- Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300–1800 by John N. Miksic
John N. Miksic
Singapore: NUS Press, 2013. pp. i-xxii, 1–491. ISBN 978-9971-69-574-3
This monograph brings to the fore Singapore’s pre-colonial past, a narrative which serves as a corrective to the common perception that Singapore’s history began in 1819 with Raffles as its founder, substantiated by evidence gathered over three decades of archaeological research.1 In addition, the extension of Singapore’s historical record has been facilitated by the integration of Singapore’s past with studies from the broader scholarship of Asian and world history.
The Introduction presents an overview of the main themes which the book addresses in three parts, each comprising four chapters. It begins with a historical background, followed by a second section on the archaeological data, and a third which locates Singapore in its regional context. More specifically, ‘This Introduction will show how an ancient maritime trade network evolved in Southeast Asia and gradually spread westward to India and eastward to China …’ with subsequent discussions illustrating how the sea route ‘was much more important – from both commercial and cultural points of view – than the overland road’ (p. 1). The latter proposition refers to the book’s title, the `Silk Road of the Sea’ which Miksic contends ‘has been almost completely ignored’ (p. 2). This may perhaps be an overstatement given that scholarly writing has not only drawn attention to the maritime silk road but also to the existence of not just one but numerous overland silk roads (Christian 2000). Indeed, Southeast Asian prehistoric material together with a large corpus of historical writing on oceanic east–west passages date them back to the first millennium and even before, as Miksic himself attests to the sea route being ‘over 2,000 years old’ (p. 1).
‘Forgotten Hints’ from Singapore’s archaeology point to Singapore as a trading port, the Temasik alluded to by Chinese traveller Wang Dayuan c.1330 (pp. 171–81), and mentioned in Sejarah Melayu (the Malay Annals) as a stopover en route to Melaka by its Malay rulers coming from Palembang. The historical setting which supplies the context for the emergence of the fourteenth-century port can be found in the chapters in the first section which provide detailed summaries of major works and many more, from the standard references on prehistoric Southeast Asia (Higham 1989) through Graeco-Roman texts, Periplus Maris [End Page 118] Erythraei (the Sailor’s Guide) and Ptolemy’s Geōgraphikē hyphēgēsis (Guide to Geography), later incorporated in Arabic route books from c. ninth century CE (Tibbetts 1979), the vade mecums in Southeast Asian history such as Wang Gungwu’s ‘The Nanhai Trade’ (1958) and Paul Wheatley’s The Golden Khersonese (1961) to the more familiar and popular tale of traveller Marco Polo, 1292–3. The ports on the east-west maritime route in his Travels, including those in Southeast Asia, have since been corroborated by archaeological discoveries (p. 39).
Epigraphy sometimes supplies texts, for instance ‘the oldest known Buddhist texts composed in Southeast Asia’ (p. 58) are attributed to stone inscriptions of the late fourth and fifth century CE scripts found at the foot of Kedah peak. Together with written sources on the two-way China–India voyages of Chinese Buddhist pilgrims, Faxian in 414 and Yijing in the seventh century, their accounts of passengers on merchant ships via Southeast Asia point to trade and shipping in the pre-Srivijayan era. Indeed, ‘vibrant Buddhist interactions’ between India and China were facilitated by a significant increase in commerce along the maritime networks of exchange in the fourth and fifth centuries (Sen 2014).
What then of maritime trade in ancient Southeast Asia? The archaeological record is of enormous importance when material remains may provide the only available data to verify narratives of past processes. Hence, Dongson drums (map, p. 26) from present-day north Vietnam, found throughout Southeast Asia, support the suggestion of prehistoric maritime trade emerging within Southeast Asia while archaeological artefacts from the first major Southeast Asian kingdom, Funan in the...