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Luso-Johor-Dutch Relations in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, c. 1600-1623

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 June 2011


The study of the early European colonial presence in Asia has been stimulated in recent years by a series of excellent works. These have been both of general and specialist nature, written not only by historians, but also by political scientists as well as specialists of international relations. The truly excellent study published in 2002 by Edward Keene, can be taken as a point in case. Central to his revisitation of seventeenth-century treaties of the United Dutch East India Company (VOC) with the Emperor of Kandy, is the notion of divided sovereignty expounded by Hugo Grotius around 1600-1610. It was against the backdrop of such concepts of divided sovereignty that the VOC could ultimately conclude its complex web of treaty relationships that broadly characterise the Dutch colonial empire in the East Indies up the advent of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. There is some legitimacy in contending that Keene's postulations effectively rework and reinterpret, at the level of international relations, what was once conveniently dubbed the ‘Age of Partnership’, i.e. an age characterised by trade-driven colonial empires that grew upon a complex, sometimes self-contradictory network of treaty relationships as well as formal and informal cooperation garnered from native elites. Admittedly such relations were often but not always based on unequal power and treaty relationships. Despite the uneven playing fields created by many such Euro-Asian treaties, especially those forged in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the conclusion of treaties was assumed on the basis of the nominal co-equality of sovereigns and plenipotentiary agents acting on their behalf. European and Asian treaty partners were accepted as contracting equals, and this is particularly stunning given that the feudal world of European power politics at the time was, by comparison, probably more complex and legally structured than Asia. Certainly, the underlying power relations behind these early modern agreements were completely different from those imposed by the mature colonial powers on Asia at the zenith of nineteenth-century imperialism!

Copyright © Research Institute for History, Leiden University 2004

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