A History of Presence: Decolonizing Discourse around Early Modern Southeast Asia


Double Panel

Part 1

Session 6
Thu 14:00-15:30 Room 3.09

Part 2

Session 7
Thu 16:00-17:30 Room 3.09



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This panel investigates the origins, nature, extent and evolution of Portugal’s cultural legacy in Southeast Asia through transdisciplinary conversation. By bringing together archival studies, history, philology, cultural anthropology, linguistics and art history, we intend to reconstruct forgotten connections (material and immaterial, tangible and intangible) and rehabilitate neglected agencies. These insights serve to generate points of departure for the decolonization of discourse regarding what Southeast Asia is and how it came to be, and infuse this important conversation with updated knowledge. By scrutinizing historical connectivities across early modern Southeast Asia—from the individual to the community; from oral to material evidence—we propose to trace the (in)tangible character—widely felt to this day—of Portuguese presence in the region. The afterlives of this presence manifest themselves, for example, in the 1999 handover of Macau and the maintenance of rule of law until 2049, and by Timor-Leste’s independence process between 1999 and 2012. Historically, both localities were integrated within Portuguese (in)formal networks stretching from East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean World.

Portugal’s territorial presence in Southeast Asia was largely displaced by other European powers at an early stage. As such, it does not precisely amount to colonial rule, yet it has brought about a contact situation deeply affecting transregional connections, linguistic change, religious ceremonies, and the hybridization of intangible culture—including food, music and performing arts. Many cultural practices born during this historical period have become indigenous to Southeast Asia. Drawing on the idea of an informal empire—symbolized by the mysterious “Etc.” that adorned the title of the King of Portugal—this panel aims to trace transfers of culture and recover acts of agency during the early modern period (1500s-1650s), adding historical depth to today’s intercultural dialogues and exchange processes born out of this non-formalized legacy. Through a broad, transdisciplinary vision, we advocate for the recovery and mapping of a “Presence” highly felt in the region, albeit fragmented, mysterious, and often downplayed by subsequent European powers. By foregrounding the creolized elements of Portugal’s legacy in the region, we hope to contribute to the decolonization of discourse—on the early modern period and its afterlives—in Southeast Asian Studies.