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Balance and Military Innovation in 17th-Century Java

Merle Ricklefs re-examines the impact of the Dutch in the East Indies and finds in the response of the Javanese a more complex story than that of technological superiority beating down a military-primitive response.

Historians of warfare in the early modern period rightly look upon Europe as the primary source of military innovations. This may, however, lead them to forget that innovations sometimes spread rapidly to non-European societies, nullifying Europe's relative military advantage. Such a tendency is evident in Geoffrey Parker's The Military Revolution: Military Innovations and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 1988). This impressive work is written from an essentially European frame of reference and may provoke objection from specialists in non-European history. Certainly with regard to the islands of South-East Asia, Parker's observation that 'by 1650 the West had already achieved military mastery' there (pp. 117-18) needs correction, as does his acceptance of the testimony of an early seventeenth-century English visitor, that the people of Java were 'very loath to fight'. The islands of South-East Asia offer manifold examples of the inability of Europeans to achieve military domination during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and of the pugnacious character of many of the societies found there. Indeed, in the Javanese, the Europeans encountered one of the major martial societies of the region. In the late seventeenth century, this encounter culminated tragically for the Dutch.

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