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Secret trade, porous borders: Smuggling and states along a Southeast Asian frontier, 1865-1915.

Secret trade, porous borders: Smuggling and states along a Southeast Asian frontier, 1865-1915


New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. Pp. 437. Photos, Tables, Bibliography,

Notes, Index. doi:10.1017/S0022463408000118

Eric Tagliacozzo's ambitious monograph, Secret trade, porous borders, while building on the regional studies of Ferdinand Braudel and Anthony Reid, makes its mark by showing how in Southeast Asia, the spaces where 'illegality happens' mattered in the creation of geopolitical borders and how illegal trafficking in the form of smuggling and contrabanding went hand in hand with the formation of an international border between the British and Dutch colonial regimes in Southeast Asia. Conceiving of boundary formation and boundary transgression as two sides of the same coin, Tagliacozzo argues that although advances in technology and organisation between 1865 and 1915 increased Europeans' abilities to delineate borders, they were never able to dominate completely the wild spaces adjoining them, spaces through which border crossers and smugglers plied their trades. Tagliacozzo's perspective of considering border formations as deriving in part from those who transgressed them is utterly fascinating and compelling.

In Section 1, Tagliacozzo outlines how the border and hence the frontier between Batavia and Singapore was constructed between 1865 and 1915 through mechanisms of exploration, mapping, surveillance, and armed force in an uneven process that required several decades and the achievements of a variety of professional surveyors and explorers as well as amateur adventurers who facilitated the states' categorisation of these new spaces and their new knowledge of them in ways deemed crucial for eventual control. Tagliacozzo next demonstrates how emerging states used tools of empire in the form of armies, navies and police and institutions of communication in the form of roads, telegraphs, railroads and coastal beacons to enforce and strengthen the frontier by bringing it closer to the reaches of the state.

Tagliacozzo's account of the states' resources is parallelled in Section 2 by accounts of how this frontier, created by colonial imagination, was crossed by varieties of contrabanders, each with their own agendas. In identifying them, Tagliacozzo has elicited four groups which states found potentially threatening: pirates, whose low-level, chronic violence was perpetuated by unknown aggressors launching assaults that came out of nowhere; foreign Asians, especially Chinese and Muslims, whose ultimate loyalties were always suspect; indigenous Asians, whose proclivities for movement, particularly in the form of migration, sojourning and the hadj, made them difficult to control; and finally, even certain Europeans themselves, whose own agendas were not always in accord with the administrations they served.

In moving from groups to activities that threatened the states, Section 3 describes the 'undertrading' of smugglers and contrabanders who 'passed goods underneath the legal and geographical interstices of the majority of items being traded in an area' (p. 5), especially at borders farthest from the reaches of government, at national choke points in mountain passes or waterways, amidst urban congestion, and within civil servants' own networks of corruption. Here the focus is on three commodities--narcotics, currency and human beings--and the ways they passed between Batavia, Singapore and the regions between. In terms of state-building, Tagliacozzo sees an ongoing contest between state-builders on the one hand and undertraders on the other, where, although European abilities to construct borders grew between 1865 and 1915, so did the capacity of smugglers to transgress them. This contest was ultimately won by the forces of the state around the turn of the century as their mechanisms for control and enforcement aided by the development of steamship lines to connect the archipelago, sophistication in the extraction revenue, and success in missions of civilisation, allowed for the creation of a 'wall around the Indies' that finally outpaced the ability of those who would contravene it.

Less well integrated into the overall framework of the book, but equally interesting, Sections 4 and 5, look at the operation, mechanics, and idiosyncrasies of contrabanding across borders. The smuggling patterns of Southeast Asia are elicited globally through Tagliacozzo's discussion of arms smuggling, and specifically through his case study of a single Chinese junk, the Kim Ban An, which was caught off the Acehnese coast during the Dutch blockade in 1873. Yet, in striving to pattern the seeming chaos through which people and goods transgressed newly drawn borders, Tagliacozzo neither loses sight of the intricacies and nuances that complicate his own hypotheses nor engages in generalisation and oversimplification. Rather, he encompasses the idiosyncrasies into further analyses that suggest that there was no ontology to the category of contraband along Southeast Asia's colonial frontiers, but instead that those in power decreed what was contraband. The result was that definitions, commodities and transportation patterns could change at a moment's notice.

Throughout this well-researched, original and creative account, Tagliacozzo has presented convincing evidence for his ambitious thesis that the processes of smuggling and border formation were inherently linked along this 3,000 kilometre stretch of land and sea in Southeast Asia. Such a broad-based research agenda would have presented a difficult challenge to any scholar, but especially to one of Southeast Asia, where the sources are at best spotty and fragmentary and where most histories focus on a single country. Here, the fact that a young scholar has chosen for his first book to think broadly and link regions across national boundaries renders even more outstanding the product of his endeavour which is sure to be a classic in our understanding of the creation of nation-states in Southeast Asia and perhaps a model for rethinking state-building strategies elsewhere in the world for years to come. This book is a 'must read' for scholars in all fields.


University of Notre Dame
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Author:Murray, Dian
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 1, 2008
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