By: Our Correspondent

Asia Sentinel co-founder and consulting editor Philip Bowring has won the RM5,000 Penang Book Prize for his Empire of the Winds: The Global Role of Asia’s Great Archipelago, published by I.B. Tauris. The prize is awarded annually by city magazine Penang Monthly

Thirty-two books were submitted for the book prize this year. Eight made the shortlist and three were chosen from this list as the finalists, based on research quality and effort; narrative skill; originality and uniqueness; potential scholarly effect; potential public effect; and quality of deduction.

The book, reviewed by Jefferey Mellefont for New Mandella, calls it a ”detailed, multidisciplinary account of these quintessential seafaring and trading societies, from their prehistoric origins until now.”

Reviewed here by Asia Sentinel, the book describes the origins of the Austronesian peoples of the vast archipelago to the south of China and the contribution they made and recounts the history of the region from the Ice Age to the present.

Bowring argues that the region 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. The word Nusantaria is taken from the Sanskrit word Nusantara, meaning “outer islands.” 

Asia Sentinel described it as “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…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.

The book finds evidence of trade links as long ago as 1,500 years BCE between the eastern archipelago and Egypt, Greece and China. The region’s seafarers 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.”

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.

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