Let us set the historical stage for the arrival of the Europeans into Southeast Asia. The Crusades, beginning at the end of the 11th century and continuing off and on for centuries, introduced the European royalty to sensual luxuries from the mysterious ’Orient’. These luxuries included silks from China and spices from Southeast Asia via India.
There were two trading routes that were used to bring these exotic goods from Asia to Europe - a land route and a sea route. The overland route, appropriately named the Silk Road, traveled through Persia, present day Iran, through the steppes that are to the north of the Himalayas, and then finally to China. This route, as well as being long and difficult, was also dangerous because the area was politically unpredictable. The journey began through a Muslim country and then passed through territory controlled by the militarily aggressive nomadic tribes before reaching China.
In the 13th century, the Mongol hordes under Genghis Khan’s command established an empire that included all the territory from Persia in the West to China in the East. To the Mongols, human life was cheap. For example, they exterminated entire cities to create pastureland for their horses. While brutal, Mongol culture was not materialistic. As the Mongols belonged to a nomadic culture, physical possessions were relatively unimportant. This cultural mindset minimized the corruption associated with greed.
The laws of the Mongolian Empire were strict. The normal punishment for almost any crime, including adultery and theft, was execution. These laws were enforced ruthlessly and uniformly throughout their Empire. Due in part to their cultural values combined with these dire consequences, it was said that a traveler could openly display a pound of gold and not be harassed on a Silk Road journey from the Mediterranean to China.
Because of this political stability, goods flowed steadily from the East to the West and back. In general, raw goods traveled to the East, and manufactured goods returned to the West. Due to favorable trading circumstances, the European aristocracy was able to indulge their desire for exotic Asian goods.
Besides having intrinsic value, Asian goods also conferred status. For example, the ruling class would serve plates of unadorned pepper to impress visitors with their wealth. Due to the unbeatable combination of status and pleasure, the European aristocracy became uncontrollably addicted to merchandise from the East during the relatively brief Mongolian reign.
The empire forged by Genghis and his sons fragmented and collapsed late in the 14th century. The Muslim kingdoms that had been destroyed by the Mongolian hordes returned with a vengeance. They immediately purged themselves of the Nestorian Christians, who had been protected by the Mongols. Open to the world during the Mongol reign, China retreated behind her borders during the following Ming dynasty. To this end, the Chinese imperial government attempted to purge itself of all foreign influences.
Due to Muslim intolerance combined with Chinese self-absorption, the overland trade route to the ‘Orient’ was almost completely blocked. All of the exotic delicacies that had flowed so freely during the reign of the Mongol Khans dried up. The European aristocracy went into withdrawal from their cravings for silks and spices.
Rather than attempting to detach from their desires, the Europeans looked for a new route to procure their goods. It wasn’t exactly new. It was the excruciatingly long and unpredictable sea route. Now that the overland Silk Road was closed, the Europeans shifted their attention to the Spice Voyage – the ocean trade route between the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, the Arabs had dominated the ocean trade between Asia and the Mediterranean since Roman times.
The relationship between the Romans and the Arab traders was fabulous. However by this period in the flow of time, the Arab traders and their countries had become Muslim. Aggravated by centuries of crusades, the Arabs had become increasingly hostile to the Christian culture of Western Europe. Provoked, the Muslims responded in kind. To show their fondness for the Europeans, the Muslim traders hiked their prices to take advantage of a captive and unfriendly market. While the Silk Road was almost completely blocked, goods from the sea route became exorbitantly expensive.
To circumvent the hostile Arab middlemen who blocked travel to China and India, Europeans began searching for a new sea route to India, the suspected origin of Asian goods. The European kingdoms also hoped to become fabulously wealthy by conquering the trade routes, previously controlled by the Arabs. Success would bring a triple win: cheaper goods, fabulous wealth and undermine their archenemy.
At this point in history, the Christian Europeans still had a very limited conception of what was on the other side of Arabia. The land traders called this mysterious territory Cathay or China. The sea traders referred to the land east of Arabia as India.
Following is a sketch of a map of the Medieval world that was made in the early 1500s. It is easy to see that the Persian Muslims block Europe from the Silk Road to Cathay, i.e. China, and the Arab Muslims block their route to the spices of India. Note that India is located in the Far East, along with her islands, the East Indies, including Java.
As China was blocked by land, Europeans hoped to reach India, the supposedly primary Asian port, by sea. Believing the planet to be round Columbus felt he could reach India and the Spice Islands by sailing west. As such, he referred to the islands the he ‘discovered’ as the Indies and their residents as Indians.
