Q&A: Ulbe Bosma on The Making of a Periphery

The incorporation of Island Southeast Asia into the global capitalist economy was not one homogenizing process, as scholars from Immanuel Wallerstein to Daron Acemoğlu would have it. Instead, local demographic, social, and political conditions determined the emergence of a variety of labor relations, migration patterns, and patterns of social inequality. In this pathbreaking book, Ulbe Bosma shows in great empirical detail how these diverse forms emerged centuries ago and continue to influence the connection between Island Southeast Asia and the capitalist world economy to this day. 

~Sven Beckert, Laird Bell Professor of History at Harvard University


The islands of Southeast Asia were once sites for the production and trade of highly prized commodities—including cloves, nutmeg, and mace—so valuable that they attracted seafaring explorers and traders from distant European countries in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. However, according to Ulbe Bosma, today the countries of Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia principally export their surplus of cheap labor. Indeed, over ten million emigrants from Island Southeast Asia provide their labor abroad. How did this once-prosperous region transform into a “peripheral” one? This is the question Dr. Bosma addresses in his new book, The Making of a Periphery: How Island Southeast Asia Became a Mass Exporter of Labor. Today, Chase Caldwell Smith, cohost of the Global History Podcast, speaks with Dr. Bosma about the idea of a “periphery” and why labor matters in the study of global history, among other subjects.

Remember to enter our drawing for a chance to win a copy of Dr. Bosman’s book!

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Chase Caldwell Smith: Island Southeast Asia, which now comprises the countries of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, was a crucial region of intercultural encounter and exchange for hundreds of years. Yet in your book, you claim that it has now become a “periphery.” What exactly do you mean by this, and what ramifications does this have for the historical study of Southeast Asia in the modern period? Can you speak specifically to the idea that a “periphery” implies a “core” or “center”—where might this be in your analysis?

Dr. Ulbe Bosma: Normally, the “core” is equated to the “West.” The region I discuss in my book catered to growing demand—not only from Europe but also from China—for all kinds of agricultural, mining, and maritime products European nations and China were competing and collaborating powers in this part of the world. But with respect to what exactly constitutes the core, there are indeed important caveats to be made.

The word periphery is a classical concept that figured prominently in the work of Nobel Prize winner Arthur W. Lewis and has become quite famous thanks to Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis. I think the work of Lewis and Wallerstein is of immense importance for understanding why parts of the world that were relatively prosperous in the past have sunk to the lower or even lowest echelons of economic performance today. But I am quite critical about any statement that countries become impoverished just because they produce commodities and import industrially manufactured goods. It is a notion that goes back to Rául Prebish’s thesis of the increasingly unfavorable terms of trade for commodity producers leading to underdevelopment. The argument often goes one step further, namely, that colonial powers deliberately created this process of underdevelopment by preventing the rise of industries in colonies to favor their own manufacturing sectors. There are many more factors involved, I think, in this process of underdevelopment. Population density and precolonial social stratification in the peripheral societies are among them, and these are the factors I explore in my book.  

CCS: In this book, you’ve adopted an economic lens, focusing on labor markets and migration in the region and beyond. Why did you choose this approach, and how does it compare to the methodologies you have used in your earlier works? For example, your first book, Being “Dutch” in the Indies (coauthored with Remco Raben), focused on the trajectories of several families and studied racially and culturally mixed communities. How does an economic approach yield different conclusions than a more social and cultural approach? And, more broadly, why does the study of labor and migration matter in the broader enterprise of global history writing?

UB: I think what unites these two books is a resistance against the Manichean scheme, to use the words of Ann Stoler, which frames a colonizer-colonized binary. People in colonial Indonesia who held Dutch citizenship could have Javanese mothers and German fathers and could be either powerful and wealthy planters or simple clerks. More than half of Java’s sugar industry, and this was the second largest center for cane sugar after Cuba, was owned by families born in Indonesia. Likewise, in the Philippines—which was under U.S. administration in the early twentieth century—the plantation economy was still predominantly owned by Philippine families rather than U.S. citizens. This obviously complicates the picture of colonialism. The question I am interested in is how local social stratifications and power structures affect the capacity of a society to benefit from globalization. A concrete example is that smallholder rubber producers of Sumatra gained more from the global rubber boom in the 1920s then indentured laborers at rubber plantations on the same island. Plantations in foreign hands siphoned off most of the profits to their owners abroad. We are indeed talking about the same product on the same island but with very different labor conditions. To assess the effects of globalization and understand the process of peripheralization one has to look at the ground level, where people seek work and migrate to sites of commodity production.    

CCS: What commodities did Southeast Asia produce and trade in the early modern period, and how did this economic production and exchange change over time? What is the place of modern palm oil production in your historical narrative?

