Missionaries, Merchants and Medicines in Southeast Asia, 1500-1700

Module Code: HIS-00056-I

Credits: 30

Tutor: Tara Alberts

Pre-requisites: A History first year module

This module will explore trade, cultural exchange and religious change in Southeast Asia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It will examine how merchants and missionaries travelled to the region from all over Asia, Europe, the Middle East and even the Americas, making the region a cross-roads of the early modern world. It will focus especially on the valuable spices which could be obtained in the region, and which were in especially high demand in Europe as medicines. 

Through the contemporary accounts of merchants, missionaries and adventurers, we will examine what substances were used by European and by local physicians, what techniques and theories Europeans introduced into the region from elsewhere, and what they learnt from Southeast Asians. We can also explore the encounter between different medical cultures in the cosmopolitan port cities of Southeast Asia, where medical practitioners from a variety of cultural, religious and intellectual backgrounds were available to serve the discerning patient. It will explore how local and foreign merchants and missionaries acted as vectors in the inter-cultural exchange of medical products and of ideas about health and healing. The module will also investigate the boundary between ‘medical’ and various ‘spiritual’ treatments which were offered by healers around the region.

Learning Outcomes

On completion of this module a student will:

  • Have a knowledge of trade and encounter in early modern Southeast Asia
  • Be familiar with the historiography of European trade and imperialism in the region
  • Gain experience in reading and analysing early modern travel accounts
  • Have an introduction to medical history
  • Gain experience in considering the problems of exploring issues of belief in history

Teaching Programme

This 30-credit module is taught through a weekly two hour seminar run from weeks 2-10 in the spring term and a four week period of project work undertaken in weeks 1-4 of the summer term. Students will write and submit a procedural essay in week 7 of the spring term. Project work will be completed within the summer period and tutors should arrange to be available for consultation with students twice during that time. There will be no formal seminar teaching during this period.

Seminars will cover the following areas:

  • Trade routes and commodities in Southeast Asia
  • The role of commerce in the spread of Christianity and Islam
  • Beliefs about health and healing in comparative perspective

Individual project work will consist of:

  • Engagement with primary sources (texts and images) relating to European trade and encounter in Southeast Asia.


This module is assessed by:

  • A 24 hour open exam to be taken in the Summer assessment period. Single subject students, who take two Explorations modules, will take two 24 hour open exams to be held on consecutive days.
  • An individual project for which a piece of written work of no more than 1,500 words will be submitted at the start of the summer assessment period (week 5).  Students will select either a primary source discussed in the seminars or a related source in consultation with the tutor. Students will be encouraged to work on themes and issues which they have enjoyed in the module and to work in greater detail on this

The exam carries 67% of assessment and the project element 33% for this module.

Preliminary Reading                          

  • Lieberman, Victor. Strange parallels. Southeast Asia in global context, c. 800-1830. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. (Vol. I. Integration on the mainland)
  • Reid, Anthony. Southeast Asia in the age of commerce 1450-1680. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. (Vol. II: Expansion and crisis)
  • Tarling, Nicolas, ed., The Cambridge history of Southeast Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. (Volume I, part II: from c. 1500 to c. 1800)