The Europeans inevitably discovered that there were two sets of islands, rather than one. They began referring to the Southeast Asian islands as the East Indies to differentiate them from the West Indies of the Caribbean. While the West Indies and their inhabitants have nothing to do with India, these labels have unfortunately stuck.
The same misconception, that mythic India was the paramount port of the East, inspired the governments of the Netherlands and England to call their chief business arms, the Dutch and British East and West India Trading Company respectively. The Western military/political/business arm of Europe dealt with Columbus’ India, eventually the New World, with its indigenous people, the Western Indians. Their Eastern Branch dealt with the expansion of trade and colonialism into Asia - combining India, China, and Southeast Asia, into one.
Further obscuring the European knowledge of the Far East, Ptolemy of Alexandria, Egypt, who lived in the 2nd century CE, had some major misunderstandings about global geography.
Why did his opinions matter?
Both his geographical and astronomical theories dominated the European belief system for 1500 years, from Roman times far past the Renaissance. Ptolemy was to European science what the Bible was to European religion. Here are just a few of his achievements.
His book, the Almagest, laid the foundations of medieval astronomy (as well as modern astronomy with a few corrections). In it he summed up and extended all the ancient knowledge of the heavens from Babylon, Greece, and Egypt. He developed a system that would allow the prediction of the location of any of the planets - the wandering stars, with respect to the Zodiac. This included the Moon and Sun as well as all the planets out to Saturn. This was particularly important for the casting of astrological horoscopes. He also wrote the Tetrabiblos, a book that set up and developed the system of horoscopes that is still followed today.
To set up the calculations for his earth based astronomical system, he developed a sophisticated computational system, which laid the foundations for trigonometry. His system was so powerful that it was employed for over 1500 years. His system, the Ptolemaic system, was finally supplanted by the Copernican solar system in the 17th century. But not without a fight.
Ptolemy had so much prestige by medieval times that to challenge him was like challenging the Bible. Challenging either of them was like challenging the culture itself. Galileo’s discovery of the moons of Jupiter was met with skepticism and got him in trouble because it contradicted the Ptolemaic earth based view - not because it contradicted the Bible. Because of the Protestant reformation, anything heterodox was suspicious. Only orthodox beliefs were safe. And Ptolemy’s scientific beliefs were orthodox.
Ptolemy also wrote a 9-volume work on ancient geography, which set the standard for the next millennium and a half. In it he developed the technique of dividing the spherical earth into degrees of longitude and latitude that we still use today. Unfortunately, his computations predicted that the Earth was 30% smaller than it actually is - despite the fact that many more accurate determinations even existed in his day. This idea of a smaller Earth meant that the landmass of Europe and Asia encompassed 1/2 the globe, instead of 1/3 that it really is.
The Arabs had been using Ptolemy’s information for over a millennium, but had refined his misunderstandings based upon direct experience. The Europeans rediscovered Ptolemy’s geography during their cultural Renaissance early in the 15th century. In 1477, 500 copies of his manuscript were created and distributed. However, the Europeans ignored the Arab corrections - presumably due to cultural arrogance. Ptolemy’s misconceptions were only finally rectified through the direct experience of the European sea voyages.
Ptolemy also developed the notion that the Indian Ocean was bound by a southern continent which connected up with Africa. This dovetailed nicely with the T Map that was popular during the Renaissance. In this map Jerusalem was in the middle, as might be expected. In contrast to modern maps, which have north on the top and south on the bottom, north is on the left and south on the right of the T Map. Hence Europe was on the left of the T Map; Africa on the right; and Asia on top. The Mediterranean was down the center, while the Nile River broke off to the right; this was the ‘T’ of the map. This entire Eurasian/African land mass was surrounded by water - the unknown.
This notion of the world’s geography discouraged sea travel around Africa in two ways. First, the water on the perimeter of the map was considered the edge of the world, which included terrible storms and sea monsters. This may have been somewhat connected with the turbulence around Cape Horn at the southern tip of Africa. Second, Ptolemy’s idea of a continuous landmass surrounding the Indian Ocean meant that it was impossible to sail around Africa.
However, Ptolemy’s misconception of a smaller planet led to the notion of smaller oceans. This confusion inspired Columbus’s sea voyage west to reach India. Columbus’ intent was to trade directly with India, the source of spices and skirt all the in-between entrepôts. This should be possible because India was on top of the T Map, which meant that she existedlocated at the far east of Asia - due west from Europe, at least according to the popular T Map.
By the time of Columbus’ voyage in 1492, the Arab sailors had already developed enough sailing skills that they had long since jumped the India entrepôt to trade directly with Southeast Asia and China. Indeed their increased influence in Southeast Asian trade established Malacca as the premiere entrepôt of the region. When the Europeans first arrived, Arab traders were a dominant economic force in Southeast Asia.