Facts about the project
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Linnaeus University Center for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies
Januari 1 2020- December 31 2021
History (Department of Cultural Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Humanities)
Linnaeus University Center for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies
More about the project
Maluku consists of a vast maritime area between Timor, Sulawesi and Papua with thousands of mostly small islands. The region is linguistically, ethnically, religiously and in general culturally quite diverse or even fragmented.
Historically known as the Spice Islands because of the production of nutmeg, mace and cloves, it held a global importance in the 15th-17th centuries due to the economic profits made from the spice trade, and was the object of European colonial penetration. At length the Dutch East India Company (VOC), and later on the Dutch colonial state dominated the region politically. The relative wealth of source materials enables an analysis of historical processes in the contact zones between indigenous and foreign cultures.
The argument is that the workings of colonialism and anti-colonial strategies in a regional/local setting, must be seen through a multi-dimensional perspective, entailing larger colonial strategies, regional power configurations, and local every-day agencies to either adapt to or resist foreign domination. This necessitates a new look at European textual sources (which are almost the only textual sources at hand); a locally situated study of the past in order to move beyond the text. The project therefore transcends social history that uses historical sources to trace actual processes, and postcolonial critique that scrutinizes the biased nature of these sources.
Concurrent forces in the Banda Sea: Extended project description
Concurrent forces in the Banda Sea; Colonialism, trade, and local strategies on the edge of the Indonesian Archipelago
The aim of the project is to explore concurrent understandings of hierarchy, economy and society, involving Europeans and a complex of indigenous peoples in a long-term perspective, from the 16th to the 19th century. It focuses on a historical region of what is today Indonesia, namely the southern part of Maluku (the Moluccas, sometimes known as the Spice Islands), entailing an archipelagic world situated in or close to the Banda Sea. The argument is that the workings of colonialism and anti-colonial strategies in a regional/local setting, must be seen through a multi-dimensional perspective, entailing larger colonial strategies, regional power configurations, and local every-day agencies to either adapt to or resist foreign domination. This necessitates a new look at European textual sources (which are almost the only textual sources at hand); a locally situated study of the past in order to move beyond the text. The project therefore transcends social history that uses historical sources to trace actual processes, and postcolonial critique that scrutinizes the biased nature of these sources.
Background to the study field
The region historically defined as Maluku consists of a vast maritime area between Timor, Sulawesi and Papua with thousands of mostly small islands. The region is linguistically, ethnically, religiously and in general culturally quite diverse or even fragmented. Historically known as the Spice Islands because of the production of nutmeg, mace and cloves, it held a global importance in the 15th-17th centuries due to the economic profits made from the spice trade. While the northern parts were dominated by a set of Muslim sultanates, in particular Ternate and Tidore which emerged with the rise of the inter-regional trade in spices and forest products in the 15th century, the central and southern parts were stateless, with settlement clusters headed by chiefs or genealogical headmen, which could be either strongly hierarchical (Kisar, Kei) or relatively egalitarian (Aru). The islands were involved in ritual systems where spirits and ancestors had a great role. Societies tended to be organized after ritualized structural principles, involving the layout and direction of houses, boat symbolism, and the mythical significance of natural and astronomical phenomena. It was a volatile region where raiding and slaving were common.
European groups such as the Portuguese and, more significantly, the Dutch, obtained influence in this island world in the early-modern era, from the 16th century onward. Due to the great potential profits from the spice trade, Maluku became a battleground for competing European sea-powers. It must be noted that this was not merely a European affair but involved the active participation of various local kingdoms and ethnic groups. The Dutch managed to push away their English, Portuguese and Spanish rivals in the course of the 17th century, and to subdue or exterminate local Asian competitors. Maluku thereby became the easternmost component in the comprehensive commercial-cum-colonial system of the VOC (United East India Company) which strove for economic hegemony in extensive coastal sectors of Indonesia, Malaysia, South India, Sri Lanka and South Africa. The islands of southern Maluku were monitored by the VOC post in Banda, which housed a plantation system with West Indian features, propelled by the work of slaves and carefully regulated commerce. The effort of the VOC to control the flow of trade, ensure certain monopolies, and keep out European and Asian rivals, constitute a leading theme in the project’s study of southern Maluku. Another theme is the breakdown of the VOC system and the adoption of a more flexible policy in Maluku by the British interregnum and the new Dutch colonial state in the 19th century – a policy that still kept the island world relatively isolated from external economic and social stimuli, with consequences to this day. The island world of southern Maluku has been subject of a small but important number of ethnographic and anthropological studies. However, studies based on contemporary sources from the pre-1900 period are exceedingly rare, and those existing are dated and non-analytical. Taken together with my former research project about the Aru Islands (concluded 31 December 2019), the study of these islands in the 16th-19th centuries will therefore constitute a highly original research effort.
