- Portuguese Enterprise in the East: Survival in the Years 1707–1757 by Teddy Sim Y. H. Leiden
Studies on eighteenth-century Portuguese Asia remain a lacuna in the historiography as most of the scholarship on the Portuguese Empire during this period have focused primarily on Brazil and the Atlantic World. Often framed around the familiar trope of decadence, these studies have limited our understanding of the Estado da Índia. The recent paradigmic shift to “informal empires” has had a huge impact on the field as many scholars have prompted us to reconsider the Estado da Índia as a “shadowy” (George Winius) geopolitical entity, a space of “improvisation” (Sanjay Subrahmanyam) and “survival” (George Bryan de Souza) where private ventures are now seen as the primary driving force behind these commercial, social, and political reconfigurations since the latter half of the sixteenth century.
Portuguese Enterprise in the East: Survival in the Years 1707–1757 is primarily conceived as a return to the official realm. Teddy Sim (Sim Yong Huei) reacts against the overwhelming attention that has been given to informal activities by the Portuguese in Asia and aims to focus his narrative around the imperial center (Lisbon and Goa). This study follows in the footsteps of Glenn Ames’s Renascent Empire? The House of Braganza and the Quest for Stability in Portuguese Monsoon Asia, ca. 1640–1683 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000) by focusing on the first half of the eighteenth century. Ames argues in favor of a sort of Portuguese renaissance in Asia after the 1640 Braganza Restoration and especially under the regency of Dom Pedro (1667–1683), while Sim adopts a similar stance (if not revival, at least sustained survival) to the period roughly matching Dom João V’s reign (1707–1750).
The first section of the book sets the stage by providing an overview of the “Portuguese Empire in Asia” (chapter 1) and “The Empire on the Eve of the Eighteenth Century” (chapter 2). Chapter 3 looks at people, practices, and institutions that molded the decision-making process and the transmission of power between Lisbon and Goa, while the latter half of the book corresponds to an analysis of developments [End Page 225] on the ground, from diplomacy and war (chapter 4) to commercial and financial challenges (chapter 5) to the imperial role of culture and religion (chapter 6). Finally, chapter 7 takes a chronological approach and elaborates on a possible revival of the Estado da Índia in 1741–1757, coinciding with the political transition to Dom José I (r. 1750–1777). “At the end of João V’s reign”—Sim concludes—“the Estado da Índia had staved off total disintegration, due in small part to the administration on the ground, as well as to the crucial aid provided from the centre during the last decade of João V’s reign” (p. 184).
Unfortunately, Portuguese Enterprise in the East proves to be a lost opportunity and a somewhat failed return to the center. The book is excessively empirical (and yet ironically limited), often resembling a collage of Portuguese documents intertwined with voices (not always the most relevant ones) of modern historians. There are important lacunae at the level of primary sources, and the same holds true concerning appropriate bibliography on a number of crucial topics, which are either overlooked or totally neglected.
The first problem is a conceptual one and it arises from the assumed rigid divide between the formal and the informal. It may well be a somewhat artificial one, as in many instances the two “layers” were strongly intertwined. Regions like the “Rios de Sena” and its prazos and prazo owners (almost disregarded in the book) are one case in point, with both the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea providing comparable scenarios. The second major challenge is to define the intervention of the official structures of the Portuguese Empire in Asia that range from various challenges (e.g., domestic, indigenous, European) to actors and resources. The author does not clearly identify the major...