To the 10th century AD

Between India and China: 1st century BC - 8th century AD

Cultural influence in southeast Asia comes at first either from India or China. In the 1st century BC Indian traders penetrate Burma. Further east, in Vietnam, Bronze Age culture infiltrates gradually from China at some time before the 3rd century BC.

With these exceptions, the region is still occupied at this time by neolithic communities.

The development of more advanced cultures in the region derives largely from the spread of India's two great religions, Hinduism and buddhism.

Both travel east by sea in the early centuries of the Christian era. The Indians at this time are adventurous seafarers. Merchants gradually spread the two religions and their related architectural traditions along coastal regions on the way towards the South China Sea. This religious and cultural imperialism from India, combined with political and military pressure from China (particularly in Vietnam) gives Southeast asia its lasting chararacter.

At a slightly later date Buddhism spreads also from China, which it has reached along the Silk Road from India. After becoming well established in Korea, Buddhist monks bring the faith during the 6th century to Japan.

Buddhism reaches Korea in the 8th century from two directions - from China and from Nepal, the original birthplace of the religion in India.

The kingdom of Nam-Viet

A narrow coastal strip of southeast Asia, between the Red River and the Mekong (the extent of modern Vietnam), becomes prosperous when rice begins to be cultivated in the last few centuries BC. It also offers useful harbours for merchant ships to Trade round the coast. On both counts it is of interest to a powerful neighbour to the north, the empire of China.

In about 207 BC an imperial delegate to the Red River region, around modern Hanoi, sets himself up as ruler of a kingdom called Nam-Viet. A century later, when the Han dynasty is extending the reach of the Chinese empire, Nam-Viet is annexed. From 111 BC it is listed as a Chinese province.

The Indian influence: from the 1st century AD

The northern part of Vietnam, being a continuation of the coastal strip of southern China, remains for much of its history under the control of its larger neighbour. But the rest of southeast Asia, separated from China by mountain or jungle, or consisting of large offshore islands such as Sumatra and Java, is exposed to a different influence.

Civilization, when it reaches these areas, must come from the sea. And of the two civilized neighbours, to west and east, India proves to have more energetic traders than China.

The map of the world offers no route so promising to a merchant vessel as the coastal journey from India to China. Down through the Straits of Malacca and then up through the South China Sea, there are at all times inhabited coasts not far off to either side. It is no accident that Calcutta is now at one end of the journey, Hong Kong at the other, and Singapore in the middle.

Indian merchants are trading along this route by the 1st century AD, bringing with them the two religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, which profoundly influence this entire region.

Cham Khmer and Mon: from the 1st century AD

The early centuries of Indian influence see several royal dynasties, some Hindu and some Buddhist, rivalling each other for power and territory in southeast Asia. The Cham establish themselves in a region which becomes known as Champa (approximately south Vietnam); the Khmer are their neighbours to the west, in Cambodia; further again to the west are the Mon, ruling in Thailand and southern Burma.

By the 11th century the Mon have been largely displaced by Burmese in the west, and are under pressure from Thais in the region now known as Thailand. The Burmese and the Thais are tribal groups, pressing southwards from regions to the east of Tibet.

Sumatra and Java: from the 7th century AD

Meanwhile similar Hindu or Buddhist monarchies have been established in the Malay archipelago - in the Malay peninsula itself, and in the islands of Sumatra and Java. From the 9th to the 12th century rulers in these territories build spectacular temple complexes in the service of one or other of the Indian religions.

The great shrine of Borobudur in Java is one of the earliest to survive, dating from about 800. In the tradition of the Buddhist stupa, it is a monument rather than a building. The stupa rises from the centre of a massive stepped-pyramid base, decorated with reliefs depicting the stages of Buddhist enlightenment.

10th - 15th century

Angkor Pagan and changing fortunes: 10th - 15th c. AD

In Cambodia the Khmer dynasty makes its capital, from the 9th century, in the city of Angkor. A series of huge Hindu temples culminates in the great 12th-century Angkor Wat. The temples are engulfed by the jungle, after the fall of the city first to Chams from the east (in 1177) and then to Thais from the west (in 1431). Angkor is rediscovered in the 1860s, to become one of the wonders of the world.

To the west, the new Burmese dynasty has its capital from the 11th century at Pagan on the Irrawaddy. Thousands of elaborate shrines survive there - some in the tradition of Buddhist stupas, others in the style of Hindu temples.

Warfare between the dynasties of southeast Asia is an almost continuous process, bringing gradual changes in the size and shape of rival kingdoms. An example is the shrinking of the Khmer territory under pressure from Thais in the 15th century, when Angkor is abandoned in favour of a new capital further south at Phnom Penh.

