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As Lições de Jill Dias

Maria Cardeira da Silva
Clara Saraiva

Antropologia com história

Asia and Eurasia: new tunes and looney tunes in historical anthropology

Brian Juan O’Neill

Texte intégral

Jack Goody & New Tunes

  • 1 Goody copiously cites the authoritative 27 volume work on China directed by the sinologist Joseph N (...)

1In this section I delineate some new lines of research originating in Jack Goody’s volume The East in the West (1996), translated here in Portugal in 2000 as O Oriente no Ocidente. Following this volume, two further books by the same author are also relevant: The Theft of History (2006), and The Eurasian Miracle (2010). Goody profoundly amplifies our view of Asia, showing the affinities between Orient and Occident in the areas of kinship, a capitalistic business-oriented spirit, scientific inventions, rationalism, individualism, democracy, freedom, the idea of love, and cuisine. The terms Europe and Asia should be substituted by Eurasia. Further, each extreme of this mega-continent has undergone advances: the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution in the West, and the invention of paper and printing, gunpowder, and the compass in the East. But there have also been regressions (withdrawal from empire-building by the Ming dynasty in China;1 the Middle Ages in Europe). These patterns constitute alternations within the same continent, evincing forward and backward paces at diverse moments. What does all of this imply? Firstly, that the image of an exotic, remote, and “different” Orient is in fact a fabricated myth. Asia was, therefore, according to this viewpoint, never truly a source of alterity, never really an “Other”.

2Goody perforates an overweight English balloon. There is nothing “innately” British, European, or Western about capitalism, democracy, individualism, or conjugal love. But the goal is not any exaggeration of the East with a concomitant downgrading of the West, but rather further effort towards re-setting the balance, via a more distanced global perspective.

3Two further volumes do something similar: Andre Gunder Frank’s ground-breaking ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age (1998), and Janet Abu-Lughod’s earlier Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (1989). What immediately strikes us in both of these studies are the extraordinarily web-like intricacies of the inter-regional and inter-continental circuits of contact that the authors depict.

4All three authors insist on resuscitating the category Eurasia, thereby providing a new stage for rethinking earlier historical globalizations and world-systems. For the purposes of this conference, I hail these “new tunes” as a novel development of one form of historical sociology, or alternatively, comparative historical anthropology.

John Hobson & Looney Tunes

5Now, let us inject a little humour into this argument: what do I mean in my title by the phrase “Looney Tunes”? I carefully chose the term for two reasons: firstly, in order to reproduce the rebel, critical, and iconoclastic spirit of a recent book which explodes such categories as Asia, Europe, advancement, the West, and the East. Secondly, my laughter-ridden reading of the pages of this book has transformed my thinking into a caricature mold. I refer to the book The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation (2004), by John Hobson, Professor of Politics and International Relations at Sheffield University, great-grandson of the equally rebel Cambridge economist, John Atkinson Hobson (Schneider 1996). The author wages a relentless battle against the establishment of Eurocentric academics. Hobson goes further than Goody and Gunder Frank; the latters’ modernist critiques are replaced by an intensely avant-garde style. The volume is deliberately polemical: reading it is like looking at a painting by Andy Warhol, or like watching the extravagant, exaggerated fashion apparel in the musical video-clips of Lady Gaga.

6But why looney tunes? Because, right from the opening pages, the entire cycle of development of Western European dominance turns into a hilarious caricature.

I take delight in surprising the reader (xi)… The present book argues that the East, which was more advanced than the West between 500 and 1800, provided a crucial role in enabling the rise of modern Western civilisation (2)…The European Renaissance and scientific revolution are considered more from the perspective of the Islamic Middle East and North Africa than Tuscany. Da Vinci, Ficino and Copernicus kneel before the likes of al-Shātir, al-Khwārizmī and al-Tūsī. Vasco da Gama fades into the marginalised shadows cast by the brilliance of Asia… For the majority of the period discussed in this book, Madrid, Lisbon, London and Venice are all provincial backwaters of Baghdad, Cairo, Canton and Calicut. London’s Great Exhibition turns out to be hubris, given that Britain’s industrialisation is but the final stage of the transmission of the much earlier inventions pioneered in China (Hobson 2004: xi-xii).

