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The global economy and the Sulu Zone: Connections, commodities and culture

Warren, J.F. (2011) The global economy and the Sulu Zone: Connections, commodities and culture. Crossroads: Studies on the History of Exchange Relations in the East Asian World (3). pp. 53-126.

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This paper aims to explore global cultural interconnections and interdependencies in the Southeast Asian world of the late 18th and 19th centuries with particular reference to the "Sulu Zone". The paper also aims to enhance critical understanding and discussion of historiographical methods and models used in problematizing of economic and cultural "border zones" in a changing global-local context. The author's emphasis is on a "zone" created through the intersections of geography, culture and history centred around the Sulu and Celebes seas, as well as China's and the West's complicated place within it.

Did the world capitalist economy in the late eighteenth century create "borderless worlds"? Or did borders - cultural, national or otherwise prove to be more resistant and tenacious or vulnerable to the European presence and economic expansion? As some borders broke down, others were erected, both between and within nations, states and empires.

A "Zone", like that of the Sulu Sultanate, was not just a "spatial" site of economic, cross-cultural and symbolic contact. Such a zone was both a meeting ground and arena of potential antagonism and conflict in which peoples geographically and historically separated came into contact with one another and often established ongoing relations; a "zone" where two or more cultures rubbed up against one another due to events going on beyond its geographic borders, where people of different origins and ethnicity came to occupy the "contact" space and/or historical territory, where lower, middle and upper classes touched involving possible conditions of coercion, inequality and conflict. How were such "zones" or "border worlds", geographically and culturally defined, affirmed and contested, and transgressed? What impact did the China tea trade and the world capitalist economy have on both the making, physical and symbolic, and unmaking, of Taosug society and culture and the "Sulu Zone" from the late eighteenth to the end of the nineteenth century? The ethno-historically based arguments, evidentiary examples and other presentations in this paper tackle these questions from a variety of theoretical, historical and empirical perspectives based on the author's earlier research on the world of the Sulu Sultanate. Together they vividly illuminate how contemporary culture and society was determined by "globalisation"; the continuous flow of cross cultural trade and interactions both within and between several large geo-economic "cores" and smaller "zones", involving in this case China, Britain and the Sulu Sultanate and thousands of separate smaller places. The mingling of commodities served not only as motors of change but as realised signs, signifying that two or more worlds met as well. This meeting of commodities and peoples highlighted in different ways the interconnectedness of the modern world. These commodities led to a continuous redefinition of belonging to a place as either "here" or "there" and/or as markers of social identity. Lives and cultures blended wherever commodities changed hands in the Zone.

The paper will attempt to explain how the "Zone" emerged, acquired a shape and became as it was during the period under consideration. The author is equally concerned to present the "Sulu Zone" as an example of the way a redistributive economic system operated on the periphery of the global political economy of Asia in its heyday, before it fell under complete domination of the West.

Publication Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Social Sciences and Humanities
Publisher: OSTASIEN Verlag
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