A Brief History of Southeast Asia (2/3). From the arrival of the Europeans (16th century) to the new nationalist movements

Table of Contents

The journey to the east

Europeans arrive in South East Asia Islands

The years of prosperity and state-building were interrupted in the Southeast Asian islands by the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century.

The glittering Malay capital, Melaka, was defeated by Portugal in 1511 and, from then on, ceased to be a significant focus of power.

Mataram, in Java, was conquered in the early 17th century by the Dutch East India Company (VOC). However, the Company took its place as a regional political focus, with its headquarters in Batavia (now Jakarta). The VOC gradually expanded its economic activity from trade to production and marketing.

Development of Colonial City at Batavia in the early 17th Century.

Thus, the Company did not limit itself to purchasing from indigenous producers but increasingly became involved in cultivating coffee, indigo, sugar, teak, and other products, purchased later at low, fixed prices. The natives played a key role since, rather than directly controlling their colonial subjects, a control system was instituted whereby local elites acted on behalf of the Dutch, using their traditional power to recruit workers for their agricultural projects.

As long as they were sufficiently submissive, sultans, rajahs, and other rulers retained power, were provided with Dutch military protection to prevent revolts, and were even encouraged to maintain the attributes of sublime royalty to persuade the people. To obtain personnel in the cities, particularly in Batavia, the Company promoted Chinese immigration, controlled by their chiefs, accountable to the Dutch authorities.

On the other hand, the Spaniards established in Manila, Philippines, laid the foundations of their evangelizing effort in Southeast Asia. Initially, this city was merely a staging post for galleons from Spanish America crossing the Pacific searching for trade with China. But the introduction of new crops and agricultural techniques made the Philippines an important cultural center in its own right. Spanish and Chinese settlers intermarried with local leaders. While Dutch rule in the Indonesian archipelago consolidated local elites, in the Philippines, the Spanish formed a new mestizo elite based on tobacco, sugar, and coconut production.

Ideal reconstruction of the city of Manila and its fortifications in the second half of the XVIIth century, founded in 1571 and converted at this time a major commercial link between Japan, China and the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

South East Asia mainland prepares for the inevitable

Although the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch carried out sporadic missions in mainland Southeast Asia, this region was not colonized. On the contrary, new and powerful indigenous states emerged. In 1752, a new dynasty, Konbaung, unified the adjacent valleys and mountainous and coastal regions in Burma. The Burmese army attempted to join present-day Thailand, but communication through the rugged mountains of eastern Burma proved challenging to sustain. Soon Siam, the new Thai kingdom, emerged. Vietnam, after thirty years of civil war, reunified in 1802 under the powerful Nguyen dynasty. Finally, Cambodia’s decline continued, especially after losing its access to the sea to Vietnam.

Saya Chone's "Abdication of King Thibaw" (Konbaung Dynasty) to English troops

Although the three continental kingdoms were more powerful, organized, and with a greater sense of national identity than their predecessors, they soon had to contend with British and French imperialism, much more potent due to the European industrialization.

Their rulers were soon aware of the threat of British and French colonialism and took various measures to defend their independence. King Mindon in Burma, Kings Mongkut and Chulalongkorn in Siam, and Emperors Nguyen Anh and Minh Mang in Vietnam advised the West to build modern and effective institutions and create stronger states and armies that could resist British and French incursions.


King Chulalongkorn (Siam, today Thailand) after his second coronation ceremony on 16 November 1873.

These kingdoms intended to play the Western powers off against each other, preserving independence by creating a local balance of power. They carefully assessed how much they would have to concede to the Western powers to keep them at arm’s length -something we can see more than a hundred years later as the central policy of this region in the form of ASEAN.

French Indochina was formed in October 1887 from Annam, Tonkin, Cochinchina (who together form modern Vietnam) and the Kingdom of Cambodia. For the remainder of his rule, Norodom was a puppet of the French.

In the end, only Siam was able to avoid direct colonial rule by paying the price of opening its economy to Western interests on a large scale and ceding control of outlying territories to the British and French. Siam’s survival was based partly on its international presence as a modern kingdom and partly on its location at the confluence of British and French interests.

Conversely, Burma’s trade restrictions served as a pretext for British attacks in 1852 and 1885, which ended with the conquest of the entire country. With the excuse of the Vietnamese emperors’ hostility to Catholicism and restrictions on Western trade, France launched military operations in 1858 that ended with conquering all of Vietnam in 1886.

France also seized Cambodia and the former Siamese territories along the Mekong, creating the Protectorate of Laos.

A French colon (settler) and his Vietnamese wife and servants in Cochinchina

 If Britain suppressed the Burmese monarchy by sending the former king into exile in India, the French kept the Vietnamese emperor, supported the Cambodian king, and even appointed a king in Laos.

South East Asia finally under colonialism rule

While the Burmese, Siamese, and Vietnamese states resisted colonial imposition, a new anti-colonial resistance emerged in the Philippines and Indonesia. In both countries, it was led by European and mixed European and Chinese or European-educated indigenous influenced by the concepts of democracy and self-determination. Taking advantage of the transfer of the Philippines from Spain to the US, Filipino nationalists declared independence. Refusing to accept this declaration, the United States fought the nationalists for three years to control the islands. Finally, in Indonesia, Indonesia’s Christian mestizo elite lost power because of their religious differences with the indigenous Muslim majority and because of the presence of a large influx of migrants from the Netherlands who refused to lose colonial control.

Thus, at the beginning of the 20th century, Southeast Asia was divided along borders very similar to today. The main political entities – British Burma, independent Siam, French Indochina, British Malaya, the Dutch Indies, and the American Philippines – despite the influence of the colonizers, had deep roots in the ancient centers of civilization that had characterized the region for two millennia. Different religious influences-Confucianism, Islam, Theravada Buddhism, and Catholicism-separated the regionbut the colonial framework gave them much in common.

Under this system, foreign authorities coming into contact with China were expected to accept China's superiority, and foreign trade was set up as an exchange of gifts

Social order and Government based in ethnic hierarchy

All colonies were de facto states, managed separately from the metropole, governed autocratically by a governor-general answerable to London (or Calcutta in British Burma), Washington, or Paris. The more economically important regions were governed directly and under strict control, while the less attractive peripheral areas were managed indirectly. Profit remained the colonies’ main objective, and the colonial administrations sought to create a favorable environment for Western companies. British Malaya exported rubber and tin; Vietnam, rubber, and rice. Burma exported rice, timber, and oil. The Philippines produced sugar and tobacco, and the Dutch Indies produced rubber, oil, tin, coffee, tea, sugar, and tobacco. Thailand, although uncolonized, played a similar role in the regional economy as a major producer of rice.

It was not the purpose of the new states to effect rapid or broad social change. Their primary concerns were extending bureaucratic control and creating the conditions for success in a capitalist world economy; the chief necessity was stability or, as the Dutch called it, rust en orde (“tranquility and order”). Therefore, most colonies had a social structure based on ethnicity, with Europeans at the top, followed by Eurasians, Chinese, and/or Indians, then the most relevant ethnic indigenous (Vietnamese, Javanese, Burmese, etc.) lastly, remote highlanders and islanders.

Vietnamese labourers in a French rubber plantation, late 1800s

This hierarchical order entailed a social pattern in which Westerners dominated the upper echelons of government and international trade; Chinese and Indians were responsible for commerce, finance, and mid-level professional occupations; and indigenous peoples worked in agricultural production for Western enterprises located in the countryside. There were exceptions to this pattern-indigenous aristocrats could be integrated into the colonial elite; Chinese and Indian laborers did the harder, menial jobs -however, ethnic hierarchy and segregation were very marked. The physical appearance of most Southeast Asian cities was more Western, Chinese, and Indian than indigenous.

Modern independence movements

Southeast Asian colonies followed very different political paths through the first four decades of the twentieth century. During the 20th century, the imperatives of the modern economy led all colonial authorities to train increasing numbers of Indians in Western languages and modern skills. The new elites began to complain about the exploitation and inequalities created by the colonial system and were at the core of the new nationalist movements. Their opposition to economic exploitation and ethnic discrimination proved highly effective everywhere.


But during the 1920s and 1930s a small but thoughtful and active class of Western intellectuals appeared in Southeast Asia.

These were not the first to speak the language of the colonial rulers and to criticize them, for in the early 20th century Java and Luzon, having the longest experience under colonial rule, had already yielded such individuals as Javanese noblewoman Raden Adjeng Kartini and Filipino patriot Jose Rizal.

The new generation was more secure in its resistance to colonial domination (or, in Siam, monarchy rule), clearer and much more political in its conception of nationhood, and set to take the initiative in their own societies.

Still, the magnitude and pace of the desired social, political, and economic changes would vary significantly in each case.

Raden Ayu Kartini, (1879 - 1904), was a prominent Javanese and an Indonesian national heroine. She was a pioneer in the area of girls' education and women's rights for Indonesians.

However, the new generation was more secure in its resistance to colonial domination (or, in Siam, monarchy rule), clearer and much more political in its conception of nationhood, and set to take the initiative in their own societies.

But the magnitude and pace of the desired social, political, and economic changes would vary significantly in each case…


… And with the beginning of the first nationalist movements in South East Asia, we close this travel note of our Journey to the West. But…

… If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the next post carefully … If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or input, please email us at info@danielecheverria.com. We will be happy to answer them.

Daniel echeverria

Daniel Echeverría-Jadraque

If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully… If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or contributions, please send us an email to info@danielecheverria.com. Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse and myself will be happy to hear from you!

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