7We know that Cheng Ho (or Zheng He in Chinese) led seven maritime expeditions between 1405 and 1433 throughout the Indian Ocean, providing a kind of counter-model for the Portuguese discoverers almost a century later. Hobson’s front-cover illustration sets Columbus’ mini Santa Maria (85 feet long) in front of Cheng Ho’s enormous treasure-ship (400 feet in length), thus paving the way for further caricatures as we read on. Just note some titles to sections: “The East as an early developer: the East discovers and leads the world through oriental globalisation, 500-1800”. The next section (“The West was Last...”) has three delicious chapter titles: “Inventing Christendom and the Eastern origins of European feudalism, c. 500-1000”, “The Myth of the Italian pioneer, 1000-1492” [Columbus], and “The Myth of the Vasco da Gama Epoch, 1498-c. 1800”.

8When discussing this chapter with students, I try faithfully to portray Hobson’s vanguard spirit, insisting that he does not mean to denigrate the person or the achievements of Vasco da Gama. The point is to re-situate the Portuguese discoverer within a wider, more globalistic historical gaze. Hobson stresses Vasco da Gama’s antecedents, contemporaries, and most importantly, the magnifications and balloon-effect within Portugal, which has tended to glorify this historic figure. I scribble on the board the essence of Hobson’s thesis: remove the capitals and call him “vasquinho da gaminha”.

9These caricatures pile one upon another during Hobson’s merciless, implacable deconstruction of hegemonic Eurocentric obsessions. We are led to the query–how can we have been so stupid, for so long? If Europe was one of anthropology’s last field terrains, then Goody and Hobson now show us with impressive clarity that “the West” itself, and the Western academic establishment, must be subjected to a new critical historical anthropology. Hobson discovers literally hundreds of distorted magnifications. It is these magnifications that turn into looney tunes. As I read on, chapter after chapter, my giggles increased in rate; Hobson succeeded in altering my perception of “my own” Western legacy. The more I read, the more I re-analyzed the West (a veritable 21st century exercise in combating ethnocentrism). So, the more I saw before my eyes a hilarious succession of caricatures.

10Of course, two counter-arguments immediately appear. Firstly, neither Hobson nor Goody engages in Europe-bashing; the key goal is resetting the balance between West and East. Edward Said’s Orientalism broke the ground most clearly back in 1978, but other scholars had argued all of this, decades earlier. Secondly, the point is not to elevate inordinately countries such as India or China. The supreme value of the looney tune, therefore, is its power of heightened awareness. Things have gotten so far out of shape, so distorted and so disfigured, that only a shocking caricature–at once humorous but also vicious–can shake us out of our complacency and myopia.

Malacca Caricatures

11Now, how do we propose to apply or adapt Hobson’s ingenious model of deconstruction? In a nutshell, here is the gist. There is another level of looney tunes. I have been researching the Creole population of supposed descendants of the Portuguese in Malacca. There is an omnipresent interpretation of everything and everyone there as genuinely, authentically, and truly Portuguese. Residents of the Portuguese Settlement–a n urban seaside neighbourhood–trace themselves directly back to Afonso de Albuquerque and his accompanying colonos who stayed in Malacca following its “conquest” in 1511. The inhabitants of this bairro are variously termed Portuguese Eurasians, kristangs, Malaysian Portuguese, the Malacca Portuguese, or simply “Portuguese”. This is not the place to provide detailed examples, but there are many hilarious cases of what I call the “mistaken identity complex”. Everything creolized or kristang is taken to be European Portuguese: persons, names, apparel, copied folklore, songs, dance steps, traditions, psychological inclinations, cuisine, nostalgia for Portugal, and so on. Like Cary Grant in the first hour of Hitchcock’s film “North by Northwest”, an identity is stolen or obscured, and supplanted by another. But this theft of identity–eminiscent of Goody’s title The Theft of History–may be strategically planned (as in the film), or purely a spontaneous error. All Creole elements are masked by a reductionist gaze that paints everything as Portuguese, or a relic or archaic remnant of Portugal. Obviously, similar processes are verifiable in places preserving comparable Portuguese Creole languages and culture, such as Diu, Daman, and Cochin in India, or Tugu (Espada 2009) and Larantuka in Indonesia.

