Stranger King  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Stranger King theory offers a framework to understand global colonialism. It seeks to explain the apparent ease whereby many indigenous peoples subjugated themselves to an alien colonial power and places state formation by colonial powers within the continuum of earlier, similar but indigenous processes.

It highlights the imposition of colonialism not as the result of the breaking of the spirit of local communities by brute force, or as reflecting an ignorant peasantry's acquiescence in the lies of its self-interested leaders, but as a people's rational and productive acceptance of an opportunity offered.

The theory was developed by Marshall Sahlins in the Pacific region and is described by David Henley using the North Sulawesi region in Indonesia as his prime case study. The Stranger King theory suggests similarities and divergences between pre-colonial and colonial processes of state-formation enabling to build with insight on the historiography of the colonial transition in the Asia-Pacific part of the world.



The Stranger King theory argues that many indigenous people accepted the imposition of foreign colonial influence, i.e. the Stranger King, as a means of conflict resolution. In doing so, the Stranger King theory challenges binary oppositions of ‘tradition versus modernity’ and ‘nationalism versus imperialism’ paradigms and it places state formation by colonial powers within the continuum of earlier, similar but indigenous processes. The theory particularly builds on the English seventeenth-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes' depiction of traditional indigenous societies existing in a state of 'Warre', envy, and conflict.

The theory was developed by the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins in his analysis of Pacific communities, such as Fiji. He argued that indigenous societies in a state of ‘Warre’ would tend to welcome the arrival of an impartial and strong Stranger King capable of resolving conflict, since his position outside and above the community would give him a unique authority. Consistent with this theory, scholars such as Jim Fox and Leonard Andaya have emphasized parallels between (east) Indonesia and the Pacific world, while David Henley has applied the Stranger King concept on North Sulawesi.

The Stranger King in Sulawesi

The Dutch East India Company and before them the Spanish provided a Stranger King solution to the central political dilemma of northern Sulawesi's fractious and litigious indigenous communities. Old Dutch narratives often depict indigenous (e.g., Minahasa) stakeholders as grateful for intervention when their own political institutions were incapable of providing the security and stability necessary for the pursuit of prosperity. While these historic accounts validate the Stranger King concept, they are obviously controversial due to their source and have always been easily dismissed as colonial propaganda. Henley's study, however, provides proof (Chapter XI, 'Patterns and Parallels') that it is not just European sources that suggest recurring uncertainty and conflict within indigenous societies and the indigenous societies' strategy to embosom a Stranger King to break the status quo. Henley in fact presents abundant indigenous (e.g., Bugis and Makasarese) chronicles and accounts collected by anthropologists that explain, and legitimize, the process of pre-colonial and later colonial state formation in similar terms, and not just in the Minahassa or Southeast Asia, but worldwide.

The Stranger King theory argues against the theory that the centuries-long colonisation process was a non-stop process of indigenous resistance against aggressive military occupation. Notwithstanding the fact that the Stranger King's merchants, military, civil servants and missionaries had their own motives and agenda, the colonists achieved authority not just on the basis of military power, but also through political alliances, diplomatic collaboration and by providing a relatively impartial mechanism for arbitration. Colonial courts, rather than solely being instruments of oppression, also provided indigenous people with an access to justice, less subject to local bribery and patronage.

Without minimizing the arrogance or self-interest of colonial stakeholders, Henley states:

"We will not understand the nature of those societies better if, whether out of embarrassment, disbelief, or lack of interest, we choose to ignore either the ease with which they were often brought under colonial control, or the evidence that 'Stranger-Kings' were perceived as fulfilling useful functions among them." David Henley in Jealousy and Justice (p. 89)

The Stranger King in Sri Lanka

In her thesis Schiller accepts the Stranger King concept as a political means to channel factions in Southeast Asian political entities in early modern times and applies it to the political situation in the Kingdom of Kandy in the eighteenth century. She argues the outsider status was essential for a Kandyan king to maintain the balance of power in the small Kingdom, and sheds a light on the political process that led to the transfer of power over the Kingdom to the British in 1815. Moreover, she argues that the Stranger King strategy applies to both European and Asian foreign entities.

Within three years the nobles had come to realize that they had lost too much power under the British regime, and they intended once more to install a South Indian Stranger King named Dore Swami. Their 1818 rebellion, however, was crushed by the British and led to even tighter control over the Kandyan provinces and a sharp curtailment of the Kandyan nobles’ autonomy.

Academic usage

The Stranger King theory is used as an analytical tool to understand and re-construct the history of interaction between Europeans and Asians in Southeast Asia and proposes alternative frameworks of understanding colonialism. In 2007 a panel called "Re-thinking colonialism in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, 18TH to 19TH Century" chaired by the International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS) the concept was employed to gain insight into the dynamism of the role indigenous peoples had during the process of colonialisation and the complexity of the relationship between coloniser and colonised.

Historical and social science are developing a new alternative discourse, where not only the old nationalistic Euro-centric scholars, but also the later Asian-centric academics and nationalistic revisionists, look at history from the perspective of mutual heritage.

"Southeast Asia has come within the fold of a single world civilization with a single universal history and all that is meant by Asian-centric history is a history in which the Asian, as a host in his house, should stand in the foreground…" (Smail 1961: 76, 78).

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