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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: September 2020

7 - The Dutch Tropics

from Part III - Monsoon Asia


What makes the chapters on Monsoon Asia unique is the analysis of the Dutch Empire from the point of view of Asian societies. First of all, it is stressed that, from a global point of view, the rise of the Dutch seaborne empire is part of a much wider and earlier coastal turn, which in Asia has been described as an Age of Commerce. It is not only European, but also Chinese and Islamic, expansion that characterises this phase of increasing maritime globalisation. Those Eurasian empires that continued to exploit the nomadic horsepower of the Eurasian Arid Zone were soon able to incorporate this maritime dynamic. In these empires, the Dutch retained a marginal presence as meek merchants subject to the whims of indigenous brokers and local governments. In other, more tropical parts of Asia, the aggressive operations of the Dutch prevented indigenous states such as Mataram and Kandy from incorporating the booming coastal regions of Java and Ceylon, respectively. In these insular areas, the Dutch were able to create territorial power and impose their monopoly on the production and sale of cloves, nutmeg, mace and cinnamon. In Maluku we can even speak of a Dutch ‘heart of darkness’ as much of its population was decimated, to be replaced by colonists and slaves. In almost all cases, the Dutch could sustain territorial power only with the help of overseas Chinese communities which offered both a vital urban middle class (primarily in the Dutch colonial headquarters of Batavia) and access to extensive commercial networks. So far completely ignored is the case of Ceylon. In this early-modern laboratory of colonial rule, the reformist policies of enlightened Dutch governors had a deep impact on the local society through mapping, law and education. One of the first revolutionaries in the late eighteenth-century Netherlands was a Tamil intellectual raised in Dutch schools in Ceylon.

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