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The European Seaborne Empires II: Malacca and Tenochtitlan

The European Seaborne Empires I: "To Serve God, to Win Glory for the King, and to Become Rich"

The European Seaborne Empires I: "To Serve God, to Win Glory for the King, and to Become Rich"

From David Abernethy (2000), The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires 1415-19890 (New Haven: Yale), p. 242 ff:

The multifaceted nature of Europe's assaults is highlighted when contrasted with the overseas activities of the Chinese and the Arabs. The ideal site for comparison would be a place distant from Europe, China, and Arabia, hence unlikely to be controlled by any of them, where people arriving by sea from all three areas were present at about the same time. That such stringent conditions could be met seems highly unlikely. But in fact they do apply to one case: Malacca during roughly the first century of [European imperalism] phase 1. This city, located on the Malayan side of the narrow strait named after it, was founded in the late fourteenth century and rapidly became the principal center for maritime trade among Indian Ocean emporia, the Spice Islands, and China. Malacca benefited from the weather as well as from its location. Because of monsoonal winds, vessels sailing from the Indian Ocean to China (and vice versa) had to lay over for a few months before continuing the journey. An alternative was for ships to unload their wares in Malacca, returning to their respective home ports with goods from the others' ships as well as gold, spices, and precious woods from the offshore islands.

The city and strait of Malacca were extraordinarily cosmopolitan places several centuries ago. A well-placed Portuguese observer wrote in the 1570s: "One may well and truly say that Malacca, in point of fact, and merchant trade, is the most extensive place in the world." The city was visited by Cheng Ho [pinyin Zheng He] on at least two of his voyages and thereafter by many Chinese sailors and traders. The great Arab traveler Ibn Battuta passed through the strait in 1345-6, and several thousand Muslims, including some from Arabia, resided in the city in the early 1500s. Ibn Battuta's Italian conterpart, Marco Polo, passed through the Malacca Strait in 1292 on his return to Europe from China. As noted in chaptert 3, the Portuguese captured Malacca in 1511, holding it until the Dutch replaced them in 1641. Thus people from all three regions converged around the start of [European imperalism] phase 1 on the same small area.

By studying Malacca in 1511 one comes as close as possible to a historical laboratory experiment. Are sectoral features of European countries present as well in China nad in Arab (and, more generally, Muslim) societies? If so, for reasons given in chapter 2 my argument about the importance of sectors is weakened. If not, the argument is strengthened.

The Chinese government's impact on Malacca was far more limited in scope and duration than might be expected given the country's wealth and size. Cheng Ho's armada of hugh junks, with thousands of well-armed soldiers aboard, was designed to ensure attention and respectful deference to China's rulers from elites elsewhere. Presumably Admiral Ho was instructed to urge monarchs to establish symbolic tributary relaions with the Celestial Court. But the admiral was unwilling to use the military might at his disposal to conquer Malacca, there being no plans to administer distant lands as integral parts of the emperor's domains. Moreover, as noted earlier, the impressive voyages undertaken by Cheng Ho ended abruptly in 1433. The emperor politely received the king of Malacca when the king later journeyed to Beijing, bearing tribute. But assertion of China's superior political status was made by the inferior party visiting the Celestial Court, not by the latter reaching out aggressively beyond its borders. The contrast with the European pattern is obvious.

China's private sector had a more substantial and long-lasting impact on Malacca. One indicator was the existence, as of the early 1500s, of a separate section of the city reserved for Chinese merchants. These traders were on their own when residing overseas. This was manifestly the case after 1433 when they could not count on even an intermittent visit of ships to demonstrate the home government's power. If anything, Malacca's Chinese merchants carried on their business despite the imperial court, which launched periodic efforts to restrict economic ties with the outside world. The court controlled government-to-government trade, expressed through the tributary system. Nonofficial trade, which it was unable to regulate, was perceived as an unwelcome challenge to its power and authority. That many Chinese merchants in Malacca were long-term residents did not signify that they were overseas agents of Chinese power. On the contrary, it reflected recognition of obstacles that bureaucrats would have placed in theiur way had they based their international operations on the Chinese mainland. A common pattern for th Chinese in sixteenth-century Malacca and elsewhere in southeast Asia was to conduct clandestine commerce with the home country. Alternatively, they concentrated on trade among ports scattered about the Nanyang (Southern Seas). In both cases they tried to avoid contact with Chinese officials rather than to work with them.

The imperial court disapproved of Chinese settling elsewhere because this meant abandoning the graves of their ancestors. The court took this view to its logical conclusion in 1712 with an edict forbidding its subjects to live or trade in Southeast Asia. Though poorly and inconsistently enforced, the edict nonetheless expressed an attitude toward overseas settlers diametrically opposed to that of western Europe's rulers.

China's public and private profit sectors thus had minimal contact with each other in dealing with Malacca. When cross-sectoral contact did occur it tended to be competitive and conflictual rather than cooperative. The profit-sharing and chartered-company options were ruled out. This stands in sharp contrast to the European pattern of linking the two sectors in mutually beneficial ways.

The Chinese did not carry a missionary religion to Malacca because they had none. As noted in chapter 8, the imperial court's Confucian creed was a civil religion, not available for export or readily separable institutionally from the public sector. Cheng Ho was dispatched as a diplomatic emissary of the court. But he could not have served as a Confucian missionary, had this unlikely possibility ever been considered, because he was Muslim. Chinese merchants in Malacca practiced their own religious faiths but kept to themselves when oing so. No basis existed for an outeward-looking coalition between leading practitioners of China's religions and its rulers or merchants.

