Nordin Hussin. Trade and Society in the Straits of Melaka: Dutch Melaka and English Penang, 1780-1830. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007. xxvii + 388 pp. $29.00 (paper), ISBN 978-87-91114-88-5.
Reviewed by James Fichter (Department of History, Lingnan University)
Published on H-Albion (May, 2008)
In Trade and Society in the Straits of Melaka, Nordin Hussin has added valuably to our understanding of colonial Malaya. Hussin examines the comparative histories of Dutch Melaka and British Penang at the turn of the nineteenth century, not as a historian writing in the old metropoles of Britain and the Netherlands might--as a study of comparative empire--but as a historian writing and publishing in the Malay world might--as a history of urban Malaysia. And yet, Hussin's work is not without value for scholars of Britain's empire as well.
Trade and Society addresses the gap in historical emphasis between the Melaka of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the Singapore of the nineteenth century, a gap that often leaves the Penang and Melaka of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as little more than footnotes to a grander peninsular or regional narrative, and certainly in an urban history one. Further to his credit, Hussin does not succumb to the teleological temptation of the nation-state, to read in Dutch Melaka and British Penang the roots of the modern Malaysian state, or of the Resident System of late nineteenth-century Malaya. For this he is to be commended.
Hussin is at his best immersed in the local detail of port life--his discussion of the Penang fires is excellent. We read of fire engines and fire hazards, loss and rebuilding, and the shifting demographics of various ethnicities. In other places, such as Hussin's discussion of female sexual slavery, one wonders about their male counterparts--the majority of Melakan slaves were men--and how lived slavery might have varied in Melaka under Dutch and British rule. Likewise, his discussion of hybrid colonial port towns, though written in awareness of the theoretical literature on the subject, could have benefited from greater awareness of other hybrid ports, either in British India or in nineteenth-century China.
Hussin's work addresses two cities in a time of imperial flux, but the fluctuation was gradual--"Dutch" Melaka was occupied by the British from 1795 to 1818, or roughly half the years of Hussin's study. Though Hussin considers this a "caretaker" period, it is difficult to consider a period of such generational duration as quite so transient (p. 25). Hussin emphasizes the Dutch periods in Melaka bracketing the British occupation, an emphasis that appears to be driven as much by his interest in comparative Dutch-British imperial history as it is by the records. There is little trade data--his core source--for the English occupation of Melaka. The absence of shipping figures raises important, and unanswered, questions: why did the British decline to keep detailed shipping records at Melaka, at a time when a recognizably modern customs bureaucracy was keeping markedly better trade records for Bengal (1795) and Madras and Bombay (1802)? Was this the result of a specific order, of negligence, or of Melaka's insignificance (real or imagined)? Was it connected to private trading interests or smuggling? Though Hussin has, in a work of port history, shied away from asking such questions, more imperially minded scholars should not.
Likewise, imperial historians will want to know how Penang's rise over Melaka related to Penang's relationship with the rest of the British Empire in Asia. Penang was the East India Company's fourth presidency, a position that set it above offices at Saint Helena or Canton but that left it in a league in which it was constantly dwarfed by the bureaucratically more awesome Bombay, Madras, and Bengal. How did Penang's rise in Malaya affect its relationship with the other presidencies? Sir Stamford Raffles, after the 1811 British conquest of Dutch Java, wanted to expand company rule to include the permanent acquisition of Java, a move that would have greatly expanded the presidency's reach. Others felt that such an acquisition would overextend the empire (not to mention cause diplomatic complications, since the Dutch were allied to Britain after 1813) and suggested that Penang be folded under Bengal's wing entirely. Officials at Penang were thus constantly trying to expand their influence and demonstrate their importance to London--the result is the frenetic and self-important stream of correspondence typical of the remote branch office trying to prove its worth. Hussin does not appear to address his work to scholars of the imperial center, but scholars of the center, or of British India, will want to ponder such questions as they read his book.
Indeed, at times, Hussin's choice not to address imperial history can be startling. Though his chronology matches Christopher Bayly's Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 1780-1830 (1989), neither this nor any other of Bayly's works appear in Hussin's bibliography. Hussin should not be faulted for neglecting to properly genuflect to certain authors--reviewers' demands that authors bow to their shibboleths are as common as they are tedious. But his omission of Bayly's work is an illustrative example of how Hussin, in writing a work of purely urban and port history, has shunned imperial history altogether. In as much as Hussin sets out to write Malaysian history, one sees that broader imperial studies would have less impact on his work, but it is difficult to imagine that two distinctly imperial cities could be quite so divorced from the vicissitudes of empire.
Hussin's shunning of imperial history can at times hobble his study. Hussin uses local records from Malaysian archives and libraries, which are complemented by records from The Hague and London. Yet, Hussin does not consult English and Dutch East India Company archives in India and Indonesia. The dearth of British data for Melaka for the period 1795-1818 particularly begs research in the National Archives of India. In addition, it appears that Hussin did not consult the Arsip Nasional in Indonesia. Batavia, present-day Jakarta, was the administrative and commercial center of the Dutch East India Company's Asian empire, just as Calcutta was for the English company's. It is unclear whether Hussin failed to consult the Arsip Nasional or did and simply found it singularly unhelpful--that archive's difficulty preserving and locating records make this latter a distinct possibility--but some indication of this would have been helpful. Without this information, we are left wondering about the greater significance of Melaka's decline relative to Penang. For example, did Dutch authorities have any vision for reviving that port? Did the Dutch hope, however impractically, to expel the British from Malaya and Penang? Indeed, if Dutch authorities in Batavia were silent on this point, that, too, speaks volumes.
Hussin leaves us, then, a study of two ports in the Straits of Melaka, during one of the most transformative periods of the British and Dutch empires in Asia, but divorced from that larger transformation. Hussin strives to link Malaya to the imperial centers in London and The Hague. But, the wider Asian connections--from Penang to Calcutta and from Melaka to Batavia--are left to be sketched out by others. Scholars of the British Empire would do well to take note of this useful and thoughtful volume as they do so.
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James Fichter. Review of Hussin, Nordin, Trade and Society in the Straits of Melaka: Dutch Melaka and English Penang, 1780-1830.
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