This article uses the offing as a metaphor to theorize piracy in relation to pivotal moments in Southeast Asia's maritime engagement with the world. "In the offing" usually indicates that something is about to happen. This figurative meaning derives from a literal one that refers to the visible sea beyond inshore navigational hazards. Nautically apt, the offing's literal sense also provides a useful metaphor for analyzing piracy. Like the physical location of the offing, piracy entails both an embodied orientation as well as a more general relation of structured perceptions between those aboard ship and those on shore. Yet shore-based political authorities have had an inordinate power to define what counts as piracy and who is determined to be a pirate. While designations of piracy illuminate the efforts of states to manage the limits of their sovereignty, the boundary between legitimate plunder and that which is not has often been negotiated across social arenas in which legal (and other) legitimacies are differentially acknowledged. Like the space of the offing, acts that might be considered piracy and those who do them thus entail questions of definition, visibility, and point of view-matters that for piracy unfold in relation to particular configurations of politics, power, and cultural comprehension. The question of piracy comes under scrutiny here in three such configurations:first, in the relations between Southeast Asian polities and between them and China during the 15th century; second, in the context of early 17th century Dutch trade in Southeast Asia along with the European political and legal setting; and third, in connection with 19th century views on piracy's proliferation in the region and inter-colonial attempts to curb it. This analysis informs a discussion of infamous ethnic names that signified "pirates" in colonial European and Southeast Asian discourses. It then also anchors critical observations about contemporary piracy and the notion of failed states.


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 817-857
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.