To the Editor:
Even though John Brownlee implies in his review of my book, Maritime Southeast Asia to 1500 (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1996) (reviewed in JWH 9:2 [fall 1998], pp. 281–82), that it represents a hazard to Journal of World History readers, since it is “plagued by problems and factual errors...obvious to specialists of the region, but not so readily apparent to world historians,” he does not suggest a safe alternative. This is unfortunate, since a principal goal in writing it was to initiate a discussion regarding how this maritime world can be made more visible to those who teach and write world history.
Pre-1500 world history texts and courses continue to ignore this part of the world, in spite of the fact that it played an important role in several developments that had a global impact, the most obvious being the spice trade. One of the goals of both this book and its predecessor on Native Americans living in the eastern half of what is now the United States, Native Americans before 1492: The Moundbuilding Centers of the Eastern Woodlands (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1992), was to increase awareness of the large amount of important material that is now available about them in the publications of regional specialists and archaeologists. Since this material exists, there is no longer any excuse for pretending that their absence from consideration has had no impact on the quality of the global pictures that we construct.
Those of us who spend our time trying to put together the pieces of a worldwide puzzle in an effort to see what images emerge when the whole is in focus have no illusions about pleasing all of the specialists on a particular region, especially when the specialists in question are so engaged in disparaging each other’s efforts. Nevertheless, our visions of world history must be based upon their work, and even if our perspectives and apertures are different from theirs, we are obliged to [End Page 505] get the facts right. Thus it is the allegation of factual errors that is most disturbing. The reviewer, however, does not provide any example of such an error, making it impossible for the author to say or Journal of World History readers to judge for themselves whether or not there truly are errors of fact or if, in reality, they are something else, such as differences of interpretation.
In those instances when Brownlee does indicate what he considers to be a problem, I plead innocent of the charges. For example, I am mystified by his claim that I harbor the mistaken notion that consensus has been achieved about this period among Southeast Asian specialists. In the preface I write, “Such difficulties [in the sources used by specialists] contribute to the degree of contentiousness that characterizes the scholarly dialogue among those who study the region, and such contentiousness can obscure any consensus that does emerge and tends to discourage those world historians who might otherwise seek to include Southeast Asia in their visions of the pre-1500 world.” Having thus begun, I continue in the chapters that follow to note the controversies that surround some of the most basic points.
A second allegation, that too much attention is paid to Java, implies that I am unaware that some Javanese kingdoms were relatively inward-looking. In fact, the inward-looking nature of central Javanese kingdoms is not obscured. I mention the mountain barrier that physically separates their locales from the ports on the island’s northern coast and explain in some detail how the several layers of middlemen between central Javanese rulers and international traders served to make it unnecessary for the former to acknowledge any relationship with the latter. (Among other things, the rice grown by the region’s farmers helped to provision ports where traders congregated.) Furthermore, given that the reviewer acknowledges that trade was important to at least one of the kingdoms of eastern Java, Majapahit, it is not so clear why he objects to the attention paid to it and its predecessors.
Near the end Brownlee states that the “good deal of information” provided has little bearing on world history. It is unclear if his reference here is to the whole book or only to some of its parts, but in any case, I would prefer to leave judgments regarding how much bearing any or all of it has on world history to the readers of the Journal of World History, should they be inclined to read a book against which they have been so forewarned. [End Page 506]
Letters—John Brownlee Replies:
When I reviewed Lynda Shaffer’s Maritime Trade in Southeast Asia to 1500, I clearly explained that I found Shaffer’s stated goals to be admirable, and I agreed that this sort of study is long overdue. It is surprising, therefore, that roughly half of Shaffer’s comments constitutes a defense of those goals. Shaffer’s response turns my review into a straw-man argument, framing her book and my review as an opposition between “those of us who spend our time trying to put together the pieces of a worldwide puzzle” and specialists who “are so engaged in disparaging each other’s efforts.” At best, she wants Journal of World History readers to regard my objections to her book as arising simply from a difference in perspective. At worst, she portrays it as an attack by one of those bickering specialists against a group of mutually constructive puzzle-solvers trying to get on with things. It hardly needs to be said, I think, that these attempts by specialists to “disparage each other’s efforts” are actually a discussion among colleagues to try to sort out the enormous complexities that characterize the study of Southeast Asia in the premodern period. These sorts of disagreements exist in all fields, and it is through them that new understandings of issues are reached. By eschewing any attempt to take these discussions seriously, Shaffer misses out on these complexities at the expense of her readers.
Shaffer asks me to provide Journal of World History readers with some examples of errors to be found in her book. Shaffer’s introduction to the “maritime realm” takes her away from the coasts into the mountains of Southeast Asia, which are “covered with tropical rain forests, bountiful providers of fruit, lumber, spice, and aromatic woods and resins” (p. 9). In fact, the ecological characteristics of mountains in Southeast Asia are quite varied. Most of the mountain chains are volcanic, and the mountains of Java, Sumatra, and South Sulawesi could hardly be characterized as “covered with tropical rain forests,” much less as abundant providers of spice. On the next page, Shaffer states that the population of Indonesia is 179,100,000, clearly a figure from an (uncited) source at least a decade old. (Indonesia’s population is currently at around 200 million.) Later, she claims that “the people of Vo-canh, located on the Vietnamese coast . . . were Malay speaking” (p. 27). Although their language was a relative of Malay, it was a different language called Cham.
