Slave-Gathering Warfare and Cultural Exchange in Burma, Thailand, and Manipur

A Review of The Creole City in Mainland Southeast Asia: Slave-Gathering Warfare and Cultural Exchange in Burma, Thailand, and Manipur, 18th-19th cent., by Bryce Beemer

Who were the agents of cultural change in pre-colonial Southeast Asia? Scholars have identified such diverse characters as Brahmins journeying from South Asia, European sea captains looking down at indigenous Asians from the decks of their sailing ships, local chiefs or monarchs seeking new accoutrements of status, monks on royally-sponsored missions, traders of all descriptions—all historical characters of status or privilege. But what if we see the agent of cultural hybridity as a lowly family of war captives, captured and transported to a new kingdom against its will? What happens when we see them as having the agency to mold something new out of the vestiges of their natal cultures, those of their captors, and those of their neighbors? Bryce Beemer’s dissertation takes theoretical inspiration from creolization theory, usually associated with scholarship on slaves in the Americas, to paint a vibrant and unruly picture of cultural rupture, exchange, and production in what he calls the “creole cities” of premodern Burma, Siam, and Manipur. He focuses especially on two groups of creole communities settled around the royal capitals of Upper Burma. The “Yodaya” were peasants, artisans, and experts taken captive from Ayutthaya (Siam) in 1767, and the “Kathe” were taken in raids against Manipur from the 1750s to the 1830s.

Creolization theory allows Beemer to make major contributions to the study of pre-colonial Southeast Asia, which he outlines in his introduction. First, the importance of war slaves to victorious kingdoms lay not simply in padding the kingdom’s generic population of farmers and potential conscripts. Defeated captives with special skills and expertise were specifically sought out, resettled and maintained in separate communities in the victorious kingdom, and sometimes even privileged with a certain social status by their captors. Second, cultural hybridization did not simply occur “naturally” or at the whims of elites, but communities of captives were active agents in the production of new cultural elements. Their religious practices, artisanal methods, languages, and traditions did not remain identical with those of their ancestors, yet many such communities purposefully remained distinct from their new neighbors. Neither did the culture of their ancestors simply “mix” with that of the dominant population. Instead, creole communities in combination with their superiors, patrons, and neighbors forged new, creative cultural beliefs and practices that also affected the dominant societies around them. This perspective, Beemer argues, discourages us from viewing “national” cultures as somehow static and pure, while hybrid cultures must always be in a perpetual process of assimilation. Instead, both dominant and creole cultures must be recognized as permeable, constantly changing, internally varied, and continually absorbing and resisting aspects of the cultures around them.

Beemer’s discussion of the popularization of “Yodaya” music and performance in Upper Burma in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries illustrates the benefits of creolization theory. Almost 170 years after the 1767 capture of war captives from Ayutthaya, one of Siam’s top officials and intellectuals, Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, witnessed a performance of Yodaya music in Burma. He commented that the song seemed to have a Thai melody, but that he had “no idea what it was” (p. 39). In the decades after Burma’s officials resettled music and performance experts from Siam’s former capital of Ayutthaya, Yodaya style music had taken on a life of its own. The creole community of singers and dancers gained prestige by the close of the eighteenth century with the support of Burma’s royal court, and members of both groups were assigned by the crown to translate and modify Ayutthaya forms to better suit the new Burma context. A flurry of new compositions in the early nineteenth century cemented the status of Yodaya music as a major local genre. Many pieces maintained special characteristics such as leisurely pacing and “Thai” lyrics (although these were no longer recognizable to Thai listeners). Creolization theory, as Beemer demonstrates, allows us to see the creole community of war slaves from Ayutthaya as a leading actor in the creation of a major component of the culture of Burma.

Finally, the introduction considers the benefits and limitations of the term “slaves” to refer to these captive peoples. Some Southeast Asianists have argued that, to the international scholarly community at least, the concept of slavery has been indelibly marked by the experience of racialization and extreme violence in the slave trade in the Americas. Beemer, however, insists that we must maintain a definition of slavery that can encompass not only the slave systems of the Americas, but also those of the ancient Mediterranean, Medieval Europe, and early modern “Muslim slavery” of the Indian Ocean rim which, not incidentally, operated in almost the same way as the systems of slavery in Southeast Asia. War slaves in Southeast Asia were usually better protected by law and custom (in part because if they were badly treated, they had more opportunity to flee into someone else’s service or into the hinterlands), they sometimes enjoyed a higher social status than non-slaves, and over time many of them could assimilate into the dominant population. Nevertheless, Beemer argues, the violence and coercion that accompanied their capture and forced resettlement in a new kingdom cannot be seen as anything but a system of slavery.

