Race, Empire and Liberalism: Interpreting John Crawfurd's History of the Indian Archipelago
By Gareth Knapman
Thomas Ramsay Science and Humanities Fellow, Museum Victoria
gknapman@museum.vic.gov.au ; gareth_knapman@hotmail.com
This paper was presented to the 17th Biennial Conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia in Melbourne 1-3 July 2008. It has been peer reviewed via a double blind referee process and appears on the Conference Proceedings Website by the permission of the author who retains copyright. This paper may be downloaded for fair use under the Copyright Act (1954), its later amendments and other relevant legislation.
Historically, the History of the Indian Archipelago is important. It is one of the first attempts to view the Southeast Asia archipelago as a regional entity. Early works focused on particular islands, places or kingdoms. Arguably, Crawfurd even became a model for an area studies specialist. Crawfurd’s obituarist (Editorial 1868) commented :‘he was an indefatigable contributor to the Press on matters relating to the East, and indeed on many other subjects’. The nature of area speciality is interdisciplinary. Area specialists are routinely expected to move beyond one disciplinary approach (Philpott 2000). Although a post-World War II phenomena, the ‘area specialist’ has adopted a broad approach that has similarities to Crawfurd. Yet there are huge differences. Although the extent of focus is similar, the objective is very different. Modern area specialists do not analys Asia as a system. In comparison, Crawfurd followed the eighteenth century idea of the grand narrative. For Crawfurd, the object of writing history was to reveal the theoretical grand system that underpinned the Indian Archipelago. Crawfurd is therefore important in framing the scope of Southeast Asian area studies, a project that did not take off until after World War II. Depending on your viewpoint, either Crawfurd’s History of the Indian Archipelago is a work of anthropological and political theory or the worst form of orientalist stereotyping based on erroneous generalizations, or both.

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