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Commercial links and a common orientation towards maritime trade continued to bind Southeast Asian Austronesian communities together in historical times, and the spread of Islam is regarded as a consequence of these cultural ties. Islam required many changes in traditional Austronesian social and religious practices, as did Christianity, but the strength of Austronesian tradition, reinforced greatly by the continuing use of the Austronesian languages as vernaculars, imposed a two-way dialogue on the process.
A Samoan deposited in (say) Madura might well conclude that it was Islam that most profoundly distinguished Indonesian culture from his own. In dress, diet, naming, social and domestic relations as well as belief and ritual, Islam has taken the majority of today’s Austronesians in a distinctive direction. In consequence they would probably see less reason to identify with our Samoan than with non-Austronesian Muslims in South and West Asia. One might reasonably conclude that the conversion by 1650 of most lowland areas of the archipelagoes we now know as Indonesia and the Philippines to Islam or Catholicism had created the most fundamental cleavages between Austronesians. From these transitions, however initially qualified, there was no going back. No subsequent influence from Holland, China, Britain, Japan or America could ever overturn these identities as Muslim or Catholic, whatever they were held to mean in different times and places.
This would, however, be only part of the story. The two prosyletizing scriptural religions were by no means the only, nor even the first, of the consequences for Southeast Asia’s Austronesians of proximity to the great Eurasian land mass. Others have spoken eloquently of the transitions wrought in Southeast Asia by Sanskrit terminology and Indian political and philosophical ideas, as these were selectively adapted by Austronesians. I want to draw attention also to the commercial and diplomatic connectedness within and beyond Southeast Asia which predated and underlay the advance of Islam among Austronesians.
When the ancestors of the Polynesians struck out to the east of the Indonesian Archipelago, they sailed off the edge of the known world. For more than a thousand years before the eighteenth century exploration of the Pacific, the Austronesians who remained in Southeast Asia were significant players in a series of interlocking trade networks which stretched from eastern Indonesia to China and Japan in the north and to Portugal and Ireland in the west. We know this not so much from the ambiguous geographical information of Ptolemy and his Chinese contemporaries as from the arrival of the products of eastern Indonesia in the markets of the world.
Only after their arrival in Southeast Asia did Europeans discover just where the spices they had been seeking came from:
The Malay merchants say that God made Timor for sandalwood and Banda for [nutmeg and] mace and Maluku for cloves, and that this merchandise is not known anywhere in the world except in these places (Pires 1515:204).
These points marked precisely where the southeastern boundary of the Eurasian world-system lay. Cloves, nutmeg and sandalwood were sent to the north and west in small quantities from as early as Roman and Han times. Records of shipments reaching Europe are continuously available from only the tenth century, and they show a trickle of nutmeg and clove rising to a steady stream at the end of the fourteenth century. Austronesians, with intermittent stimulus from Chinese, were the carriers of these spices around the archipelago, to entrepôts such as Sri Vijaya, Melaka, Patani and Banten. By travelling frequently as far as Maluku and Timor, they kept these peripheries on the known map of world commerce.
Beyond that, to the east and south, lay darkness. In the perspective of Asian traders the Indonesian Archipelago represented “the outer edge of the world” (Pinto 1578:393; also Wolters 1970:23-24). Of course there was some exchange across the Arafura and Timor seas, with a few slaves and birds of paradise from New Guinea and the surrounding islands being traded as far as Java. In comparison with the intense commercial interest focused on Maluku and Timor, however, the low level of interaction beyond is extraordinary.
Austronesians were among the great sailors of Asia, and their involvement in maritime commerce was one of the themes that maintained a sense of common interest among seemingly culturally diverse Austronesians. As well as carrying their own produce into world markets, Austronesians commanded all the sea routes between east Asia and the rest of Eurasia. Whether shipping passed through the Melaka or the Sunda or the Lombok and Makassar Straits; whether portages were made across the Malay Peninsula from Melaka, from Kedah or from Tennasserim; whether traffic to and from China took on water and supplies along the Cham coast of Indochina and the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, or in the Philippines and eastern Borneo, or along the west coast of Borneo and Java; Austronesians were directly involved. In the long and often intense commercial and diplomatic relationship between Southeast Asia and China it was Austronesians who took most of the initiatives, at least until the southern Sung dynasty (1127-1279) stimulated the creation of a Chinese seagoing fleet (Wolters 1970:19-42). The Malay culture hero, Hang Tuah, was appropriately depicted sailing, trading and fighting for his king in China, India and the Middle East as well as Java and Siam. While the Malayo-Muslim maritime tradition is well known, it is worth recalling Dampier’s praise also for still-Hindu Chams, one of whose vessels he encountered in the Gulf of Siam in 1687:
They were of the idolators, Natives of Champa, and some of the briskest, most sociable, without Fearfulness or Shyness, and the most neat and dexterous about their Shipping, of any such I have met with in all my Travels (Dampier 1697:272).
