Leonard Y. Andaya is a Professor of History at the University of Hawai’i and has written extensively on early modern Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia. He is the inaugural holder of the Yusof Ishak Chair in the Social Sciences at National University of Singapore (NUS). He is currently writing a history of eastern Indonesia in the early modern period.

Suraj: You mentioned on occasions that you grew up in a sugarcane plantation? Would you tell us how it was to grow up in Hawaii.

Professor Andaya: I was born on the island of Maui in Hawaii, when it was just a territory, not a state, of Hawai’i. My dad came over, when he was about 16-17 years old, to work in the sugar and pineapple plantations. He was one of many Asian labourers brought over by the American plantation owners since the nineteenth century.  The Chinese were the first, followed by the Japanese, the Koreans, then the Filipinos. The first wave of Filipinos arrived in about 1907.

My dad came in the second wave in  the 1920s, and I grew up on a plantation area called Spreckelsville, named after Claus Spreckels, the original owner of the sugar plantations.  Each of the camps was simply called by a number; ours was called “Camp 2”. (laughs). It was like stalag 2! Everything was plantation owned and funded—schooling, medical care, and housing, probably because the wages were very low.  They even provided a school for the children.  It was a very interesting environment to live in because the camps contained all the different ethnic communities.  We all mixed together because we all belonged to the same labouring class.  Although initially the first generation tended to stick together, the second generation tended to intermarry, thus creating the unique mix that one finds today in Hawaii.

S: It is a place which is surrounded by water. Did this inspire you in some way to work on water?

A: It didn’t at all! (laughs). You know, you are surrounded by water, the sea, but you never think of it because it is always there. Where we did see water was in the irrigation ditches that the plantations had built to channel water from the large reservoirs. The larger ditches were our swimming pools, where we kids would go and swim.  Another fun activity was when the reservoirs ran dry.  All the community would come with buckets and other containers to scoop the catfish and snails that lived in the reservoirs.  So, my sense of water was of the fresh water from irrigation ditches.

S: You remind me of Donald Worster’s claim about the ditch and how it metaphorically reflects about American capitalism, but, of course, you are talking about freshwater here.

A: Yes, Worster was talking about the Columbia River. In the Hawaii that I’ve just described, the irrigation ditches could be seen metaphorically also as a reflection of capitalism.  It was these fresh water channels that coursed through the land, creating the commercial plantations that fuelled the capitalist economy.  The efficiency of the system was backed by other capitalist ventures such as the railroads leading from the fields to the port.

S: It is a very straightforward question, why should we study water? What does it tell us about our world?

A: Water is a very scarce resource, one that we really have to preserve.  Yet this realization hasn’t hit many people. The reason is that most of us approach any study from the land, seeing water as contributing to the land in various ways or serving people as a transport surface or a source of food and exotic products.  Little thought is given to water as a focus of investigation in its own right. Rivers, for example, are seen as valuable in connecting communities, for hydropower, and for fish. What environmental studies has done is to reveal the importance of rivers and other forms of water to the earth and to humans. By studying the complexity of these natural elements, the environmentalists have encouraged those in the humanities and social sciences to look more closely at water. They have shown, for example, how a drop in the level of a river could have a severe impact on organisms and biota that depend on the river’s equilibrium.  The reason is that the “river” is more than just the surface flow of water but incorporates the subterranean layers of water, as well as all the organisms that are part of the river system.

The seas are another important form of water that remain a mystery to many people who devote most of their lives on land. Few are aware, for example, that the sea consists of variable currents that are dependent on the winds, and that there are differences within the sea itself in terms of temperature, salinity, and structure—all of which can make a difference to communities that depend on the sea for their livelihood.

Understanding some of these aspects of the sea could go a long way in helping historians to understand shifts of behaviour that may have resulted from changes in the character of the sea.  The difficulty for those of us who work on Southeast Asia is the lack of relevant records that could help us chart the changes of the sea that may suggest why certain things happened in the past.  What happens when natural disasters occur, such as floods or tsunamis or volcano eruptions?

The Krakatoa eruption in 1883 in the Java Sea was the largest ever recorded, and it temporarily transformed life on earth.  Such disasters affect water and land, requiring greater studies of this phenomenon of natural disasters.  A study of water through individual study or inter-disciplinary collaboration is one way to achieve this aim.


S: Since you are talking about an interdisciplinary frame to study water, and you have used it beautifully in your own historical work where you used ethnography and the archive to talk about trade, ethnicity, and life of the sea people in general, what are some of the key things one should pay attention to while working on water?

