“Human societies are like a kaleidoscope,” says Eric Tagliacozzo, History. “When you look at a kaleidoscope against the light, all the pieces are moving, forming interconnected patterns.” Tagliacozzo, who studies Asian history, looks for these sorts of connections in unexpected places. “In every society in Asia you see movement of some kind,” he says. “Even though large populations of peasants did stay in one place, there were always people who were moving in all directions and everywhere in between.” As they journeyed from one place to another, these travelers of Asia shared ideas, material, and technology in ways modern historians are just beginning to understand.
In a series of books, Tagliacozzo has looked at how societies in Asia, especially Southeast Asia, communicated with each other and with the larger world throughout history. In his first book, Secret Trades, Porous Borders: Smuggling and States Along a Southeast Asian Frontier (Yale University Press, 2005), he explored the ways in which Malaysian and Indonesian populations have resisted the imposition of modern borders by colonial powers. In The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and the Pilgrimage to Mecca (Oxford University Press, 2013), he traced the impact of Islam’s hajj—the once-in-a-lifetime trip to Mecca that is a goal of every Muslim—on vast numbers of Muslim Southeast Asians over centuries.
In both of these earlier works, the sea figures prominently. “The sea really connects all of my other interests,” Tagliacozzo says. “When I looked at the border between British Malaya and Dutch Indonesia in my first book, I was struck by how much of that 3000-kilometer border is actually by sea. And then when I explored the history of the pilgrimage to Mecca from Southeast Asia, for most of recorded history that voyage took place by boat.”
Now, Tagliacozzo is working on his third book, In Asian Waters: Chronicling Maritime Histories of Asia. He specifically looks at how the sea brought together disparate societies, from Yemen to Yokohama. “The idea is not to write about every boat that ever sailed in Asian waters,” he explains, “but to look at the sea as a way of connecting societies that are not usually thought of as connected.”
“For me there’s incredible emotion in thinking about the connections between places we don’t usually think of in the same breath, like China and Africa,” Tagliacozzo says.
In the West, we tend to think that the European voyages of discovery over 500 years were the impetus that opened up the world to a global interdependence, but that view doesn’t jibe with the Asian experience, Tagliacozzo says. “It’s clear that there were all kinds of connections going on outside of the European-formed ones. Many of these connections were enabled by the sea, and they were forged years before the European Voyages of Discovery.”
Ships of the Ming Dynasty
As an example, Tagliacozzo relates a particularly telling moment in Asian-African history. One morning, some 600 years ago, the people living in small kingdoms along the east coast of Africa awoke to find a fleet of Chinese ships on their doorstep. “These folks looked out at the Indian Ocean, as they had for centuries, and literally there was a fleet of scores of Chinese junks on the horizon,” Tagliacozzo says. “It was the biggest fleet in human history up to that point. And these ships were the largest wooden ships ever built.”
The Chinese ships were huge on any scale, but compared to Columbus’s fleet of three ships that would sail to the New World almost a hundred years later, they were behemoths. “The Chinese admiral’s flagship was enormous compared to Columbus’s flagship,” Tagliacozzo says. “The size difference is like an aircraft carrier compared to a canoe.”
The Chinese fleet had been sent by the Ming dynasty. The east coast of Africa was the last stop in the fleet’s momentous voyage from China to South East Asia, then up to South Asia, to India, and through the Middle East to Africa. By the time the fleet of over 200 ships returned to China, it was laden with treasures from across half the world. The fleet sailed on seven voyages over a twenty-eight-year period before the Ming curtailed China’s maritime exploits, and the various societies involved felt the impact of those voyages for years.
“For me there’s incredible emotion in thinking about the connections between places we don’t usually think of in the same breath, like China and Africa,” Tagliacozzo says. “In this book, I am saying that these societies we think of as having separate evolutions that were not impacted much by each other were actually engaged in conversation over a much longer time period, and with a much more sustained frequency than we previously thought.”
As another example, Tagliacozzo points to the Japanese, who tried to close their society to the rest of the world. “They tried very hard to keep out many foreign ideas,” he says, “but they did let in a trickle of things. It turns out this trickle was bigger than we thought. Guns, ammunition, clocks and Christianity all came into Japan. Eventually, Japan even became connected to places as far away as the Middle East through the movement of these things.”
That movement went both ways. As much as foreign ideas and technology penetrated through a few Japanese ports, reciprocal items traveled out from Japan to the rest of Asia. “We find pieces of Japanese ceramics, for example—Imari and Satsuma wares—becoming heirlooms in other parts of Asia thousands of miles away from Japan on the sea routes,” Tagliacozzo says.
Our understanding of modern societies and globalization is informed by our knowledge of how Asian societies interacted, Tagliacozzo says. “This notion that globalization is something that happened in our lifetime with the smart phone or the computer is just not true,” he says. “It’s been happening for a much longer time and in different kinds of ways.”