by Anthony Reid.
Water and forest are the dominant elements in the environment of Southeast Asia. Though very difficult of access by land, the region is everywhere penetrated by waterways. Thus on the one hand it has been relatively free from the mass migrations and invasions from Central Asia which affected India and China, while on the other it has always been open to seaborne traders, adventurers, and propagandists in more moderate numbers. Not only were the sea-lanes ubiquitous; they were also remarkably kind to seamen. Winds were moderate and predictable, with the monsoon blowing from the west or south in May-August and from the northwest or northeast in December-March. Except in the typhoon belt at the eastern periphery of the region, storms were not a major hazard to mariners, who on the whole had more to fear from swift currents in certain channels. Water temperature was uniform, with the result that vessels which could not survive a voyage to Europe or Japan could operate successfully for years in Southeast Asian waters. All of these factors made the mediterranean sea of Southeast Asia more hospitable and inviting a meeting place and thoroughfare than that deeper and stormier Mediterranean during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and we have a region uniquely favorable to maritime activity. A boat was a normal part of household equipment.
Not all the common features of Southeast Asia, however, can be explained by a common environment. The universality of betel chewing cannot have derived from similar spontaneous responses to the existence of areca palm in the region, since the three ingredients of areca, betel leaf, and lime have to be brought together in a complicated operation before the desired effects are experienced. Similarly, the dispersal of the finger-knife, the piston bellows, and such characteristic sports as cockfighting and takraw (kicking a basketwork ball in the air), of musical patterns dominated by the bronze gong, or of similar patterns of body decoration and classification has little to do with the environment. Fundamental social and cultural traits distinguish Southeast Asia as a whole from either of its vast neighbors—China and India. Central among these are the concept of spirit or “soul-stuff” animating living things; the prominence of women in descent, ritual matters, marketing, and agriculture; and the importance of debt as a determinant of social obligation.
An envoy to Ayutthaya from Golconda in South India is said to have quipped that though Siam’s territories were vaster, “the King of Golconda is a king of men, while that of Siam is king only of forests and mosquitoes.”
A much more important factor was the instability created by constant low-level warfare. Southeast Asian wars caused relatively few battle casualties. It was a primary objective of war to increase one’s own manpower, either directly by seizing the enemy’s subjects as slaves or captives or indirectly by so devastating his country that its inhabitants were obliged to move to one’s own. Lives were therefore not wasted in fighting. By contrast, the disruption and uncertainty caused by war was a critical demographic factor. The larger state mobilized a substantial proportion of their male population into vast, ill-organized armies, without providing adequate supplies either for the soldiers or for their families left behind…
When maize was introduced from Mexico in the sixteenth century, such areas quickly added that valuable dry-land crop to their list of staples. It was already established in Maluku by 1540, perhaps brought by the Saavedra expedition of 1527-28.
Most of central Siam was still forested in the seventeenth century, and the primary export of that region was not rice but deerskins. Nevertheless, the high yields made possible by the annual inundation produced a large rice surplus for the city of Ayutthaya (which probably contained more than 10 percent of the central Siam population) and for export when required.
Even though land was not in itself a valued scarce resource, there were many other means by which the rich attracted or coerced the poor into serving them—control of better-favored irrigated plots near a river, ownership of animals and equipment for plowing, protection and patronage, and the bride-price, which was the prerequisite for a man to set up an independent household.
Throughout Southeast Asia it was the slow but reliable water buffalo which was the essential draft animal, used preeminently for plowing but also occasionally for carting produce. Only in the populous areas most influenced by India—Burma, Siam, Cambodia, Java, and Bali—were there also white Brahmin cattle.
Similarly, the coastal salt pans around Phetburi at the head of the Gulf of Siam supplied salt for much of Siam and the Malay Peninsula. According to a southern Thai chronicle, the first Thai state on the gulf arose at Phetburi on the basis of working these salt pans for the benefit of established Thai kingdoms further inland, beginning perhaps in the twelfth century.
A meal of rice was not complete without at least some fish, and it was especially the protein-rich spicy paste of pickled fish (Malay belacan, Thai kapi, Burmese nga-pee, Vietnamese nuoc mam) which was the favorite of Southeast Asians everywhere.
Although the Cheng Ho expeditions of the fifteenth century complained about the scarcity or expense of rice, meat, or vegetables at some Southeast Asian ports, the cheapness and abundance of fish was everywhere noted. In Melaka and Champa fishing was reported as the chief male occupation, well ahead of agriculture.
Spices were of much greater interest to Europeans, since these were the valuable rarities for which they had journeyed across the world. In the markets of Southeast Asia they found not only the better known cloves, nutmeg, and mace of Maluku, and the pepper grown widely throughout the Archipelago, but a profusion of unfamiliar plants often reputed to have medicinal value as well as flavor. Tamarind, turmeric, ginger, cubeb, calamus, and numerous other spices were used in favoring food as well as in medicines. Despite the plethora of spices, neither the Chinese nor European visitors remarked upon the spiciness of local meals, perhaps because these meat eaters, needing to disguise the taste of their own aging meat, at that time were as accustomed to spiciness as Southeast Asians. For those “below the winds,” fish-paste and turmeric appear to have been the most widespread “hot” ingredients until the introduction of the chili-pepper from South America in the late sixteenth century. This spread very quickly, however, so that the Dutch could report in 1596 that it grew in parts of Java and “the Governor of Banten uses it in place of pepper, though it is not widespread”. Black pepper, though sold to the world, was not prominent in the diet of Southeast Asians.