A: By focusing on water one is forced to view events from a water perspective.  Although a landed community may disdain the sea people as peripheral and irrelevant today, the case may have been very different in the past.  Before the mid-19th century, in the age of sail, the sea peoples were indispensable to maritime kingdoms.  They were the principal collectors of sea products, and thus gained an intimate knowledge of certain areas of the sea.  They manoeuvred through waters that were dangerous to other people, acted as guides to foreign vessels, and attacked ships heading to ports that were rivals of their lords on land.  Despite their vital role in land kingdoms, they have been ignored in many chronicles in South East Asia. Yet, the willingness of the royal families on land to marry into the families of the leaders of the sea peoples early in the history of maritime polities is ample proof of the importance of the sea people in the past.

In studying these communities, one has to be aware of differences in lifestyles, since sea and forest peoples are highly mobile. They have specific areas that they visit and know intimately.  In landed kingdoms, on the other hand, mobility is more limited and residence on land more constricted.  With greater mobility on water, the nature of political and personal relations are also looser. If you are looking at water as a basis for study of human societies in different periods, what you have to look at is the different ways in which the sea or water people operate and organise in order to take advantage of their special expertise and their environment. Here then, water makes you think more about the different ways in which Asian societies are organised, for not all of them are hierarchical nor have kings.

The book that I am writing now is on the history of eastern Indonesia.  I am trying to demonstrate that it is not necessary to have an overarching political unit if the networks of communities operate effectively to provide what is required. This form of organization of communities is self-policing because an offending party could be cut-off and hence lose an important source of imported goods and markets for its own products.

The many different kinds of seas and communities determine the type of polities or networks that are formed, as can be seen in the Pacific and eastern Indonesia. Other island communities, such as those of the Nicobars and the Andaman Islands, may also have had a similar form of organization. Hills, forests, and deserts are like seas, and researchers need to think in different ways to appreciate the nature of their communities and institutions.

S: How was it to do ethnography in the sea, far away from the Dutch archives?

A: The Dutch East India Company (VOC) archives before the 1970s were used principally to write the economic history of areas of the world where the VOC had established posts.  From the 1970s, however, historians of Southeast Asia used the archives to extract information on the societies themselves, which was available because the VOC was also interested in the political and social background of societies in order to gain the best political deal in any trade negotiations.

In the 17th century, when the Dutch first went out and encountered many of these different societies, they sent observers to study the societies. Their reports in the archives are invaluable, listing what they saw and understood from interviews with certain local individuals. Of course, at times they were oblivious to the significance of what they were witnessing, but at least they reported the details, which researchers today can read more intelligently. In places like eastern Indonesia, they just travelled from one place to the next and reported what they learned.  Some of these little islands even had outposts, so they sent regular reports to their superiors.  It is these reports, gathered and recopied in Batavia, to be sent to Amsterdam, that formed the bulk of the primary materials for ethnohistorical studies of many of the societies in Southeast Asia and beyond.

From these reports, one gains a sense of the belief systems and of attitudes towards water, land, animals, sharks, whales and so on. A study of the seas, therefore, should also include what is in the seas, not only the surface of the water. There are societies that depend on one particular thing like whales or they collect tripang (bêche de mer, sea cucumber), so one has to examine the relationship between the sea (coral reefs, sea grasses, and creatures of the deep) and  the human collectors.  To return to your question, the archives provide the historical context and details that often can only be understood with an ethnographic study of the societies involved.

A water or sea perspective provides the researcher with greater appreciation of the dynamic relationship between the body of water and the human community. It’s like what you are doing on char-chaporis. You can look at the community again, if the land is constantly moving, in order to understand how they think about these movements and how they rationalize them.

S: It’s hard to imagine movements as carrying ability of belonging and you are quite right that water studies is more encompassing for the relational aspect that it highlights of the environment and the people. I would like you to speak, and this is more due to my interest perhaps, on how different it is to work on a sea or to think about a sea as opposed to a river? What are its uniqueness and potentials?

A: The seas are much more difficult, in the sense that it is much vaster and more complex. It is necessary to focus on a particular part of the “sea”, such as the Bay of Bengal, rather than the entire Indian Ocean. In my study of “eastern Indonesia”, I have identified a “sea” where there are several interlocking networks of communities.  Once a sea is identified, it is necessary to try to examine the various components of that body of water.  In eastern Indonesia, for example, there are major through-flows from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans at a very considerable depth.  In addition, there are more surface currents that are affected by the winds, and so an understanding of the local patterns of winds is necessary to study the current flows.  Moreover, the temperature and salinity of the waters also affect the nature of the biota that survive in these waters.  All of these questions are pertinent to the functioning of these maritime societies and their way of life.

