watercolor of ships, about 1800

Project: Encountering Diplomacy in Early Modern Southeast Asia: Actors, Practices, Translation

This project examines negotiations and cross-cultural communication in maritime Southeast Asia between the late sixteenth and eighteenth century, for a more nuanced global history of diplomacy beyond colonial narratives.

Project information

Project manager
Birgit Tremml-Werner
The Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet)
Marie Curie IF EcoDip-SEA Grant # 101023758, 1 May 2021–30 April 2022
History (Department of Cultural Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Humanities)

More about the project

Encountering diplomacy in early modern Southeast Asia is a study in global history. It explores how diplomatic practices and foreign relations were shaped in the pluralistic, multi-centric, open geography of maritime Southeast Asia during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. In this period, exchange between local polities and aspiring European colonial powers flourished.

The project uses the rich history of negotiations and cross-cultural communication between local Southeast Asian polities and various actors from Europe to integrate practices of balancing power relations into a nuanced global history of diplomacy. Although foreign relations are widely regarded as an important vector for cultural exchange, and while embassies have emerged as a favoured site for studying cultural encounters, little is known about the ways in which transregional interactions shaped the very principles and practices of diplomatic dealings over the course of this transformative period.

The broadening of the definition allows to extend the definition of the practices of diplomacy themselves: diplomacy is no longer exclusively understood as official negotiation or formal exchange of envoys and letters. Instead, asymmetrical foreign relations and their often highly symbolic ceremonials and ad hoc actions by non-established parties are nowadays regarded as equally important stages of foreign relations.

The diplomatic encounter

The project will introduce the concept of the diplomatic encounter, which allows to study relevant processes and practices in their own time and under consideration of their specific diplomatic culture. It compares different diplomatic episodes including the foreign relations of insular Muslim chiefdoms, colonial rivalries, the diplomatic strategies of small city states and the impact of expanding empires in the region. Re-addressing early modern diplomatic encounters in South East Asia will thus serve to overcome binaries in diplomatic history and ultimately contribute to a new narration of foreign relations in South East Asia. It will moreover address conventional periodization, doing justice to multiple modernities and epistemic asymmetries.

While taking colonial agendas (and the use of diplomacy as coercive means) into account, the study explicitly goes beyond (and leaves behind) stereotypical narratives of rivalry and conflict as dominant forces in colonial Asia. It addresses the use of diplomatic exchange and forging alliances of various European stakeholders and regional rulers, to look for indicators and examples of how local Southeast Asian agencies and indigenous traditions shaped diplomatic practices and to ultimately provide informed answers about big questions in connected histories with regard to in/commensurability, circulation of knowledge and appropriation and accommodation. Complex alliances based on kinship as well as maritime tributary ties were core both to the functioning and to shifts in power relations. With a bottom-up and transcultural understanding of practices of foreign relations, it will then nuance conventional chronologies and archives of diplomatic history.

An important stage

Maritime Southeast Asia – for millennia influenced by the great Asian cultures of India, Islam and China while retaining a strong Austronesian identity – became an important stage for diplomatic performances during the so-called colonial period. While it is also true that Southeast Asian ports have emerged as a favoured site for studying cultural encounters, little is known about the ways in which transregional interactions shaped the very principles of cross-cultural political communication necessary to forge alliances and set up lasting collaborations between different interest groups. Moreover, local elements and trans-regional links to the greater Sinosphere and the Indian Ocean world remain understudied. Recently, studies on security policies and of shifting local alliances have brought fresh impetus to our understanding of diplomatic strategies of specific maritime landscapes and localities of pre-modern Christian-Muslim encounters and negotiation practices.

The project includes a systematic collection of terms and phrases from Asian and European documents which will help to deconstruct notions of vertical and horizontal relations, of tribute and vassalage, and of reciprocity mistaken for equality. It will provide the basis for an analysis of multi-layered translation processes of treaties used as instruments of negotiating and maintaining political and/or economic power both by European and local non-European Asian actors.

The project is part of the research in the Cluster for Colonial Connections and Comparisons research group.