Gift-giving in early modern European encounters with Southeast Asia

James Taylor, winner of the 2019 Hakluyt Society Essay Prize, gives us an insight into the nuances of gift-giving in encounters between early modern Europeans and Southeast Asians, with a extract from his prize-winning essay.


From the earliest European contact with Southeast Asia through to the era of ‘high imperialism’, the process of gift-giving sits at the fulcrum of a dynamic relationship; it is an instance of continuity apparent through several centuries of dramatic change over the course of which rough-and-ready trade deals came to be replaced by fully functioning imperial hegemony.

My research has addressed two broad questions: what role did the gift play in this context and what can be learnt from examining this area of history through the lens of reciprocal gift exchange rather than within the conceptual framework of an ‘age of commerce’?

The role of the gift

Initial encounters between European traders and Southeast Asians relied on gift exchange as a means of establishing basic mutual goodwill. During a brief stop at a supposedly uninhabited island in the Philippines in March 1521, Ferdinand Magellan and his crew were approached by a group of ten Filipinos in a boat, curious to discover the identity of their foreign visitors. Neither party could know the others’ intentions, whether they were friendly or hostile, stronger or weaker, nor could they vocally communicate these things to one another without chancing potentially serious misunderstanding. In the event, Antonio Pigafetta’s account tells us, ‘the captain … seeing that these people were reasonable’ gave them an assortment of small goods, and in return, ‘when these people saw the politeness of the captain … presented some fish, and a vessel of palm wine’.

First contact between parties that were largely if not entirely ignorant of one another’s social customs and backgrounds would often unfold like this. The exchange of gifts, however makeshift, served to establish a working equality between unfamiliar parties and created a platform of communication that defied language barriers. The gifts given in such situations were typically improvised and unceremonious; moments of on-the-spot reciprocity that conveyed basic but crucial messages of mutual respect and a willingness to cooperate.

Gift-giving took on additional meaning as relationships between Europeans and Southeast Asians became more established. Against the backdrop of growing European influence in the region during the seventeenth century, Southeast Asian rulers’ gifting became more noticeably orientated around those rulers asserting their dominance.

In a rather gruesome account, the English trader Thomas Bowrey describes watching the baiting and capturing of what was probably a black panther. The Raja of Janselone, noticing that Bowrey was impressed by the animal’s teeth, ordered his soldiers to knock them out and gave one to Bowrey as a gift. This presentation can be seen as the final act of an elaborate and highly symbolic spectacle, intended to demonstrate to foreigners the Raja’s mastery over the predators and threats of his world. The final, impulsive order given by the Raja to have the panther’s teeth put out and for one to be presented to Bowrey seems intended to shock him with the Raja’s readiness and freedom to manipulate the wild world according to his will.

Ambonese chiefs James Taylor
‘Tokens for Ambonese chiefs’, Zandvliet, The Dutch encounter with Asia, 1500-1950, plate 59, p. 117

As the imperial presence of the Dutch and English became more firmly established in the region through the expanding operations of their trading companies, the gift remained important, but its usage became more sophisticated. In 1620, the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) presented medals (above) to Ambonese orangkayas (wealthy merchants or gentlemen) and princes whose design – engraved with a fleet of cora-cora on one side and the Dutch lion on the other – epitomised the Dutch effort to adopt Southeast Asian cultural symbolism in order to acquire legitimacy for their growing political and commercial influence.

At the end of the seventeenth century, moreover, these objects were still owned by the descendants of their original recipients. They were meant as lasting physical embodiments of the pact of friendship the Ambonese orangkayas had made with the VOC, and in this sense they reflect the Company’s impressive recognition of the significance of diplomatic gifts to Southeast Asians – symbols of the personal and of intangible bonds of loyalty rather than utilitarian or saleable objects.


As late as the mid-nineteenth century, Munshi Abdullah describes an elaborate presentation of a state sword (above) to the Temenggong of Johor in 1846 for help given to the colonial government. At the ceremony, the British Governor William Butterworth delivered a speech heavily laden with warnings to Asian peoples who might oppose the will of the British Company.

After receiving the sword, Abdullah tells us, the Temenggong ‘became all the more devoted and loyal.’ His loyalty became so great that he apparently ‘submitted entirely to the governor’s wishes and obeyed the directions of the government in all matters.’ Gift-giving seems to have served Europeans as a tool to socially elevate those who were compliant with their wishes; a strategy of divide and rule masked by a discourse of diplomacy that was reassuringly familiar to Southeast Asian subjects. Indeed, although the presentation of the sword to the Temenggong was organised by the British colonial administration, they allowed the ceremonial trappings of Southeast Asian gift-giving (quite literally) to surround the event – music played as girls danced in the Malay fashion ‘and in the style of Kelatan’ before the gathered crowd.

Gift-giving as a lens

Examining moments of gift-giving is important because it reveals significant differences between European and Southeast Asian aims, interests and discourses of diplomacy in the early modern period. Most apparent from my research has been the contrast between the personal and impersonal diplomatic approaches of Southeast Asians and Europeans respectively.

Many Europeans’ predominantly commercial interests in the region were not shared with such gusto by Southeast Asians, whose priorities were more concerned with forging political alliances that were often contingent on a personal bond with the particular explorer or trader who appeared before them.

Rather than a uniform ‘age of commerce’, then, the themes of engagement on which inter-cultural relationships were predicated in this era are highly nuanced. Accordingly, gift-giving proved to be an indispensable tool in mollifying potentially obstructive differences and enabling cooperation.

James Taylor is a graduate student at City, University of London and winner of the Hakluyt Society Essay Prize 2019. His essay, ‘Gift-giving, Reciprocity and the Negotiation of Power, c.1500-1824’, considers the role of gift-giving as an indispensable and ongoing process that facilitated inter-cultural interactions between European traders and Southeast Asian rulers throughout the early modern period. He will present his research in more detail at the Society’s Annual Symposium in Leiden this September.