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Empire of the Winds – Philip Bowring Invents The Nusantarian Past

May 13, 2019

Via Bloomsbury Publishing.

It could be the most peculiar volume on Southeast Asia ever published. In Empire of the Winds veteran journalist and old school “Asia hand” Philip Bowring offers a dramatic and highly informative take on the region’s history. Spanning the last Ice Age until the present crisis over the South China Sea, Bowring presents his subject as a vital domain best described as “Nusantaria”–taken from the antiquated Malay word for an archipelago.

Rather than follow a chronological narrative or split his chapters among countries, Bowring stretches the imagination with sequential episodes spanning millennia. By trying to encompass everything that ever happened between the Indian Ocean and the Philippine Sea, whether it’s trade or cultural practices, he executes a wonderful revision of the past and leaves readers with some very big ideas to ponder.

Bowring asserts that Nusantarians are the Austronesians who reached the South Pacific several thousand years ago and the vast island chain they inhabited–present day Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines–spurred their dominance over sea lanes until the 18th century. Indeed, Bowring seems a lone voice claiming Southeast Asia is a single great civilizational unit, albeit shaped by waves of Hindu-Buddhist-Islamic influence, and rediscovering its Nusantarian past has some value for the region’s future. The author makes his case by explaining how maritime kingdoms and distinct cultures emerged across Nusantaria from 500 BCE until the onset of colonization. Throughout, Bowring never fails to drive home Nusantaria’s essential role in global trade.

As a correspondent with decades of experience reporting on Asia’s thorniest issues, Bowring exerts himself further by putting China’s influence on Nusantaria in its proper context. That context being overblown at present when it was really marginal for the last thousand years. He illustrates how overrated the Silk Road was even at its height because shipping across the Indian Ocean was a better deal for merchants. A passionate recreational seaman with an impressive knowledge of shipbuilding, Bowring spends two chapters demystifying the Zheng He expeditions and rubbishes the alleged facts surrounding the historical figure’s achievements.

Empire of the Winds is truly rewarding when it dives headlong on the minutiae of shipping and global trade. Bowring’s journalistic flare comes alive when he’s piecing together the inter-island economies of lost maritime kingdoms. Yet Bowring’s Nusantaria isn’t a remote corner of the world but a domain with its own tangled politics and ephemeral proto-countries. (Bowring lists old names of “states” that have ceased to exist in the appendix.) More than the Ming Dynasty’s token expeditions or the spread of Islam, European colonial projects demolished Nusantaria and ruined its cohesion. This is still felt today even with the success of the ASEAN; there’s little sense among the different member countries that a deep kinship exists among them.

At 336 pages long and divided into 27 chapters, the slow creep of European domination is chronicled towards the end. Bowring shows a remarkable fondness for the Philippines as it endured three centuries of Spanish rule. While it’s true that Java and the Moluccas attracted great wealth, the islands consolidated into the Philippines bear an abundance of evidence for a common Nusantarian culture. Bowring goes as far as paying homage to the Sultunate of Sulu, a petty kingdom that thrived on piracy, whose peak saw its uncontested domain between Borneo and Mindanao. Its decline and eventual absorption into the modern Philippines stands as the last feeble surrender by an authentic Nusantarian community.

The national hero of the Philippines, Dr. Jose Rizal, figures in Bowring’s narrative as an icon for resurgent Asian nationalism. A great awakening did occur in what used to be Nusantaria during the early 20th century as colonial subjects struggled, often violently, for freedom. Moving to the present, the Philippines’ attempts to resist China’s claims over its waters preoccupies Bowring’s journey to a dramatic conclusion. He’s a Nusantarian optimist who believes ASEAN has a bright future, albeit marred by great power competition. The key is in the past, Bowring concludes.

“It is not a state like China, it is not a geographical unity like India,” Bowring observes. “It is not a precisely defined culture like Japan.”

As if his vision for Nusantaria weren’t clear enough, Bowring delivers this eye-watering homage to his subject: “Its core–Sumatra, Java, and the Malay Peninsula–has a history of interrelationship dating back 2,000 years, at least. The rulers knew they were part of a shared system; they were not Siamese or Khmer, Tamil, Vietnamese, Burmese, or Chinese. The Philippines and the eastern islands also shared most of that underlying culture, of language and seafaring in particular, and had been part of the trading networks from prehistoric times.”

As an essential text for Southeast Asians who dream of supra-national identity or professionals looking for broad insights in a complicated uncommon market, Bowring’s synthesizing narrative does possess a magnetic allure. Anyone who hungers for a long view of history that informs today’s challenging trends are well-served by this book. Empire of the Winds is available in all online bookstores.

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