Empire of the Winds

Philip Bowring
I.B. Tauris

Chapter 6, Srivijaya: Vanished Great Mandala

Pages 61 to 64


Srivijaya’s success was to create and then manage a system by which lesser monarchs maintained their own status and local loyalty arrangements while conforming to the overall interests of the Srivijayan monarchy. The concept of a Mandala was of a set of dependent relationships in which rulers maintained their autonomy within a common interest framework. It was at the heart of an Indian notion of kingship and government, a series of concentric circles of fealty and obligation headed by one supreme leader. The pre-eminent lord led by virtue of his accomplishments, while bonds with lesser nobles were cemented through marriages.

The Srivijayan Mandala was based on the city’s geographical position dominating the Melaka strait. From there it could control trade and ensure fair distribution of its revenues. Dispersed entities had their own commercial interests and their own supplies of ships and sailors. They paid tribute to Srivijaya; in return they enjoyed the benefits of being part of a larger entity which could provide protection and trade access. Over time this loose hegemony came to include all the trading ports of the peninsula, and those on the Gulf of Thailand and Mekong delta, but Srivijaya was content to be first among nominal equals. It also ensured that its own sailors, with their intimate knowledge of the rocks and shoals, were kept happy with a fair share of trade income – otherwise they would resort to piracy.

Local rulers retained many of the characteristics of traditional Malay datus (chieftains), who relied heavily on personal leadership qualities. But grafted on to this were Indian ideas about the divine nature of kingship within an all-encompassing system of beliefs and codes. These required the monarch to provide honest government and to attend to the welfare of his subjects in return for their loyalty, which in turn would be rewarded…. A Persian writing in Arabic in the tenth century noted that parrots in Palembang could speak many languages including Arabic, Persian and Greek. (6)

The Guangzhou Massacre

Palembang also benefited commercially from the expansion of Arab and Persian trade with China, while the Abbasid empire dominated its region and the Tang era was one of prosperity in China. Srivijaya’s political clout probably waned as the Arabs used their own ships as well as Nusantarian ones. Their merchants came to dominate trade – but they still needed Srivijayan ports and sailors. So Srivijaya still collected its dues. After an initial interruption, it also benefited from a massacre of foreign traders in Guangzhou in 878 that forced the traders to move their bases to other ports.

The scale of the Guangzhou massacre, carried out by rebels opposing the Tang dynasty, gives an idea of the size of the trade: it supported a foreign community that was several thousand strong, comprising Muslim Arabs and Persians, Parsees, Jews, Hindus, and Greek, Armenian and Nestorian Christians. A century earlier, in 758, Arab, Persian and other merchants had plundered the city after being infuriated by the greed of Chinese officials. This followed an incident in 684 when Kunlun merchants had killed the governor of Guangzhou. The series of troubles illustrates both the wealth that trade generated and the weakness of Chinese imperial control over a distant province where Sinicization was still far from complete….

The industrial scale of trade is shown in the wreck of a ninth century ship in the treacherous waters near Belitung Island between Sumatra and Borneo. It carried 60,000 pieces of Chinese ceramics probably destined for Basra. Mostly made to standard designs, some had Buddhist motifs, others Islamic calligraphy. There were even ceramic pots inscribed under the glaze with Manichean writing. This was a religion which had once thrived in Persia, central Asia and western China and, though much reduced by competition and persecution, lingered on until about the fourteenth century. China in turn bought cotton textiles from India, muslin and damask from Syria, frankincense from Arabia and indigo, ivory, precious woods, tortoiseshell and aromatic oils from a variety of locations to the south and west. Although maritime archaeological evidence of this is lacking, there are plenty of Chinese written records.

Chapter 10, Malagasy Genes and African Echoes

Pages 88 to 94

Malagasy Genes and African Echoes

Language is the starting point for uncovering another forgotten manifestation of Nusantaria and its intercontinental maritime role. It is the key to the solution of one of the mysteries of the first millennium Ce: the first permanent human settlement of Madagascar. The island marks the most westward expansion of Austronesian language and culture, its settlement roughly coinciding with the Pacific push from Polynesia to New Zealand, Hawaii and Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

The world’s fourth largest island at 592,000 square kilometres, Madagascar lies only 200 kilometres from the trading ports on the east coast of Africa and yet lay uninhabited by humans until the arrival of Nusantarian seafarers from 7,000 kilometres away. This remarkable feat has gone largely unrecorded in written history, so it can only be pieced together from scientific evidence and inferences from Arab and other sources. Much else can be inferred or guessed at, but with, as yet, limited proof.

Even the modern name ‘Madagascar’ (‘Madagasikara’ in the Malagasy language) has its origin in ignorance and confusion. It was first used by the traveller Marco Polo, who never went there. He confused it with Mogadishu, the trading port on the Somali coast, and compounded the error with a corrupted transliteration. (1)

The main settlement may have occurred during the period of Srivijayan ascendancy in Nusantaria but does not appear to have been politically driven. All that is Malagasy Genes and African Echoes known for sure is that the language of Madagascar is basically Austronesian but with a significant number of words from the Bantu language from Africa, and some from Indian and Arab sources. Language origin does not itself prove that people from Nusantaria were the first settlers. But the genetic evidence does. The gene pool of the island’s population today shows that it is of roughly 50 percent Nusantarian island origin….