Chapter 2 has two goals. First, Beemer discusses the flexibility of ethnic self-identification and a concept he calls “elective alterity,” a creole community’s purposeful maintenance of a separate identity. He suggests two characteristics that promote elective alterity: heterodox religious practices and “positive stereotypes” that associate an ethnic community with particular skills, products, or expertise of value. The impact of these two characteristics on the elective alterity of a community can be deduced from the observation that the communities that persist in acknowledging foreign origins are most often clustered around heritage industries and centers of heterodox spirituality. Beemer then presents a meandering tour of a “creole space,” a Bangkok neighborhood that still hosts descendants of Mon, Lao, Cham, and Malay war captives, paying particular attention to the impact of their skills on dominant arts and culture.

The creative cultural productions that came out of creole spaces cannot be understood, however, without recognizing the violence, dislocation, and new cultural juxtapositions of the communities living in them. The second part of chapter 2, therefore, locates the origins of creole communities in warfare, captivity, and integration into the victorious kingdom’s labor system. Beemer concludes that the bloodlessness of warfare in premodern Southeast Asia has been greatly exaggerated. Although high-status slaves were usually treated better, Beemer has also amassed considerable evidence that the transport of captives was cruel and deadly. Beemer therefore endorses the challenges to benign depictions of Southeast Asian warfare and slavery leveled by Katherine Bowie (“Slavery in Nineteenth Century Thailand: Archival Anecdotes and Village Voices.” In State Power and Culture in Thailand, edited by Paul Durrenberger, 100-138. New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asian Studies, 1996), Francis Bradley (“Siam’s Conquest of Patani and the End of Mandala Relations, 1786-1883.” In Ghosts of the Past in Southern Thailand, edited by Patrick Jory, 149-160. Singapore: NUS Press, 2012), and Michael Charney (Southeast Asian Warfare, 1300-1900. Leiden: Brill, 2004). Once captives were claimed by the crown, awarded to someone else in the kingdom, or sold, they became members of patron-client networks and were usually treated no worse than other dependents. Nevertheless, war captives’ experiences of violence and social rupture during their capture and transport were not completely unlike Edouard Glissant’s notion of the “abyss,” which swallowed the cultures of African slaves as they endured the Middle Passage (Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997).

The third chapter describes what Beemer calls the “cellular” organization of labor in the kingdoms of Ava, Mandalay, Ayutthaya, Bangkok, and Manipur. Labor service units were each settled in a neighborhood or village, and assigned an occupation according to their special skills and the needs of the court. They were required to deliver products, services, or performances to the palace at regular intervals. Many of the members of these service groups were war captives and their descendants. In this chapter, Beemer supplements Victor Lieberman’s abstract argument about the “cross-fertilization” of cultures in early modern Mainland Southeast Asia by paying attention to contributions from creole communities. While Lieberman asserts that “thickening” of economic and political connections led to ethnic integration, Beemer notes that examples of countervailing trends toward maintaining ethnic identities also abounded. Referencing Geertz, Beemer argues that the cultural capital produced by artisans had an outsized impact on royal prestige, just as the better-studied patterns of long-distance trade had an enormous effect on the royal coffers (Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theater State in Nineteenth-Century Bali. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980). The close association in all of these kingdoms between particular villages, valued skills, distinctive spiritual practices, and ethnic identities convinced many Southeast Asian creole communities to maintain markers of separateness from the dominant population, even as many of their neighbors were assimilating.