Cane sugar was also the most important Siamese cargo taken to Japan by Ayutthayan-based Chinese traders in the late seventeenth century.
As a sweetening for desserts and cakes, Southeast Asians themselves made greater use of brown sugar derived from boiling the sap of the arenga, or sugar palm, also native to the region and a prolific source of liquid sugar. Honey less important than in Europe at the time; regarded primarily as a medicine, it was gathered from wild bees. Nevertheless, the Dutch found it cheap and abundant in the market of Banten, which drew its supplies of honey from as far afield as Palembang and Timor and its palm sugar from Japara and Jakatra along the north coast of Java.
The low level of meat eating by Southeast Asians was attested by numerous European witnesses: Their [Siamese] diet is but mean, as rice, fish and herbs. The Siamese…do rarely eat of any flesh, though it be given to them.
At royal courts the occasions for feasting were numerous and included th sumptuous reception of foreign and local dignitaries—part of the ongoing theater whereby rulers established their legitimacy. King Narai of Siam served up 150 different dishes to a French embassy in 1685. When the remnants of Magellan’s expedition reached Brunei in 1521, they were fêted with an array of meat the like of which they had never seen: “Each tray [of nine] contained ten or twelve porcelain dishes full of veal, capons, chickens, peacocks and other animals, and fish. We supped on the ground upon a mat from thirty or thirty-two different kinds of meat, besides the fish and other things”.
This provision of what seemed an excessive amount of meat was not only a demonstration of royal greatness but also a means of distributing a limited supply of meat around the community, as Van Goens (1656) noted in Java:
Food is set out very lavishly on mats, provided with banana leaves about two feet long by one foot broad in place of tablecloths. Their fare is like ours, salted, roasted, stuffed, fried, etc., but using only oil in place of butter. Their feasting is often very coarse, consisting of whole roasted sheep, goats, or quarters of oxen or buffaloes, of which they make a great feast. They also have very hot spiced soup… The rice…stands before them in mounds so high that it is as high as their shoulders (if they are sitting on their shanks). The roasted chickens and other birds, and various dry viands, are piled up so lavishly everywhere that it appears to be a scandalous waste, which it is not, however; for as soon as the king and the gentry have eaten, all these foods with the said mats are wholly removed and given to the servants of these men, from which there is seldom a surplus; or if anything remains they take it home, to share with their children a present at the king’s expense.
The most generally available meats were chicken, pig, and water buffalo. Cattle of the Indian type had been introduced in limited numbers to the areas most influenced by India but were completely absent from eastern Indonesia and the Philippines. The wild cattle (banteng or Bos sondaicus) native to Java, Bali, Borneo, and Indochina were hunted for meat in all those places… The tougher domestic water buffalo was available everywhere, but its slow reproductive rate (one offspring only every three or more years) made farmers reluctant to slaughter these essential plowing animals. In many areas, particularly Luzon, the buffalo was also hunted as a wild animal.
Pigs of various types had been at home in the forests of Southeast Asia for thousands of years and were domesticated by at least 3000 BCE.
Even though meat consumption was relatively low, commercial cattle farming had already developed for urban markets, and there was some shipment of livestock from port to port. “Along the highways people lead cattle to trade, ride horses to sell,” reads Ram Kamheng’s account of his utopian order in Sukhothai.
In the Buddhist countries of the Mainland there were no prohibitions on food, so that Burmese and Siamese were still eating lizards, frogs, bats, silkworms, rats, and boa constrictors as late as the nineteenth century. Killing, on the other hand, incurred serious demerit for a Theravada Buddhist. Cattle could be eaten if they died naturally, but their blood should not be spilled.
Unlike Muslim states in the South which often banned pigs altogether, the Buddhist state did not attempt to decide on behalf of its subjects how they should resolve this dilemma.
Water was the everyday drink of Southeast Asians, much to the surprise of both tea-drinking Chinese and alcohol-addicted Dutch and English.
Visiting Europeans who followed the Southeast Asian example by drawing waters from the river near major cities suffered appallingly from waterborne diseases. The water of Banten they soon learned to avoid because “it first waxeth white, and afterward crawleth full of maggots”. In nearby Jakatra-Batavia, nevertheless, the great Dutch physician Bontius (1629) continued to recommend the river water “if drawn a little above the town.” How did the Southeast Asians in these cities avoid the same terrible mortality from drinking river water? Chinese did so by boiling the water for tea, but we know that the habit of tea drinking had by the seventeenth century spread only to the Vietnamese and to a small number of the urban elite elsewhere in Southeast Asia. La Loubère pointed out that among the better-class Siamese of the capital it had become “a necessary civility to present tea to all that visit them,” whereas “the use of tea is unknown in all the other places of the Kingdom.”
There is evidence that at least some Southeast Asians had began to boil badly polluted water, perhaps following the example of the Chinese, who according to Rhodes (1653) never drank water cold. “They laugh at us when we tell them we drink water fresh, and they say this causes us many diseases.” Ibn Muhammad Ibrahim (1688) mentioned that the Siamese drank boiled water with their meals…
Even though more than two centuries would pass before the theory behind the boiling of water was understood, it seems likely that Europeans first learned its practical advantages in Southeast Asia, probably by following the local or Chinese example. Boiling water was costly of time and fuel, however, and it did not spread to the majority of rural Southeast Asians, as it still has not today.
