Yesterday I re-read John Smail’s 1961 article, “On the Possibility of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia,” Journal of Southeast Asian History 2.2 (1961): 72-102.


This article was published right when area studies programs were being developed in North America, and Smail’s article was a kind of “call to action” for young scholars to write about Southeast Asia.

What did Smail mean by “autonomous history”? Essentially what he called for were histories that were neither Eurocentric nor nationalistic.

How do you write such a history? The clearest example that Smail gave concerned the area on the island of Sumatra known as Aceh. In their effort to create a colonial empire in Southeast Asia, the Dutch fought a long war in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on Sumatra to subjugate Aceh.

Aceh 1

And this is precisely how that event had been depicted prior to the time that Smail wrote this article – as an example of Dutch expansion, and written from a Eurocentric (i.e., Dutch) perspective.

Smail, however, talked about how the same event could be explained from an “autonomous” perspective. What he noted was that there was a conflict in Aceh between the religious and secular elite that started before the Dutch got involved, and that continued after the Dutch left. Further, the Dutch were able to gain control of Aceh precisely because they allied themselves with one side (the secular elite) in this conflict.

So an autonomous history, to Smail, was one that looked at internal dynamics in the region that drove history forward, which in the case of Aceh was the tension between the religious and secular elite. While he didn’t explicitly say that these dynamics had to be conflicts or tensions, that is what the examples that he gave were of.

Aceh 2

Smail then wanted to create a national history for Indonesia as a whole by looking first at regional histories and discovering in them some common dynamic that could be used to create a national narrative. Building on the case of the internal divisions in Aceh, Smail surmised that this conflict could be seen across the islands in the more general historical tension between local traditions and Islamic beliefs and practices.

Therefore, a national “autonomous” history for Indonesia, Smail hypothesized, could be one that took at its core the fact that there was an enduring tension in the islands between local traditions and Islam, and that this tension was at the heart of much of the history that had taken place in the previous few centuries.

Looking at the past from this perspective, one could no longer say that when the Dutch arrived they “conquered” the islands, but instead, one would have to explain how their activities “intersected” with the tensions and conflicts that already existed there, and how those tensions played an important role in determining how the Dutch “interaction” played out.


In the case of Aceh, for example, if there had not been a divide there between the religious and secular elite, then the Dutch might not have succeeded in conquering that area. The same applies to other areas, such as the Minangkabau region on Sumatra.

So Smail’s idea of “autonomous history” was that it was history that was based on some internal dynamic (a conflict or tension), and that this internal dynamic was to be used as a framework from which to understand and explain the various historical events that had taken place.

I have to admit that I like Smail’s idea of looking for internal dynamics that we can use as a kind of framework to understand and explain various events that happened in the past. And I think this can be done to look at history throughout the period before the nation was invented and after as well. Indeed, I think when people try to write such a history that they will find that the invention of the nation is intimately related to whatever internal dynamic they find.

VN map

With that in mind, let’s look at “Vietnam.” What internal dynamic could we identify? Surely regionalism has been an important internal dynamic for at least the past few hundred years.

From the Trịnh/Nguyễn division, to the early years of the nineteenth century when the Nguyễn dynasty ruled from Huế but didn’t really control or have the support of the north or south, to the period of French rule when Cochinchina was a direct colony but Annam and Tonkin were protectorates, to the period of the First Indochina War when there were more fluid divisions, to the period from 1954 to 1975 when there was a divide at the seventeenth parallel, to the present when there is a unified country but a very strong nationalist narrative precisely in part because there is an awareness that regions still matter to many people (think Thanh Hóa. . . among others).

In other words, this internal dynamic of regionalism was present before the French, Japanese and Americans came, and it is still there now after all of those peoples have left. It is therefore something that is “autonomous.”

So, following Smail’s ideas, there is great potential for writing an “autonomous history” of “Vietnam” that would take an internal dynamic/tension/conflict such as regionalism as a driving force of history, and would then look at how this dynamic played out/intersected with/influenced the various events that took place over the course of the past few centuries.

(The three photographs above come from the website “The Dutch East Indies in Photographs, 1860-1940”:,_1860-1940)