The long fourth and fifth chapters focus on the Yodaya and Kathe creole communities, respectively, of the capital region of Upper Burma. In chapter 4 on the Yodaya, Beemer examines several additional themes in relation to crealization theory. The Yodaya community is, at present, almost totally assimilated, and the number of individuals who identify as Yodaya or remember any distinctive Yodaya skills, traditions, or religious practices has dwindled substantially since the beginning of colonial rule. In a sense, he explains, assimilation represents the end of the process of creolization. In addition, creolization theorists have suggested the metaphor of a flower which cannot see its own stem to describe a common challenge faced by creole communities and historians alike. The process of the historical development of creole cultures is often obscured by a paucity of information even when the end results—new cultural productions—can be observed. Despite these challenges, however, Beemer works with fragmentary documentation, memories, and cultural products to trace as best he can the form of the flower’s stem. In addition to fascinating descriptions of enduring spiritual practices associated with the captives from Ayutthaya, the chapter features a sustained analysis of the role of the Ramayana dance-drama performers in starting a Ramayana craze. Almost immediately after captives from Ayutthaya were resettled in Upper Burma, Ramayana characters, dance positions, and props were incorporated into murals, woodcarvings, metalwork, and embroidery. The Yodaya version of the Ramayana also influenced the performances of other creoles such as the Kathe Brahmins, an example of lateral cultural exchange between captive communities.

Beemer dedicates chapter 5 to discussing the cultural hybridity of Kathe communities. Perhaps the most stimulating contribution of this chapter is his problematization of ethnic and religious identity. The Manipur kingdom of the eighteenth century featured a complex mix of upland tribal communities, lowland clans, and a variety of linguistic and cultural practices that connected the clans and tribal peoples together. The cultural and linguistic unity of Manipur was itself based largely on the kingdom’s success at uniting disparate local spirits into a single pantheon supported by the court. Captured Bengali and Kachari Muslim soldiers and a large migration of Brahmins added new elements to the religious mix; most of these new residents married locally and their descendants developed creole traditions in Manipur. Manipuri kings throughout the century alternated in their support for Hindu or animist traditions. The war captives taken by Burma in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, therefore, were as varied as Manipuri society itself. Animist Kathe captives and superficial converts to Hinduism quickly accepted Buddhism, but they transformed Manipuri spirits into hybridized local nats (the spirits of Burma). Many Muslim and Brahmin Kathe families still maintain alterity even today, although their practices differ from those of other co-religionists in Myanmar, Manipur, and elsewhere in India. In this chapter, Beemer convinces the reader that categories of identity and alterity are complex, and can shift before, during, and after captivity.

Beemer concludes his dissertation with a neat summary of the theoretical and ethical imperatives that drove his research. He argues that we need to eschew false notions of pure cultures and turn instead to study the ubiquitous amalgamations, chaotic braiding’s, and creative flowerings of cultures in flux and in motion. Interacting with the unfamiliar is not only a feature of today’s globalized world, but it was an everyday occurrence in the creole cities of pre-colonial Southeast Asia, and indeed in many places around the world.

Beemer’s dogged efforts to compile scattered and obscure scholarship in multiple languages on the arts and local histories of small communities are impressive and unlikely to be repeated by any other scholar in the near future. He is clearly in his element when he traces and explains changing patterns and styles in the material cultures of early Southeast Asia, and he presents the highlights of his findings with skill and energy. This makes for exciting and inspiring reading.

His work also forces scholars of Southeast Asia to reassess a number of stubbornly enduring assumptions. We can no longer remain complacent about the violence of premodern warfare and the uprooting and resettlement of war captives of all ranks. We cannot afford to view these early kingdoms as having insulated cultures. Elites sought out prestigious foreign products and services, and captive communities transformed their spiritual practices and artisanal productions to suit their new homes. The agents of cultural exchange and cultural production, therefore, included the lowly as well as the powerful. Lastly, although many creole communities have assimilated into the dominant cultures in the centuries since their capture, many purposefully maintained a separate identity well into the twentieth century, and although it may not be obvious to a casual observer, some continue to do so today.

This is easily one of the most exciting new pieces of scholarship on premodern Southeast Asia and early forms of cultural exchange, and it deserves the attention of scholars in both fields.

Matt Reeder
Department of History
Cornell University

Primary Sources
Interviews and observations in creole communities
Pieces of art, performance, early industry, and material culture
Premodern Burmese, Thai, Manipuri, and Lao chronicles, literature, and records
Travel accounts, scholarly works, and reports by colonial officials

Dissertation Information
University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, 2013. 391pp. Primary Advisor: Leonard Andaya.

Image: One hundred year old Ramayana masks still in use by Manipuri Brahmans in Mandalay. Masks are in the Thai-style.

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