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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: June 2012

7 - Locating the Islands



As a historian of mainland Southeast Asia, I began this project in order to compare my region to other sectors of Eurasia. Having considered protected-zone realms and parts of the exposed zone, in this, the final chapter, I return to Southeast Asia to examine its island, or maritime, component. By some yardsticks, mainland and maritime Southeast Asia together constituted a reasonably coherent, distinctive sphere. But while cultural commonalities endured, after 1511 political trends began gradually to assimilate the island world, hitherto part of Eurasia's protected zone, to exposed-zone status. The mainland, by contrast, remained sheltered for another 300 to 350 years, with all that implied for indigenous agency and political continuity. As a region that completes our inquiry into Southeast Asia and bridges both of our main analytical categories, the archipelago, then, seems a particularly fitting area with which to conclude.

Consider first cultural and social parallels between mainland and islands. Compared to Europe, China, or India, all of Southeast Asia is fragmented, whether by mountains, jungle, or seas; and stretches of fertile land are modest. Ecological heterogeneity and poor communications ensured that linguistic variety was pronounced and ethnicity was relatively local. Moreover, whether because of limited arable, high mortality, weak immigration, or chronic warfare, population densities in the region at large in 1600 may have averaged only a sixth or seventh those of South Asia and China.

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