Arabs visited Malacca as long-distance merchants, staying in a quarter of the town set aside for Muslims. Unlike the Chinese they did bring a missionary religion. They used their wealth and their external connections to persuade Southeast Asia's political elites to let them build mosques and invite mullahs to lead the Islamic community's religious life. In many instances Muslim merchants pressured local rulers to convert. Malacca's rulers had been Muslim for about a century before the Portuguese arrived. One may thus speak of an alliance between Arab mercantile and religious interests resembling the European pattern.

But Arabs in teh Indian Ocean basin were not like Europeans. First, they were not agents of a polity eager to assert itself overseas. Home bases for the Arab seafareres were port cities--Jiddah, Adan, Muscat--along the periphery of a vast, thinly-populated desert peninsula not effectively governed by anyone. These cities faced outward to the sea. But they were not linked to a densely-populated, economically-productive, politically-controlled hinterland in the way that western Europe's port cities were. They were urban areas on their own, not urban areas embedded in states. Their prospects for profitable trade were most favorable if none of them advanced political calims beyond its immediate domain. Traders and sailors moved on monsoonal winds from one trading center to another, intermediaries among several autonomous units rather than agents of any particular one.

Second, Arabs were not the only--or even the principal--propagators of Islam in southeast Asia. The central role they played in the religion's formation and explosive early spread into the Fertile Crescent and across North Africa was diluted in later centuries. Islam's steady advance eastward by land and sea was due mainly to initiatives by non-Arabs. Its increasingly cosmopolitan character can be seen in Malacca. The Portuguese chronicler Tome Pires reports that shortly aftert the city was founded "some rich Moorish merchants moved from Pase [in Sumatra] to Malacca, Parees, as well as Bengalese and Arabian Moors, for at that time there were a large number of merchants belonging to these three nations.

The successes of traders as proselytizers meant that diffusion of Islam in southeast Asia did not depend on soldiers and administrators brought in from outside. If public-sector support was deemed necessary it was provided on site: once Malacca's ruler converted, Islam become in effect the kingdom's official faith. Further, the spread of Islam did not depend on full-time specialists in conversion recruited, dispatched, and reporting to an institution headquartered in Arabia or any other Muslim country. Islam indigenized itself as it expanded, rather than serving the ambitious designs of a distant state or missionary agency.

To summarize, the Chinese public sector had only a fleeting interst in reaching out to Malacca, no interest in conquering the city, and competitive rather than cooperative relations between itself and private profit sectors; the religious sector had no will or autonomous institutional capacity to assert itself overseas. China's impact on Malacca as of the early sixteenth century was confined to the activities of a single sector functioning on its own. Arabs had two sectors interested in influencing the outside world, hence the potential for a sectoral coalition. But Islam's spread to Malacca and elsewhere in Southeast Asia was not essentially an Arab activity. Neither was it directed by religous agents accountable to their own sectoral institutions, as in the European pattern. Most importantly, the Arabs' mercantile and religious interests were not backed by a state able or anxious to expand overseas. What initially appears as a two-sector alliance turns out to be a phantom alliance because it lacked institutions stretching outward from a territorial base.

The limited, functionally diffuse character of Chinese and Arab/Muslim relations with Malacca posed an isoluble dilemma for the city's sultan when he encountered Europeans. Teh first ship sent out in 1509 from Goa, capital of Portugal's Estada da India, consisted of traders. But Muslim merchants resident in Malacca who came from Gujarat and other Indian ports knew from experience that the Portugese flag accompanied trade and that the Portuguese were Christians implacably hostile to Islam. Warned in effect that the Portuguese constituted a triple threat to his regime, the sultan imprisoned and mistreated serveral members of the trade mission. His actions precipitated the very attack by Portuguese soldiers two years later than he hoped to forestall. But the Muslim merchants could offer only warnings. None of the cities from which they came was in any position to supply military aid, even to coreligionists threatened by Christian infidels.

The only powerful polity to which the sultan could turn was China. But if he was able to contact the Chinese emperor his efforts were in vain. The tributary system binding Malacca to the Celestial Kingdom symbolized superior/inferior relations and did not contain a mutual defense clause. Help was not forthcoming. At a critical moment in world historoyk wehn Europeans first intervened in Southeast Asian affairs, the Chinese court was unwilling to assert its stake in a nearby region. The sultan faced toward Mecca when praying and toward Beijing when oferring tribute. But for quite different reasons he could count on neither to help counter the new foe.

Beijing, in other words, was the capital city of a powerful state lacking both an expansionist foreign policy and an expansionist religion. Mecca was the central city of an expansionist religion but not of a state. Lisbon was the capital city of a state with an expansionist foreign policy and a strong commitment to spread an expansionist religion.

As Muslim merchants predicted, the Portuguese launched a tripole assault on Malacca. The city was captured in 1511 by an armada of ships carrying fifteen hundred soldiers whose commander, Vicery Afonso d'Albuquerque, saw himself as an extension agent of the Portuguese state. That the invaders intended to assert permanent political control soon became cleear. Albuquereue allegedly cried out to his men in the heat of battle that "We [should] build fortress iin this city... and sustain it, and... this land [should] be brought udner the dominion of the Portuguese, and the King D[om] Manuel be styled true king thereof." Construction of a stone fortress was begun as soon as the battle was won, and it was kept well supplied with soldiers and cannon. The city was a Portuguese possession until the Dutch took it in the seventeenth century. Once secured, Malacca became a vital outpost used to establish other Portuguese enclaves in the Moluccas and on the China coast...

This is a sophisticated and powerful rendition of the argument that what mattered most from 1500-1850 was the triple-threat reinforcing nature of European imperialism--the importance of all three parts of the Spanish hidalgo's explanation of why they had left Iberia: "to serve God, to win glory for the king, and to become rich..."