Other beverages were known in the cities, though for a limited clientele. “The Moors of Siam drink coffee, which comes to them from Arabia, and the Portuguese do drink Chocolate, when it comes to them from Manilla.” These drinks became popular locally only in the eighteenth century, after coffee had been planted by the Dutch in Java in the 1690s.
Water was the everyday staple, but no feast was complete without alcohol. The numerous sources of sugar made possible an equally varied supply of liquor, as indicated by the menu for a Majapahit feast (1365): tuak [palm wine] of the coconut palm, tuak of the lontar palm, arak (distilled liquor) from the sugar palm, kilang (fermented cooked molasses), brem (fermented rice), and tampo (double-fermented rice). The same text makes clear that the quantity of liquor consumed was an index of the success of the feast. The pre-Muslim Javanese had a particular reputation for heavy drinking is also borne out by the Malay epic of Hang Tuah, in which the Malay hero escapes from a plot to kill him at a Majapahit feast because “the vizir Gajah Mada and all the [Javanese] nobles were completely drunk.”
In eastern Indonesia and the Philippines the most popular form of alcohol was a tuak derived from one of the palms—lontar, coconut, or sugar (arenga). This palm wine was drunk everywhere in Southeast Asia except Vietnam, but in the westerly areas, including cities of Borneo and Java, the stronger distilled liquor, arak, was apparently more popular.
Alcohol was as much a part of feasting as was the killing and eating of animals, and perhaps for similar reasons. At funerals, the central and most boisterous feasts, the noise and licentiousness of the proceedings marked a luminal condition which somehow regenerated life at the point of death. Alcohol, like the other widespread narcotic, betel, was closely associated with the ancestors, perhaps because it induced a condition similar to the trance through which shamans communicated with the dead. In the Philippines one of the names for such a feast was paganito, the propitiation of the anito, or spirit.
They start their anito, drinking and eating and ringing bells and other instruments, with the women and young people dancing. Thus, in the twenty or thirty days during which the feats last, they do not sop dancing and singing until some get tired and others take their place: while the chiefs and brave Indians [Filipinos] eat and drink until they fall drunk, and are brought by their slaves and women elsewhere to sleep. When they wake up they return to the feast and get drunk anew (1590).
Islam and Buddhism both censured the drinking of alcohol, “the mother of all uncleanness,” as ar-Raniri called it. In contrast to the immediate rejection of pork by Muslims, however, this disapproval took effect very slowly. Arab writers regarded Melaka as a degenerate place where “the Muslim eats dogs for meat for there are no food laws. They drink wine in the markets.” Even in such strong Muslim centers as Brunei, Mindanao, and Aceh, arak was regularly provided at court entertainments (1590). Of feasts in Muslim Ternate, Galvão (1544) wrote: “They never drink water; they consider it a discourtesy to do so, and an act of civility to rise drunk or, as they call it, koteto. They pay no attention to the precept of Mohammed, but, while drinking like Flemings they rather joke about it, soliciting each other that all may take part in it together… In these islands there is so much [liquor] and it is used in such large quantities that the report of it would not seem to be true.”
In Siam and Burma the king and court usually avoided drinking in public, “all strong drink being prohibited by clergy laws, and esteemed scandalous.” Nevertheless, King Prasat Thong (1630-56) was a notoriously heavy drinker whose example was said to have encouraged a greater use of arak among all classes. Here too the copious consumption of arak by the ordinary populace was associated with feasting, especially the great annual feasts, when ordinary conventions were waived.
Alcohol was too well established an accompaniment of important rituals to disappear quickly in the face of the new religions. Never, however, have Southeast Asians drunk individually, with the desperation of the urban poor of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe. The closest European analogy to their feasting is the ritualized merrymaking of a medieval May Day.
Feasting was sharply differentiated from the ordinary daily meal. Not only was the fare of the twice-daily family meal much simpler, lacking meat and alcohol, but the meal itself was to be eaten as swiftly and silently as possible. Relaxed conversation might occur after the meal, when the betel was brought out; to interrupt somebody with conversation while he was eating was deemed a grave discourtesy. Pallegoix(1854) considered the fifteen minutes it took a Thai to consume his major meal as a “sacred” time, when even a master would not interrupt a servant. Errington (1979) has analyzed a similar attitude in South Sulawesi in terms of the danger of eating, as a time when the sanctuary of the body is vulnerable because it is being penetrated by the intake of food.
Nevertheless, in most of Southeast Asia the family unit ate together, the women with the men. They would eat on the floor, using banana leaves or shallow wooden bowls as plates. Hands and mouths were cleaned with water before and after the meal, and the right hand was used for eating.
Among the upper classes the master of the house would eat first, served by women, as a mark of his status. Royal courts and noble houses were marked by the elegance of the bowls in which the side dishes were served. Special table manners did not distinguish the man of quality from the peasant, as the increasingly elaborate eating style of Renaissance Europe did.