Indian Ocean Trade Triangle

 Nusantarian commerce in the western Indian Ocean did not suddenly vanish, leaving the settlements cut off from their roots. Ships from Java and Sumatra continued to play a role in Indian Ocean trade at least until the thirteenth century, not least in the slave trade. In the mid-tenth century an Arab ship encountered off Mozambique a group of raiders described as ‘Waqwaq’. ‘Waqwaq’ was a vague term used by Arabs to denote peoples from the extreme south or east, hence probably Nusantarian. (Waqwaq was the subject of myths about islands where girls grew on trees.) East Africa was a source of slaves for hundreds of years, with the Baghdad-based Abbasid empire the main market. The Zanj slaves became so numerous that they became a major factor in the long-lasting anti-Abbasid rebellion which led to the sack of Basra in 871. This horrific event was widely written about in near contemporary Arab literature, including Muhammad el-Tabari’s History of Prophets and Kings and Muhammad al-Biruni’s Chronology of Ancient Nations. Some slaves were even sold in China. A Chinese, Zhu Yu, writing around 1100, recorded that wealthy people in Guangzhou employed what they called ‘devil slaves’ from Africa…

Chapter 13,Tremble and Obey: The Zheng He Voyages

Pages 119 to 126

China’s engagement with Nusantaria during the Yuan era has been overshadowed by the attention given to the voyages of Zheng He in the early Ming dynasty. The seven voyages between 1405 and 1433 of the fleets headed by Zheng’s so­-called ‘Treasure Ships’ were remarkable demonstrations of Chinese naval power. The voyages abruptly ceased as Ming China became more concerned with internal and land border issues than with seas where they faced no threats. But they did have a lasting impact on the Chinese trading and migration presence across Nusantaria….

The fleets never failed to leave a mark and a message of Chinese power. It was power wielded more benignly than by the Yuan dynasty even if the underlying assumption was that non-Chinese must bow before the emperor – and so must Chinese settled in the region. The sheer size and number of its ships was awe-inspiring. A mere envoy would never need a heavily armed fleet. That he returned with ‘treasures’ such as a giraffe from Africa, not to mention a vast collection of precious objects from other exotic places, also helped establish the Zheng He voyages as memorable, particularly for Chinese, for centuries afterwards. Chau Ju-kua had referred to the African coast, to Zanzibar and people with fuzzy hair, and gave vague descriptions of zebras and giraffes. (10) A few individual Chinese had probably been there previously on Arab or Nusantarian ships. But to go there and bring back these creatures was more memorable, at least to later generations, than the rote messages of fealty to the emperor.

Today, the voyages are often presented as peaceful exercises in exploration, diplomacy and trade promotion. In reality the emperor’s goal was to make himself respected and feared around the southern and western seas and emphasize the superiority of things Chinese. At the same time, however, the emperor presented himself as an impartial peacemaker in dealing with foreign states: ‘I do not differentiate between those here and those there.’ (11) He was the father figure who issued orders to others not to fight each other, as in a directive to Cambodia and Champa, ordering Siam not to harass Melaka. (12) More broadly, as the Xuande emperor claimed in 1429: ‘I serve Heaven by treating the people as my children. In the 10,000 states within the four seas, I try to provide prosperity and abundance.’ (13) The emperor’s sway was mostly rhetoric, the succinct if empty expression of China’s sense of being above all others and occasionally, as in the case of the voyages, given substance by the presence of Zheng He’s large force. The purpose of that demonstration of power was insufficiently clear in Beijing, however, leaving the Chinese at the time less impressed than the foreigners. This was to be China’s last, until very recent, attempt to extend towards the tropical regions of Nusantaria and the Indian Ocean. Dislike of the heat and humidity may have played a role, reflecting an earlier imperial comment about deployment there:

“The government of our present dynasty, out of affection for the army and for the good of humanity, deemed it advisable that our troops should no longer be kept in this pestilential climate for the purpose of guarding such an unprofitable territory.” (14)

The voyages contributed nothing to global knowledge of navigation, winds and currents. Zheng He visited places that had already been in communication with each other for a millennium. The Zheng He trade legacy is also debatable, because the voyages were just a three-decade episode in a boom in Asian trade which began around 1400 and involved Europe and the Muslim world as well as China, and to which Japan also contributed. But they did make China itself more aware of the world and of the southern seas in particular. The voyages helped development of Nusantarian trade with China in which the already established Chinese Muslims, sometimes intermarried with other foreign Muslims as well as local women, played a major role. These connections speeded the advance of Islam in the archipelago as trade boomed during the following two centuries.

The ending of the Ming voyages has been seen as short-sighted and opening the way for European entry into Nusantaria in the next century. But it was for legitimate economic reasons: the cost of inducing tributes was far ahead of any possible gains from trade. Nor did China face any obvious security threats from the southern seas, in contrast to the northern and western frontiers. The end of the voyages did not mean the end of trade, which continued thanks both to demand from a prospering China (and Europe) and the Chinese presence in the ports of the mercantile zone. But it did mean the end, for the next 500 years, of China’s attempts to control Nusantaria.


Chapter 6

(6) Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadani quoted in O.W. Wolters, Early Indonesian Commerce: A Study of the Origins of Srivijaya (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967), p. 250.

Chapter 10

(1) Mervyn Brown, A History of Madagascar (Princeton, NY: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2000), pp. 4–5.

Chapter 13

(10) Chau Ju-kua, His Work on Chinese and Arab Trade in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, trans. Friedrich Hirth and W.W. Rockhill (St Petersburg: Imperial Academy of Sciences, 1911), p. 149.

(11) Geoff Wade, The Ming Shi-lu as a Source for Southeast Asian History, 14th to 17th Centuries (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2005), p. 22. This text is a summary of and introduction to an on-line text of relevant Ming Shi-lu references searchable by name, date and location. See http://epress.nus.edu.sg.

(12) Ibid., p. 24.

(13) Ibid., p. 23.

(14) Ibid., p. 22.

Copyright © 2018 Philip Bowring