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Background photo courtesy of Wasitthee Chaiyakan

Early Modern Warfare - Research

My work on the early modern period generally has relied mainly upon indigenous chronicles, Portuguese official letters, and early European travel accounts, and other warfare related materials of West Africa and Southeast Asia. I pioneered the study of the introduction of firearms into mainland Southeast Asia through an examination of their inclusion in indigenous river fleets and warfare that took place on the major river systems and in coastal waters, this study being published by Oriens Extremus in 1997 (a pdf of this article can be found in the downloadable articles section of this website). My main conclusion was that indigenous river craft, which proved able to incorporate firearms both structurally and tactically, were resilient in the face of the arrival of the Europeans and were superior to European vessels in the local operational context. As a result, mainland kingdoms were able to keep river systems closed to the Europeans and stave off colonial conquest for centuries. Arguments that the mainland had nothing the Europeans wanted lose some steam by pointing to the example not only of De Brito at Syriam, that of the Philippine expedition against Cambodia in the 1590s, but also the French expedition against Siam in the 1680s. I contrasted what I saw in the river and coastal areas with the experience on the high seas, where Cipolla saw a clear European impact early in the European-Asian encounter. As I argue,


"the superiority of indigenous coastal and river craft was only challenged in the nineteenth century by the introduction of the steam ship and, as a result, the establishment of permanent colonial rule over areas along mainland Southeast Asia's major river-systems" (Charney, 1997, p. 21)


My research has also shed light on the source materials used to understand precolonial warfare. This was useful for both my evolving modelling of indigenous warfare for comparison with other  nonwestern societies and my interest in the intellectual history of indigenous warfare in the region. For example, on the one hand, I examined how seemingly hyperbolic statistics used in the Burmese chronicles represented method and purpose rather than carelessness or ignorance. The size of armies was perceived as a an outcome of merit and better kings should have larger armies and even better kings should have even larger armies than these, while low merit had a correspondingly negative effect as well (see Charney 2003, published in the Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, in the downloabable articles section of this website). On the other hand, I published more general studies of warfare as well that sought to make a contribution to the comparative history of nonwestern warfare. My first monograph was, for example, a study of pre-20th Century Warfare in the Southeast Asian region, including both the mainland and the island world, published by Brill and entitled Southeast Asian Warfare, 1300-1900.  This book was the first comprehensive study of Southeast Asian warfare in fifty years, since the publication of Quaritch Wales' Ancient South East Asian Warfare. More recently, I have collaborated with Kathy Wellen at the KITLV on putting together panels at EUROSEAS in Lisbon (July, 2013) and editing a collection of some of the papers.



My formal title at SOAS is Professor of Asian and Military History and the work I am mainly known for outside of Southeast Asian Studies are my longterm projects on the military history in the region and nonwestern warfare more generally. My research has included work on the culture of war, the relationship between individual violence and the state, firearms and gunpowder, the textual depictions of warfare, and tactology.


I occasionally teach a course on early modern warfare  at SOAS. See details below:


H354 Indigenous Warfare & Society In Early Modern Southeast Asia, 1300-1830 (2 term undergraduate course)


The objectives of this course are two-fold. The course is arranged topically in order to make clearer to the student how a certain related set of developments (firearm technologies, for example) impacted –and to what degree-- the overall trajectory of warfare in the region and aided some societies while disadvantaging others in regional state competition and warfare. In short, this course attempts to show students what mattered and why and how these results differentiated the region from international, or at least European, experiences.


The second objective is to provide some understanding, through an examination of warfare prior to the European advance, why Southeast Asia as a region, lost in the long early-modern military technological race with Europe and South and East Asia.


In other words, the course also seeks to show students the relationship between inter-regional technology transfer and intra-regional political change and why Europe gained the upper hand prior to the nineteenth century and was able to manipulate these links to gain control of the region by the end of that century. It is hoped that students will leave the course with a strong comprehension of how technological, cultural, and political change in the context of warfare interconnected and helped shaped the region as we know it today.

My most recent publication on early modern warfare is a co-edited volume with Kathryn Wellen of the KITLV (2017, NIAS, in press):


Why is it that warfare in Southeast Asian history is depicted so differently in various historical sources and representations? Why have scholars looking at different countries found so many exceptions to regional overviews of warfare? The present volume seeks to present a new approach to the study of warfare in the region by abandoning the generalizations made in the conventional literature. The contributors offer a range of new studies of warfare in local areas within the region, looking at warfare on its own, local terms rather than for what it says about warfare in the region as a whole.   This approach for the first time submits Southeast Asia to comparative analysis in a way that avoids artificial and misleading regional attributes. The varied case studies, researched and written by a number of experts of local warfare within the region include naval warfare eighteenth century Vietnam, civil war in South Sulawesi during the Pénéki War, the art and texts of war in Burmese warfare, modes of warfare in precolonial Bali, war captive taking in Thailand, and kinship, religion, and war in late eighteenth century Maguindanao, and preparations for war in the Pacific rimlands. The volume makes an important contribution to the new literature emerging on the culture of indigenous warfare in North and South America, Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, and the Pacific Islands, by offering a new and robust Southeast Asian entry on the one hand while adding a new approach to the growing literature on early modern Southeast Asia warfare.

Charney-Wellen cover idea