Everyday hospitality consisted in the sharing of betel, not food. Moreover, there were no public eating places except where Chinese and Europeans introduced them. “There are no Inns at Siam… A Frenchman… resolved to keep an Inn there, and some Europeans only did sometimes go thither. And although amongst the Siamese… it be an established practice to entertain one another, yet it is rarely in this country, and with much ceremony, and especially no open Table is there kept.” La Loubére guessed that this had something to do with men protecting their wives from view, as the celibate monks were more hospitable; but since women regularly bought and sold in the market this is unconvincing. The explanation lies rather in the essentially silent, rapid, and private nature of everyday eating.
Because the offering of betel was the essence of courtesy and hospitality, the ancestral spirits had also to be given it on every significant ritual occasion. The chewing of betel, or the offering of areca nut and betel leaves together or apart, was an integral part of every ritual of birth, death, or healing. It was especially central to the rituals of courtship and marriage. Because it sweetened the breath and relaxed the mind, it was seen as a natural prerequisite to lovemaking. Placing the nut, the lime, and other ingredients in a delicately rolled betel leaf was one of the intimate services a woman could perform for a man, and was therefore symbolic of marriage or betrothal in some cultures, and an invitation to love in others. The complementarity of the two central ingredients was seen as symbolic of sexual union, with the “heat” of the areca nut balancing the “cool” of the betel leaves. In eastern Indonesia the sexual symbolism became more explicit, since the long slender pod of a local genus of betel vine, used instead of the leaves, had a maleness to match the feminine roundness of the areca nut.
Tobacco, introduced to Southeast Asia by Europeans, gradually came to fill a similar combination of relaxant, social, and medicinal roles. The tobacco plant appears to have reached the Philippines from Mexico in the 1570s, and its spread from there to Java in 1601—that, at least, was the year when the practice of smoking was recorded at the Mataram court. In 1603 the ruler of Aceh (Sumatra) was using tobacco and 1604 the Bantenese elite were fond of smoking it. The practice of the Javanese court, at least when entertaining Europeans, was to smoke a long reed pipe in the Dutch style. Apparently this remained an affectation of elite males, who emulated some European traders. The form in which tobacco use became popular was the smoking of cheroots, known in the seventeenth century by the Malay term bungkus (bundle).
These were made of homegrown shredded tobacco, often mixed with other aromatics or flavorings, wrapped in a strong leaf such as maize or nipah palm, broadened at the end. The term is first found in Java in 1658, and the cheroot seems to have reached there via the Moluccas from the Philippines. Tobacco smoking in this form had begun to be popular among men and women and quite young children by the end of the seventeenth century. “The women, even the most considerable, are entirely addicted thereunto”. Tobacco appears at this stage to have been regarded as a stronger and more expensive alternative to betel. It became still more popular a century later when it was made one of the ingredients of the chewed betel quid.
Reports of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are almost unanimous that the peoples of Southeast Asia were “of medium stature”—meaning about the same height as the Europeans who described them. The Moluccans and Javanese were sometimes seen as “short” but on the other hand people from Brunei, Makassar, Pegu, and Siam were reported to be “tall”.
The best conclusion I can draw from this scattered evidence is that on average Southeast Asians of the seventeenth century were as tall as Europeans, but that a discrepancy appeared as European nutritional levels began to improve about 1800.
The relatively good health of Southeast Asians in the age of commerce should not surprise us if we compare their diet, medicine; and hygiene with those of contemporary Europeans. For the great majority of Southeast Asians serious hunger or malnutrition was never a danger. The basic daily adult requirement of one kati (625 grams) of rice a day was not difficult to produce in the country or to buy in the city, and it contained in itself enough calories and protein for healthy development. The relative lack of animal proteins was probably on balance an advantage, as it spared Southeast Asians from diseases spread through maggoty meat. Large-scale famine appears to have occurred only as a result of warefare. Since people could obtain their daily needs for a couple of farthings, La Loubére observed, “It is no wonder if the Siamese are not in any great care about their Subsistence, and if in the evening there is heard nothing but singing in their houses.”
Whereas the conventional wisdom in Europe was that bathing was voluptuous or dangerous, Asians associated it with purification and “cooling,” without which the body could not be healthy. Moreover, the care of the body, the washing and perfuming of the hair, a pleasant odor of the breath and the body, and neatness and elegance in dress were all matters of great importance for Southeast Asians, in contrast to house and furniture, which earned very little attention. Thais reputedly bathed three or four times a day, and everybody bathed at least once. Where there was no river water, people bathed by pouring a bucket of well water over their heads. In either case the water tended to carry the germs of the lower body away from the head, a safer practice than that of the confined bath shared by many family members, common in cold climates. Burmese appear to have distinguished between wells for drinking water and for washing. At rivers the place for drawing water was usually upstream from the men’s and women’s bathing places.
Even in their biggest cities in Southeast Asians lived in a dispersed pattern of single-story, elevated, wooden houses surrounded by trees. The disposal of household refuse was for the most part left to pigs, chickens, or dogs which foraged beneath the house, and to the seasonal floods which carried everything away once a year. The open and elevated style of house at least kept it free of the worse accumulations of decaying debris, in a way which was impossible in the congested cities of Europe, the Middle East, or China before the era of rubbish collection and sewage.
At least in the seventeenth century, however, the great majority of healing was done by local practitioners relying on local folk remedies and herbs. La Loubére was speaking of them when he commented that “medicine cannot merit the name of a Science among the Siamese… They trouble not to have any principle of Medicine, but only a number of Receipts, which they have learnt from their ancestors, and in which they never alter anything. They have regard to the particular symptoms of a disease: and yet they fail not to cure a great many.
