Segregation and extra-territoriality — the principle that foreign merchants were subject to their own laws — had many advantages. The local ruler had to negotiate with only a few representatives rather than each individual trader. Maintaining law and order — especially when it had to do with family and inheritance law — could be left to the internal authority of the immigrant community. And the advantages were all too clear for the foreign merchants: they were able to continue living under their own laws. “Legal pluralism” — that is, different groups falling under different legal systems and authorities — was characteristic of the fragmented power relations in the cities and states of South and Southeast Asia. The highest authority was the king, but he was not all-powerful. He had to deal with courtiers, regional governors, religious leaders and the representatives of foreign merchants. Each one of these had their own followers, their own servants and their own slaves who remained outsidethe reach of the central ruler.
The distribution of political power was reflected in urban space. In Ayutthaya large communities of foreign merchants lived in ban (villages or districts) situated just outside the city walls. At the close of the 17th century we find mention of communities from Gujarat (Hindustanis), Coromandel (Moors), Pegu, Malacca (Malays), Makassar, Cochin-China (Vietnamese), China, Japan, Portugal, France and the Netherlands. Each of these communities had its own headman; the large Chinese community even had two. However, although in theory the ethnic groups seemed juridically and spatially segregated, daily reality was somewhat more complicated than the above might suggest. Foreigners and their descendants were not prevented from gaining access to the Siamese community. The extensive “Portuguese” settlement — outside the city walls and facing the Dutch trading post — was peopled by “a Portuguese race descended from black women”; in other words, Mestizos, children with a Portuguese father and a Siamese mother. In other communities, too, there was considerable mixing between travellers from abroad and local women, again resulting in children of mixed parentage.
The mixing went beyond family relations; some foreigners even attained high-ranking posts at court. At the end of the 17th century, for instance, the royal guard of Ayutthaya was composed of a couple of hundred Persians, while for three successive generations the chief minister (chaopraya) came from a Persian family, only to be followed by a Greek. Other first ministers were of Indian, Chinese and Mon descent. The king of Siam also employed Englishmen — for instance, as harbour master. Evidently, the king preferred to employ foreigners in key positions, since they did not command a large band of followers who might pose a threat to the throne. But their difference stopped there. Nowhere do we find the suggestion that these families behaved as foreigners. On the contrary, it seems that they adapted themselves to the culture and customs of the Ayutthaya court. They married into Siamese families and ultimately became totally assimilated.
Along the coast of the Malay peninsula and in the Indonesian archipelago, the pattern of segregation and mediation was essentially no different from that in Siam. The city of Malacca, which during the 15th century thrived on the expanding international trade and attracted many foreigners, appointed four syahbandar (harbour masters) to maintain contacts between the local government and various trading communities, and also to administer justice and act as military commanders in times of war. The syahbandar appointed from the Gujaratis of northwest India was described by the Portuguese traveller Tome Pires as “the most important of them all”. Then there was a syahbandar for the merchants from Coromandel, Bengal, Pegu and Pasai (in north Sumatra); one for the foreigners from Java, the Moluccas, Banda, Palembang, Borneo and Luzon; and, finally, one for the Chinese and other traders from the East.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Ayutthaya and Malacca were among the largest cities in Southeast Asia. Travellers from Europe estimated the population of these places to be as large as 200,000 — although in reality the number would have been closer to 10,000. But whatever the actual figure, there is no doubt that these were bustling emporiums, where a foreigner was not an uncommon sight. There was a prevailing pattern of segregation, but we cannot say with any accuracy how strictly this was applied.