By: John Berthelsen

Centuries before the Chinese eunuch Zheng He made his epic seven voyages of discovery across the southern seas, the Austronesian peoples of the vast archipelago to the south of China had conquered the seas all the way to Madagascar, 7,000 km across the Indian Ocean.

The region, according to author Philip Bowring, should be known as “Nusantaria,” an empire encompassing the world’s greatest maritime and cultural crossroads and one equivalent to the Mediterranean on the other side of the earth. (Disclaimer: Bowring is one of the founders and a co-editor of Asia Sentinel). 

The word Nusantaria is taken from the Sanskrit word Nusantara, meaning “outer islands.” It is a region that has been given relatively short shrift by historians unaware of its importance in comparison to seafaring peoples in other areas.  It should not have been, as Nusantaria played an outsize role in the creation of the modern world.

This is a densely-packed book, one that should be on the shelf of every student of Southeast Asia, a tour de force combining history, linguistics and archaeology that is thickly footnoted, authoritative and containing hundreds of references to other scholarship. And, whether intended or not,  by describing the history of Nusantaria from the ice age to the present in minute detail, and by giving the peoples of the region their historic due, it puts to bed the modern-day claim of Beijing that its so-called “nine-dash line” gives China hegemony over a region that actually had been settled and developed by its indigenous peoples hundreds, perhaps thousands of years before Chinese traders made their way down into the region.

Bowring starts 17,000 years ago when the most recent ice age meant there was no Strait of Melaka or Java Sea and the region’s denizens could cross the area on foot.  Rising seas would ultimately flood the Sahul Shelf, forcing them to take to the sea.  They would become some of the world’s greatest mariners, as exemplified by the depiction of a four-masted ship on the wall of Borobudur, the world’s biggest Buddhist edifice, on the island of Java. The waters would form a corridor that connected Asia to the rest of the world.

There is evidence of trade links as long ago as 1,500 years BCE between the eastern archipelago and Egypt, Greece and China. They were able to sail from Samoa to the west coast of India. By the 15th Century, the Javanese were sailing ships 50 meters long and carrying as much as 1,500 tonnes of freight including “rice, meat of cow, sheep, pig and deer dried and salted, many chicken, garlic and onions. They also bring hither many weapons for sale, that is to say, lances, daggers and swords worked with inlaid metal and of very good steel.”

 Because of the geology of the region, where heat and rain can combine to create an astonishing variety of vegetation, the Austronesians had plenty to trade. Spices abounded. According to other sources, nutmeg was so valuable that Dutch traders sewed their stevedores’ pockets together on the docks of the Netherlands to make sure they couldn’t steal part of the cargo.

“The story here is of vessels which were large, stable and long-lasting, and sailed from Java to the Arabian peninsula, and presumably to the Spice Islands.” In short, Bowring writes, “the unvarnished, contemporary, on-the-spot, Portuguese accounts of ships and trade make and interesting if largely ignored counterpoint to the latter-day accounts of the celebrity voyages of Zheng He.”

Here were astonishingly rich kingdoms that mostly have disappeared into the overwhelming vegetation, including Palembang and others in Indonesia, an empire built on trade whose buildings were all of wood, whose records were written on palm leaves and whose people lived on rafts, all of which would disappear. Another was Srivijaya, one of the leading trading centers on the Sumatran coast that was known to the Chinese as early as the 7th century during the golden age of the Tang dynasty, when China developed a taste for camphor, pepper and aromatic woods and oils.

The region’s power topped out during the Mahajapit Empire, which gave the name Nusantara to the islands and coasts with a shared culture and seaborne trade. It was a period during which maritime trade expanded as demand from both China and Europe increased, Bowring writes. Mahajapit strength “came from its control of the three-cornered trade involving rice from the interior, spices from the east, and the sales of ceramics, textiles and other manufactures from China and India which had markets throughout the archipelago.”

Chinese traders had long been active in the region and during the Song dynasty were followed by the huge ships of Zheng He – which apparently weren’t as huge as advertised, according to Bowring, because their method of manufacture simply wouldn’t have supported that much weight. But in any case, other influences began to permeate the region, followed by the colonial period.

Today, he writes, Nusantaria “now has bigger states but no longer the seafaring prowess and technology which protected it until the arrival of the Europeans. Nor does it seem likely that it will acquire them in the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, trade is likely to continue to grow between East Asia and the countries of the Indian Ocean: the subcontinent, Iran, Arabia and East Africa. “If this is so, it will simply be a return to the situation 2,000 years ago when eastern spices and silks reached Cairo, Rome and Baghdad by sea via Sumatra, India and Eritrea, and sailors from the archipelago were regular visitors to Madagascar and the east African coast.

“If so,” according to the book, “Nusantaria’s role is assured as a place for exchanging goods and ideas without it being a pawn of China, India or the west.” It is a role that is essential to understanding of a region that is still dynamic and not eclipsed by China.