On Being Southeast Asian and the Bankruptcy of Liberal Persuasion

The other day an article appeared in my Facebook feed called “Being South-East Asian.” It was written by historian, political scientist and public intellectual Farish Noor and published in the Malaysian newspaper The Star Online.

For years Farish Noor has sought to engage with an audience beyond the ivory tower, and I’ve long admired his effort to do so. Every time I visit Malaysia or Singapore I always stop in at a bookstore to look for his latest publication.

So with high expectations I clicked on the link to The Star Online piece, but quickly realized that the article was not what I expected.

02 Being

The gist of the piece is that Noor is concerned about the opposition to cosmopolitanism and pluralism in Southeast Asia today from people who engage in “identity politics that are narrow and couched in terms of ethno-nationalism.”

To counter these identity politics, Noor tries to convince his readers that the divided societies of today are the result of the “colonial rupture” by arguing that prior to the period of colonial rule Southeast Asians successfully embraced cosmopolitanism and pluralism.

He thus urges his readers “to reconnect with the region’s complex, varied past – before the European colonial powers came.”

As for what that complex, varied past looked like, Noor provides the following example:

“One can think of the Javanese port city of Banten, for instance. Home to merchant communities from China to the Arab lands, its complexity was captured in the writings of Theodorus de Bry (1601), which showed it to be far more plural and cosmopolitan than any other kingdom in Western Europe.”

This is the complex, varied past that Noor would like people in Southeast Asia to “reconnect” with. Again, to quote,

“The lessons of history are many, and what South-East Asia’s history teaches us is that complexity and diversity need not be seen in problematic or exclusive terms. If pre-colonial South-East Asians could manage and balance having multiple identities at the same time, then surely we too can do the same today.”

03 Baby-Boomer-Politics-and-Southeast-Asia

This idea that precolonial Southeast Asian societies possessed liberal attributes that are worthy of our emulation has long been a hallmark of scholarship in the field of Southeast Asian Studies in the English-speaking world.

I see this approach to the past as the product of a certain form of politics, what I have termed “Baby Boomer politics” (or “Baby Boomer lite politics” to contrast it with the more radical street protests and acts of civil resistance of the 1960s).

For decades certain scholars have been promoting an idealized and romanticized image of precolonial Southeast Asia, as a place where women were “autonomous,” slavery and warfare were not particularly brutal, states were not as coercive as in other parts of the world, etc. This approach emerged in the English-speaking world in the shadow of postcolonial struggles for independence and opposition to American foreign policy in the 1960s and 1970s, and it harbors an implicit critique of the West, but a direct critique of colonial rule.

Further, this school of though that seeks to demonstrate the positive attributes of precolonial Southeast Asia is built almost entirely on Western sources, and of a selective reading of those sources.

Finally, today these ideas are gaining some new energy from the academic sub-field of decoloniality, a critical approach that seeks to untangle the legacies of power structures that were formed during the colonial period. While this approach focuses mainly on the present, it is based on a belief that precolonial societies possessed positive (liberal) attributes that colonial rule either destroyed or distorted.


While I am familiar with the historical scholarship on Southeast Asia that seeks to promote a positive image of the precolonial era, I had never heard of (or don’t remember having ever heard of) Theodorus de Bry, whose “writings” Noor claims provide an image of Banten as “far more plural and cosmopolitan than any other kingdom in Western Europe.” So I decided to see what de Bry had to say about Banten.

As it turns out, Noor recently published an article on de Bry and Banten entitled “When the World Came to Banten: Images of Cosmopolitanism and Pluralism in Java in the Writings of Theodore de Bry 1601” [Kawalu: Journal of Local Culture Vol. 5 No. 2 (2018): 195-214], so I first read that piece to learn more.

Noor states in this piece that de Bry was a “writer-engraver” and that together with his two sons “he produced some of the most popular accounts of voyages to the Americas as well as the East Indies, but the de Bry family were most known for the quality of their engravings that gave Europeans a vivid impression of life beyond the shores of Europe” (198).

