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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Cover Art: Elusive Pirates, Pervasive Smugglers
Elusive Pirates, Pervasive Smugglers: Violence and Clandestine Trade in the Greater China Seas
Edited by Robert J. Antony
Hong Kong University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-988-8028-11-5, US $45.00 / HKD $295.00


These scholarly essays examine the connections and history of piracy and smuggling in Asian waters, both of which have long been a way of life in this region. Often given short shrift, these authors show how pirates and smugglers – different, yet related – played key roles in how society developed. The information unveiled clearly shows the link between the past and the present, especially in light of issues of maritime security and national sovereignty.
These two groups involve themselves in an illicit or shadow economy, which coexists with legal trade. Searching through documents in many different languages and representing a variety of perspectives, these historians share what their research reveals about piracy and smuggling in the greater China Seas region over a period of six hundred years. They also discuss the integral and essential roles both groups played in shaping the history of China, Japan, and Southeast Asia.
The general arrangement of the ten chapters is chronological, although the first one provides somewhat of an overview. 
  • “Violence at Sea: Unpacking ‘Piracy’ in the Claims of States over Asian Seas” is written by Anthony Reid, professor emeritus of Australian National University’s Department of Pacific and Asian History. Concentrating on the Chinese and Malay, he explores the differences between eastern and western piracy, and how Europe’s colonial expansion altered how people saw pirates.
  • Peter D. Shapinsky, assistant professor of East Asian history at the University of Illinois at Springfield, examines perceptions of piracy in “From Sea Bandits to Sea Lords: Nonstate Violence and Pirate Identities in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Japan.” By examining various historical and cultural contexts, he shows how these perceptions changed from mercenaries and pirates to legitimate, state-sponsored sea lords.
  • A research fellow at the Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong, James K. Chin specializes in the history of maritime Asia. His use of contemporary Chinese and Portuguese accounts in “Merchants, Smugglers, and Pirates: Multinational Clandestine Trade on the South China Coast, 1520-50” show not only the negative impact, but also the positive influences on these groups had on the Chinese economy.

  • “Pirates, Gunpowder, and Christianity in Late Sixteenth-Century Japan,” written by Maria Grazia Petrucci, a doctoral student in the University of British Columbia specializing in Japanese history, analyzes how Europeans, merchants, and pirates interacted to manufacture and smuggle gunpowder.
  • Igawa Kenji, associate professor of the Graduate School of Letters at Osaka University, discusses the impact Chinese and Japanese pirates had on sea routes that established the Philippine Islands as an important player in international trade in “At the Crossroads: Limahon and Wakō in Sixteenth-Century Philippines.” The key points examined are: a) when and why the Philippines became a crossroads; b) who the pirates were and what their role was in this development; and c) the relationship between piracy and trade in this period, especially as regards interactions between the Philippines and Japan.
  • Paola Calanca studies Ming and Qing navies and is an associate professor of history at the École Française d’Extrême-Orient. In “Piracy and Coastal Security in Southeastern China, 1600-1780,” she explores how government bans on maritime trade forced people to become pirates and smugglers. She then demonstrates how reversals in state policies turned supporters of piracy into opponents.

  • Professor of Chinese and comparative history at the University of Macau and author of Pirates in the Age of Sail, Robert J. Antony examines the rise of piracy and the roles these bandits played in “Piracy and the Shadow Economy in the South China Sea, 1780-1810.” He demonstrates how this illicit trade impacted the economy from both a negative and positive perspective.
  • Robert Hellyer’s case study, “Poor but Not Pirates: The Tsushima Domain and Foreign Relations in Early Modern Japan,” is a case study scrutinizes how and why Tsushima, an island and piracy haven in the sixteenth century, changed through the intervention of agreements with Korea. He also considers how and why they refrained from reverting to their piratical ways when beset by economic hardship in the seventeenth century. Hellyer is an assistant professor of history at Wake Forest University, whose specialty is early modern and modern Japanese history.·        
  • Ota Atsushi, assistant research fellow at the Center of Asia-Pacific Area Studies, Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences, Academia Sinica in Taipei, studies Southeast Asia’s maritime history. His essay, “The Business of Violence: Piracy around Riau, Lingga, and Singapore, 1820-40,” focuses on how pirates worked, their military and commercial networks, and how the Europeans and locals dealt with piracy.
  • “Smuggling in the South China Sea: Alternate Histories of a Nonstate Space in the Late Nineteenth and Late Twentieth Centuries” concludes this collection. Eric Tagliacozzo – an associate professor at Cornell University who teaches Southeast Asian history and Asian studies – examines smuggling in two centuries to show how the past influences the present.
This noteworthy study contains an abundance of material that is enhanced with illustrations, maps, chapter notes, and a detailed bibliography and index. As Antony, who also edits this volume, writes in his introduction, “this the first book to carefully examine piracy and smuggling from [in-depth historical and comparative perspectives] for the whole East and Southeast Asian region.”  Not only do these essays accomplish this goal, but they skillfully show that eastern piracy greatly differs from that of the west, and that we need to study it from that perspective, more so than that of the colonial powers who forced their definition of piracy onto this region.
The other strength of Elusive Pirates, Pervasive Smugglers is it explores the past, rather than focusing on the present, as many recent books have. In doing so, these scholars provide readers with a better understanding of “the problems of piracy and smuggling . . . [and] that they are deep-rooted, complex, and evolving phenomena.”

Review Copyrighted ©2010 Cindy Vallar

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