Studying colonial relations in Maluku contexts
The study field can renew studies in colonial relations in several ways. First, it is a matter of giving voice to those at the receiving end of the colonial process or, to put it differently, to trace concurrent voices. This is done through a critical reading of the textual records produced by European colonial organizations. The colonial plantation economy of the Banda Islands, which oversaw the lesser archipelagos of southern Maluku, detailed its day-to-day activities, often down to the smallest detail (such as enumerating all the slaves with personal names, age and origins). The same goes for church matters, since the Europeans also had official duties to missionize among the island societies. Especially in the 19th century, there are diaries and letters from Reformed Protestant missionaries who were sometimes virtually the only Westerners on the islands. The organization of all this presupposed close cooperation with certain Asian groups, and the emergence of ethnically mixed, Eurasian communities. The locals are therefore very much alive in our sources, as informers, counterparts and opponents. Though their voices are only heard via a European prism, their discursive existence can be recovered, especially when they actively or passively oppose colonial (or missionary) dispositions. This refers to Ann Laura Stoler’s qualification of the idea that colonial archives are expressions of power discourses. As pointed out by Stoler, the reality is far more complicated, requiring an ethnography of the archive in order to find out the tensions, hesitations and failures inherent in the production of colonial knowledge.
Second, the project sets out to situate and problematize the colonizers (and those dependent on the colonizers, such as missionaries). A growing body of research in recent years has endeavoured to trace the structural images of the white colonizing strangers among African and Asian populations, especially in fragmented areas with small-scale polities. The inspiration has been anthropological, but lately also historical, and has used ethnographic data in conjunction with historical sources to build the argument. While the Western intruders are seen as essential strangers, often with frightening and potentially dangerous features, they are also seen by some local communities as “stranger kings”. That is, they are regarded as having a functional role in keeping a complex of communities in order, where their position as outsiders is seen as an asset in mediating and forcing an equilibrium among small and rivalling societies. There is thus, occasionally, an aspect of security and survival in the acceptance of colonial masters in spite of their oppressive features. Such role has been identified for small-scale societies in various parts of Southeast Asia. The “stranger kings” syndrome must naturally not be seen as an excuse for colonialism, or in any way detract from the concrete physical or structural violence tied to it. Rather, it should be seen as a method to apply concurrent perspectives on the colonial process that also gives room to the viewpoint of the receiving end. It is an aspect of the effort by current research to look for the roots of colonialism, not just in European imperialism and expansionism, but also in conditions in the non-Western world. The functionality of colonial presence in the eyes of some groups in Africa and Asia helps explain the enduring colonial rule or suzerainty over the centuries.
There is another and opposing aspect of the image of colonizers, namely the effects of early colonial genocidal policies. The enormous profits to be made from the spice trade also fostered a policy of ruthlessness, as with the extermination or enslavement of the original population of the Banda Islands, which subsequently became the regional seat of VOC governance. The enormous violence accompanying the colonial conquest (1621) was paired with a strict policy of monopoly where trade in spices and other items was controlled as far as possible. Dutch expeditions drew system of political dependency, formally anchored via contracts. But there were also counter-forces. Anti-European sentiment was spread via refugees from the Banda genocide, and also through other Asian trading groups such as the Makassarese of Sulawesi and the Seramese of Central Maluku, sometimes amounting to what Spivak has called strategic essentialism, a common interest (in anticolonial action) temporarily overcoming diversity. In spite of the monopolistic ambitions of the VOC, there was always an element of overt or silent resistance, such as circumventing the monopolies by trading with Asian merchants operating outside the VOC. We can therefore discern concurrent binding and alienating perceptions of the Western foreigners.
