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Reviewed by:
  • Sea Rovers, Silver, and Samurai: Maritime East Asia in global history, 1550–1700 ed. by Tonio Andrade and Xing Hang
  • Rila Mukherjee
Sea Rovers, Silver, and Samurai: Maritime East Asia in global history, 1550–1700
Edited by Tonio Andrade and Xing Hang. Honolulu, University of Hawai‘i Press, 2016.

This excellent collection, comprising an introduction and sixteen essays by Michael Laver, Peter D. Shapinsky, Birgit Tremml-Werner, Robert Batchelor, John E. Wills Jr., Cheng-heng Lu, Patricia Carioti, Adam Chulow, Anna Busquets, Leonard Blusse, Xing Hang, Dahpon David Ho, Weichung Chen, Robert J. Antony, Peter Yang and Mark Ravina, weaves themes and approaches currently much in vogue in academic studies: maritime sovereignty, maritime predation—as seen in piracy, clandestine trade and smuggling—, social network analysis and a Global Asia within global history. It is time to highlight Maritime East Asia as a separate space in its own right; and it is also relevant to investigate the deep roots of contestations (Andrade and Hang, 23), for the region contains some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and houses seven of the world’s top ten seaports, and yet is subject to political claims and counterclaims over its numerous fisheries, oil deposits and atolls.

The contributors see this space characterised by mobility, connectivity, permeability and hybridity in historical time, enabling us to discern private players whose adjustments and compromises reveal much about the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century world of circulation in Maritime East Asia. By way of example, the southern Fujianese Zheng pirate family built up a formidable counter-state on sea that often acted against Ming notions of territoriality. The Zheng counter-state conducted foreign relations and made treaties, waged war and promoted businesses that allowed it to outpace the Spanish and Dutch (Shapinsky, Wills Jr., Lu, Carioti, Clulow, Busquets, Blusse, Hang, Ho and Cheng, in this volume). The story of the Zheng family between 1620 and 1683, spread over several chapters, allows us to uncover multiple contradictions in Kenneth Pomeranz’s unilinear “great divergence” model after 1800. In 1628 Zheng Zhilong was entrusted with curtailing piracy and stopping smuggling, and received the official rank of military commander from the Ming, enabling the Zheng to combine political legitimacy with their commercial claims.

Marked by the looming (but also oscillating) presence of China for over two millennia, the sixteen chapters underscore the differences of Maritime East Asia from the Mediterranean or Indian Ocean worlds, neither of which had a single, long-lasting, dominant centre—Rome-India notwithstanding. This is a welcome departure, for we have been talking too long of Indo-Mediterranea or the pre-1500 Southeast Asian realm, to both of which the China and Japan Seas are seen as mere appendages.

This volume sees Maritime East Asia coming into its own in the “wild and woolly 1500s” (Andrade and Hang, 6) whence, after 1570, a decentralised and multilateral phase of intense commercial exchanges appeared. This emergent coherence of Maritime East Asia extended into the 1620s and lasted thereafter, when the Zhengs further consolidated this space. It was distinctive in that its many waterways, islands and littorals were subject to multiple overlays of authority or “spaces in between” (Laver). Its distinctiveness also lay in the maritime prohibitions of China, Korea and Japan which enabled a whole range of non-state actors to flourish along its coasts, a situation complicated further by the presence of the Portuguese at Macau, the Spanish at Manila, the Dutch at Taiwan, and the Japanese at Hirado. Competing notions of sovereignty at sea saw a remarkably hybrid East Asian maritime culture appear in new ship-building technologies (Shapinsky, 53–54) and in new spatial and maritime arrangements challenging imperial territoriality, as in the Selden Map (Batchelor, 91).

What are the shortcomings of this volume? Honestly, I found nothing not to like in it, although, for reasons of space, it has not been possible to review in detail each chapter in the volume. But taken as a whole, this volume imparts a whiff of ozone to maritime studies.1 It provides a welcome corrective to recent criticisms of maritime studies by geographers Steinberg and Peters who plead for “wet ontologies”2 and from literary theorists...


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