UB: This part of the world was a prominent and some cases even the leading producer of pepper, tin, sugar, coffee, tea, copra (coconut meat), abaca (hemp), rubber, and palm oil. Some of these were typical plantation crops, such as sugar; other crops, such as coffee, abaca, and copra were predominantly smallholder crops and directly benefited local economies. After independence both Indonesia and Malaysia branded plantations as colonial institutions and encouraged smallholder cultivation. They did so for perfectly good reasons, namely, to ensure that the revenues would benefit local development. Unfortunately, this decolonization was never completed. Palm oil, one of the world’s most important tropical commodities, has been a driving force in the establishment of new plantation regimes in Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s first- and second-largest producers of this commodity. We have seen the return of appalling coerced-labor conditions over the past decades, conditions that should have been buried alongside colonialism. Palm oil plantations cause grave ecological damage as well as serious human rights violations.

CCS: What does your analysis of changes in Southeast Asian economic patterns and practices over the last few centuries tell us about wider trends in global history? For instance, can we use the cases you study to draw comparisons with other labor-exporting regions throughout history, such as West Africa during the Atlantic slave trade?

UB: The argument I want to make is that Dale Tomich’s concept of “second slavery”—which states that the number of enslaved increased after its formal abolition—applies not only to antebellum Louisiana, Brazil, and Cuba, which saw growing numbers of enslaved workers after the British had abolished slavery, but also to West and East Africa as well as Southeast Asia. In the course of the nineteenth century, the North Atlantic industrial world was on the rise and craving tropical products against the lowest possible price. This encouraged a proliferation of slavery precisely at the time that British Caribbean and French plantation islands abandoned this institution. To sum it up in one sentence: slavery played a crucial role in the rise of global capitalism all over the world up until the very end of the nineteenth century.       

CCS: What is the role of demography and state-led public health initiatives in the history you explore? 

UB: One of the most fascinating stories my book deals with is the early and relatively successful smallpox vaccination in Java and the northern islands of the Philippines. This led to a precocious demographic growth of over 1.5 percent per annum. Together with a stagnant manufacturing sector and declining agricultural productivity, this created the labor supplies for the developing plantation economies.  

CCS: How did European colonial governments rely on and co-opt existing indigenous Southeast Asian patron-client labor systems to pursue their economic goals? What roles did indigenous Southeast Asians play in the construction of colonial economic systems?

UB: I would say that it is impossible to understand the emergence of the plantation economies in parts of the Philippines and particularly in Java without considering the role of local elites and existing patron-client relationships. Local aristocrats and village elites benefited from the plantation economy through their role as labor recruiters and by forcing villagers to rent their land to plantations. They were remunerated for each worker and for each piece of land they managed to deliver.

This is major difference with the Caribbean region or the southern states of the United States. Labor for this region was kidnapped in Africa. In Southeast Asia slavery did exist as well—I devote an entire chapter to it in my book—but the Dutch and Philippines transformed existing corvée systems into systems of forced cultivation. Plantation economies were successfully embedded in existing agrarian systems. The Dutch introduced forced coffee cultivation in the early eighteenth century and a comprehensive forced cultivation system on Java in 1830. Both were embedded in existing agricultural and taxation systems and in this transformation, local elites played a crucial facilitating role.

CCS: What are the main differences and similarities you observed in the economic systems of the Spanish, Dutch, and British empires during the period you study?

UB: First of all, we need to add the American empire. But to answer your question, one of the most lasting and visible differences pertains to the level of education that was attained under colonial rule. The Spanish had an interest in spreading Catholicism; the Dutch had colonized the largest Muslim population in the world and were wary of provoking religious resistance against their colonial rule. This difference in missionary zeal explains much of the high level of literacy of the Philippines at the end of colonial times versus the abysmally low level in colonial Indonesia. Levels of educational attainment also diverged widely between cities such as Singapore and the sultanates on the east coast of the Malaccan Peninsula. Another important difference is that the United States, after it had conquered the Philippines in 1898, put the country on a course toward political independence while tying the country to its interest by creating a largely free trade sphere. Unlike the Philippines and Java, British Malaya had no abundant supplies of labor within its own borders. Through large immigrant flows it became an extremely complicated plural society with large Chinese and Indian immigrant populations consisting of not only poor immigrant plantation workers but also a substantial middle class and a powerful Chinese elite involved in global trade.  

CCS: Finally, how did these various colonial economic systems influence the postcolonial societies of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines in the second half of the twentieth century and to the present day? Why are there so many Southeast Asian emigrants providing their labor abroad today, and why is this important?

UB: To start with the last question, the simple answer is that employment in industry and services did not catch up with rapid population growth. Emigration is massive for all three countries, but the characteristics of these flows diverge sharply. While poorly educated Indonesians are recruited for Malaysian palm oil plantations and construction work, Malaysians leave their country to find skilled jobs in short supply in their own country. Different levels of educational attainment have shaped migration patterns: Indonesian migrants have stayed in their own region in contrast to Philippine migrants, many of whom had learned English at school. Even today, Philippine domestic workers in the Gulf states, for example, are generally better educated and more likely to be from an urban background than their Indonesian colleagues. The United States has a huge Philippine migrant population as a consequence of its former colonial relationship and the rapid spread of English-language education in early twentieth-century Philippines. I discuss the emergence of this migrant flow in my book. Colonial regimes and plantation economies have legacies that are still relevant today.


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