Of particular interest to Noor is a book that the de Bry family produced that contains some of the earliest images and information about the East Indies (~the Indonesian isles). This book has a long title that we can shorten to Icones Indiae Orientalis.

Regarding the contents of this book Noor states that it contains de Bry’s writings and engravings, but that it was published by his sons. In particular, Noor states that “After the death of Theodorus in 1598, his writings and engravings of India and the East Indies were compiled and published in the form of the Icones Indiae Orientalis that was put together by Johann Theodore and Johann Israel” (200).




Noor then goes on to examine and discuss some of the images and their accompanying text about Banten in this work. What strikes Noor is a contrast that he detects between the information and images about Banten with the images and information that de Bry had earlier published concerning the Americas. To quote,

“For the reader who is familiar with the images of native Americans in his earlier work on the new world, de Bry’s images of daily life in the East Indies could not be more striking in contrast. De Bry’s censorious tone that was read off the pages of his work on America is nowhere to be found in the Icones Indiae Orientalis. For here de Bry was forced to concede that the world of the East Indies was one where Asian communities had developed their own system of commerce, governance, religious praxis and culture to a level that rivaled Europe’s” (200).

In reading these comments, I became confused. Noor argues that de Bry “was forced to concede” that the world of the East Indies “rivaled Europe’s,” but how did de Bry know about the East Indies in the first place? Noor does not say. Did he visit the East Indies? Where did he get his information from? Noor likewise does not tell us.

But isn’t knowing where de Bry got his ideas from kind of important? After all, Noor’s argument is that de Bry presented Banten in more positive terms than he did the Americas, and that this reflects an historical fact – that conditions in Banten “rivaled Europe’s” – that de Bry “was forced to concede.”

06 de Bry Wikipedia

Curious to know more, I decided to look into this matter. Turning first to Wikipedia, I read that de Bry was “an engraver, goldsmith, editor and publisher,” but saw no mention of him being a writer. I also found that he never left Europe, and that his publications were copies/adaptations of earlier works.

Digging deeper, I consulted a 2003 work edited by Jennifer Speake, Literature of Travel and Exploration: An Encyclopedia (Routledge). Here I was able to see in the brief entry on de Bry that the forms his engravings took were influenced by numerous factors.

For instance, the entry on de Bry in the Speake volume states that “De Bry, as a Lutheran, emphasized the cruelty of the Spanish conquerors toward the natives.” The Wikipedia entry, meanwhile, notes that de Bry also tailored his books for his anticipated audience and that there are thus at times significant differences between versions in different languages.

Finally, these two sources make it clear that de Bry’s engravings were produced in different ways. Sometimes he faithfully copied extant images. Sometimes he copied and altered extant images. Sometimes he produced his own images based on textual information.

From the information in these basic sources it should be clear is that de Bry’s books need to be examined much more carefully than Noor has done in his article. We can’t just compare images in one book with images in another. Instead, among other issues, we have to ask where the images in de Bry’s work come from and to check to see if there are differences between de Bry’s versions and the original images that he copied.

07 Speake

As for the images and their accompanying text in Icones Indiae Orientalis, the Speake volume notes that they come from a book that a certain Willem Lodewycksz published in 1598. Lodewycksz participated in the first Dutch voyage to the East Indies. He returned in 1597 and published an account with prints of sketches that he had made the following year.

This work was published in Dutch, Latin and French: D’Eerste Boeck: Historie van Indien, waer inne verhaelt is de avontueren die de Hollandtsche Schepen bejegent zijn (Amsterdam: Cornelis Claesz, 1598); Prima pars descriptionis Itineris navalis in Indiam Orientalem, earumque rerumquae navibus Batavis occurrerunt; Premier Livre de l’histoire de la navigation aux Indes Orientales, parles Hollandais. It was later translated into English (without images and image captions) and included in the 1702 work A Collection of Voyages Undertaken by the Dutch East India Company.

Given that de Bry died in March of that same year of 1598, it is not clear to me if he made engraved copies of the images in Lodewycksz’s book before he passed away, or if his sons, or someone else, made the engravings at some point between the time of their father’s death and the publication of the Icones Indiae Orientalis in 1601.

