Organized Panel Session
Naval blockades constituted one of the primary means for colonizing powers to project military power over the coastlines and maritime spaces of Southeast Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries. Historians often present such naval cordons as a component of broader efforts to materialize imperial spatial imaginaries and make borders by restricting seafaring mobility. Yet, such analysis only captures part of the story. However cutting-edge the steamer technology or brutal the application of military power against local prahu vessels, colonial blockades were nonetheless porous and capable of intercepting only a fraction of incoming traffic. Instead, blockades functioned just as much by encouraging movement as discouraging it, privileging certain ports, peoples, and commercial interests. This paper will examine how a series of Dutch, Spanish, and American naval blockades extending from the coasts of Aceh in the northwest of the Netherlands East Indies (contemporary Indonesia) to the Sulu Archipelago of the southern Philippines helped to channel regional mobilities in “acceptable” directions. Blockades slowly pushed a wide variety of Arab, Chinese, and Indian traders, as well as even some local Acehnese and Tausug, to abandon coastlines remote from colonial authority for sanctioned customs houses and port cities. Such naval efforts never seriously disrupted local trade, now branded “smuggling” or “piracy”, nor did it uniformly produce great economic benefits or tax receipts. However, this paper will argue such blockades played a crucial role in harnessing the cosmopolitan worlds of maritime Southeast Asia into legible pathways and urban spaces.