12Who perpetrates these images? No, not only half a dozen representatives of the authoritarian New State (Estado Novo) in Portugal, although the latter bear some responsibility. Nor is luso-tropicalism the only culprit. Other producers of these looney tunes include visitors, academics, sophisticated cultural tourists, silly tourists, local residents themselves, internet sites, and many (although not all) journalists (subdivided into local Malaysian reporters, foreigners, and specifically Portuguese journalists). The levels of ambiguity, strangeness, disjuncture, and contradiction are disproportionately magnified. Virtually everything is Lusified or Lusitanianized. I have called this pattern elsewhere lusomania. One could reach the ludicrous conclusion that the population has been, at least for the last half-century, living a complete illusion. The more you read Hobson’s argument, the more you end up laughing.

13Please do not get the impression that we are only analyzing cartoons! This is not a classic post-modernist model, nor are we only analyzing Paul Rabinow’s infamous “representations of representations”. Let me give one example. Who did the casados marry, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? How “Portuguese” really was this group during early Portuguese dominion in Malacca? In fact, there was an extraordinary array of ethnic groups involved in this initial mixing process. João de Pina-Cabral and Nelson Lourenço (1993) have documented precisely the same kind of multiple mixtures in early Portuguese Macau. In addition to the Malays in Malacca, there were Indians of three major origins–Tamil speaking klings (kelings/ quelins) from India’s Eastern Coromandel coast, Gujaratis (guzerates), and Bengalis–, Chinese, Javanese (jaus), Luzonites or Filipinos (luções), Burmese (peguanos), and an apparently less permanent population of over 5000 Persians, Arabs, and a few Jews.

14But–significantly–there were also slaves from two principal provenances: Sumatra and the Eastern Javanese towns of Geresik and Panurakan. Did the Portuguese establish marriage contracts with all of these groups? We do not really know. One surprising conclusion may now be proposed based on Luiz Filipe Thomaz’pioneering work on this city in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries:

It seems that the casados were keen to adopt the local custom creating regular slave[s] harems; it is known that one such casado kept twenty four concubines. The present Portuguese-speaking community from Malacca has its roots in the mix breed marriages of that time as well as in these extra-conjugal liaisons (Thomaz 2000: 162).

Most of the Malacca Christians–7,400 at the beginning of the XVII century, according to Manuel Godinho de Herédia–were from Chinese, and chiefly, Indian origin. So, curiously, these Indian converts must be the ancestors of a large part of the present Portuguese-speaking Catholic community of Malacca (ibid: 123).

  • 2 The pool of “indigenous women” with whom the Portuguese are thought to have married is enlarged by (...)

15Today’s Creole population thus probably arose through the forging of marriages and informal unions with predominantly Indian and Indonesian slave spouses.2

16Later, the Dutch and British themselves in turn enlarged the marriage pools. So, there were no less than 21 groups with whom the Portuguese Eurasians could have established unions. Why term this population an “ethnic group” at all? It is so multicultural, so creolized, and so hybrid, as to defy the word “Portuguese” itself. Or we can conclude that the term has been a kind of umbrella for five centuries, somewhat like the Church, incorporating and agglomerating a potpourri of former or freed slaves, children of concubines, descendants of mixed marriages, and converts primarily of Indian origin. There were thus religious converts, glued to Catholicism, as well as linguistic and cultural converts to the nominally “Portuguese” group, solidified by super-glue. Nor is this indeed a bounded group at all, but rather something like a shifting or floating amalgam. In a former volume also dedicated to Jill Dias, edited by Philip Havik, Clara Saraiva, and José Alberto Tavim, Eugénia Rodrigues describes a similar multicultural circus in the Ilha de Moçambique:

