By Jonathan Best

Book Review
Empire of the Winds: The Global Role
of Asia’s Great Archipelago
By Philip Bowring

LAST MARCH, the Philippine Map Collector’s Society (PHIMCOS) invited the distinguished journalist and editor Philip Bowring to give a talk to our group in Manila and launch his new book Empire of the Winds. Bowring is a professional journalist and former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and has been based in Asia for over 45 years. His book is not specifically about maps but he is an expert on historical maritime trade routes, seasonal winds, currents and the ancient sailing ships which navigated between the thousands of islands which make up Southeast Asia’s southern archipelago. These ships were built locally and were capable of sailing west as far as India and East Africa and north to Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and China. The history of navigation and trade routes is of great interest to map collectors as it goes hand-in-hand with the early development of Asian maps, navigational guides and sea charts.

Bowring specifically concentrates on the islands which make up modern Indonesia and the surrounding coastal waters to the north and west along the Straits of Melaka and coastal Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines to the east. He refers to this area as Nusantaria, a distinct cultural region which developed its own maritime technology, trade routes and civilization considerably more than a thousand years before European powers overran the region in the early 16th century. The Europeans later referred to this archipelago and it adjacent trading ports as the East Indies or “Spice Islands” as they were the source of most of the priceless spices, medicinal plants and aromatic woods the Europeans coveted.

Although the Philippine archipelago was on the periphery of this region, it was an integral part of it and unquestionably heavily influenced by the ebb and flow of languages, religions, political systems, and cultural practices which were steadily evolving and changing throughout the region. Over the centuries some of these influences developed locally while others were brought in by foreign traders and missionaries gradually over time. It was not until the arrival of the Spanish colonizers with their missionaries that the Philippines was politically and culturally cut off from its Asian neighbors. Even this enforced isolation was not complete as the Sultanate of Sulu and the Badjao sea gypsies have continued to trade and interact with their Malayan neighbors up to the present day.

For this book Philip Bowring has methodically organized thousands of scholarly documents and historical anecdotes covering a vast stretch of time and an exceptionally complex geographical area. The great challenge involved in writing a history of this tropical region is that so little primary source material has survived the passage of time. Structures of wood, fabrics, and documents on parchment or paper rarely survived more than a few generations in the humid tropical climate or the periodic wars and piratical raiding which plagued the emerging city states. Only a few great stone monuments remain such as Angkor Wat, Borobudur, and Prambanan as landmarks of the major centers of civilization which once thrived around them with populations of hundreds of thousands and political influence extending throughout Southeast Asia. Little remains of Champa or the Cham civilization which for centuries dominated the coast of Southern Vietnam and was a major entrepôt for the Chinese coastal trade and had direct trade links with the Philippines through Borneo and the Sulu Sea more than a thousand years ago.

A few obscure mentions of the area start appearing in classical European histories after the turn of the first millennium such as in Pliny the Elder and Ptolemy in the first centuries of this era, but the citations are fragmentary and quite vague. Southeast Asian spices were being imported to Egypt and the Roman Empire through India and the Middle East at this time, while occasional Roman coins have been found in Southeast Asian excavations. Better documentation exists of the early contacts and influences coming from India and Sri Lanka in the first millennium. Local ships built in Nusantaria were large enough to travel west all the way to India and the coast of Africa and Indian traders brought in Hinduism, Buddhism, Indic scrip and their distinct class system governed by dynastic, indigenous Rajahs and their families. These influences mixed with the already well developed Austronesian local cultures.

Bowring has uncovered other important sources of historical information in the official Chinese histories of the Tang (7th century), Sung, and later dynasties when the Chinese became more active in the region. Buddhism was spreading rapidly through the archipelagoes and to trading ports along the Thai and Vietnamese coasts coming mainly from India and Sri Lanka. Chinese monks were actually coming south to study in Buddhist centers in Srivijaya. At the time, the Nusantarian ocean-going ships were larger than the those of the Chinese and could make a trip from Guangzhou in southern China to Sumatra in less than three weeks.

