AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 24

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Session 24: Living in a Material World: Trade Goods and Cultural Change in Southeast Asian Societies, c. 1500 -1900

Organizer: Raquel A. Reyes, SOAS, University of London, Netherlands

Chair: Barbara Watson Andaya, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

Discussant: Peter Boomgaard, KITLV, Netherlands

Recent years have seen a surge of interest in early modern global trade and the kinds of interactions and exchanges that arose between Asia and Europe as a consequence. However, sometimes these investigations have tended to lose sight of the more quotidian diffusion of trade goods and objects and their impact on local communities, of the role played by the host of intermediaries who facilitated the process (such as apothecaries, artisans, missioner priests), and of the small but significant changes wrought on aspects of everyday life and sensibilities. This panel explores the social and cultural impact of global trade at a micro-level. It brings together the collaborative skills of cultural, social, economic, and art historians to examine the impact of traded commodities from three different, interlinked perspectives: 1) Sensory perception - what influence did a sensory appreciation for certain traded commodities have on local architecture, on consumption and collecting habits?; 2) Reciprocity and ritual exchange especially in relation to bridewealth payments. What goods came to be understood as measures of power and markers of status and why? And, 3) Social dealings between diverse segments of societies - what sorts of relationships emerged when different groups of people were brought together by mutual interests in trade goods? Focusing on a range of trade goods, the papers consider a variety of contexts in which diffusion and the circulation of imported goods affected the cultural fabric of communities, led to local cultural innovation, and changes in categories of perception, aesthetics, and representations.

Elephant Tusks and Their Social and Economic Roles in Eastern Indonesia
Leonard Y. Andaya, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

Eastern Indonesia has long been known as the home of valuable spices, aromatic woods, and sea products which were for centuries, objects of intense rivalry among international traders. Less prominent, but for some local societies in eastern Indonesia equally valuable, was the trade in elephant tusks obtained from as far away as Burma and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Until today such tusks are essential for bridewealth among people of the Lamaholot culture, who occupy the eastern end of Flores and the islands known collectively as the Solor archipelago. The tusks were never carved into other objects but were treated as whole social beings whose status, like those of their guardians, depended upon specific qualities acknowledged by the Lamaholot communities. Size was perhaps of primary importance, but almost as important were the traditions surrounding the tusk’s origins, the manner of its arrival from distant lands via European or Asian traders, and any unusual tales attached to it. For the Lamaholot, elephant tusks were more than simply raw materials for the production of aesthetically pleasing jewelry or combs. They were instead objects that were both markers of power and status among individual families, as well as necessary components in sustaining the cultural unity of the Lamaholot. This paper will focus primarily on the period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in seeking to explain elephant tusks as objects of ritual exchange, as measures of social and political influence, and as an essential means of preserving and strengthening the unity of the Lamaholot cultural area.

Hot beverages in Maluku (the Moluccas) c. 1820 to c. 1890: consumption and cultivation
William G. Clarence-Smith, SOAS, University of London, United Kingdom

While the Moluccas had for centuries been a focal point of the global trade in spices, it was only in the nineteenth century that the consumption and cultivation of the great hot beverages of the world impinged more fully upon the region. As spice exports declined after the abolition of the Dutch East India Company in 1800, cocoa and coffee were explored as possible alternative cultivars to spices, albeit with limited success. Instead of conquering the globe, cocoa and coffee were limited to regional markets, including the Philippines and the rest of Indonesia. These regional markets were growing, due in part to export-induced prosperity, and in part to changing consumption habits rippling out from the Western Enlightenment and Age of Revolution. Tea remained a significant imported rival, for climatic conditions in Maluku were not conducive to its local cultivation. Tea was mainly associated with numerous Chinese traders in its green (unfermented) form, and with certain Western groups in its black (fermented) guise. The tripartite struggle between these three great beverages, played out across the world, was reproduced in miniature in Maluku, where it was deeply affected by local circumstances.

The Art of Mediation
Thomas D. Kaufmann, Princeton University, USA

This paper will seek to place the themes considered in this session into a more general context. In particular, it will provide an overview of, and consequently different perspective on, the role of Europeans in the transformation of material culture (including art) in Asia. In many instances Europeans acted as mediators between different cultures and societies, transporting raw materials and finished objects from one place to another within Asia, and beyond (Africa, the Americas). To a significant degree, it was often through the mediation of such items that they effected change and not just simply by introducing European cultural goods or through their involvement as principal agents. Comparative examples will be offered from South, East, and Southeast Asia, and in relation to the involvement of Netherlanders, Portuguese, and Spaniards.

Material Worlds in 17th/18th-century Batavia
Michael North, University of Greifswald, Germany

My paper examines the material culture of households in multiethnic Batavia. Probate inventories and estate sales auctions allow the reconstruction of Dutch, Chinese, Bandanese or Malay households and shed light on their cultural preferences. The paper will focus on the different furnishing models, competing in the households of the local ethnic groups. The hypothesis is that there were two simultaneous processes. In the first place decoration patterns from the Netherlands trickled down and were disseminated via the upper Dutch strata in Batavia to the middle classes and the indigenous groups to be appropriated by a local crafts production. At the same time in a second process Chinese styles of decoration penetrated the European strata in Batavia and enriched the households first in Batavia, later in the Indian Ocean and Holland as well.

Paradise in Stone: visual representations of New World plants and animals in eighteenth century Philippine church architecture
Raquel A. Reyes, SOAS, University of London, Netherlands

Trade in the plants and animals of the New World exerted a profound influence on the imaginations of Filipino architects and stonemasons. Eighteenth-century church façades, designed and wrought by Filipino maestros de obras, are distinguished for their elaborate ornamentation and sensuous depictions of the natural world. Scholars have commented on the luxurious and extravagant detailing of the stonework, but have yet to examine the context of commercial exchanges and cultural innovation in which imported trees, fruit, flowers, and animals such as horses were chosen to embellish church walls. Focusing on several examples, notably the baroque, fortress-like church at Miag-ao in Iloilo, the western Visayas, I shall explore the botanical and animal stone imagery as a striking architectural innovation, as evidence of local interest in exotic naturalia, and as an ebullient celebration of the flora and fauna that had come to the archipelago from the New World.