers to raise their own private armies (often recruiting local mercenaries) and to legislate laws in the colonial settlements.

While not always profitable as a multi-national company, many employees were able to enrich themselves personally through corruption and conducting private trade. Ultimately, these trading companies competed fiercely with each other over favourable trade relations and access to highly precious commodities, such as cloves and nutmegs that had huge demands in the European market.

The wealth generated through trade and, on many occasions, the use of force, also began to chip away some of the established hierarchies and values of European society at that time. New wealth brought about new systems of patronage that supported the growth of new ideas and ways of understanding the world.

By the eighteen century, a new set of values began to take hold of the European imagination. This period is called the Enlightenment. It grew out of previous centuries of trade, discovery, and cultural encounters with people from different parts of the world. These interactions unsettled old social hierarchies and encouraged the growth of new ideals, focusing on individualism, universalism, and progress.

The promotion of these values created a culture that saw competition as a healthy engine to stimulate growth, the acquisition of knowledge as socially advantageous and economic growth as a sign of greater social well-being. Over a span of a hundred years, changes happened in technology, in political system, in social relations, in a new sense of identity. Theoretically, this growth is infinite; there is no end to it. But resources and land are limited; therefore the values then encouraged a emergence of a type of society that prioritises the maintenance of this condition of continuous growth and expansion. At all cost.

This is the beginning of a new form of colonialism by the 19th century. Having secured the sea passages from Europe to Southeast Asia through the establishment of trading port settlements that relayed raw materials back to Europe and shipped new mass-produced goods out to the different parts of the world, we now arrive at the beginnings of global capitalism.

To ensure that this system runs like a clockwork with a reliable supply and demand chain, the trading companies felt that they had a moral obligation to intervene into local politics to guarantee that the surge in demand for raw materials back in Europe due to industrialisation can be met. This expansion ultimately led to the downfall of the first wave of multinational kompeni. The enterprise was a system that bred corruption and abuse of power. Ultimately, the trading companies created an elaborate system that it wasn’t able to fully control.

Nevertheless, the economic stakes are now too high; therefore even when the trading companies declared bankrupt, the European states saw the need to transfer ownership of these overseas dominions, formerly held by the companies to the state. Ultimately new economic ideas centered on free trade was also gaining grounds. The age of trade monopoly came to an end, and this ushered in a new era of nation-empire founded on the principles of free trade.

This period is also known as the informal empire, or high imperialism, a system of political rule and delicately crafted treaties in which the empire exercise effective direct and indirect rule over most territories around the world. The supremacy of European technology, knowledge, statecraft, firepower and commercial networks ensured that European empires would remain unchallenged right up to the First World War.

In the Malay Archipelago, the Philippine revolution of 1896 became the first large-scale nationalist uprising. It also seeded a nascent but growing consciousness. The Malay Archipelago, or the Indian Archipelago, or the East indies, or Indonesia, was no longer simply a loose collection of islands. Competing, overlapping and sometimes intersecting forms of consciousness reacted to the racialist discourse emerging from Europe, and competing ideas of what a Malay World could be was gradually coming into kesedaran (consciousness).

While the 1896 revolution was not entirely successful in gaining the people of Philippines the independence that they sought, the revolution did inaugurate an age in motion (doenia bergerak). It inspired colonised subjects in different parts of the region to spend the ensuing 50 years in a political and social project centered on imagination: exploring different forms of political organisation, methods of technological/economic disruption and cultural reckoning, and ways of belonging. This would bring huge changes to one’s sense of identity as well as one’s allegiances to various causes (perjuangan). It would take the Second World War to embolden a new wave of struggles for independence, where renewed forms of cultural and political agitations were finally able to bring some form of an end to empire.

Cover Image: Kling Children in Procession 1885-1895, gelatin silver, 10 x 13.4 Leo Haks Collection, National Gallery Australia.