On balance, however, this interventionist style of early European “scientific” medicine probably killed more patients than it cured. Europeans in the East initially had to learn than to teach, and they found from experience that for most complaints it was safer to trust an Asian than a European practitioner. The reason for this was nicely put by Borri (1633): “Their medicines do not alter nature, but assist her in her ordinary functions, drying up the peccant humors, without any trouble to the sick person at all.” Two centuries later both Crawfurd (1820) and Pallegoix (1854) gratefully recognized that Indonesian and Thai medicine at least did no harm.
According to local tradition, betel chewing prevented tooth decay, aided digestion, and prevented dysentery. The juice of the betel leaf has been used against eye infections, infection in wounds and sores, and various menstrual and other ailments.
Health was related to the status of the life-force within men, known as semangat in most of the Indonesian world and as khon or khwan to Thai speakers. Some ritual acts designed to strengthen this life-force or protect it against the malign or mischievous interference of powerful external spirits accompanied virtually every healing act, even those involving simple fractures. In cases of psychological disturbance and of epidemic illness, the whole cure became a ritual one. Psychological disorders had typically to be cured by a female or transvestite shaman, able to communicate by means of trance with the spirits tormenting the patient.
The habit of throwing water at New Year is not mentioned in seventeenth century accounts of Siam, though it was common in Burma. Strong rulers may have found it indecorous in the royal capital, but it seems likely to have had very old roots in rural purification rituals.
Seventeenth-century Southeast Asia, like other parts of the world, had an abstract scholarly tradition of medicine (not experimentally based), an empirical folk medicine, and magic. Everybody had access to the last two, while only a narrow elite of literati were acquainted with the first. Then as now, patients were highly opportunistic, choosing the practitioner who had the best reputation for getting results, and every successful practitioner mixed elements of magic with medicine.
A seventeenth-century story about the fourteenth-century founding of Ayutthaya mentions a promise that the city would be freed from the curse of smallpox but also relates that epidemics killed everybody who tried to live there until the surrounding marsh was filled in (suggesting malaria). The Malay law code gave severe skin disease as a legitimate cause for invalidating marriage or repudiating the purchase of a slave. Syphilis is suggested by a number of stories of rulers who either contracted or were cured of their disease by sleeping with a particular woman—venereal disease being popularly believed to be cured by further intercourse with a healthy woman.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for which more satisfactory evidence exists, it is clear that smallpox was the most feared epidemic disease in most parts of Southeast Asia.
Famine and smallpox kill large numbers in Siam in 1682.
While some of the major lowland states deplored tattooing as a savage custom, others adopted it as a convenient marker of status. Both in sixteenth-century Burma and in seventeenth-century Siam the characteristic “trouser” covering of hips and legs with tattoo appeared to be reserved for the upper classes. Distinctive tattoos were also legally required for slaves and state bondsmen in both countries. As a means of ensuring that each man stayed in his allotted place, tattooing was even more reliable than sumptuary laws on clothes.
For the social historian, the most important and intriguing development is the move in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from long to short hair—for men in the island world influenced by Islam and Christianity and for both sexes in Cambodia and Siam. Given the prior association of long hair with adulthood and spiritual potency, this shift can probably be seen as symptomatic of a changed attitude to sexuality, placing greater importance on the ideal of sexual restraint and on the exaggerated distinction (among Muslims and Christians) between men and women.
Despite the long-haired male fashion which returned to Europe in the seventeenth century, Christian missionaries gradually imposed a similar short-haired conformity on male Filipino and Chinese who converted. The change which affected both sexes in Siam and Cambodia is more mysterious. The characteristic “brush” effect still in vogue in both countries in the nineteenth century, achieved by cutting the top hair about three centimeters long and close-shaving the sides, has been blamed on Khmer influence in Siam and on Siamese influence in Cambodia. It is certain that styles did change in both countries more than once, yet at no point was there a significant difference between male and female. In the Angkor period and in the Thai kingdoms prior to Ayutthaya the dominant mode for the aristocracy appears to have been to roll the hair into a bun, ornamented in various sways according to rank. At the end of the sixteenth century Cambodians were stilled described as having long hair, “but not as long as the Chinese”, while by 1647 they appear to have adopted the brushlike short style of the next few centuries. Most seventeenth-century observers of Ayutthaya describe the short bristly cut for both sexes, while the Chiengmai Chronicle places in the fifteenth century (perhaps anachronistically) a tale of a Chiengmai spy who had to cut his hair very short in order to be unobstrusive in Ayutthaya. Ibrahim claims, however, that only the poor in Ayutthaya had “no hair at all,” while the wealthy aristocrats competed for the most elaborate hairstyles.
Islam and Christianity were the main, but not the only, factors in the gradual abandonment of long hair, tattooing, and elongate earlobes during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The very long fingernails affected by the nonlaboring classes, which were strongly disapproved by Islam and Christianity, also began to wane during the same period. Although these changes were often made in the name of the universal religions, they may be considered part of a process of secularization commonly associated with rapid urbanization. The body began to be seen less as a source of magical potency to be sharply differentiated from the natural world of animals, and more as a neutral and natural vehicle for a transcendent soul. As in many other fields, this transition to modern attitudes began in the age of commerce but was subsequently frozen or retarded by the decay of Southeast Asian city life.
