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Seven Reasons Why You Must Read Empire Of The Winds

June 18, 2019

Globe-spanning maritime trade did not begin with European forays into Asia. Via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the year’s remarkable non-fiction titles strikes a mortal blow to outdated but enduring cliches about Southeast Asia. More than a collection of tourist spots and stereotypes, author Philip Bowring manages to cast the incongruous archipelago between the Indian and Pacific oceans as a vital cog in world civilization. His thesis in Empire of the Winds isn’t about any particular empire, in fact, but of a maritime expanse that flourished for a thousand years (and longer) before Europeans arrived.

Bowring calls it Nusantaria, a yet-unrecognized supranational entity commanding vital sea lanes in ancient times and the present day, but its present form subscribes to the 10-country ASEAN bloc. Rather than conjure a mythological past for his subject, Bowring’s portrayal of Nusantaria is rigorous and at times severe. The sources exposed by his bibliography are encyclopedic in scope and this is what makes Empire of the Winds a must-read for anyone who ponders Asia’s future.

More than a highly informed argument, Empire of the Winds’ breadth and depth can forever change how one part of the world is understood.


What makes Bowring’s magnum opus so refreshing is how it eschews a conventional approach to writing history. Rather than focus his attention on specific (male) figures and their achievements, Empire of the Winds creates its setting with a prologue that revisits the last Ice Age, when rising sea levels left a new archipelago scattered below the Asian landmass. Across its 27 chapters, the arrival of traders from the West is only described near the end, and rightly so.

Bowring also makes it clear that European intrusion and colonialism had a damaging effect on Nusantaria, one that led to a nationalist revival.

Via Bloomsbury Publishing.


Another marvel in the epic history of Bowring’s Nusantaria is China’s minimal presence in the region. While trade between the various Nusantarian kingdoms and Chinese dynasties almost constant, with the exception of a single punitive military campaign and the fabled Zheng He’s voyages, there were no persistent efforts by either civilization to engage in conquest. It was European colonization in the 19th century that spurred Chinese migrants who were lured by wages and business opportunities.

In fact, the most powerful cultural imprint on Nusantaria is the benign transfer of Hinduism to its communities, and this is still apparent even when Islam is the dominant religion in Indonesia and Malaysia. To drive this point home, readers should know Southeast Asia was called the “Indian Archipelago” until the mid-20th century


Wading into Empire of the Winds is truly delightful for its chapters on the “lost” countries that once flourished in coastal regions. Bowring assembles heartfelt pocket guides on two locales, the island of Java and Vietnam’s southern coasts. The former is the cradle of Srivijaya, which Bowring recognizes as the pinnacle of Nusantarian civilization. Unfortunately, there are no traces left of the Srivijaya; their wooden cities, like their writing system, perished over time.

Bowring attempts the same on the Champa, whose societal longevity is as impressive as their Sumatran-Javanese cousins.


If Empire of the Winds has a single accomplishment, it’s the ownership and origin of Nusantaria, an identifier that has never been used before. Rather than settle for the Malay “Nusantara,” a word originating from the Majaphits, Bowring insists Nusantaria fits his conception of “Asia’s Great Archipelago.” The choice is supposed to evoke a sense of intrinsic bonds and a greater geography, one that isn’t limited to the modern countries that dominate the region.

But nationalism did its part to save Nusantaria.


As Bowring explains in his book’s closing chapters, late 19th century nationalists managed to rediscover their pre-colonial ties and used these as building blocks for new identities. Bowring pays homage to the Filipino patriot Jose Rizal, whose vast body of work–from essays to novels–inspired a nationalist revolution in the Spanish-dominated Philippines.

Yet Bowring also laments how current national identities have shattered any vestige of a shared past that, if not for the Nusantarian ideal, is difficult to embrace, much less imagine.


Throughout Empire of the Winds, one particular activity preoccupies the Nusantarians through the ages–the movements of goods by ship. Bowring puts it this way: the actual Silk Road was so treacherous that hauling cargo from Malaka to Alexandria was a better investment. And it was.

Nusantaria brought spices and other valuable commodities to Europe while supplying China with aromatic wood and bird’s nest. Of course, feuds and rivalries figured too, but the overwhelming destruction comparable to the Mongol Conquests and the 100 Years’ War isn’t apparent in Nusantaria’s colorful past. It’s not as if Nusantarians lived in a tropical idyll, however, as piracy and slave-raiding were endemic with the absence of strong centralized states.


Empire of the Winds is valuable to anyone with an awareness of Southeast Asia’s importance for global trade. Hindsight reveals the error of viewing the region as an “emerging market.” Nusantaria never emerged from anything other than its brief colonial period. Before then and soon after its value as the transit area linking entire continents was never equaled anywhere else and perhaps never will.

The intended audience for Empire of the Winds may be a general one, but its fine detail and historical rigor earns its place in reading lists for admirals and defense ministers in our new Cold War; diplomatic staff in ASEAN capitals; executives with careers in Asia; journalists who need fresh perspectives; politicians and political analysts; students searching for unconventional history; and readers tired of viewing the past with an Anglo-American lens.

In Bowring’s own preface he writes: “This is the story of the peoples, lands and role of the world’s greatest maritime and cultural crossroads, from its birth following the last Ice Age to today.”

Published in January, 2019, Empire of the Winds is now on sale everywhere.


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