- Sea Rovers, Silver, and Samurai: Maritime East Asia in Global History, 1550–1700 ed. by Tonio Andrade and Xing Hang
Tales of pirates and their exploits naturally make for entertaining reading. To be sure, this book is replete with murder, revenge, sea battles, and stolen treasure. What makes it most exciting, however, is not the accounts of [End Page 430] swashbuckling but the verification that early modern maritime East Asia was a dynamic, complex, and globally connected region.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in particular, are known as a time when East Asian states enforced stringent trade restrictions and curtailed diplomatic relations. Often privileging a state-centered view, the traditional historiography of this era has tended to empty regional waters of Asian seafarers. More recent scholarship that engages ideas about globalization, regional integration, and maritime networks—as well as concerns over contemporary pirates and tensions in the South China Sea—has revealed a greater level of early modern sea-based communication than was previously recognized.
Sea Rovers, Silver, and Samurai further develops the growing appreciation for this region's vitality, exposing how the relative absence of state oversight enabled an "infinitude of interactions" (p. 22). The editors define maritime East Asia as "[s]tretching from the Strait of Malacca to the Sea of Japan and centered upon the East and South China Seas" (p. 1), depicting an area that encompasses people from multiple countries, ethnic groups, and commercial organizations. With contributions by some of the field's leading experts, these essays advance our knowledge of the extent to which people in East Asia competed, cooperated, and stayed informed of one another. These interactions also provided the opportunity for the emergence of transcultural exchanges that brought Europeans, Americans, and Asians into unprecedented levels of contact with one another. Indeed, the trans-Pacific silver trade, which was motivated by China's appetite for silver and involved carriers and suppliers in Japan, Spanish Manila, the Americas, and Europe, formed an early—arguably the earliest—moment of globalization and serves as the foundation for the various exchanges addressed in this book.1
The contributors, as many of them have done in other writings, privilege a global perspective. By bringing them all together in one place (first at a conference and now in these pages), this volume is able to present an impressive and synergistic body of work that is characterized, in both implementation and content, by transnational connections. Seventeen scholars from seven different countries conducted research in a wide range of archives, drawing on sources in languages such as Chinese, Japanese, English, Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch. The resulting collaboration presents a significant concentration of early modern actors operating in East Asian waters. In addition to those from Europe, China, and Japan, people from Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Ryukyu Kingdom, and Siam [End Page 431] also had interests in this maritime zone, whether acting as state or nonstate agents.
Beyond examining a complex set of networks and encounters within a common geographical region, these essays possess a more pointed coherence. Although not readily apparent from either the book title or the table of contents, each chapter addresses, to varying degrees, the multigenerational family of the infamous sea lord Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga, 1624–62) and its vast commercial and military organization. That the Zheng family is not immediately emphasized is a smart strategy; for if potential readers disregarded this collection as primarily biographical or of a narrow register, they would miss out on this richly textured synthesis. In laying out the rises and falls of the Zheng family's power, the authors position this history within a multifaceted and often contentious world where ambiguous sovereignties, shifting allegiances, and economic opportunism reigned.
Several essays examine the lives of individual members of the Zheng family and the contextual influences that shaped their opportunities and challenges. John E. Wills and Chengheng Lu detail how the pirate Zheng Zhilong (aka Yiguan; Zheng Chenggong's father) rose to commercial and military...