Third, the lengthy period of colonial presence provides excellent opportunity to study aspects of hybridity. A much-discussed concept in postcolonial studies, it implies (in Bhabha's version) that hegemonic discourses are in fact fractured and unstable. European-dominated contact zones in maritime Asia are pronounced cases in point, as Maluku saw a degree of interference with social consequences. Fortified posts were established on several islands (Wokam, Kisar, Wetar, Babar, and so on), and an element of Eurasians. Christian missionary enterprises from the 1630s and onwards created small but viable converted communities on some islands. The Christians were faced with the problem of integrating Christian precepts with their local worldview that emphasized belief in spirits and ancestors (with a modern but not uncontroversial term, animism). This is interestingly reflected by missionary writings that complain about the persistence of local beliefs. Islam only gained a lesser foothold in the region, and religious relations show an oscillation between coexistence and conflict.
Fourth, the economic resources of southern Maluku, and the colonial exploitation of these, have interesting global connectivities. While the cloves, mace and nutmeg of Central and North Maluku are well known as objects of European expansion, the southern islands produced items of luxury (non-necessity) type, such as turtle-shell, exotic birds, edible sea cucumber, and pearls. These items would end up in such diverse places as Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and China, through a complicated system of commercial routes and markets. Moreover, the global phenomenon of slave trade was widely practiced in the region, to a large extent underpinned by colonial stimuli. A study of southern Maluku therefore entails a global take on the economic rationale of colonialism.
Methodological considerations and inclusion in existing networks
Methodologically, the project is based on a critical reading of mostly unpublished archival materials, in conjunction with the results of anthropological and archaeological research. The field and the archive are thus mutually constitutive, linking to the transdisciplinary ambitions of LNUC Concurrences. Here, it is important to balance the socio-cultural structures discerned by modern anthropology with an awareness of the historical changes brought about by four centuries of colonial presence. The extensive VOC collection in The Hague is an important source for the period 1602-1799 and records events on a regular, often day-to-day basis. For the post-VOC era, the missionary documents in the Utrecht Archive are essential as being letters, diaries and reports written by persons who lived close to local society for long periods, and whose success depended on their understanding of the local mindset. The theoretical inspiration for the project is postcolonial as it explores the consequences of colonial power relationships through the critical scrutiny of textual production, and aims to explore the constituting roles of the colonizer and colonized, their images of each other, and the complex oscillation between cooperation and resistance. The basic idea is that European sources to an extent can be used to trace the agency of local communities, thereby enabling a concurrent reading of them. In other words, we may apply a connected sociology that identifies previously invisible/muted voices and claims. Such approach counteracts the problem often faced by colonial and postcolonial research, of positing the West as a structuring trope in world history – in spite of all its ambition to deconstruct Eurocentrism.
The project ties in with existing scholarly networks of which I am a member. These include the formalized network ESTA (Exploring Slave Trade in Asia) initiated by the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, which also includes research centers in Bonn and Lyon, and an informal interdisciplinary network focusing on the Aru Islands. These networks engage both Western and Asian scholars. A few arrangements (Växjö workshop 2016, Kalmar workshop 2017, Lyon conference 2019) have been co-funded by Concurrences and are presently generating publication projects.
 H. Geurtjens, Uit een vreemde wereld, 1921; P. Drabbe, Het leven van den Tanémbarees, 1940; Toos van Dijk, Gouden eiland in de Bandazee, 2000; Patricia Spyer, The Memory of Trade, 2000.
 P. Bleeker, ’De Aroe-eilanden, in vroeger tijd en tegenwoordig’, TNI 1858; E. Rodenwaldt, Die Mestizen von Kisar, 1927.
Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain, 2009.
 Marshall Sahlins, Islands of History, 1985; Robert Barnes, Excursions into Eastern Indonesia, 2013.
 David Henley, Jealousy and Justice, 2002.
 Gurminder Bhambra, ‘Historical Sociology, Modernity, and Postcolonial Critique’, AHR 2011.