But by this time there is a new and powerful force in the region. As with the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism more than 1000 years previously, a religion from elsewhere is involved. Once again its immediate source is India.

Muslim Malaya and Indonesia: from the 13th century AD

Islam's final push to the east derives from the strength of Muslim India. By the end of the 13th century Indian merchants from Gujarat, trading through the Straits of Malacca, have established Muslim settlements in northern Sumatra; they are noted by Marco polo.

The wealth and sophistication of these traders brings converts to Islam, and the influence of the religion becomes rapidly stronger after a Muslim sultanate is established in Malacca from 1445. The threat of conquest and the benefits of trade now provide two good reasons for the neighbouring communities to embrace the Muslim faith.

During the 15th and 16th centuries Islam spreads through the Malay peninsula and the islands of Sumatra and Java. By the 17th century the Hindus, with their warrior princes, brahmin priests and caste system, are confined to the eastern tip of Java. Soon they are ousted even from there.

They cross to Bali, where they and their traditions manage to survive. By this time the mainland regions from Burma to Cambodia have resolved centuries of indecision between Hinduism and buddhism. They have chosen Buddha. The small island of Bali becomes, as it remains to this day, the only Hindu outpost in a southeast Asia otherwise divided between Buddhism and Islam.

16th - 19th century

Europeans: 16th - 20th century AD

It is the misfortune of southeast Asia that one of its richest crops - the spice of the Moluccas - is of profound interest to European traders. After the Portuguese discover a sea route to the east in 1498, the region becomes an arena of violent competition between aggressive outsiders.

The Portuguese, establishing a base at Malacca in 1511, have the region for a while to themselves. They are displaced in the 16th century by English and Dutch. Of these two, the Dutch prevail - developing a virtual monopoly in the region, until the French arrive in 1799 to begin a long involvement in Indo-China. The only area to maintain a precarious independence throughout is Thailand.

Dutch trade in the east: AD 1595-1651

The first Dutch expedition round the Cape to the far east, in 1595, is captained by Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, a Netherlands merchant whose only knowledge of the orient comes from trading in Lisbon. The survivors of this journey get back to Holland two years later. They bring valuable cargo. And they have established a trading treaty with the sultan of Bantam, in Java.

Their return prompts great excitement. Soon about ten private vessels are setting off each year from the Netherlands to find their fortune in the east. The States general of the newly independent Dutch republic decide that this unlicensed trading activity, in distant and dangerous waters, needs both control and protection.

In 1602 the States general form a Dutch East India Company, with extensive privileges and powers. It is to have a tax-free monopoly of the eastern trade for twenty-one years. It is authorized to build forts, establish colonies, mint coins, and maintain a navy and army as required.

With these powers the company takes only a few decades to deprive Portugal of the spice trade. A capital is established at Batavia, in Java, in 1619. The Portuguese are driven out of Malacca by 1641 and from Sri lanka by 1658. But the main focus of Dutch attention is the Moluccas - the Indonesian islands of which the alternative name, the Spice Islands, declares their central importance in the eastern trade.

The Moluccas are the source of the most valuable spice of all, the clove, coveted for many different purposes - as a flavour in food, as a preservative, as a mild anaesthetic, as an ingredient in perfume, even to mask stinking breath. In pursuit of Moluccan cloves, and also nutmegs, the Portuguese make local treaties as early as 1512.

In the early decades of the 17th century the Dutch East India Company gradually excludes the Portuguese from trade in the Moluccas. The Dutch also take on, and oust from the islands, another European nation attempting to get a foothold in the region - the English East India Company.

The Dutch control the trade in cloves with ruthless efficiency. During the 17th century clove trees are eradicated on all the Spice Islands except two - Amboina and Ternate - to limit production and keep prices high. Strict measures are taken to ensure that plants are not exported for propagation elsewhere (a restriction successfully maintained until the late 18th century).

The Portuguese never recover their trading strength in the east. But in expelling the English from the Moluccas, the Dutch unwittingly do them a favour. The English East India Company decides to concentrate its efforts on India.

Meanwhile the Dutch company has taken a decision, small in itself, which has momentous results. Dutch sea captains have discovered that it is feasible to sail directly northeast across the Indian Ocean from the southern tip of Africa. This makes The cape a very important port of call for taking on water and fresh supplies.

In 1651 the company decides to meet this need by establishing a small Dutch settlement on the bay beneath Table Mountain. By now there is also a thriving Dutch colony on the other side of the Atlantic.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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