Januari 31, 2015

To Live as Brothers: Southeast Sumatra in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

TO LIVE as Brothers is the history of the Sultanates of Jambi and Palembang at the time of the VOC. In the 17th century, both states were important pepper exporters, with Jambi having the upper hand for a long time. In the 18th century, while Jambi's economy gradually dwindled due to falling pepper prices, Palembang rose to legendary prosperity by exploiting its tin mines on Bangka. Andaya's historical reconstruction is, of course, primarily based on European sources; being the first modern English-language history of pre-1800 Southeast Sumatra, it is an invaluable contribution in a field which has hardly been explored by modern scholars. Interwoven with the historical account, the author regularly explores a number of themes which she formulated on the basis of Malay oral and written traditions: the relations between ulu and ilir (upstream and downstream); between king and subject; and between kinship and economic or political activity. To mention a few examples, Andaya explains to us the mechanisms by which economie growth fostered closer and more forceful links between the downstream court and the upstream (interior) pepper-growing areas; how women, not only through marriage but also as shared concubines, played a crucial role in the relationship between court and foreign communities, and how even the resident Dutch VOC employees could, in Jambi especially to a very far extent, become integrated in the court system. In this last respect, though not the intention of the author, the 'brothers' of the book's title could just as well have included the VOC, to whose administrators the South Sumatran courts would, not less than among themselves, refer as 'brother', 'son', 'father' or 'grandfather', depending on the level of the person addressed.

The thematic excursions with their many fascinating and often unexpected perspectives form a welcome enrichment of the historical account itself, which contains a wealth of information but sometimes lacks vividness. A reason for this could be that the author has used nineteenthcentury Malay sources primarily for the thematic approach, not giving them full weight as a historical source. To my surprise, I found that even the great 'handbook' on Bugis-Malay history, Tuhfat al-Nafis, is scarcely quoted, though Andaya herself is co-editor of the English edition. Especially in the last chapters, I feel that the Tuhfat's view on what happened in the late eighteenth century Malay maritime world would have contributed to a much sharper and more dramatic picture than Andaya's somewhat ambivalent notion of 'decline' between quotation marks.

Leaving aside these general remarks, as well as a few minor errors (e.g., Andaya's assertion on p. 214 that the principle of free navigation in the eastern seas, accepted by the VOC in 1784, would have dealt the death blow to its Indonesian commerce), this is an important and illuminating book, immediately recognizable as the scrupulous work of an outstanding scholar in Malay history.[]

Barbara Watson Andaya, To Live as Brothers: Southeast Sumatra in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993, xvii + 324 pp. ISBN 0.8248.1489.4. Price: US$ 38.


Reinout Vos, “Book Reviews”, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 151, 3 (1995): 468-469.

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