To all visitors to Southeast Asia, whether from Europe, China, or Western Asia, the “nakedness” of the inhabitants came as something of a shock. By this they meant that Southeast Asians almost invariably had bare feet, bare heads (except Muslims and some nobles), and frequently were also naked above the waist.
Children were left naked for the first six to nine years, save for a medallion or cache-sexe hung in front of their genitals. Thereafter the basic garment for both men and women was an unsewn strip of cloth wound one or more times around the body. Women sometimes (especially after Islam) hoisted it up under the armpits to cover the breasts; elsewhere they tucked it around the waist like the men. Thai and Burmese men (in a later period also Thai women) brought the end of the cloth between the legs and tucked it in at the waist in the manner of the Indian dhoti. Burmese women wrapped their cloth only once around the body, so that it opened when walking to show the leg up to the thigh. Numerous European observers made much of the indecency of this practice, and ascribed it to an early queen anxious to divert Burmese men away from homosexual proclivities. Like many such tales, this tells us more about European attitudes than Burmese.
In Java up to the advent of Islam, in Siam until the eighteenth century, and in Cambodia, Bali, and Lombok till even more recently, the standard addition to the wraparound sarung for women was a loose scarf, generally draped over the breasts with the two ends slung over the shoulders. With the coming of Islam the women of Java appear to have made greater use of another garment also found in ancient India—a narrow strip of cloth wrapped tightly around the chest, depressing the breasts.
This basic pattern of Southeast Asian dress was being transformed in diverse ways between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. The appetite for innovation, in dress as in every other sphere, was characteristic of the period of trade and urban growth. A Pegu chronicle relates of the reign of Queen Shinsawbu (1453-72) that foreign merchants arrived in great numbers and “unusual wearing apparel became abundant and the people had fine clothes”… European cloth could not rival Indian or Chinese in appeal, but some of the elaborately made upper garments did find a market. Three hundred Spanish dollars’ worth of “waistcoats sold at Banten” were recorded for 1633 by the English.
A frequent innovation was to sport a jacket of European or West Asian design over an expensive cloth used as a traditional sarong. The effect seemed incongruous to observers like Navarrette, who met the rulers of Makassar wearing “European cloth coats over their bare skins, their arms naked… and their bellies uncovered after their fashion.
Situated between the world’s two main sources of fine cloth—India for cottons and China for silks—Southeast Asia became internationally known as a consumer rather than a producer of textiles. Without the constant demand for Indian cottons in particular, it would not have been possible for first Indian and then European traders to gain their foothold in Southeast Asia. The woven cloths of Gujerat, the Coromandel Coast, and Bengal largely paid for the spices and pepper which the Indonesian islands sent to the west.
Schouten observed that “the Siammers who live in Towns and populous places are either Courtiers, Officers, Merchants, Watermen, Fishermen, Tradesmen or Artificers, each one containing himself in his vocation.”
In Siam Europeans saw the corvée system as the major impediment to the development of craftsmanship: “There is no person in this country that dares to distinguish himself in any art for fear of being forced to work gratis all his life for the service of this prince.”
Thai tradition asserts that it was the arrival of some expert Chinese potters at the kilns just outside Sukhothai during the reign of the great Ram Kamheng (1292-99) which enabled the established local potters to produce finer glazes for export. The hundreds of kilns dating back to the tenth century that have recently been discovered in the area of Si Satchanalai, north of Sukhothai, make clear that Thai production was vigorous long before this Chinese influence, however. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries fine celadons were exported from Si Satchanalai and Sukhothai which rivaled those of the famous kilns of Longquan in China’s Zeijiang Province. Nevertheless, Thai monochromed kendis, cover bowls, and other wares for the Southeast Asian were distinctive in both design and color.
From the fifteenth century to the seventeenth, Thai and Vietnamese ceramics occupied a major place in Southeast Asian trade, supplying a substantial proportion of the market in better-quality imported ware. Some idea of the scale of this trade, even near its end, is conveyed by Dampier’s remark in the late seventeenth century that one English trader bought “the best part of 100,000” cheap bowls in Thang-long (Hanoi), selling most of them at an enormous profit in West Sumatra. Recent excavations of fifteenth and sixteenth-century burial sites in the Philippines and eastern Indonesia have yielded significant proportions of Thai and Vietnamese items, with Thai ware especially prominent in the southernmost sites. Of more than fourteen thousand finds classified by the South Sulawesi Antiquities Service in the period 1973-77, 21 percent were of Thai and 6 percent of Vietnamese origin, as against 26 percent classified as Ming, 28 percent “Swatow,” and less than 1 percent Yuan. In the fifteenth-century Catalagan site in southern Luzon about 17 percent of the imported ceramic ware unearthed was Thai and 2 percent Vietnamese.
Metalworking frequently played a role in the formation of states. In Javanese tradition the division of the island between the kingdoms of Majapahit in the east and Pajajaran in the west was attributed to a magically powerful royal blacksmith, Siyung Wanara, who killed his father and fought with his brother. The second king of Bone, the leading Bugis state of Sulawesi, bore the title Petta Panre Bessi, or “Our Lord the Blacksmith”. In the Visayas, where kingship was in process of developing in the sixteenth century, “the most important notables were and are blacksmiths”. Wherever states developed, metalworkers were brought to the capital to ensure the control of this powerful resource. Specialist metalworking villages and suburbs under royal patronage were a feature of the major states.