Em 1823, o prelado de Moçambique, Fr. Bartolomeu dos Mártires, numa tentativa de categorizar os elementos populacionais da ilha, apontava a existência de “portugueses brancos, ou reputados taes”, “mulatos, ou mestiços”, “filhos de Goa, ou canarins”, “baneanes gentios”, “árabes, e mouros”, “cafres forros” e “captivos”. Mas concluía que a constante comunicação entre europeus, asiáticos e africanos produzira “huma tal confuzão de cores, e mistura de sangue, que custa a conhecer huma família puramente portugueza em Mossambique (Rodrigues 2010: 53-4).

17In fact–in reflexive terms–how the Malacca population has survived at all up to the twenty-first century with its root epithet of “Portuguese” is itself a kind of humanistic miracle.

18Deconstruction of this array of images is not necessarily an anthropological task. I am now working on an interpretive model–thanks to Goody’s and Hobson’s recent books–which I call the “Barcelos rooster trap”. Unless we remove the monomaniac source of light deriving from Portugal (in Bourdieu’s sense of méconnaissance), the shadow cast on Malacca will remain Lusitanian. The nationalistic light source defines everything as if it were sifted through a gigantic silhouette of the folkloric icon of the Barcelos rooster, much like the omnipresent silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock’s head in his erstwhile television series. If you shift the source of light, from Malaysia or from India, or simply from an oblique angle, the galo-de-Barcelos penumbra disappears. However, we do not propose total removal of Portuguese cultural influences, but rather a re-situating of these elements within a fresh, multiple context. Precisely as in Hobson’s and Goody’s models, we are conducting a balancing act, a re-setting of emphases, and a re-interpretation and correction of former stances and images. Obviously, this pattern also occurs in other Creole cultural enclaves within the former Portuguese empire.

19We can now propose a curious conclusion about the category “Portuguese”. Over the centuries, it has agglomerated so many meanings, and the group has assimilated so many different characteristics and diverse ethnic converts, that it can only refer to anything but an originally Portuguese base. I cannot but sit back and laugh, imagining that, once again, I’m watching another looney tune.

Jill Dias’ Lessons

20In conclusion, Jill’s lesson in my case would be, firstly, to continue to expand the links between anthropology and history, particularly via the kind of comparative cultural history and global anthropology that Goody and Hobson have been developing. Secondly, we might delve into the reasons Portuguese anthropology in Southeast Asia is a veritable desert. There is almost nothing we can build on; we are totally dependent on Portuguese historians and international linguists. Thirdly, although I came to know Jill only in recent years, mostly in rather dry academic situations (on committees and writing joint letters of recommendation), we conversed at length on the anthropology of Africa and Asia. I hope that part of her legacy will in the future filter into a more Asian-focused historical anthropology, or, as I have argued, a more interlaced analysis of African, European, and Asian circuits of culture, viewed from a new globalism.

21But most of all, I appreciated her humour and irony. I am sure she would also have loved to read such a refreshing book as Hobson’s, and would also have had a really good laugh at the looney tunes Hobson animates on every page.


ABU-LUGHOD, Janet, 1989, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

BAXTER, Alan, 1998, “The Linguistic Reflexes of the Historical Connections between the Malay and Portuguese Language in the Malay World” in Gerard A. Fernandis (ed.) Save Our Portuguese Heritage Conference 95–Malacca, Malaysia. Malacca, author’s edition, 40-64.

BETHENCOURT, Francisco & Diogo Ramada CURTO, 2007, “Introduction” in F. Bethencourt & D. R. Curto (eds.) Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 1400-1800. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1-18.

ESPADA, Maria de Jesus, 2009, Io Dali Vos Mori: Retrato Sumário de uma Comunidade Luso-descendente em Tugu. Lisboa, Prefácio.

FERNÁNDEZ-ARMESTO, Felipe, 2007, “Portuguese Expansion in a Global Context” in F. Bethencourt & D. R. Curto (eds.) Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 1400-1800. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 480-511.

