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Review: Environment, Trade and Society in Southeast Asia

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Environment, Trade and Society in Southeast Asia demonstrates the past generation and more of scholars of Southeast Asian studies have been staggeringly influenced by the work of historian Fernand Braudel. To some, the influence may appear surprising, as Southeast Asia as a whole was quite peripheral to Braudel’s concerns. However, David Henley and Henk Schulte Nordholt (p. 3 and 167) isolate the very reason for Braudel’s influence. If the colonialist/orientalist vision of Southeast Asia was to be as a backward place that was unchanging, the structuralist anthropology that was advocated by Levi-Strauss could be used to reify this position. By contrast, Braudel argued to examine the deep structures of society that emerged through examinations of long-term historical change. Braudel’s emphasis on dynamism therefore became a methodological tool for Southeast Asianists to demonstrate the importance of the region, even while developing a global perspective, such as in the studies of Anthony Reid and Victor Leiberman. Similarly, in the work of Peter Boomgard, the importance of long term trends remained important, although Boomgard’s work as a whole acts to recenter the narrative again, emphasizing the relationships between humans and their surrounding environs in Southeast Asian history over the course of more than four decades of scholarly publications. It is therefore no surprise that Henley and Schulte Nordholt dedicated a collection of works of leading scholars in the field to Boomgard’s studies, although the present volume expands upon Boomgard’s own already impressive methodological coverage.

Combining studies of Painting, Photography, History of Science, Natural History, Forestry, Seismology, Demographics, Economics and Politics, the scholars of this volume have gathered together a series of works that will be useful for classroom discussion across a diversity of university departments at both the graduate and undergraduate level. Henley and Schulte Nordholt’s introduction, for example, would be useful in any course that requires an explanation of interpretations of 20th century intellectual climates, although it is of particular use to those focused in the field of Southeast Asian studies who themselves are attempting to develop an understanding of the long term intellectual trends of the field. Building off of these trends, there are increasing numbers of scholars, such as Greg Bankoff (Chapter Two) who seek to develop a ‘biocentric approach’ to studies of the region. By utilizing a biocentric approach Chapters Four (Jan Wisseman Christie) and Five (Anthony Reid) in particular highlight the impact that natural disasters and environment have had on human history in Southeast Asia. The biocentric model has been a long term focus of Reid’s work since the late 1980s, when he began to highlight the confluence of environmental and social factors that led to long-term changes in 17th century Southeast Asia. In this volume Reid claims that epic floods were responsible for priming Aceh as an acceptable vessel for Islam, literally washing Buddhism away and making room for the surprising influence of a small number of Chamic speakers who fled politic disasters on the mainland.

While Chapters Two, Four, and Five advocate for a biocentric approach, Chapter Three (William Clarence-Smith) stands alone in this collection in being the only chapter that is focused upon the study of domesticated or semi-domesticated animals. In a study that may be as influential as the famous study of the ‘elephant line’, Clarence-Smith argues to overturn the conception that horses in Southeast Asia were predominantly of Indian or Chinese stock, by arguing that they were predominantly breeds that were developed from Tibet. Hence, Clarence-Smith’s essay may work well in a course on Animals in World History, for example. Chapter Six, then, also builds upon the biocentric model by exploring the impact that social practices such as abortion and infanticide had upon demographics in the Philippines before 1800 to support Newson’s argument that the impact of such practices do not become apparent until long term trends are examined.

Chapters Seven (Raquel Reyes), Nine (Heather Sutherland) and Ten (Kwee Hui Kian) shift focus again by comparison to earlier chapters in that they focus upon the roll of trade in regional history. For example, it is possible that in these earlier examinations, that individuals may arrive at the critique that economic factors are downplayed in favor of emphasizing more popularly accepted notions of biocentric and ‘environmental’ influence. While the studies of Reid (1988, 1993) explicitly sought to draw environmental and economic studies together in the analysis of Southeast Asian studies, Sutherland in particular has sought to nuance Reid’s understanding in the case of the locality of Makassar. Sutherland accepts Makassar's relative collapse, though she challenges Reid’s dramatism of the situation. Kian then further nuances the understanding of Reid’s notions of ‘the Age of Commerce,’ drawing influence from Geoff Wade’s analysis of an earlier period of Chinese trading influence in the region (800–1300), although Kian’s range of analysis is concerned with the period of increasingly Chinese dominated trading following Wade’s study: from 1400 to 1850.

Of particular interest in this volume ought to be the studies contributed by the editors (Chapter Eight, Henley and Chapter Eleven, Schulte Nordholt) as well as the final chapter (Chapter Twelve, Jean Gelman Taylor). Henley’s contribution is a rigorous explanation of some of the most influential concepts in the contemporary study of Southeast Asian history, while Schulte Nordholt’s study is an impressive review of two millennia of patron–client relations in Indonesian history. Finally, Taylor’s study is an excellent reminder to historians in the field of Southeast Asia: that a piece of literature or a series of images may reveal just as much about history as ‘more traditional’ sources.

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