How else than through this common commitment to maritime commerce does one explain the curious ways in which Malays, Javanese, Chams and Tagalogs were tied to each other? Champa and Majapahit exchanged royal princesses and diplomatic missions in the fourteenth century, and a Cham king chose Java as his refuge from Vietnamese pressure on the Cham capital in 1318 (Robson 1981:276). Both Malay and Javanese traditions make much of the Cham connection. The Sejarah Melayu (1612:135) claims that a ruler of Champa journeyed to Majapahit to make his homage, fathering there a child by a Majapahit princess. This child grew up to become the penultimate ruler of Champa before the capital, Vijaya, fell to the conquering Vietnamese.
Javanese tradition asserts that it was through a Cham princess married to the king of Majapahit, and her brother Raden Rahmat, that Islam entered the Javanese court. To complete the Austronesian triangle, Rahmat took as his wife a lady of Tuban named Nyai Ageng Manila — perhaps evidence of Philippine birth (Babad Tanah Jawi:20-21). Although there were certainly Muslims in Champa in the fifteenth century, the Cham ruling class was still Hindu at the time of the Vietnamese conquest of Vijaya (Qui Nhon), which Vietnamese sources date to 1471. The Malay royal chronicle claims that the Hindu aristocrats who fled the Vietnamese took refuge not in nearby Hindu-Buddhist Cambodia but among Muslim fellow-Austronesians in Melaka and north Sumatra (Sejarah Melayu 1612:136-137). The king of Champa, with his capital further south in Phanrang, remained a Hindu until at least 1607, but he was nevertheless closely allied with Malay Johor against Vietnamese, Khmer and Portuguese (Matelief 1608:120-121; Manguin 1979:269).
The Cham diaspora of traders, warriors and refugees in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was Muslim or in process of becoming so. Muslim Chams were among those battling the Portuguese in the South China Sea and aiding Demak’s holy wars in Java in the sixteenth century, and helping even distant Makassar in the seventeenth (Pinto 1578:107, 386; Sja’ir Perang Mengkasar: 146-147). Malays and Chams were so closely aligned during the conflicts of seventeenth-century Cambodia that their Iberian enemies thought they were one people.
The first European reports on the Tagalogs classify them as “Luzons” (Port. Lucoes), a nominally Muslim commercial people trading out of Manila, and “almost one people” with the Malays of Brunei (Pires 1515:134). One of these Luzons commanded the Brunei fleet in 1521 (Pigafetta 1524:58-59), and another was named head (temenggong) of the Malays remaining in Melaka after the Portuguese conquest in 1511 (Pires 1515:134, 281). As well as their substantial trade with Melaka, the Luzons were collecting sandalwood in Timor when Magellan’s ship reached there (Pigafetta 1524:94), no doubt to supply the Chinese trade. Luzons were well represented in the polyglot Muslim fleets which did battle with the Portuguese in the South China Sea during the sixteenth century, and one of them held Aru (northeast Sumatra) for the crusading Sultan of Aceh in 1540 (Pinto 1578:49, 107, 112). Pinto, our source for much of this, also mentions Luzons among the anti-Muslim warriors of the Batak king, in 1538 (ibid.:26), suggesting they could be mercenaries valued by all sides. Luzons disappear from descriptions of the archipelago after the Spanish conquest of Manila in 1571, presumably assimilating to the Malay diaspora.
We should also recall the intermingling of Javanese and Malays, especially in Melaka where the Hikayat Hang Tuah admitted that the Malays were all “half-Javanese” (Winstedt 1969:38), and where the royal chronicle was studded with Javanese passages. The very categories Jawah and Jawi referred as frequently to Sumatra or Malays as to Javanese until European labels began to prevail. More surprisingly, Madagascar’s interaction with the Indonesian Archipelago was still remembered in the sixteenth century, when the Portuguese found there “many brown and Javanised natives who say they are descended from them [Javanese]”, which they attributed to Javanese seafarers having traveled across the Indian Ocean (Couto 1645, IV, iii:169).
It appears, then, that commercial links and a common orientation towards maritime trade continued to bind the Austronesians who “remained behind” on the fringes of Eurasia to each other, in advance of and apart from Islam or Christianity. The spread of Islam to most of the Austronesians of Southeast Asia can be seen as a consequence as much as it was a cause of this common involvement in maritime commerce.