FERNANDIS, Gerard A., 1998, “Some Historical Aspects of the Portuguese in Malacca” in Gerard A. Fernandis (ed.) Save Our Portuguese Heritage Conference 95–Malacca, Malaysia. Malacca, author’s edition, 91-103.

FRANK, Andre Gunder, 1998, ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age. Berkeley, University of California Press.

FRANK, André Gunder & Barry K. GILLS (eds.), 1993, The World System: Five Hundred Years or Five Thousand? London, Routledge / Taylor & Francis.

GOODY, Jack, 1996, The East in the West. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (O Oriente no Ocidente. Lisboa, Difel, 2000).

2006, The Theft of History. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

2010, The Eurasian Miracle. Cambridge, Polity Press.

HOBSON, John M., 2004, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

LOBATO, Manuel, 2000, “Malaca” in A. H. de Oliveira Marques (ed.) História dos Portugueses no Extremo Oriente–1.° Volume, Tomo II (De Macau à Periferia). Lisbon, Orient Foundation, 11-74.

O’NEILL, Brian Juan, 1999, “La Triple Identité des Créoles Portugais de Malaca” in Ethnologie Française XXIX, 2–Avril-Juin (Portugal du Tage à la Mer de Chine), translated by Jehanne Féblot-Augustins, 237-53.

2002, “Multiple Identities among the Malacca Portuguese” in Revista de Cultura/Review of Culture 4 (October). Macao: International Edition, 81-105.

2003, “Patrimónios Sobrepostos: A Lusomania entre os Kristang de Malaca” in Manuel João Ramos (ed.) A Matéria do Património: Memórias e Identidades. Lisbon, Colibri–Antropológica Avulsa N.° 2, 33-8.

2004, (translation of “Multiple Identities among the Malacca Portuguese”) in Revista de Cultura / Review of Culture. Macao, Chinese edition, 181-200.

2006, “Portugueses de Malaca?” in Brian Juan O’Neill Antropologia Social–Sociedades Complexas. Lisbon, Universidade Aberta / Série “Manuais” 296, 345-392.

(forthcoming) The Eurasian Worlds of the Malacca Portuguese: Mistaken Identities and the Theft of Creoles.

PINA-CABRAL, João de & Nelson LOURENÇO, 1993, Em Terra de Tufões: Dinâmicas da Etnicidade Macaense. Macau, Instituto Cultural de Macau.

RABINOW, Paul, 1986, “Representations Are Social Facts: Modernity and Post-Modernity in Anthropology” in James Clifford & George Marcus (eds.) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley, University of California Press, 234-261.

RODRIGUES, Eugénia, 2010, “O Quotidiano e a Construção do Imaginário Colonial acerca das Mulheres da Ilha de Moçambique (de Meados de Setecentos a Inícios de Oitocentos)” in Philip Havik, Clara Saraiva & J. A. Tavim (eds.) Caminhos Cruzados em História e Antropologia: Ensaios de Homenagem a Jill Dias. Lisboa, Imprensa de Ciências Sociais, 51-70.

SCHNEIDER, Michael, 1996, J. A. Hobson. Basingstoke, Macmillan.

THOMAZ, Luís Filipe, 1994, De Ceuta a Timor. Lisboa, Difel.

2000 [1964], Early Portuguese Malacca. Macao, Macau Territorial Commission for the Commemorations of the Portuguese Discoveries / Polytechnic Institute of Macau.


1 Goody copiously cites the authoritative 27 volume work on China directed by the sinologist Joseph Needham: Science and Civilization in China, Cambridge University Press, 1954-2008.

2 The pool of “indigenous women” with whom the Portuguese are thought to have married is enlarged by Fernandis, Baxter, and Lobato, who include the Orang Asli Manta tribes, the Baba-Nyonyas or Straits Chinese, the chitties, Armenian merchants, and slaves owned by the Portuguese in Malacca, who “were probably of Javanese, Balinese, Makassarese and Bugis stock” (Baxter 1998:45).


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