Island Southeast Asia in the First Two Millennia
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For more than two millennia, Island Southeast Asia, which is connected as much by sea as by land, has been open to migration and trade across and beyond the region. It has shared connections with China, South Asia, the Near East and, more recently, Europe. The original populations were sparse and geographically mobile, augmented by itinerant merchants and bearers of new religions, many of whom settled and intermarried locally. Contacts with outside cultures, openness to immigration, and social fluidity have been features of this part of Southeast Asia almost until the present, when the emergence of colonial and later, independent national states began to limit these flows. During the first millennium, the region was in continuous contact with South Asia. The connections facilitated trade, migration, and early forms of Hindu-Buddhist religion, some of whose elements survive today. Many immigrant Indian merchants married locally, and several Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms were founded, including Srivijaya (in present-day Sumatra), whose leaders presided over an expanded political and economic domain. Traders arrived from different parts of India, speaking various languages of the subcontinent: language labels then often became social identity labels (Tamils, Bengalis, Gujeratis, Parsees). From the seventh century, the common trading language of this maritime area was Malay (Andaya 2001; 2008), whose vocabulary borrows heavily from Sanskrit and other Indian languages. That many of these loanwords concern trade, social, ceremonial, royal, and religious life, suggests the major domains of contact and influence: to this day, the Malay term for religion is an Indian word, agama (even for Islam) while modern Malaysian politicians use Indian honorifics such as the title, Sri. As Malay became the commercial lingua franca in ports around South and Southeast Asia, its speakers became known as Malays. Early records, however, reveal that Malay was just an international working language. Malay speakers hailed from a wide area of disparate communities who had their own local languages and secondary identities (Andaya 2001; 2008). Being “Malay” had very little to do with what today are labeled “ethnicity,” “race,” or a “people.”

Thus, a trader born on the island of Bawean (off Java’s east coast), whose family spoke Boyanese, might have had Buginese and Iban trading partners. He might have settled and married in the kingdom of Johore (in the south�ern part of modern Malaysia), where he regularly did business with Tamil Indians, and he would typically use Malay to speak to all these varied individuals. Although outsiders would have seen him as Malay, when family and professional solidarity required, this same trader could also select other identities such as Bugis or Baweanese. Likewise, a Malabari Indian merchant might have settled and married a woman from an Acehnese community in North Sumatra, and might have used the Malay lingua franca for business; still, he could have identified himself by any of these other labels, depending on expedience. To represent Malays as a “people” on the strength of a common language alone is to ignore these complexities. The practice of adjusting identity situationally, according to family roots, business needs, place of birth, or origin, is in fact something that most people do everywhere, not just in Southeast Asia, usually unconsciously and without intent to deceive. Most people have a repertoire of different roles or identities appropriate to different reference groups or significant others, from Malays to “hyphenated” Americans. Limits to this fluidity were typically imposed by the rules of national states, and happened when European colonists and subsequently independent nations (such as Indonesia and Malaysia) created boundaries to migration, and substituted their own principles for classifying and administering their populations as ethnic, racial, or religious groups. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Muslim merchants began to arrive from Arabia and Yemen. Some of the newcomers had already established businesses and families en route, in Indian ports where they had lived for several generations. The merchants were multilingual and multicultural, having roots both in South Asia and Arabia. On their arrival to Southeast Asia, they repeated the processes followed by their Indian antecedents: they founded new families and, as many merchants were polygynous, they often had wives and families in different ports. Abdullah Munshi, a nineteenth-�century colonial translator in Malacca (now Malaysia), wrote an autobiography in which he chronicles his descent from a Yemeni Arab who migrated to India and married a Tamil (Hill, trans: 1970:24). This man’s son thereafter moved to Malacca via Aceh, where he married a woman with a Malay-Indian father and Malay mother, Abdullah’s parents. Abdullah himself was fluent in several languages, including Tamil, Arabic, Malay, and English, and colonial authorities referred to him as a “Native Malayan scholar” (ibid).

 

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