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A European Traveller to Island Southeast Asia
14th May, 2007

From about the fifteenth century onwards, we have an additional resource in understanding Southeast Asia, which is the set of records and journals left by European travellers. Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English and French merchants and adventurers braved the South Seas and contended with the Javanese, Chinese, Arabs, Persians, Indians and others who had already established their presence there. Many of those who left accounts of their travels were, perhaps understandably, mostly concerned with their personal interests, justifying their time and their actions, laying out schedules for future trade and downplaying the achievements of people from other nations, for example. One of these travellers was Jan Huygen van Linschoten, who was one of the most influential European writer on Southeast Asia in the premodern world.

In 1596, Jan Huygen van Linschoten wrote and illustrated his Itinerario, which was an extensive travelogue of his experiences in the East Indies, focusing not just on Goa and the Malabar Coast, although these are central to his work but, also, Java, Malaka and China, among other areas. This work soon became a leading source for all Europeans wishing to take voyages of exploration in the east and was very influential. The text and images reveal a great deal about the writer and his cultural milieu as well as what is portrayed, of course, although his portrayals nevertheless appear to be accurate.
Depictions of the life of the C16th after contacts with Europeans can never tell us about life before the Europeans arrived. However, few things changed so swiftly that it is impossible to determine what they were like previously. The author several times makes the explicit claim that the illustrations were made from life and rely on verisimilitude (van den Boogaart, p.6).

Van Linschoten draws a clear distinction between the Malay peoples and the Javanese. The former are considered to be interested in poetry, trade and politics and are therefore comparatively civilised. The Javanese, on the other hand, are ruder, with no interest in artistic expression but instead interested primarily in fighting. Both Malay and Javanese men are depicted wearing the kris but, where the Javanese man wears only a simple loin cloth, the Malayan has an embroidered knee length sarong and an embroidered waist length tunic, together with a simple turban-style headdress.
The text depicts these two (described as Inhabitants of Malacca) in part as follows:

“The people themselves [Malayans of Malacca] are educated, friendly, and civilised, and are more affable than any other people of the East. The women have just as large an innate interest for music and rhetoric as the men and a confidence of achieving more in those fields than other peoples. They all equally value the combination of music and song. So has nature endowed them with the beauty of talent.

The natives of the island of East Java have a stubborn and harsh character. They are yellow in colour like the Malaccans, not unlike the peoples of Brazil, but they have robust and sturdy hips, chubby faces, broad and prominent cheekbones, large eyebrows, small eyes, and a thin beard, and their hair is not thick either, though it is black. In general they trade with the Malaccans and in exchange for spices they receive linen that has been repaired in all kinds of ways. It would be easy o begin trading with them, for they have no fear of the Portuguese, who do not sail to Java, while the Javanese themselves regularly visit Malacca.” (van den Boogaart, p.54)

It seems unlikely that there was such a distinction between Malayans and Javanese per se but, rather, the distinction should be between the members of settled, long-term trading posts and those living in more traditional lifestyles. The Javanese boats are described as being of the same shape and style as those of the Chinese. The illustration clearly shows a Muslim flag being flown. It is described by the author in this way:

“… they also use reed sails and wooden anchors … They pay attention to the details with great skill so that absolutely nothing is overlooked. As they do everything with striking skillfulness, they also invented wagons with sails. They are shaped like ships with wheels, and with a favourable wind they can travel on open land as fast as Liburnian vessels on water.” (p.60)
That the Javanese could on occasion be placed among the civilised peoples of the world is indicated here, since the Chinese are throughout treated with great respect and the Javanese are treated as their equals in terms of ship craft at least.

The people of the Moluccas islands were famous for their involvement in the famous and far-reaching spice trade. Our author had travelled among them, too and he described them as follows:
“The islands of the Moluccas that are very famous for their vast quantity of nutmeg are inhabited by people who exchange it with the other peoples of India to obtain everything necessary for their subsistence, for the islands produce nothing except nutmeg. They obtain meat and fish, rice, grain, leeks, etc. from elsewhere. The ground itself is parched and has volcanic mountains that demonstrate the heat of its interior. They wear clothing made from straw or plants, which is woven with great care and skill. The so-called bird of paradise is found on these islands, and has a curious nature and an unusual appearance.” (p.104)

An illustration of a warrior from the Moluccas Islands depicts a bareheaded man with what appear to be pulled back ringlets of hair. He wears a matching tunic and knee length breeches of a patterned material – which the author has described as being made from either straw or plants but which more closely resembles the kind of cloth elsewhere shown as being worn by Malayans – perhaps the fruit of trade? In his right hand, he carries a kris of perhaps eighteen inches in length and in his left hand a large, circular shield, presumably of some wooden material, which covers him from the tip of the head to the knees. The shield is hollow and made of concentric layers and is perhaps eighteen inches in depth from the rim to the tip of the centre part.

References and Further Reading

Boogaart, Ernst van den, Civil and Corrupt Asia: Image and Text in the Itinerario and the Icones of Jan Huygen van Linschoten (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003).

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