Rivers are much more circumscribed, and the depths of the water, its biota, and flows are far easier studied.  Having said this, rivers can also be complex and need to be studied as units.  Ecologists have identified various segments of a river:  headlands, upper reaches, middle reaches, and lower reaches.  Each segment has different characteristics and interact differently with the other segments.  The necessity of studying river plains and watersheds makes rivers far more complex than simply the surface flow of the main branch.  As in the study of seas, the study of rivers requires far more attention than has generally been given by historians or social scientists.

Through the Mekong River Project, there has been a successful collaboration between ecologists and social scientists. One result of this project has been to show that the building of dams has drastically modified the flow of water with serious consequences to the river system and its biota.  By interfering with the Mekong, the annual floods have been affected.  In the past the flooding of the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) basin through the backward flow of the Mekong has been seen as a boon because the flooded fields and forests provide some 66% of the fish protein of Cambodia’s population.  With the regulation of the Mekong’s flow, these annual floods no longer are as extensive as in the past, thus denying much of the fish catch that had earlier been a major source of food for the common people. What this Project has demonstrated is that official statistics, whether from the national governments or international bodies, often do not examine the consequences on the ground. Instead, their focus is principally on dams as the most effective way to prevent floods and to provide hydropower.

Similar projects should be initiated in other rivers in Southeast Asia, such as the Irrawaddy in Myanmar or the Chao Phraya in Thailand. In India too, we need to go beyond the view that all the rivers are regarded as sacred because this may not accord with some groups within society.


S: Certainly not. If you were to work on a river, which would that be?

A: I was thinking about that. I would love to work on the rivers in Sumatra. There are 51jxpUvk+mL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_two major rivers—the Musi River and Batang Hari River. Both these rivers originate in the interior highlands of central Sumatra and flow eastward into the South China Sea. These were important rivers in the history of Srivijaya (7th-14th centuries CE), and the relationship between the upland peoples (the Minangkabau) and the downriver societies was a major feature in the history of Sumatra.  Barbara Watson Andaya has done interesting studies of the societies on both these rivers, based on the VOC archives and ethnographic research. For a conference in Australia, I am giving a  presentation on the Kapuas river in Borneo, but eventually I would like to work on the Sumatran rivers.

The Royal Dutch Geography Society published a journal, which contained many excellent studies of the land- and waterscape in their former colony (Netherlands India, now Indonesia). The Dutch used to go up these different rivers or seas or anywhere else to write about the geography and the environment of that place.  For example, they wrote about the Kapuas River in fairly good detail, though mainly about the surface and surrounding areas of the river.  But many of the journal’s articles were written in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which provides a good basis for a more detailed study of the rivers from a water perspective.

S: I see. This is perhaps the last question for today. How important is sea thinking or water thinking, especially because our water has become ‘modern’ to borrow from Jamie Linton.

A: Water has many forms:  rain, storm water, rivers, and even glaciers.  Since rain and storms can quickly upset the normal patterns, it is important to study weather patterns, such as ENSO (El Niño Effect Southern Oscillation). In Southeast Asia there are the principal wind systems, the Northeast and Southwest monsoons, which play a major part in the lives of the people and in the history of the area. Yet we often ignore the many local variations that occur within these two major monsoon patterns.  It is these local patterns that determine the variability of water in each area. When the water table drops, there can be severe consequences. D’Souza in his book pointed out that a major drop in the water table would force mineral salts to rise and thus damage the lands irreparably.

In Eastern Indonesia I have come across volunteers from Europe, mostly French, who tend to go to certain villages to teach the people how to preserve water or how to dig a well.  They are well aware of the volatility of weather patterns and so they have gone beyond simply relying on statistics. How important this work is can be gauged by the fact that on one of these islands where I met one of these Frenchmen, he spoke of a local phenomenon where the people simply go “mad” as a result of the heat and start to bathe in the mud.

Some places are very lucky like Hawaii.  The island of O’ahu where I live receives rains practically every day in the mountains. The water drains downward through a layer of volcanic rock and is then captured in a vast clay basin that serves as a reservoir of fresh water. These subterranean aquifers’ is large enough to support the entire island population of more than a million people.  This fortunate natural formation is not found in the other islands, thus limiting their population numbers.  Water, then, is an essential element in understanding the settlement pattern in places like Hawai’i and in areas with a history of water shortage.

S: Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts with us and I am sure this will be of interest to anyone interested in water.

Suraj Gogoi is a PhD candidate in Sociology at National University of Singapore (NUS). His doctoral project is on water and state making in contemporary Assam.