Tales from the East
The Memoirs And Memorials Of Jacques De Coutre: Security, Trade And Society In 16th- And 17th-Century Southeast Asia Author: Jacques de Coutre
Editor: Peter Borschberg
Translator (Spanish-English): Roopanjali Roy
Publisher: NUS Press, 488 pages, non-fiction
THIS tome reads like a swashbuckling Hollywood tale of a Flemish trader in South-East Asia at the turn of an epoch-making 17th century, but it is a true story of the adventures of Jacques de Coutre in this region.
He wore many hats: as a diplomat, an interpreter and negotiator, an astute trader of gems, and ultimately, a survivor of those difficult times who lived to tell of his exploits.
The most important of his roles, though, was as an intelligence-gatherer for the kings of Portugal and Spain in view of the many things that were happening in the region with the coming of the Dutch threat to the “Estado da India” (the State of India under the Portuguese – yes, they got there before the British, in 1498).
De Coutre was able to travel to many exotic places. His stories of Malacca, Batu Sawar, Pahang, Ayutthaya, Patani, Siak, Kampar, Champa, Cochin China and Manila are truly riveting, putting so much flesh on the bare facts of the history of South-East Asia as we were taught in school.
He was a very good raconteur, with an eye for detail on the matters he experienced – naval battles, Asian court protocol, unique cultural and religious practices, justice as meted out by rulers, intrigues between powers and kingdoms, conduct of trade in myriad items, and military fortifications.
He has left lasting descriptions of various personalities of high and common standing, and strange practices, like the beautiful women of Pahang, a law on the use of bungkals by a Queen of Pegu, and the introduction of slits to the sarong, hunting parties of the King of Siam and the role of the Sultan of Johor in the Dutch seizure of the Portuguese treasure ship Santa Catarina in the Straits of Johor.
The book gives us a firsthand account of ancient Malacca and its trade, and describes the kingdom of Siam, of which we know so little, as well as the situations in Spanish Manila, the Philippine Islands, the Riau Islands, and Singapore.
De Coutre had the vision to suggest that the King of Spain construct forts on Singapore and its islands (notably Sentosa Island) more than two centuries before Stamford Raffles officially founded the British colony.
But his recommendation to strengthen Malacca’s Fortaleza da Malaca fort with the advent of the Dutch entry into this region were acted upon too late, thus causing the loss of Portuguese Malacca in the 17th century and the ultimate decline of the Estado da India.
This book, based on de Coutre’s manuscripts preserved in the National Library of Spain in Madrid, was edited by Assoc Prof of History at the National University of Singapore, Peter Borschberg. The translation of the Spanish and Portuguese manuscripts was done by Roopanjali Roy.
There are many illustrations of maps and drawings, and a glossary of terms used in the book, all of which provides a greater appreciation and understanding of the exciting era in which this adventurer lived.
Anybody who loves real adventure should read this book.
Also, The Memoirs are a treasure trove of historical nuggets and gems – students and history buffs will dig into this and emerge richer from encountering this Flemish trader and gem merchant’s life and times.