Metalworkers who could refashion copper or iron into useful implements were widespread, and raw materials to supply them were always in demand. When the Dutch burned one of their ships at Bawean, northeast of Java, in 1597, vessels appeared from all sides to salvage the iron from it. When the Spanish had to burn one of their ships at Mindanao in 1606, they first removed as many of the bolts and nails as they could to prevent them from falling into the hands of their Muslim enemies. Successive European traders found that iron, lead, copper, and the products made from them were among the very few European items that were saleable.
Burma and Siam drew their iron primarily from the mountain ranges near their common border and processed it in specialist villages near Prome and Tavoy in Burma and near Kampangphet and Sukhothai in Siam. Iron was also mined in the Lopburi region not far north of the Thai capital of Ayudhya, while some of the prize sword-making iron, naturally strengthened with manganese, came from mines in the Uttaradit area, north of Sukhothai.
Similarly, the Chinese brought to Patani, which a century later (1610) played a redistributive role like Melaka’s, “much porcelain, iron, copper, and various cheap goods that people need here.” Traders from Borneo took back quantities of Chinese metal from Patani. In Sumatra, Indian iron was more prominent, providing over 250 bahar (45 tonnes) of imports per annum to Aceh and Tiku until replaced by European iron in the seventeenth century.
Junkceylon (modern Phuket Island), a tributary of Siam, first begins to be mentioned as a major source of tin exports in the sixteenth century, though the produce of that area must have contributed to the wealth of Tambralinga long before. The Malay and Thai methods of sluicing and smelting were described by Eredia in the case of Perak: “The earth is dug out of the mountains and placed on certain tables where the earth is dispersed by water in such a way that only the tin in the form of grains remains on the tables… .
For the Malay world the key element of attack was the amok. Used most frequently in the Malay chronicles as a verb (mengamok), it could mean simply to attack, but preeminently with a kris or sword in a furious charge designed to kill or scatter a number of the enemy even if one’s own life was forfeited in the process. If such a charge succeeded in wounding the opposing leader, it might be enough in itself to decide the battle. The amok of Java were especially renowned, according to Tomé Pires. “The amocos are knights among them, men who resolve to die, and who go ahead with this resolution and die.” Even in the systematic formations of Balinese armies, the attack would usually be commenced by amok specialists dressed in white as a symbol of their self-sacrifice. Opium or cannabis was often used to inspire such a warrior to defy death, but probably this was only part of a lengthy ritual and spiritual preparation designed to induce a trancelike state of assumed invulnerability.
The Sejarah Melayu(1612) explained one of the Malay victories over the Siamese in the fifteenth century by the demonstration of Malay powers of invulnerability before the Thai court, which immediately lost all courage for a fight. The story may be apocryphal, but we know that the Malays and especially the Makassarese enjoyed a similar reputation in Siam in the seventeenth century. A Persian envoy reported, “In general the science of mantras, spells and incantations is practiced to a great extent in Siam, but no-one surpasses these Makassars who put a special spell on their daggers”.
Large-scale mobilization occurred on behalf of rulers, who claimed a right to the labor of all their subjects. To aid in war, in tours by the king, and in great royal feasts or construction projects a large section of available manpower could be called upon. The most extreme demands were those of seventeenth-century Siam for corvée of six months in the year by ordinary phrai luang—a burden similar to that placed on royal slaves elsewhere. In practice, however, manpower could be mobilized only through nobles and officials to whom these subjects were attached as clients. The farther they were from the royal court, the less likely it was that any substantial part of their time would be spent on the direct purposes of the king. In peaceful, stable periods the capacity of the court to mobilize more than its most direct bondsmen was gradually attenuated by the claims of more immediate patrons.
It would be wrong to characterize the social and economic system of Southeast Asia as either feudalism or slavery. At the heart of both those systems in Europe was a legal bond recognized by the state and church alike. Within the cities of feudal Europe and ancient Rome there were legally acknowledged conditions of freedom which would play an important role in the accumulation of capital that eventually gave rise to capitalism. By comparison, the Southeast Asian system was both more personal and more monetary. Loyalty was more important than law, and everybody had a master. Money was necessary to buy men’s loyalty through debt, not to buy their labor on a temporary wage basis. It was dangerous if not impossible to accumulate capital unless one also accumulated bondsmen to protect and use that capital.
The pattern of premarital sexual activity and easy divorce, together with the commercial element potentially involved in they payment of bride-wealth, ensured that temporary marriage or concubinage rather prostitution became the dominant means of coping with the vast annual influx of foreign traders in the major ports. The system in Patani was described as follows:
When foreigners come there from other lands to do their business...men comd and ask them whether they do not desire a woman; these young women and girls themselves also come and present themselves, from whom they may choose the one most agreeable to them, provided they agree what he shall pay for certain months. Once they agree about the money (which does not amount to much for so great a convenience), she comes to his house, and serves him by day as his maidservant and by night as his wedded wife. His is then not able to consort with other women or he will be in grave trouble with his wife, while she is similarly wholly forbidden to converse with other men, but the marriage lasts as long as he keeps his residence there, in good peace and unity. When he wants to depart he gives her whatever is promised, and so they leave each other in friendship, and she may then look for another man as she wishes, in all propriety, without scandal.
