Women Traders of Southeast Asia

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Women Traders of Southeast Asia

Both Chinese and European travelers who left accounts of the trading conditions of Southeast Asia before the colonial era were surprised at how frequently they dealt with women as the most active traders. As early as the thirteenth century Chinese traveler Zhou Daguan noted that "in Cambodia it is the women who take charge of trade" (Pelliot 1951, p. 20); and as late as the nineteenth century the English governor of Java, Stamford Raffles, observed, "the women alone attend the markets, and conduct all the business of buying and selling. It is proverbial to say the Javanese men are fools in money concerns" (Raffles 1817 I: 353). Even in Vietnamese society, where Chinese Confucian models of behavior were increasingly dominant, European visitors of the seventeenth and eighteenth century found men heavily constrained by military and civil corvée, while most of the trade was handled by women.

Inheritance was bilateral in most societies, so women owned property in land as well as in movable items such as cloth and jewelry. In a few matrilineal societies, of which the Minangkabau of Sumatra are the most studied, land could only be inherited through the female line. Women also took a roughly equal share in production, being responsible for planting, harvesting, and processing of crops, as well as for cloth and ceramic production. In striking contrast to the situations in Europe, China, and much of the Islamic world at the time, women in matrilineal societies acquired enough economic autonomy to be able to divorce their husbands. Monogamy was the rule, except for a few rulers, but divorce was much more frequent than in Europe or China. When data was first collected in the first half of the twentieth century, Malaysia and Indonesia had divorce rates in excess of 50 percent of marriages, among the highest in the world at the time. Foreign observers attributed much of the initiative for these divorces to women.

Even up to contemporary times, many rural societies accept a stereotype of men as being ill-equipped for trade because of their necessary preoccupation with status, making it inappropriate for them to worry about money or to strike bargains. The dominance since the colonial era of male Chinese and European models of how to operate in the modern economy has greatly changed this pattern, and even given a certain middle-class prestige to the nonworking wife. Nevertheless, the non-Muslim Southeast Asian countries (Thailand, Philippines, Burma, and Cambodia) still top the world's tables for female participation in trade and marketing. The gradual expansion in the influence of global religious models, none of which were helpful to women, gradually restricted this pattern in the twentieth century. But the world's largest Muslim country, Indonesia, still had a female participation rate in trade that was about ten times as high (31% of those employed in trade and marketing in the 1960s) as the average for Arab countries (Boserup 1970, pp.87–89).

At the lowest market level, those who produced the goods tended to sell them, making women predominant in food staples, vegetables, ceramics, and cloth, while men sold their production of metal tools and meat. There are, however, only a few examples of women traders going on long sea voyages or overland caravans, suggesting that like women elsewhere, they were inhibited from long absences from home. This gap made it relatively easy for outsider males to move into long-distance trade. Male Chinese, Indian, and Arab traders, more accustomed than Southeast Asian males to doing business at home, made the long voyages to Southeast Asia, initially to sell Indian cloths and Chinese metalware and ceramics, and to buy up Southeast Asian pepper, spices, and resins. Many of them stayed and became Southeast Asia-based traders. Private Chinese trade to Southeast Asia (as opposed to trade legitimated in terms of tribute) was first legalized by the Ming Dynasty in 1567, and by the time Dutch and English factors begin reporting around 1600, Chinese male traders were spreading out to inland markets to buy up pepper, deerskins, and forest products.

This pattern produced a natural symbiosis between long-distance outsider male and local female traders. Numerous sources explain how important it was for foreign traders to acquire a local wife as a partner in business as well as in conjugal matters. As Alexander Hamilton explained the system in Burma around 1700, most of the foreign traders "marry a wife for the term they stay . . . . if their husbands have any goods to sell, they set up a shop and sell them by retail . . . and some of them carry a cargo of goods to the inland towns, and barter for goods proper for the foreign markets that their husbands are bound to" ([1727] 1930, p. 28). These unions were often temporary, and many travelers from less tolerant parts of the world noted with surprise that no stigma appeared to attach to women who contracted such marriages for as long as the trader stayed. The male descendents of such marriages were often able to bridge the gap between male power-holding and female trade, and many of them occupied commercial functions at court.

Despite dominating the lower levels of commerce, there were limits to how far female traders could go in accumulating ships, trade goods, and followers. The biggest traders tended to be either foreigners or rulers, both usually male, there being little legal protection for wealthy private traders. Nevertheless, the records do make clear that there were both aristocratic and royal women sending ships and cargoes on substantial voyages, and low-born women who reached a similar position on their wits. One of the founders of the commercial prominence of Grisek, an East Java port later supplanted by Surabaya, was Nyai Pinateh, evidently a Sino-Indonesian woman and pioneer of Islam, who around 1500 was sending her trading ships as far as Maluku (Spice Islands) and Cambodia. In the southern Vietnamese kingdom of Cochinchina in 1602 a Dutch mission found themselves negotiating with "a great merchant woman" about the price of the pepper they wanted to buy, she having traveled from the capital for the purpose. In Siam a low-born woman named Soet Pegu formed a sexual and commercial relationship with three successive Dutch factors, and used these connections to assist the foreign trade of the wives of a number of prominent Siamese officials. By the time of the third of these Dutch partners, covering the years 1646 to 1651, she controlled all transactions between the Dutch and the Thai court.

SEE ALSO Burma; Calcutta; East India Company, British; East India Company, Dutch; East India Company, Other; Empire, British; Empire, Dutch; Empire, French; Empire, Portuguese; Empire, Spanish; Ethnic Groups, Cantonese; Ethnic Groups, Fujianese; Ethnic Groups, Gujarati; Imperialism;Indian Ocean; Indonesia; Japan;Melaka;Mercantilism;Nagasaki;Philippines;Sex and Gender;Thailand;Smuggling;South China Sea;Vietnam.


Andaya, Barbara, ed. Women, Gender, and History in Early Modern Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.

Boserup, Ester. Woman's Role in Agricultural Development. London: Allen & Unwin, 1970.

Hamilton, Alexander. A New Account of the East Indies [1727]. New edition by Sir William Foster. 2 vols. London: Argonaut Press, 1930.

Pelliot, Paul. Mémoires sur les coutumes du Cambodge de Tcheou Ta-Kouan. Paris, Maisonneuve, 1951.

Raffles, Thomas Stamford. The History of Java 2 vols [1817], Reprinted Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press, 1965.

Reid, Anthony. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, c. 1450–1680, 2 vols. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988–1993.

Anthony Reid

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Women Traders of Southeast Asia