Prior to the arrival of the Europeans on the scene, the island chains in South-East Asia, specifically in the area of today's Indonesia, Philippines and neighbouring states, housed a varied and conglomerate mix of mostly Muslim and Hindu nations and city-states. Most notably, these were the remains of the once-powerful Srivijaya Empire and the vassals and subjects of the Majapahit Empire. The people on the islands had extensive trade connections with the Muslim world, India and (until the beginning of the Ming Dynasty's isolationist policies) China.

However, the Europeans didn't establish any presence in the area until later in the 16th century, so European sources for the time before are scarce to non-existent, and later sources mostly concern themselves with the European exploits in the region. Consequently, Emma Helen Blair's otherwise excellent "The Philippine Islands, 1493-1803" only starts in the year 1493.

Now, for a practical application of this knowledge, I'm researching this subject in order to create a better, more true to the real history, map of this area for the game Europa Universalis III, which starts in the year 1399 (with the current expansion).

So the question would be, what were the demographics and economics of South-East Asian islands around year 1400, give or take a generation or two? In particular, the interesting part (as it pertains to this question) is how many people lived there, especially in the Majapahit Empire, but also, how did they live, and what did they trade with each other?

I'd imagine there should be a wealth of Islamic sources, and likely some Indian and Chinese as well, but finding any of them or alternatively Western ones which translate and synthesize them is a task I have failed at so far.

  • 1
    I actually know precisely which data I need for the specific game I have in mind (namely: total population, taxable population, biggest city population, primary exported trade goods and their amounts, army and navy size), but I don't think concentrating on these details would be of interest to the users of History.SE ... So, why the title change? Commented Oct 31, 2011 at 18:57
  • Since Tom didn't bother to answer, reverting his change. @TomAu: Feel free to discuss this with me in chat or in comments. Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 6:09
  • This is a pretty broad question, one that might have attracted "close" votes because it could lead to extended discussion. But your primary interest is in info that would benefit your game, which narrows the question significantly, making it more suitable for the site. The purpose of my editing was to try to serve both sets of interests. In a sense, "fishing" for info is discouraged. But a question of "what historical info would benefit my game?" is probably within the parameters of the site.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 6, 2011 at 17:24
  • @Tom Au: While you could likely write a book about the question, this is not the idea behind the question, neither is a discussion. A simple overview of how many people lived there (per island or per state), and what (trade) contacts existed, would be all that's needed - details I can ask in further question referring to this one. Alas, English-language sources are scarce to non-existent, so my primary hope is for some summary of contemporary Indonesian, Philippine and Malaysian works on this subject. The interpretation of this data into internal game mechanics I can then do myself. Commented Nov 7, 2011 at 8:31
  • Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel covers some of this, at least with regard to the Malayan peninsula and the Indonesian and Papuan archipelago. I don't recall him mentioning the Philippines anything more than cursorily, but it would at least give you some of the starting points for researching further… Commented Jun 1, 2012 at 15:07

2 Answers 2


We know the population of the whole Southeast Asia mostly by estimates. Contemporary figures are considered unreliable, and state of the art values are computed by combining the most reliable ones with backward projections from XIX century data.

Estimated Southeast Asian Population about 1600

Region                            Population ('000)  Density (per km2) 
...                                    ...                ...
Malaya (incl. Pattani)                 500                3.4
Sumatra                               2400                5.7
Java                                  4000               30.3
Borneo                                 670                0.9
Sulawesi                              1200                6.3
Bali                                   600               79.7
Lesser Sunda                           600                9.1
Maluku                                 160                2.2
Luzon and Visayas                      800                4.0
Mindanao and Sulu                      150                1.5

Although the values concern 1600, the population growth rate was extraordinarily low as late as 1800. You can take them within a factor of two. Apart from Java and Southern Sulawesi, most of the population was concentrated in big cities, that thrived on commerce. The landscape was dominated by jungles, and it remained pretty much so until at least the XIX century. For instance, attacks by tigers were not uncommon, even around populous centres.

As for the economy, the question is quite broad, but the fulcrum of any answer on this topic is geographic. The Strait of Malacca is a mandatory choke point for sea trade between East Asia and the Indian Ocean, which makes it one of the most important shipping lanes in the world.

In addition, trade from the Spice Islands must necessarily go through Western Indonesia. The strategic importance was thus complemented with the passage of precious spices, directed to Northern and Western foreign markets.

The region around Malacca only produced small amounts of tin, gold and fish. Its economy flourished on the flow of goods through it. See on this topic Saint Wikipedia's article about the Sultanate of Malacca.

As for the Majapahit Empire, the same holds. In contrast with the Sultanate of Malacca, the Javanese could rely on local production, for example Javanese rice. One of the leading causes of its decline is the rise of the Sultanate of Malacca to the North, and the loss of control on the maritime traffic in the region.

Around the 1400, increasing demand of goods from China, and later from other regions, including Europe, determined an unprecedented growth in commerce. Chinese authorities, worried because of the outflow of cash from the Empire, banned commerce with Java in the XV century. The extent of this economic boom determined a revolution in the region.

Source: Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, Vol. 1, Singapore, 1992


The south east asia called as "SWARNA DHWEEP" means land of gold. The chola empire once invaded to sri vijaya(malaysia) anda kadaram(Keddah). Rajendra chola the great has titled as "KADARAM KONDAN" means conqueror of keddah. Even today we can find dravidan sculptured temples in south east asia. specially in combodia , Indonesia.

  • 2
    This doesn't really answer any of the question asked.
    – Ben Neill
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 5:48
  • This is interesting information; would you please expand upon it so that it addresses the question more directly? Thank you. Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 9:17

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