Harvard Report: Asian Borderlands

Asian Borderlands: the First Annual Symposium (25 March 2017)

This symposium formed the closing part of the first annual meeting of a new research network composed of graduate students from Harvard University, the University of Chicago, Columbia University and Cornell University. As a rationale for setting up this network, the organizers stated that:

‘the concept of the “borderland” encapsulates varied concerns of ecological and spatial history, political sovereignty, economic and legal history and socio-cultural interconnections. As a result, several of us, working in disparate departments in distant universities, find ourselves being a part of the same debates from different perspectives. Whether we study the imperial security state, court cultures in frontiers of early modern empires, or social intermediaries in oceanic trade, we ask similar questions regarding the concept. What are the best analytical tools for understanding the borderland, and how can we synthesize different theoretical contributions originating from different regional historiographical literatures? How best to facilitate dialogue between these various conversations to devise better projects and refine our existing ones?’

Effectively, the field of border history seems itself in need for more cross-border syntheses – one recent example being Charles S. Maier’s Once Within Borders. As was anticipated by the organizers, many presenters and participants learned during this symposium that their topics, methods and observations are often easily linkable and that the time seems ripe to connect their separate conclusions. This symposium could logically not offer a full synthesis, but the exchange of information will nevertheless have helped a great deal in moving towards this goal.

The Symposium was divided into three panels, two of which included early modern contributions. In the first, Rukmini Chakraborty (Cornell) pointed to the historiographical neglect of premodern East-Asian commercial law and explained how bonds of ethnicity, mercenary experiences and religious conversions were all supported by the structures of this commercial law. The paper showed how law functioned as a cross-cultural framework for commerce, explored through a messy history of objects and ceremonies. Also pointing towards cross-cultural exchange was the propable involvement of the Arabian East-Asian diaspora in the codification of commercial law, especially in the field of slavery.

Crucial in Chakraborty’s description was how law primarily intended to facilitate cross-border and cross-cultural exchanges: it was used as a practical tool, for example for solving disputes between the captains of ships and the owners of the cargo they transported. Other laws were aimed at preventing mutiny, or at dealing with shipwrecks and the aid of ships in difficulty. Even the Europeans used this cross-border commercial law, with one English captain asserting his rights by referring to the ‘old customs of Malaka’.

Still, such contacts were not always easy: what Europeans perceived as blackmail, was in fact an intricate local practice that formed a mix between European contracts and gift-giving ceremonies involving sacred symbols such as royal seals a nd swords. Conversely, locals found the European obsession with the written word strange, as they indeed focused more on the mentioned gift giving and ceremonies. Eventually, a strange hybrid emerged in the trade between locals and Europeans that included both ritual gift giving and the filling in of written registers.

In the same panel, Thomas Newbold (Chicago) also focused on law, more specifically the legal conflict over ownership and use of land in Chittagong (1761-1800). His paper questioned how colonial changes entered local politics, and how this influenced the local legal systems used to deal with law and commerce.

Moving to Japan, Jonas Rüegg (Harvard) contended that the Pacific rim of medieval and early modern Japan has so far not been debated from a frontier perspective, despite the existence of sources that indicate that this was effectively the case. For one, the early colonization of the Ogasawara Islands indicates that Japan’s maritime expansion plans not necessarily started with the Meji revolution. The island of Hachijo was for example separated from mainland japan by a particularly strong current (koroshiro), but nevertheless maintained contact with the political center in Edo. Its inhabitants were largely depended on the import of calories from Honshu, and thus traded rice with silk and other goods. Chinese and European ships were also regularly shipwrecked in this region, which allowed the population to coerce these merchants to sell their loads significantly under the price – except when the Shogun owned the goods and the islanders preferred to limit their pressure. Rüegg himself pointed to the similarities between his case and those studied by James Scott in Zomia: the islands at Japans Pacific frontier were largely autonomous communities due to their geographical location, but were nevertheless tied to a center by some form of tributary role that allowed them to trade with the mainland.

The second panel discussed the topic of ‘edges of empires’. Lei lin (Harvard) demonstrated how the merchants involved in the trans-Himalayan trade were used as political messengers, translators, spies, informants, ambassadors, ‘think-thankers’, and navigators in the struggle over the Qing-Tibetan borderlands (1788-1793). Especially the Qing dynasty tried to enroll these traders in their attempts to integrate Tibet in their Empire. Interestingly, this increased struggle over the borderlands also led to the increasing of border controls through paperwork, tariffs and border inspections. As such, it would be interesting to see how this case compares to similar examples of border making in Europe.

In the same panel Aniket De talked about Lord Curzon and the reconfiguration of Imperial borders. In particular, he discussed the shift from fighting tribes to more peaceful interactions, as demonstrated by attempts to integrate Baluchistan into the imperial Indian frontier by the turning of a screw instead of with a hammer. Moreover, this led De to an interesting parallel between Curzon and Warren Hastings: in his view both were imperialists, but as consolidators and not as expansionists.

Finally, and skipping the third section which focused entirely on modern history, the symposium ended with a discussion led by Peter Perdue (Yale) and Sugata Bose (Harvard). One question that emerged during this debate involved the notion of borderlands itself: does the category of borderland work as a historical tool or has it become too broad to be functional? As was the case with the (dis)entangling global early modernities-conference held a day earlier, at the heart of the matter were indeed the terms and concepts historians use to analyze, frame and describe their research. Much work can still be done in this regard, but with symposia such as this we are off to a good start.

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