But it is not simply errors of fact but also misinterpretations that abound in this book. Shaffer states, for example, that “the approach to Buddhism displayed by the monument [Borobudur] and the episodes [End Page 507] from the lives of the Buddha and the bodhisattvas carved on its square terraces reflect an international, that is, orthodox Mahayana Buddhism” (p. 70). Shaffer is obviously straining to fit Borobudur into a global context. If such a creature as “orthodox Mahayana Buddhism” existed at all, it was certainly not in Java. Although the bas-reliefs do illustrate variations on Mahayana texts, it is misleading to imply any sort of orthodoxy in the monument’s approach to Buddhism.
Only one source employed by Shaffer to elucidate the meaning and purpose of the monument comes to us from the 1970s—the others were all published in the 1960s. Had Shaffer included the work done by Adrian Snodgrass in The Symbolism of the Stupa (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985) or, in particular, the collection of essays in Luis O. Gomez and Hiram W. Woodward, Jr., eds., Barabudur: History and Significance of a Buddhist Monument (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), she would have been quickly disabused of such sweeping generalizations. Was Borobudur, as she claims, a “holy mountain”? It may have been, but her dependence on Soekmono’s 1976 work on Borobudur obscures the discussion of whether this monument was a prasada, mandala, stupa, or all three. Had Shaffer been willing to see this and other discussions surrounding Borobudur as more than simply specialists ripping into each other, she would have appreciated the complexity surrounding the interpretation of Borobudur and the alluring fact that so much about this monument still remains shrouded in mystery.
These and other errors, I think, are not simply “differences of interpretation” arising from the squabbling of specialists. I can appreciate the need to make some generalizations in writing a broad history such as this one, but a few sentences could have captured the general directions of the ongoing discussions about Borobudur. That some scholars see a variant of the Vadjradhatu, or Diamond World, mandala (of the Vadjradhatu tradition of Tibet) in its design is a starting point for more fruitful (and more interesting) inquiry into relations with the outside world than Shaffer’s essentializations allow. Why not mention, too, that the kala heads, which are “uniquely Javanese” (p. 70), appeared in India (where the form was subsequently localized) around the fifth or sixth century, and at Phnom Kulen in the ninth century under the reign of Jayavarman II? This would have provided more useful clues into the nature of the role of the Sailendras in the region and beyond than does the label “orthodox Mahayana Buddhism.”
I hope I have made my point and can move on to Shaffer’s defense of her organization and presentation, which I find even more troubling. In a region where a number of powerful polities participated in a network of trade, I find it difficult to understand Shaffer’s insistence [End Page 508] that spending nearly half her book on the relatively isolated and inward-looking island of Java constitutes balance. In her preface, Shaffer claims that when she noted that a globe at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport was missing any representatiuon of Indonesia and the Philippines, she “was troubled by this essentially American faux pas.” Yet she seems untroubled by the fact that her book contains not one substantive reference to the Philippines, despite the availability of good scholarship on the subject. The same can be said about trade-oriented polities in such areas as Pegu, Ayudhya, and Brunei. Of the three, only Brunei even appears in the index to lead the reader to two passing references. Why does Melaka, a trading center par excellence, far more representative of the maritime world than any Javanese kingdom, receive only a page and a half of discussion? It is no wonder that Shaffer’s discussions about the world context and those about Southeast Asia (for they are, with few exceptions, separate discussions in the book) seem to talk past each other with only minimal connection. Perhaps this is why Shaffer has no concluding chapter that might bring out some of the important themes she wishes to consider.
I stand by my original assessment of this book. If Journal of World History readers are still in doubt, I encourage them to seek out other reviews of the book. Barbara Watson-Andaya, a respected scholar whose work on premodern Southeast Asia spans some twenty-five years, draws similar conclusions about Shaffer’s book in her review in Crossroads (10 ). Watson-Andaya makes the point that Shaffer’s book represents an opportunity lost, for some sort of cooperation with a regional specialist could have enticed regional historians into a better appreciation of the global context and vice versa.
Finally, I am pleased to offer a few suggestions to Journal of World History readers for “safe alternatives” to Shaffer’s book. The second volume of Anthony Reid’s study Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993) does an excellent job of contextualizing Southeast Asia in regional and global trading networks. The first volume of The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) provides an up-to-date survey of pre-1500 Southeast Asia and contains excellent bibliographic essays that make a nice alternative to Shaffer’s weak and dated bibliography. Also available to the general reader are a number of good histories of Southeast Asian states that provide reliable information on the maritime realm and its trade networks in the premodern period. These include David P. Chandler’s study of Cambodia, David Wyatt’s book on Thailand, Barbara and Leonard Andaya’s work on Malaysia, Thomas Lionel Hodgkin’s book on Vietnam, and Merle Ricklefs’s study of modern Indonesia.