May 1, 2023
The Mystery of the Men on the Raft
When I saw this picture, it asked me so many questions. Who are these men? Do they know each other, do they work together? Perhaps they are on the raft for work, or perhaps it was part of a daily commute. One possibility really stuck in my head for some reason. Southeast Asia has a history of sprawling trade around the globe. I could not help but wonder if these men were part of a local branch of that immense trading network. Perhaps trade looked very different in the early 1920s, when this photo was taken, but maybe not. The photo was taken in the early 1920s in Penang, Malaysia, or Burma by George West Philleo.
Southeast Asia was known be a part of an incredibly sprawling global trading network. A shipwreck was found dating back to 9th century. It was filled with cargo including porcelain, pottery, and other art and goods. The wreck was found off an Indonesian Island. It was also found that people from the Arab world had placed orders and this ship had been sent to fill and deliver those orders (Asia Society, 2017). Clearly these men are not operating a cargo ship and delivering goods around the world, but maybe they are the final leg of of the delivery system. They could be on their way to pick up some goods and deliver them locally. However, there is a lot of time between the 9th century and the early 1920s, and trading or selling could look a lot different by the time these men were photographed.
Time was not the only possible factor in changing how trade worked in Southeast Asia. Colonialism had a hand in the change as well. Many Southeast Asian countries’ ports were taken over. This way the imperialist countries could monopolize any goods coming in or out and buy up what they wanted. It was more of a capitalist system than what was previously in place. The colonists also wanted to sell their goods in colonized areas, so certain traditional crafts were lost. Colonialism affected many other aspects of society as well. This includes but is not limited to, art and even society as a whole (metmuseum.org, 2004). While imperialism touched and affected a lot in Southeast Asian society, not everything was changed by colonialism. Certain aspects of life were retained because the people of Southeast Asia held on to them tightly and fought for them fiercely.
So, although many things were changed and taken away by colonialism, some things stayed. Singapore began to grow their regional trade market between Western and Southeast Asian countries. In the process Singapore brought in Southeast Asian trading methods. Along with these local markets could stay intact while trading and selling with Western countries through Singapore (Kobayashi, 2019). So, with that in mind it is possible that some trading methods were kept intact throughout imperialist periods in Southeast Asia. Maybe on a local scale it was still the most efficient mode of delivery to bring people’s goods to them with a raft system, and that is what these three men are setting off to do.
The photographer caught them right as they were setting off that morning to pick up deliveries and distribute them along the local water way. Maybe they are just on their way to work. Or perhaps they built the raft and are admiring and showing off their hard work to the photographer. They could be giving tours of the river, or maybe they are the ones about to get a tour. To me this is all part the wonders of a photograph. With only a date and a place provided, I can only speculate what these three men are doing on this raft. But by knowing a bit of history it is possible to piece together a plausible story. However, another person may look at this image and conjure up a completely different story about these men. And it could be equally possible.
My story that these three men being on a job to go out and deliver local goods would provide a window into the ways of life in a small town in early 1920s Burma or Malaysia. It would also document that this town had evolved but held onto certain aspects of life and trading from before colonialism. So, maybe this is not the exact story behind this picture, but I believe it is, at the very least, a plausible story. A single photograph can tell a hundred different stories, all we must do is listen.
Asia Society. (2017). Secrets of the Sea: Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia. Asia Society. Retrieved April 26, 2023, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCyQx2BMmOk.
Kobayashi, A. (1970, January 1). Growth of regional trade in modern Southeast Asia: The Rise of Singapore, 1819–1913. SpringerLink. Retrieved April 27, 2023, from https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-13-3131-2_5
Philleo, G. W. (1917). photograph, Boulder.
Southeast Asia, 1800–1900 A.D.: Chronology: Heilbrunn Timeline of art history: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2023, from https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/10/sse.html#!#:~:text=Though%20successful%20in%20some%20ways,control%20further%20damage%20the%20region.