Author: Matthew Bowser

From Istanbul to Tokyo: An Interview with Eric Tagliacozzo

Professor Tagliacozzo is Professor of Modern Southeast Asian History at Cornell University. Courtesy of Eric Tagliacozzo.

In 2018, over 2.3 million people went on hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that takes place during the final month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Dhu al-Hijjah. The pilgrimage is one of the Five Pillars of Islam (alongside Shahadah, Salat, Zakat and Sawm) and is mandatory for all able-bodied Muslims financially capable of making the journey. Although Muslims make the journey every year from all around the world, the country with the highest percentage of hajjis per capita is not in northern Africa or the Middle East, considered by most to be the center of dar al-Islam (the Abode of Islam), but rather in Southeast Asia: Indonesia.

So observes Eric Tagliacozzo, Professor of Modern Southeast Asia at Cornell University, in his most recent monograph, The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and the Pilgrimage to Mecca (Oxford University Press, 2013). In examining the annual movement of pilgrims from the opposite ends of the Indian Ocean, Tagliacozzo taps in to a process that has been taking place for more than five hundred years: first by sail, then by steam, then by air. Connections between Southeast Asia and the Middle East do not center solely on Islam. They are part of a far more complex network of trade, movement, and cross-cultural exchange. These connections between Southeast Asia and the Middle East are part of a far wider set of connections between peoples along the entire Indian Ocean littoral from eastern Africa to the South China Sea.

As historians have turned to more transnational and global histories in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the field known as the “Indian Ocean world” has blossomed. Studies of the Indian Ocean world focus on the movement and settling of people from all around the Indian Ocean littoral and hinterland regions, which form a single interconnected arena. They examine how connections between peoples in the Indian Ocean world long pre-dated European colonialism. They explore how those connections persisted through the colonial period, both by using and subverting colonial networks. Together, they trace these movements from the pre-colonial to the post-colonial, demonstrating continuities over time that do not exist solely in reference to Europe.

Tagliacozzo himself has significantly contributed to this literature. His work has added enormously to historians’ knowledge of not just Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, and other parts of Southeast Asia–which was his original region of focus–but also the South China Sea, the Arabian Peninsula, and Southwest Asia (the Middle East) all the way to Istanbul. He has demonstrated the deep-seated connections between these regions and the peoples that inhabit them, thereby adding color, breadth, and depth to previously separated national and regional histories. Since the start of his career, Tagliacozzo has worked on these networks in monographs including Secret Trades, Porous Borders: Smuggling and States Along a Southeast Asian Frontier, 1865-1915 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) and The Longest Journey (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

In this interview, we talked with Tagliacozzo about his previous works and his contributions to scholarship on the Indian Ocean world as well as transnational and global history. We spoke about his days as a 22-year old college student interviewing spice traders from Japan to East Africa. Our discussion ranged from illicit trade in rhinoceros horns to itinerant peoples’ methods of resistance to colonial rule. And we discussed how, often, those two things were one-and-the-same.

– Matthew Bowser