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Exile in Colonial Asia (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Ronit Ricci (ed.) 2016.
Exile in Colonial Asia: Kings, Convicts, Commemoration
Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press
ISBN 9780824853747

Colonialism in Asia, as in other parts of the world, left behind many sad stories. Among them are accounts of colonized subjects who were isolated from their local communities because of being banished to places of exile, far from their mother country. Exile in Colonial Asia fascinatingly recounts how this colonial policy of banishment and isolation of Native opponents worked in Asia from 1700 to 1900. With 10 articles and an introduction, this volume presents the work of experts in this field, including the editor’s work, Ronit Ricci.

Offering case studies which ‘cover myriad context, from Colombo to Cape Town, from New Caledonia to New South Wales, from Burma to Banda’ (p. 1), the book presents thorough accounts of exiled Natives, nobles as well as ordinary people who were labeled by the colonizers (British, Dutch, and French) as ‘rebels’ or ‘criminals’. The narratives of the banishing of indigenous leaders recounted in the volume include the exile of  the last King of Candy, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha (Chapter 2, by Robert Aldrich), the Sikh rebel Nihal Singh and his disciple Karak Singh (Chapter 3, by Anand Yang), the Javanese King of Kartasura,  Amangkurat III (Chapter 4, by Ronit Ricci), Sultan Hamengkubuwana II of Yogyakarta (Chapter 5, by Sri Margana), and the Prince of Myngoon of Burma (Chapter 10, by Penny Edwards).

The remaining chapters deal with ordinary convicts, among them religious leaders, criminals and slaves, such as the deterritorializing effects of  colonialism among the Bandanese Natives of eastern Indonesia (Chapter 6, by Timo Kartinen), the forced shipment of slaves from the Indonesian archipelago to the Cape of Good Hope (Chapter 7, by Jean Gelman Taylor), the transport of Australian criminals to Ireland and North America (Chapter 8, by Carol Liston), and the French colonial approach to exile for the ‘rebels’ and ‘criminals’ in its colonies in Africa and Asia (Chapter 9, by Lorraine Paterson).

Based largely on primary colonial sources and archival documents, the volume reveals how massive and systematic this policy of eviction by Western powers was. As noted by Clara Anderson in her profound overview (Chapter 1), which looks at the history of exile in colonial Asia from 1700 to 1900 from a global perspective, ‘banishment and exile were important elements of the penal repertoire of pre-colonial states and polities, with prisoners cast out of their home district or city and refused the right of return.’ (p. 20). More than just forging connectedness within and beyond Asia (p. 39), this systematic colonial penal policy has strongly affected the demography of some post-colonial states in Asia and Africa.

Studying this topic might contribute to uncovering the humanitarian aspects of European colonialism, which has left a dark shadow in the history of humankind. Through written documents left by those who experienced this very bad colonial treatment, today we can dive into the heart of the misery they suffered, as I discerned when reading the letter of Siti Hapipa, the wife of the late exiled Sultan Fakhruddin Abdul Khair al-Mansur Baginda Usman Batara Tangkana Gowa, the 25th king of the Gowa Sultanate (1753-1767), who was banished by the Dutch to Ceylon in 1767. Reading the letter, which was written in Colombo on 3 January 1807 in Jawi script and is now held at Leiden University Library,[i] I sense how much Hapipa missed her motherland and therefore, long after her husband’s death, she asked the Dutch East Indies Governor at Batavia to send her and her family back to the Indies. Her misery and grief might represent the feelings of  many other exiles, whether nobles or ordinary ‘criminals’.

It must be acknowledged that few scholarly narratives of a Western standard capture the humanitarian aspects of this distressing side of European colonialism. It is because many historians focus on primary sources derived from the European colonial administration and tend to overlook their indigenous counterparts, and I suspect this might partly be due to underestimating the value of the latter. It may further be due to the fact that not many historians, especially those from Western countries, are able to read indigenous primary sources. In the case of historical studies of Southeast Asia, for example, universities in the West seldom offer students the opportunity to learn to read Jawi script. Consequently, the abundance of indigenous sources held in Leiden University Library, the British Library, and some other major libraries in the world, especially those dealing with Indonesia and the Malay world, are hardly touched by historians.

There are many personal letters and other documents written in Jawi script (and other indigenous scripts) that record the emotions and sensitivity of victims and would allow scholars to delve into human landscape of colonial exiles.[ii]

Exile in Colonial Asia provides the humanism touch which is not often felt in European scholarly works on the history of European colonialism. In this sense, Ricci’s and Margana’s contributions have added value due to the use of an extensive exploration of  indigenous sources, such as the Javanese Babad Kartasura (The chronicle of Kartasura), Babad Mangkudiningratan  (The chronicle of Mangkudiningratan) and aforementioned personal letters of victims, as their foremost sources.

It is fitting that this book was awarded the ‘Edited volume Accolade’ at the ICAS 10 convention in Chiang Mai, Thailand (20-23 July 2017) with the comment: ‘A fascinating global narrative of differently situated subjects forced to move’.[iii] The book evokes the hope of more scholarly works to come, to tell the stories of many other colonial exiles.


[i] Leiden Cod. Or. 2241-I/25 of Siti Hapipa to the Dutch East Indies Governor General in Batavia (1807). For further investigation about this letter, see Suryadi, Sepucuk surat dari seorang bangsawan Gowa di tanah pembuangan (Ceylon) (A letter from a noblewoman from the Gowa kindom in the land of exile (Ceylon)), Wacana 10(2), October 2008, pp. 214-245, http://wacana.ui.ac.id/index.php/wjhi/article/view/194/182, accessed 6 December 2017.
[ii] Just to mention a few examples: Leiden Cod. Or. 2240-Ia/11 of the exiled Batjan Prince Sadar Alam and Jogugu Kaicil Naim Al-Din (1792); Cod. Or. 2241-I /23 of Surakarta’s exiled Pangeran Mas Adipati Mangkurat (1806); Cod. Or. 2241-I/24 of Surakarta’s exiled Raden Tumenggung Wirakusuma (1806); and the aforementioned Siti Hapipa letter, sent from Colombo, their place of exile, to the Dutch East Indies Governor General in Batavia.
[iii] Accolades in the humanities, http://www.icas.asia/en/accolades-humanities, accessed 2 August 2017.

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