Tuesday, August 8, 2017

“Contact between Diverse Cultures”—and the Perils of Writing It

            The Portuguese expansion in the Orient ... led to prolonged contact
            between diverse cultures… which resulted in generations of mother-
            tongue speakers of Luso-Asian languages which were spoken in
            negotiating oriental commerce. These languages outlasted Portuguese
            presence in Asia....  Portuguese became the language of colonization… 
So asserts Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya in her recently published study, The Portuguese in the East: A Cultural History of a Maritime Trading Empire (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017) [xiii].  This is an intriguing text, furthering the work of earlier scholars such as Holden Furber and Kenneth David Jackson in early modern Western expansion and Luso-Asian cultural transference, respectively.  There are historiographical lapses in the book, and these are critiqued in penetrating terms in a review by Zoltán Biedermann, lecturer in Portuguese imperial history at University College London.[1]  Biedermann’s concerns reminded me of a review in which the eminent Rhys Richards took me to task for apparently neglecting to cite the work of important earlier scholars in my own True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). As Richards lamented,

            My frustration with this thoroughly researched book, and the plethora of
            soul-searching recent articles that its bibliography reveals, is the near
            absence . . . of references to older American writers like Holden Furber
            and the superb survey of the American fur trade, in French, by

Richards’s observation was uncomfortable, but correct, of course.  While I had consulted some of Furber’s other work (but not Dermigny’s, as my passing ability in the French language was not up to the task), I had not consulted all of it, although I have since rectified this gap.  And, I recalled Richards’s caveat in reading some tweets from the recent meetings of the Society of Early American Historians--one of my favorite groups, but this year featuring some curious comments.  One, for instance, opined that it was “So, so refreshing to have a plenary session with younger scholars who aren’t bound buy older historiographic debates.”  Another called for senior scholars serving as session commenters to withhold their own insights and just let young scholars hold forth.

            Yet, an appreciation of both older and newer literature is important for understanding the world as it was when Americans first encountered it, not occasionally as subjects of a British king aboard East India Company ships or, like John Ledyard, sailing with Captain Cook, but as citizens, representatives of a new nation, and an experimental republic at that.  Conventional “China trade” histories embrace a nationalistic narrative of courageous American men braving the seas to further capitalist enterprise.  Both Furber and Dermigny, and now Jayasuriya, paint a more complicated portrait of a world rife with dangers as well as opportunities, in flux, unstable, and protean.  As Jayasuriya  relates this story, “waves of European influence that washed over [Asia] were never completely obliterated by the subsequent waves.” First came the Portuguese, who “turned the Indian Ocean into a zone for cross cultural contact between East and West,” followed by the Dutch, French, and English ventures and conquests.[3] 

            Jayasuriya’s particular interest is in Portuguese influence on Asia, particularly in areas such as Goa and Sri Lanka (which Americans knew as Ceylon).[4]  Cultural exchange here was rich and fertile, carried by currents of miscegenation, missionary work, and commercial policy.  She observes: “The Portuguese were continually interacting with ‘Others’, peoples of alien cultures, who spoke many languages and who had different religious beliefs and practices. The Portuguese enterprise functioned on interdependence and interactions with other cultures.”[5]  Furthermore, “A Luso-Asian lingua franca served as the medium of communication between the Portuguese and Asians. In Sri Lanka, it served as the bridging tongue between, not one, not two, but three European powers in the indigenous people.”[6]

            For me, the most intriguing aspect of Jayasuriya’s work lies in her interpretation of the Portuguese Empire’s legacy of conquest through her exploration of language, secular and religious literature, and religious and popular music. In the process, Jayasuriya deciphers Portuguese ballads from Ceylon, investigates the fusion of Christian religious and Indian folk music known as Mondo, and explores the incorporation of Portuguese terms into more than fifty languages and dialects.

            Engaging The Portuguese in the East alongside the rich studies of Furber, Dermigny, and other scholars opens a deeper line of inquiry for me, as well.  In my reading of travelogues, journals, letters, and ships logs penned by American travelers into the Great South Sea, I have not (yet) found evidence of their descriptions of Asia as a kind of Portuguese lake.  In this body of writing, the American foray into India appears to have been different from that of the Portuguese.  Although both Americans and Portuguese travelers largely clung to coastal enclaves, eschewing inland forays as dangerous, inconvenient, and unnecessary for their commercial purposes, the Portuguese engaged indigenous peoples directly through a variety of media, including religion, literature, and music.  Some American visitors and expatriates appear to have formed relationships with a few individual merchants, and missionaries worked with Indian converts, but, by-and-large, they avoided the kind of wholesale cultural exchange in which the Portuguese engaged.  In doing do, they followed British models of contact.  American travelers to India, Sri Lanka, Malacca, and other sites do not appear to have utilized the Portuguese language, adhering to the English written and spoken in British enclaves such as Calcutta (Kolkata) and Bombay (Mumbai).  So, then, if Portuguese was still a lingua franca throughout Asia into the nineteenth century, a “bridging tongue” essential “in trading and empire building,” it is curious that American texts do not mention it.[7]


[1] Zoltán Biedermann, “Long Review of Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya, The Portuguese in the East: A Cultural History of a Maritime Trading Empire.” e-Journal of Portuguese History, 9, no. 1 (2011).

[2] Holden Furber, John Company at Work: A Study of European Expansion in India in the Late Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948) and Rival Empires of Trade in the Orient, 1600–1800, Europe and the World in the Age of Expansion, II, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976; and Louis Dermigny, La Chine et l’Occident: Le Commerce Canton au XVIIe Siecle, 1719 –1833, 3 vols. (Paris: S.E.V.P.E.N., 1964).

[3] Jayasuriya, The Portuguese in the East, 1, 7.

[4] Jayasuriya sees this history of conquest and colonization as “a two way exchange but in an asymmetrical relationship.”  Jayasuriya, The Portuguese in the East, xiv.

[5] Jayasuriya, The Portuguese in the East, 3.

[6] Jayasuriya, The Portuguese in the East, 6.

[7] Jayasuriya, The Portuguese in the East, 6.

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