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Essays and posts exploring the state of journalism, teaching and nonfiction storytelling.

  • Writer's pictureTracy Dahlby

An Important History from a Veteran Journalist and Asia Hand

Updated: Aug 1, 2019

Bloomsbury Publishing

“Empire of the Winds” covers nearly 20,000 years of history in 336 pages, about a pivotal part of the world, maritime Southeast Asia, that rarely makes big news in the United States; it does so in exhaustive detail and with the insight of a journalist who has spent the last 50 years closely observing the region. On the basis of those numbers alone, I’d say the book is a shrewd buy for anybody wanting to familiare themselves with this set of interlocking archipelagoes, today home to 400 million people, that author Philip Bowring calls Nusantaria. More about this invaluable book in a second, but first a disclosure.

Forty-three summers ago, I got my first big break in journalism, when the Far Eastern Economic Review, a Hong Kong-based weekly, hired me to help cover Japan. Bowring, the magazine’s business editor, was one of my new bosses. (He eventually became the magazine’s editor-in-chief.) Working for the Review, tossed into that pool of talented and not infrequently idiosyncratic Asia hands, was a dream come true, and a thoroughgoing education. Bowring and the others drummed into me the importance of using history as a primary tool for developing context so readers might see beyond and below the headlines. How could you hope to dig into a story without having a feel for the soil from which it had sprung? Sage advice, to be sure.

Bowring’s history of Nusantaria is the sort of all-embracing book I suspected he’d write. As he explains it: “This is the story of seafaring, of the drivers of global commerce, of cultural interchange, and the rise and fall of states and political systems.” It’s also the story of the evolution of human civilization and the importance of a geographically bound identity. It tells how the inroads of Western imperialists thwarted that identity; and how the clout of Europe, the United States, Japan and China have inhibited it in the post-colonial era. Thus, the tantalizing question: What will the Nusantaria of the future look like? Will Nusantarians use their common threads of culture, language and enterprise, to come more properly into their own? Where China is concerned, can they “cooperate sufficiently to avoid again being the subject of imperialism, this time from a closer neighbor with a history of seeing itself as the centre of the civilized world”? If past is prologue, “Empire of the Winds” provides the perspective necessary to trace the region’s trajectory from earliest times and into news reports and analyses to come.

Students of current affairs will find helpful Bowring’s discussion of the extent to which China and its traders have influenced the region over time. His solid historiography gives the lie to Beijing’s current outsized claims to ownership of the South China Sea, while honoring China’s role in supplying the alliances, immigrants and capital that played prominent roles in the growth of Nusantaria’s trading nexus. Speaking for myself, I found the first part of the book particularly intriguing, dealing as it does with a succession of now-ghostly empires that, variously, ruled the waves, plied trade in scandal wood and spices, and explored the seas as far west as Madagascar and the east coast of Africa—and did so well before the famous Ming dynasty admiral Zheng He got there. Mapping such distant realms has set historians a challenging task, seeing as how wooden buildings and records inscribed on banana leaves have long since rotted away in tropical heat. Luckily, master reporter that he is, Bowring is able to tell us what we can know, what we can’t, and the ways in which the story might have unfolded—all based on impressive research.

In his 1990 book, “From Milton to McLuhan: The Ideas Behind American Journalism,” J. Herbert Altschull writes: “To say that a journalist needs a sound sense of history is to state the obvious.” Too bad, then, that journalists today are often “lacking the long-term perspective required to explain and analyze the complex web of political, economic, social and psychological events that are the stuff of news reports … No job or profession requires a higher order of cultural literacy than does journalism.”

Philip Bowring is a prime example of how history works thorough a good journalist and how our sense of it can benefit from the alchemy.

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