Research

Book project: Space and territory in Malaysian history.

“Euro-Asian encounters and inter-Asian diplomatic relations in the Malay speaking world (17th-20th century)” 

Supported by Harvard Asia Center (2018-2019)

The study focuses on uncovering the evolving ‘political cultures’ of the sultanates between the late 17th to the early 20th centuries by looking at the way sovereigns conducted negotiations and settled legal arrangements with European agents.

In that perspective, the study analyses diplomatic and legal documents produced in the Malay language (jawi) – letters, treaties, contracts, and leases – considering them in the conditions of their production, reception, and as objects of mediation. Together with their translation and graphic layout (text), and in the context of their presentation (iconography), these documents carry ideas of territory, rule, and relation to people, which the present project aims at highlighting and analyzing.

The research is intended to bring to a better understanding and a better definition of the relationships between Europeans and Southeast Asian rulers often described along the simple dichotomy of superiority versus inferiority. Instead of domination, which already set the mode of interpretation, the study will use negotiation and conciliation as a frame of analysis to consider the versatility of the relation. Discussing the concepts of power, authority, and sovereignty, this work intends to uncover the implication of words and acts in diplomatic and trading relations between Southeast Asian rulers and their counterparts, to bring new light on Euro-Asian encounters and potentially reshape our understanding of its nature.

Among the questions to be addressed are: How did a sovereign talk about the political entity he was ruling? Was there a difference between words, concepts, and presentations used in classical Malay literature (hikayat) and in treaties with foreigners? Was local terminology translated consistently into European languages?  How was authority performed in a context of negotiation? What were the different influences and relations between sultanates regarding diplomacy with a foreign power?

If this work intends to contribute both to the fields of political and cultural history, it is also thought to extend the field of Malay studies, in which almost nothing has been written on treaties. More broadly, the present research should contribute to historical studies on intercultural communication and to a larger discussion with colleagues working on the Muslim world.

Affirming rights over land and resources: Originals and authoritative documents in the legal culture of the Malay Peninsula (c. 1780-c. 1910)

Supported by the Center for the Study of Manuscript Culture (2021-2024)

The progressive establishment of the British Straits Settlements in the Malay Peninsula between 1786 and 1914 led to a multiplication of diplomatic relations and transactions. These brought about a range of documents like treaties of friendship, letters, and grants of authority, which displayed the legal practices and concepts that were articulated within the Malay culture and became a part of it. The concept of original documents that were legally binding and had authoritative value was one of them.

This project focuses on the juridical culture of the Malay peninsula and its evolution in the long 19th century (c. 1780 – c . 1910) related to land use and ownership. Taking as a starting point the cosmopolitan juridical culture documented in the region prior to the 19th century, it will examine the material attributes of inscribed artifacts taken as authoritative and highly valued in the Malay-speaking world. The project will then consider how the concept of original, as understood historically by the British and the Dutch, has been brought to the region and how it has mingled with existing practices in the writing culture of the Malay world. The study will examine the form of diplomatic correspondence and land deeds in which elements clearly derive from the Malay and European writing cultures and see in which ways the material form of the manuscripts supports the authoritative function of the documents.