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Southeast Asia: Three Interventions

China’s rise, the spread of Islam and the arrival of Europeans had a profound effect on the region.

September 14, 2019

Three outside influences of transforming importance arrived in force in little more than one hundred years.

The first but least important was China’s large scale entry on to the scene in the form of the seven voyages of Ming dynasty eunuch commander Zheng He, and his large fleets which traversed the seas from Borneo to the coast of east Africa and the Red Sea between 1405 and 1433.

In the process, small kingdoms were prevailed upon to send royal representatives to China to acknowledge the supremacy of the emperor. Some who declined suffered the consequences.

There was some promotion of trade and Zheng He was instrumental in raising the status of Melaka from a minor port to what was to become the most important in the region.

The voyages contributed, even if indirectly, to trade expansion, but with their large numbers of ships and soldiers they were more primarily expressions of Chinese power.

Claims that these so-called Treasure Ship were 147 meters long appear hugely exaggerated. No Chinese ocean going vessel was much more than 55 meters.

China’s Wang Dayuan, writing 70 years before Zheng He, remarked on the large size of the vessels he saw in the southern seas, and the Portuguese writing 70 years after Zheng He reported that Javanese junks were very large, much bigger than Chinese ones.

No pioneer

Zheng He was no pioneer navigator, traveling routes known for at least 1,400 years. The voyages ended because they were very expensive, offered little in return and were irrelevant for the empire’s security.

Nonetheless, they have become part of China’s folklore, and accepted overseas as far more remarkable and peaceful than they really were.

But they probably did contribute in a minor way to the Asian expansion of Islam via the promotion of Melaka and the involvement of Chinese Muslim traders in regional trade.

Islam had reached ports such as Aceh and Pasai on the Sumatran coast by the early 14th century. But the spread was slow and did not gather pace until the 15th century when flourishing trade brought large numbers of Muslims, who dominated Indian Ocean trade, to the region.

The biggest group was Gujeratis, but also Bengalis, Persians and Arabs. Malay Melaka, which inherited some of Srivijaya’s role, also played a role by combining Islam with earlier traditions and, through the Malay language, spread not only Islam but Malay civil and maritime codes of conduct.

Muslim merchants of various origins established sultanates on the north Java coast of which the biggest was Demak which defeated the Majapahit in 1475, paving the way for the eventual conversion of most Javanese to Islam, at least nominally.

The Europeans arrive

Islam’s eastward progress was, ironically, probably helped by the third great event of the era: The arrival of Europeans with the Portuguese conquest of Melaka in 1511.

This propelled many Malay Muslim merchants to move to new locations and take Islam with them — including to Brunei and Makassar. The direct Portuguese connection to Europe from Japan via Macau and Melaka helped the development of regional trade and hence of the various sultanates.

The Portuguese were mostly content to establish their hold on European trade and also take part in intra-regional trade. These took priority over Christian missionary activity or empire building, unlike their Spanish rivals who set out to rule (from Mexico) and convert what is now the Philippines.

That conquest helped detach the islands, western Mindanao and Sulu excluded, from the rest of the archipelago both by religion and, more significantly, the Pacific orientation of Spain and of its future colonizer, the United States.

Meanwhile, it was profits not priests which drove competition for Portugal and three hundred years of ever increasing western impact.


China’s rise, the spread of Islam and the arrival of Europeans had a profound effect on the region.

Small kingdoms had to send representatives to China to acknowledge the emperor’s supremacy. Those who declined suffered the consequences.

Islam’s eastward progress was helped by the arrival of Europeans with the Portuguese conquest of Melaka in 1511.