Although temporary marriage had also been known to Islam at the time of Muhammad, the Muslim ports of the Archipelago may have tended to restrict explicitly temporary marriages to slave women, who differed from the free in that they could be sold by one “husband” to another and had few rights over children. In Banten the practice of the Chinese traders was described as “to buy women slaves… by whom they had manie children. And when they returne to their owne country… they sell their women, but their children they carrie with them”. The English in places may have had a similar practice, if we can believe their great enemy, Jan Pieterszoon Coen (1619), who rejoiced that the English factors in Sukadana (West Borneo) were so impoverished that “they had to sell their whores” to pay for their victuals.
Prostitution was much rarer than temporary marriage on concubinage, but it began to appear in the major cities in the late sixteenth century. In every case the prostitutes were slave women belonging to the king or nobles. The Spanish described such slave women as offering themselves in small boats in the water city of Brunei in the 1570s; the Dutch described a similar phenomenon in Patani in 1602, though it was less common and less respectable than temporary marriage. In the 1680s a particular Thai official was licensed by the king to run a monopoly of prostitution in the capital, Ayudhaya, using six hundred women bought or enslaved for various offences. This appears to have been the origin of a Thai tradition of drawing significant state revenue from prostitution. Eighteenth-century Rangoon, similarly, had a whole “village of prostitutes,” all slaves. It seems probable that this type of slave prostitution in the major port cities of the region developed in response to a demand from European and Chinese with different expectations. It may also have been stimulated by a growing sense, at least among Muslims, of the impropriety of temporary marriages with foreigners and unbelievers.
Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, there was a remarkable tendency for those states that participated most fully in the expanding commerce of the region to be governed by women. Many states raised women to the throne only when at the peak of their commercial importance. Pasai, the first major Muslim port below the winds, had two queens in succession between 1405 and 1434, just before it was eclipsed by Melaka as the main Malacca Straits port. The only woman on a Burmese throne in this period was Shinsawbu (1453-72), who presided over the emergence of Pegu as a major entrepôt in the Bay of Bengal. Japara, on Java’s north coast, was a significant naval and commercial power only under its famous queen, Kali-nyamat, in the third quarter of the sixteenth century. Similarly, the woman rulers of the diamond-exporting center of Sukadana in Southwest Borneo (circa 1608-22), of pepper-rich Jambi in east Sumatra (1630-circa 1655), of Kelantan on the Malayan east coast (1610-70), were on the throne during their brief period when these states were important commercial centers. Banten never had a female sovereign, but it became the major port of the Java Sea during the long minority of Sultan Abdul Kadir (1596-1618). During five of these years (1600-05) the dominant figure was Nyai Gede Wanagiri, “the old woman that commands the protector and al the rest… although she bee not the kings blood, but only for her wisdom is held in such estimation among them of all sorts that shee ruleth as if shee were solelye queen of that country”.
This pattern is too striking to be put down to the accidents of inheritance, particularly as the periods of female rule in Pasai, Kelantan, and Solor involved two successive queens. In the sultanates of Aceh and Patani a deliberate preference becomes quite clear. In each of these cases four successive women occupied the throne, only the first of whom was especially well qualified by descent. The century of female rule in Patani (1584-1688) embraced the whole of the period when it as a major entrepôt for the China trade. The four queens of Aceh (1641-99) witnessed the military and political decline that followed the conquests of Iskandar Muda (1607-36), but they nevertheless maintained Aceh as the most important independent port in island Southeast Asia.
Female rule was one of the few devices available to a commercially oriented aristocracy to limit the despotic powers of kings and make the state safe for international commerce. Iskandar Muda had been a particularly frightening example of the dangers of absolutism, seeking to monopolize trade with the English and Dutch while killing, terrorizing, and dispossessing his own orangkaya (merchant-aristocrats). Having experimented with the female alternative, these aristocrats of Aceh and Patani sought to perpetuate it. In Patani the first queen “has reigned very peaceably with her councilors… so that all the subjects consider her government better than that of the dead king. For all necessities are very cheap here now, whereas in the king’s time (so they say) they were dearer by half, because of the great exactions which then occurred”. Similarly, Aceh in the time of its first queen was noted by its greatest chronicler to be frequented by international trade because of her just rule. The capital “was extremely prosperous at that time, foodstuffs were very cheap, and everybody lived in peace”. In contrast, “the very name of a kinge is long since become nautious to them… through the Tyranical Government of theire last kinge”. Theft was strictly punished under the queens, and property rights were respected. The orangkaya found they could govern collectively with the queen as sovereign and referee, and there was something of the quality of Elizabethan England in the way they vied for her favor but accepted her eventual judgment between them.
This was not simply a case of powerful males making use of a powerless female as a figurehead, for women were also active in both Aceh and Patani as traders and orangkaya. In Patani the level of official tribute was lowered under the fourth queen because she was said to have been independently wealthy from her inheritance and her extensive trade. In choosing to put women on the throne the orangkaya were opting not only for mild rule but for businesslike rule. As in other fields, men were expected to defend a high sense of status and honor on the battlefield but to be profligate with their wealth. It was women’s business to understand market forces, to drive hard bargains, and to conserve their capital. In general, these expectations of women as rulers were not disappointed. Female rule failed only when Patani and Aceh ran out of creditable candidates who still had the charisma of monarchy about them, and when the orangkaya of the port capital began to lose their influence to forces less interested in trade.