Notes: On the growth of international trade between Europe and Southeast Asia during the colonial period


I often wonder why in most of the conferences/lectures I’ve attended, some members of the audience tend to ask questions that bear no salient relation to the topic the lecturer came there to discuss. That is not to say such questions are unimportant or uninteresting, but if I went to somebody’s lecture expecting to learn about (or myself discourse on) something only tangentially related to the speaker’s talk, shouldn’t I perhaps instead attend a different lecture or read a book about the topic I’m actually interested in that is hardly related to the speaker’s talk? Sincerely wondering, maybe I’m seeing it wrong. For instance, today I attended an economics talk on the growth of international trade between Europe and Southeast Asia (SEA) during the colonial period (1500s-1940), but many of the questions were about the politics of ASEAN integration or the neoliberal policies of the IMF and their implications for Philippine economic growth in the present, so the speaker, Professor Williamson, was often like, Good question!!! But I’m an economist, and I have no data on that.

Still, I learned interesting things from the lecture earlier, things that corroborate many of the more theoretical and rhetorical discussions in postcolonial studies. They include:

  • The four major drivers of the Eurasian trade boom during the stated period:
  1. Rise in demand by the European upper classes for oriental goods, driven by rising economic inequality in Europe: wages were going down while rents were going up thanks to policies influenced by Malthus. The landed classes were able to amass more land and extract cheap labor from disenfranchised small farmers and other workers.
  2. China, which used to be the biggest consumer and trader of goods from SEA, turned isolationist in the 16th century. International trade became illegal during the Ming dynasty and remained suppressed until the fall of the Qing Dynasty at the turn of the 20th century. European traders filled the gap China left.
  3. The Industrial Revolution led to GDP growth in Europe, led to rise in demand for commodities from Asia, including intermediate inputs for manufacturing (e.g. jute, hemp, copra, rubber), fuel, and luxury goods like tea, tobacco, sugar.
  4. The world was at relative peace (thanks also to treaties among colonizers about the proper way to divide the rest of the world among themselves). Wars tend to destabilize markets and shut down trade.
  • During 1796-1913, SEA became the biggest commodity exporter in terms of the rate of trade growth and price boom ever. This means that a massive amount of resources (many of them nonrenewable, like carbon fuel, gold and other metals) were being extracted from the colonies. However, the ones who benefited from this trade boom were the colonizers and the local (comprador) elites. Indeed, while trade was rising during this time, the wages of laborers around SEA sharply and steadily declined, especially in Burma, Siam, and Punjab.
  • From 1914-1940, the Philippines was top three among the world’s fastest-growing manufacturing economies (#1 Japan, #2 China). In 1957, it rose to the top spot. And then Marcos Happened, and the industrialization of the Philippine economy just went downhill from there, thanks to gross corruption and the mismanagement of his cronies of the state industries they monopolized.
  • The economic history of the Philippines is severely understudied. So people from the School of Economics, crunch and graph the numbers daw. Para may empirical support for what has tended to be a highly politicized/emotional discourse on Philippine economic history. This is not to disregard the political dimension of economics (I for one believe that the study and practice of economics should be anchored in political economy) but to affirm that economics and its history is not a matter of creative writing.

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