Book Talk

Ronit Ricci, ed., Exile in Colonial Asia: Kings, Convicts, Commemoration, 2016, pp. 294. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. ISBN: 9780824853754

~ Nira Wickramasinghe, Leiden University

This elegant volume that grew out of a workshop held at the Australian National University in 2013 brings together ten essays that focus on exile, through three central themes: kings (a shorthand for members of royal families), convicts and commemoration. It is situated at the intersection of histories of banishment, labour and empire and is refreshingly multi-disciplinary in its approach. Although the title of the volume suggests that it covers  ‘colonial Asia’,  the focus is nevertheless primarily on parts of the  Indian Ocean world that faced the brunt of Dutch, British and French imperial rules during the 17th to 19th centuries.  A single essay by Carol Liston on English and Irish convicts in new South Wales seems a little out of place, inspite of its obvious quality and potential for a comparative analysis. The other essays describe the forced movement of peoples from parts of South and Southeast Asia to places as diverse as the Cape of Good Hope, Colombo, Jaffna, Madras, Singapore, Ambon, Penang. The result is a beautifully knitted collection of essays that taken together succeed in creating a truly transnational history of exile. The editor must be commended for ensuring that each essay is explicitly in conversation with other essays in the book.

The ten chapters build on familiar story of penal transportation and forced migration. This movement of peoples was the result of laws of sovereign banishment that applied to French, Dutch and British imperial spaces: they sentenced deposed rulers, dissenters and rebels as well as convicts to distant penal settlements and labour camps. Each chapter of the volume under review focuses on a specific case study centered around the exile of an individual or a social group. There is little uniformity in the different cases. The lives in exile of King Amangkurat III in Ceylon or sultan Hamengkubuwana II of Yogyakarta in Penang, men of stature who were moved with privileges and their retinue had very little in common with the conditions of exile of Indonesian slaves in the Cape of Good Hope described by Jean Gelman Taylor.

It is the reason for exile that shaped the different type of exilic experience. Elites were sent away from the places where they had exerted authority to mitigate potential civil unrest and to avoid creating martyrs by executing them. Non-elite groups, slaves and convicts whose labour was extracted to construct the infrastructure of newly conquered places in Asia, as Clare Anderson explains in the opening chapter of the volume,  served the purpose of empire building. These two groups seldom met and have left different types of traces for historians to collect.

A unique quality of the  essays resides in the use of a diverse and multi-lingual  archive to explore the exilic experience. Vernacular sources add a new layer to the story of forced migration. The attendant sense of loss, displacement and denial that permeates the condition of exile has indeed rarely been captured by historians who confine their sources to the colonial archive.  The essays in this volume provide us with what Engseng Ho has so adequately termed ‘a view from the other boat’.  These rare accounts and testimonies in vernacular languages are beautifully exploited to paint an intricate canvas that transforms accepted narratives of the history of empire. Elites exiled to distant parts of the empire wrote poems, letters and even books where they evoked their feelings and lives in their new homes. The Javanese historical chronicles  – babad – until now an understudied genre is interrogated anew. The Babad Mangukudiningratan allows  Sri Margana to depict the lives of royal exiles in great detail. Ricci ‘s reading of the Babad Giyanti  and Babad Kartasura tell us about the journey to Ceylon and  the stay in Jaffna of kings of Kartasura. Letters  from exiles to family and friends available in Dutch or English translation, petitions and poems such as that of a Vietnamese prisoner sent to New Caledonia in 1864 described by Patterson inflect history towards the realm of intimacy and sentiments. Another important source skillfully analyzed by Gelman Taylor is the inventories of the Cape of Good Hope Orphan Chamber that help recreate the lives of Indonesian slaves who constituted the largest group of slaves until the early 18th century. Yang’s essay on the Sikh maharajah exiled to Singapore is enriched by the use of  letters written in Gurmukhi  by Nihal Singh and his ‘disciple’ Kharak Singh  that add to our understanding of the ‘emotional state of exile’ (83).

A turn to exile as a vantage point complicates the story of the nation state and reveals the precariousness and complexity of the fabric of empires. What new insights do we get on European colonialism looked at through the lense of exile?  All the personal stories recounted in the book disclose unusual connections that were forged across time and space. Another feature that comes through is the limits of colonial surveillance over its subjects, particularly in Penny Edwards’ study of a Burmese prince who succeeds so well in evading capture and confounding those in power in two colonial regimes. The fissures in the colonial state are similarly laid bare in Paterson’s superb account of subversive poems that made their way back into Vietnam with the help of an exiled Vietnamese dissenter.

‘Exile’ writes Ronit Ricci was ‘a catalyst for change’.  The exilic experience created new social and cultural worlds. Jean Gelman Taylor shows the possibility of social advancement teased from within extractive labour conditions. Much evidence is marshaled to show that people crafted new lives, as age-old social hierarchies and gender roles were refashioned and re-imagined. For Yogyakarta’s ruler Hamengkubuwana II and his family although exile meant a life of loss and confinement it was still enlivened by dinners, dances and socialising with European colonial society. One may wonder, however,  if this transformation is typical of the condition of exile or something common to all forms of migration?

The exilic experience survived in different ways. Commemorated in some cases, reconfigured or erased in others, it all depended on the needs of the present. Nihal Singh’s tombstone was kept alive then revitalised after the Second World  War while Bandanese, in Kaartinen’ chapter, moved or compelled to move to the Kei islands more than 500 kilometers away from their homeland denied their condition of exile and claimed instead a history of resistance.

This book is, in short an insightful and intriguing exploration of worlds of exile under Dutch, British and French (through a single chapter) case studies. It offers a fresh perspective on colonial societies bringing to the center persons and groups who were taken from other places. It re-reads ‘convicts’ as ‘convict workers’  thus decriminalizing this group and considering the  social and personal lives of some of these banished individuals owing to the rich archive of surveillance of colonial states. Yet in the case of enslaved and other subaltern people, who formed the bulk of the exiles there are limited sources to write histories of sentiment and feeling. The chapters by Anderson, Gelman Taylor, Liston, Patterson and Yang  make, however,  a laudable effort towards accessing the consciousness of the non-literate rather than only focusing on their lives  of labour. This book signals the need for more close readings of the colonial and vernacular  archive as well as   oral histories if one is to understand the way longing and dislocation was experienced among non-literate groups.  When does an enslaved forcefully moved person begin to think of herself as an exile rather than as a labouring body? One may need to test  further the  contention that ‘lines between prince, convict laborer and slave’  (1) were  blurred in exile. These quibles apart, Exile in Colonial Asia is an excellent and thought-provoking volume that deserves to be widely read by anyone interested in empire, forced migration and transnational history.

(This review was initially published in Itinerario, 43(1), 2019; 181-183. It is republished in TAP Book Talk with the reviewer’s consent)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *