The Alien Concepts of Frontier and Border in Pre-Colonial Times and Places

George P. Landow, Shaw Professor of English and Digital Culture, National University of Singapore

One of the most important changes by colonization involved unfamiliar notions of territoriality and nation. Writing of Southeast Asia, Nicholas Tarling points out that "the concept of a frontier was uncommon, if not unknown," and that is true throughout many of the territories colonized by Europeans. In fact, the notion that

a state was geographically fixed was rarely accepted. What counted in Southeast Asia, sparse in population, was allegiance. Whom, rather than what, did the state comprise? States might indeed advance or retreat, grow or decline, but in terms of adherents and followers, of a network of familial and supra-familial relationships. The spirit of the frontier might be there . . . but that was fitted into a cultural pattern that stressed continuity rather than change.

What concerned a ruler was the people not the place. The sense that the state was a geographical or locational entity was rarely strong. "Thus a British surveyor trying to demarcate the boundaries of a Malay state in 1875 could elicit no more exact information from the local potentate concerning the limits of his territory than that if you wash your head before starting, it will not be dry before you reach the place." The place might be relatively inexact. The terms of allegiance of the people concerned would be much more precise. That was the prior consideration: where the people went, there the state went.

One reason, as Tarling makes clear, for this difference in attitude toward frontier, border, and realm involves the colonized territories' sparse population. Another, I shall argue, derives from the difference between orality and literacy -- or rather, between the cultures of orality and literacy. All colonizing nations derived their ideas of space, territory, and identity in part from the world of print, which by necessity depends upon edges and borders. In fact, the economic requirements of print technology produce various kinds and forms of edges:


Tarling, Nicholas. Nations and States in Souutheast Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Postcolonial OV discourseov Bibliography

Last modified: 17 April 2001