Over the last few years, marine archeology has also been a very important source of information for Southeast Asian historians as many wrecks of trading vessels have been found in Philippine waters and throughout East and Southeast Asia. These discoveries have shed light on the flourishing trade routes throughout the region. Ceramics, silk, and luxury goods from China were traded and exchanged as tribute for spices, medicinal plants, edible birds nests, gold, other metals such as tin and copper, and for tropical hardwoods such as mahogany. Slaves were also an important export commodity from Nusantaria, supplying laborers and servants both locally and to distant port. Undoubtedly Filipinos captives were transported to foreign lands, some many actually have prospered and returned to the Philippines. As Bowring points out, the slave trade in Asia was not as brutal as the race based system exploiting black Africans in Europe and the Americas. Ferdinand Magellan’s translator Enrique, whom he acquired in Malacca, may very well have been a Filipino.

Bowring writes extensively on the two great island empires that developed in Nusantaria, first on Sumatra and then on Java. Both were the result of consolidating and controlling the local trade routes. By the late 7th century, the Srivijaya Empire had its capital at Palembang on the Musi River in southern Sumatra and was able to control the trade moving through the strategic Straits of Melaka, the main passage for goods flowing back and forth from China and Southeast Asia to India and beyond. Some centuries later, the center of power moved southeast to Java near what is now modern Surabaya. The wealthy and cosmopolitan empire of Majapahit dominated Nusantaria during the 15th century with its control of maritime trade and a rich source of agricultural produce from the fertile central Javanese plains. Its tributary states reached all the way to north eastern Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. The remnants of its Hindu culture can still be found on the island of Bali.

Philip Bowring does not end his history with the fall of the Majapahit Empire on Java in the 15th Century. He continues to record the fierce competition between the various Southeast Asian trading ports and the steady advance of foreign powers in the region. The introduction of Islam which came via India and traders from Arabic countries had a major influence. Although not as puritanical as the Wahhabi Islam of today, this new religion fundamentally changed the culture of the Nusantarian archipelago. Soon after Islam, the Europeans began to arrive no longer just as traders but also bent on political and military domination as well. By the 17th century, Nusantaria lost its political and cultural independence under this invasion. The central and northern Philippines was cut off from its southern neighbors and dominated by Western colonizers for over 400 years.

In order to cover as much disparate information as possible without overwhelming the reader, Bowring has arranged his book as a series of 27 short chapters. This makes it possible for him to focus on specific events or cultural phenomenon and then move on quickly to the next. If he had attempted to write a comprehensive history of Nusantaria and its neighbors linking all the narratives together, he would have had to fill five volumes at least.

Bowring touches briefly on a wide variety of subjects not just the history of maritime trade. The book is full of fascinating anecdotes and fragments of information regarding the indigenous cultures of the region and the foreign influences which swept through, changing, sometimes enriching, sometimes destroying everything from religious practices to indigenous architecture, cuisine, sexual mores, marriage, and social institutions. In many ways his book is a lively introduction to the history of the region, leaving the reader eager to read more and study what has been a seriously neglected chapter in world history.

For Filipino readers especially, Bowring’s book will be a valuable introduction to the long and complicated relationship the Philippines has had with its Asian neighbors, starting long before it was ostensibly “discovered” by the Spanish in 1521. It will be an excellent addition to college level history classes studying the historical role of the Philippines in Southeast Asia. The book is very well annotated and Bowring provides an index and lengthy, nine page bibliography of books and scholarly articles relating to regional history.

Empire of the Winds is published by I. B. Tauris & Co., London-New York 2019. It is fully illustrated with color and black-and-white photos plates, 16 maps, and 317 pages with extensive bibliography and notes. It can be ordered online through Amazon, Abe Books (, or directly from the publisher (