Whatever the case may be, the images in Icones Indiae Orientalis are faithful reproductions (in reverse) of the originals in the Lodewycksz book. The textual information is likewise largely the same, although it has been re-organized and reformulated to some extent.

08 Two-Texts

Lodewycksz’s book contains short thematic chapters some of which are accompanied by an image with a caption. De Bry’s book, meanwhile, does not have chapters, but just images and captions. Further, while the captions in the de Bry work contain the same basic information as the captions in Lodewycksz’s book, at times some additional information from Lodewycksz’s chapters are added to the captions in the de Bry book in order to make the information more understandable to readers. It is in this way that one can say that the de Bry book “reorganizes” and/or “reformulates” the information that Lodewycksz provided.

In the end, however, the images and information in the de Bry book clearly all come from Lodewycksz’s earlier publication.

Therefore, besides the fact that we don’t know if de Bry is the one who copied these prints (or if his sons, or someone else, did so after he died), and the fact that his prints about the Americas require nuanced examinations before we can compare them with others, the simple fact that the images and text about Banten were created by Lodewycksz undermines Noor’s argument that we can see something meaningful in “de Bry’s” images of Banten by contrasting them with “de Bry’s” images of the Americas.


As Noor discusses the images, however, even more serious problems emerge. Take the above picture of Chinese merchants. Noor makes the following statement about its accompanying text:

“In the account of Chinese merchants for instance, the author notes that life for the Chinese community in Banten was freer than elsewhere, and that Chinese women were able to engage in commerce in the public domain” (205).

Not able to read Latin, I at first had no choice but to accept what Noor says. However, when I looked at the French version of the book by Lodewycksz that de Bry copied, I saw that it says that this picture contains images of Chinese merchants and “one of their purchased women, whom they use in Java during their time of residence” (l’une de leur femmes achetée, les quelles usent en Iava, durant le temps de leur residence).

Turning to the Latin version of Lodewycksz’s text, and relying on Google Translate for help, I can see that it says the same thing (effigies femina quam emerunt, qua in Iava, quandiu ibi resident, utuntur).


Returning to the de Bry text, I could see that it says something similar: “In Banten women are purchased” (In Bantam foeminas mercantur). However, much of the information that follows differs from the information in the caption to this image in Lodewycksz’s book: In Bantam foeminas mercantur, quas suis officiis, quamdiu [quandiu] ibi commorantur, adhibent. In Chinam redeuntes illasdem reuendunt [revendunt]: aut si liberos ex illis fors susceperunt, secum eas abducunt.

After some investigation, I realized that the information in the de Bry text is a reformulation of information from both the image caption and the chapter text in Lodewycksz’s book.

Just before his chapter on Chinese merchants, Lodewycksz has a section on foreigners in general where he states that,

“As soon as a Stranger arrives at Bantam [Banten], he buys a Wife for his use, for the Day, and for the Night. And when he returns, he sells her, but takes the Children with him if she hath any, and gives the Mother liberty to marry whom she pleases” (Voyages 198).

While that statement was made about all foreigners in Banten, it is used in the de Bry book to talk about Chinese merchants, saying that when they return to China they sell their wives and take the children with them.


I thus cannot find anything here that supports Noor’s statement that “Chinese women were able to engage in commerce in the public domain.”

The closest one could come to such a claim is to say that the de Bry book indicates that in Banten “women could be bought and sold by foreign men in the public domain.”

I also do not find anything here to support Noor’s statement that “In the account of Chinese merchants for instance, the author notes that life for the Chinese community in Banten was freer than elsewhere.”

There is something in the text here about the Chinese living at a distance (remota), and Lodewycksz indicated in his text that:

“The Chinese have a particular Place towards the West side of Bantam, as well as the Portugueze, and there the Dutchmen have their Warehouse. This part of the Town is defended by good Palissadoes on the Landside, and by a Marsh, which makes it very strong, and difficult to be taken by force” (Voyages 186).


Later in his text, in talking about the Portuguese, Lodewycksz states further that:

“They live in Bantam, in the same Part of the Town where the China merchants live, neither of these two Nations being permitted to dwell within the Walls” (Voyages 200).

