To look at a map of colonial Asia is to see many colours. It is one with lines, shaded areas, dots on maps. These signify territories, treaty ports, zones of influence, railways, and other new introductions to a previously monarchical, rudimentary culture which had, in many respects developed of its own accord for thousands of years. All its influences came from its neighbours, tribute and conflict were common, and borders fluctuated like tidelines. And then the Europeans came with their ports and maps with lines drawn accurately on.
If you look around modern Asia today you see the remains of this centuries long land grab. Myanmar has been ruled ruthlessly for years, Cambodia was torn apart by Pol Pot, Laos was always a buffer zone of jungle and was treated as any patch of no mans land in any war before and after Vietnam, a country with it’s own dark and much discussed history. Indonesia had a military dictatorship of its own, and treated East Timor and Irian Jaya as they felt subjugated nations should be. Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, while India, Pakistan, and the Phillipines do not lag far behind. A list of the least wealthy countries in Asia sees a similar list of those countries which were colonised, and which fed the coffers of European powers.
A map of the east from the colonial period it would be multi-coloured, showing the empires and colonies of Britain, France, The Netherlands, Portugal, Germany, Japan and the United States. China, which was basically an open basket from which anyone could take what they wanted. With an exception or two, you can name a country in Asia at this time and you could attach its colonial persecutor.
One way of understanding this part of the world at the time is to read the books of Joseph Conrad.
Much of Joseph Conrad’s fame and notoriety rests on one less than novella length story of a shipping employee who must travel into the Belgian Congo to retrieve a wayward, if not notoriously successful, employee. In some cases, you would think it is all that Joseph Conrad wrote.
Fortunately this is not the case. The Polish (although born with Russian citizenship) French-speaking author who eventually learned to write in English managed quite a few more lines than Heart of Darkness. Many of these stories are sea-going tales and not a few begin in the far east where sea going trade was the staple of European and British colonialism, held together firmly by ports in Singapore and Hong Kong.
This time, around the turn of the twentieth century, was when colonialism in the east was good business for European powers, and indeed for plenty of local entrepreneurs who cashed in on the new found wealth and resource exploitation. Most conflicts were reduced to inland affairs, like Afghanistan. Threatening sea lanes was not ideal situation for anyone.
For Conrad the sea was his first office, as he sailed back and forth through the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca, the Gulf of Thailand, and possibly more. In Typhoon he described how his mostly European crew took on as cargo, yes cargo, of Chinese coolies to be delivered to Hong Kong. As the ship rocked and dived and came just short of destruction the thoughts of the crew were more concerned with whether or not the ‘cargo’ would be ok, but as to the problems inherent in having a live and recently fed cargo in such a situation.
Whether Conrad was a racist is not for me to determine. I think that, in many respects, he certainly does the Chinese labourers no favours in his descriptions but it is perhaps me who feels more abhorred by the actions and words of the crew and not the author who saw it his business, I believe, to describe the situation as he saw from his vast experience on the seas as a merchant marine sailor.
As I mentioned above, you can name your country and attach its colonial authority with an exception or two. One of these exceptions is of course, Japan, a country which employed its own horrific methods of colonial management not only on Korea and China, but also on the colonial armies who fell to the Japanese in the early stages of World War 2.
The other country is one which Conrad also wrote of. One which, despite is lowly position in global affairs and is imagined as a place of nice beaches and automobile manufacture now. Over one hundred years ago it was a different place, but still the same.
“There it was, spread largely on both banks, the Oriental capital which had as yet suffered no white conqueror; an expanse of brown houses of bamboo, of mats, of leaves, of a vegetable-matter style of architecture, sprung out of the brown soil on the banks of the muddy river. It was amazing to think that in those miles of human habitation there was not probably half a dozen pounds of nails. Some of those houses of sticks and grass, like nests of an aquatic race, clung to the low shores. Others seemed to grow out of the water; others again floated in long anchored rows in the very middle of the stream. Here and there in the distance above the crowded mob of low, brown roof ridges, towered great piles of masonry, King’s Palace, temples, gorgeous and dilapidated, crumbling under the critical sunlight, tremendous, overpowering, almost palpable, which seemed to enter one’s breast with the breath of one’s nostrils and soak into one’s limbs through every pore of one’s skin.”
(The Shadow Line; Joseph Conrad, 1917)
A traveller’s first impression of Bangkok, no doubt. Relieved of the common furniture of a colonial landing and officers club for visiting sailors, Bangkok seems far removed from the rest of colonial Asia. Despite the frequency of travel in the region the author is taken aback and knows this exotic capital is special.
But more importantly, and this is worth establishing, it had ‘suffered no white conqueror’, and displayed an urban sprawl confident in its own existence. This is firmly established through its mighty beacons of authority, religion and monarchy, casting their shadows over the huts of the city’s citizenry. The lack of nails are a sure indication that no modern industrial tools as simple as this are required to satisfactorily build and maintain such a place, and in that regard no foreign hands are necessary also.
Today, Bangkok and Thailand sits as it did one hundred years ago. In those days as much as now, it survived through compromise. In the Second World War the Japanese were allowed to enter Thailand for the sake of Thai autonomy, and in the years that followed the US forces used Thailand as its safe haven away from the trials of war with Vietnam. Compromise allowed for Thailand to survive, and even today despite much poverty and it is still a very proud nation that fights for its identity, a fight clearly seen in the protests which swamp Bangkok almost annually. Compromise has allowed international investment to help the country grow. The city streets are busy with new cars and scooters, and people tap iphones and Galaxy S5s as much as any Seouite or Tokyoite. Regardless of the ups and downs of politicians, the constant feature which has held the country through not only colonialism, but also the cold war, modernity, development, and hopefully in the future, further prosperity, and that is the Royal Family.
Far be it from me to laud the praises on any Royal Family, seeing both the fate of Ireland and Korea determined by the exertions of empire, in Thailand it seems to have worked differently. There are not many royal houses remaining in the world, and many still operate in symbolic roles, even Queen Elizabeth II. There is though, in many respects, still a key role for monarchs in many countries. Far be it from me to determine what is the right system of government for any country, other than my own. There are plenty of elected despots in so-called democracies to make the whole notion of monarchy, in ways, appealable.
Historically, throughout the twentieth century this role was proven as a symbol of independence and survival. In Europe the royal families were symbolic in defining the nation state that stood in the face of Nazism. Italy had lost its King, as had Spain, but royal families from the Netherlands and Belgium lived in exile, speaking on radio broadcasts regularly in their home countries. Following the death of death of Franco, the return of the king was seen as a symbol of a return to democracy for Spain, although maybe not everyone believes that.
Even in Asia, royalty is symbolic. Asia was where the cold war was a hot physical battle. Korea unfortunately never did get a chance to recall its monarchs and this institution may have prevented the slaughter of the Korean War, but it seems to have never even been considered by the major power brokers. In Cambodia a weak king allowed for the rise of Pol Pot. Significantly, in Japan the emperor’s position was maintained, despite international outcry. Japan was seen as a necessary bastion against communism in the east, a theory which in the end prevailed.
To this day there are a little over thirty countries which have royal dynastic lines as head of state. The overall majority, with an exception or two (one being the Vatican City incidentally) are constitutional. A lot has happened to change these roles, from rulers to watchers and mere signers of decrees. There has been a lot of hatred and a lot of bloodshed in the name of or against royalty. Asia, a place I’ve lived and travelled around for over nine years, despite its distance is no stranger to both its own royal disagreements, and those of the kings and queens from faraway places. These scars are still peppered about its capitals and ports. There are exceptions of course.