From Pepper to the Philippines: American Experiences in Southeast Asia, 1784 - 1898 Public Deposited

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  • Since Americans were a minority among the outsiders in Southeast Asia before the twentieth century, a legitimate question is: Why write about them there? There are three sides to the answer. For one, there has been no general account of Americans in nineteenth-century Southeast Asia.¹ In addition, the mistakes of the early American contacts, in my view, relate to the later intrusions into the region, most notably in the Philippines and Vietnam. Notwithstanding the early American rhetoric of no colonial ambitions, assertiveness has been a hallmark of Americans in Asia for over two hundred years, from warfare to commerce to religion. Lastly, if one can exclude such self-interested considerations, the cultural contacts between Americans and Southeast Asians from the nineteenth century onward served to enrich maritime, economic, and scientific knowledge, as well as contributing to the arts and humanities at home.² Although long forgotten, even the American love affair with the tin can had its blossoming in the rich tin-mining industry of Southeast Asia.³ Considering the topic of this essay on a broader scale, Thomas Bender recently pointed out that American history is ineluctably part of global history, whether considering Asia or any other region.⁴ That is, since national histories are inseparable from each other, the encapsulated nation is not the natural setting for understanding our existing world. Southeast Asia provides a laboratory to study the effects of the early American nation in its broad context.
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