In other words, the Chinese were forced to live separately from the people of Banten, and they built their settlement in a way that made it defensible, an indication that they faced potential dangers. None of this is a sign to me of the Chinese being particularly “free.”


Moving on to another image, Noor examines the picture above of a military council and says that it,

“. . . offers a glimpse of a political council, where the Sultan presides over his court. The meeting is held outdoors, with the ruler, his court, nobles, generals and admirals all sitting on the ground as they discuss matters of military and strategic concern. Interestingly, the text that accompanies the illustration notes that also present at this political assembly were Malays (from the Malay Peninsula), Arabs and Turks (Malayos, Turca, Arabes). The fact that Malays, Turks and Arabs were present at the political council suggests that Bantenese society was one where foreigners were allowed to take part in matters of governance, and that affairs of state were handled via consultation with all the communities that were residing in Banten then” (203).

Meanwhile, in his text, Lodewycksz said the following:

“As to the affairs of War, the King calls to the Council all the General and under Officers, which are three hundred in number, and if any thing considerable, or some great Expedition is resolved upon, these 300 Officers command the Inhabitants, who obey them faithfully” (Voyages 192).


What Lodewycksz described was a military council, where important people were called together (and the image has the sultan [a], members of the religious [b] and military elite [a/c], members of the nobility [d], Malays [e], Turks, Arabs [f], and a group of servicemen/slaves [h] off to the side), after which those people commanded those under their authority to obey. This strikes me as much more hierarchical and coercive than the description of a “political council” where “affairs of state were handled via consultation with the communities that were residing in Banten then.”

Such a positive twist, however, is in line with a long tradition in the field of Southeast Asian history in the English-speaking world to present precolonial rule as benevolent and democratic (think King Ramkhamhaeng).

But even if we put all of that aside, there is a basic problem: Why were there no Chinese and Portuguese at this “political council”?

They were not there because Banten was not a place “where foreigners were allowed to take part in matters of governance,” but instead, it was a place where some foreigners were considered acceptable by the ruler, and where others were ghettoized.

In this respect it would be easy to draw parallels between Banten and certain port cities in Europe at that time.


Does this mean that “Asian communities had developed their own system of commerce, governance, religious praxis and culture to a level that rivaled Europe’s”? If what they were rivaling was ethnic/religious segregation, economic exploitation, etc., then yes, Banten clearly appears to have rivaled certain European port cities at that time. The Lodewycksz and de Bry books both make this clear.

That, however, is not what Noor imagines about Banten, but in the end that is the problem – his ideas are unfortunately just imaginings.

Having read this same type of discussion about precolonial Southeast Asia for decades now, I cannot see that it achieves anything other than making people with liberal leanings feel good about themselves (“See! The type of society that we want was there in Banten in the past!!), and feel ever more disturbed that there are people around them who do not see the world in the same way (“Why do people treat domestic workers like they are property? Why are there so many ethnic/religious divisions?”).

Further, I think that there is a strong liberal belief that if people can see “the truth,” they will all come to their senses. I’m not convinced that this is true (look at American politics!), but even if it is true, the positive depictions of precolonial Southeast Asia like the ones Noor presents are not “the truth,” they are myths derived from distorted/selective readings of historical sources.

It is of course admirable that Farish Noor (and many others) would like to see Southeast Asia not be subject to “identity politics that are narrow and couched in terms of ethno-nationalism.” However, I’m convinced that this approach of holding up precolonial Southeast Asia as a model for people today to follow does not achieve that goal.

At best it just perpetuates the circulation of feel-good myths in the field of Southeast Asian history. At worst it is simply another form of identity politics.

Some of the ugliness in Southeast Asia today is easily detectable back in Banten in the late sixteenth century. It was not created by “the colonial rupture.” Colonialism introduced new problems, for sure, but there are many others that have much deeper historical roots, as they are intimately entwined with the human condition.

Creating liberal myths about the past does not change any of this. Certain Southeast Asianists have been doing that for decades. . . and many of the problems of the past are still here with us today.

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