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After an in-depth analysis of the making of Dutch territorial power in the Indonesian archipelago, Ceylon and Malabar, the two final chapters take an even more Asian perspective on the more marginal Dutch presence in South and West Asia. Through a Dutch window, this chapter perceives a so far undetected Indian world-economy that focuses on the bustling Mughal port city of Surat. Other regional chapters likewise stress the crucial role of Indian commercial brokers, not only in the Indian subcontinent but extending towards the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. The Dutch can only accede to these already highly sophisticated and integrated trading systems of the Indian Ocean. Their operations are crucially facilitated by their increasingly monopolised access to both Indonesian spices and Japanese bullion. Despite its marginal position in the Mughal and Safavid Empires, it was not the spices of the archipelago and Ceylon, but the products of India (opium, saltpetre and in particular textiles) which started to dominate the global markets of the eighteenth century. These commodities gave the edge to the previously overpowered but now re-emerging British, be it as Company or, increasingly so, as private traders.
In Africa, the Dutch settled at the Cape of Good Hope, originally planned as a stop-over for the East Indiamen en route to and from Asia, in addition to the conquest and construction of several forts in present-day Ghana, which became important in the Dutch slave trade. In some ways the Dutch expansion in the Atlantic resembled that of England and France. All three founded settlement and plantation colonies and all three, together with Portugal, established some footholds on the African coast. The Dutch in South Africa, however, incorporated large numbers of foreigners both as settlers and as soldiers.
If we plot Dutch possessions on a map of the world from 1700, a quick glance would be enough to determine that in global terms the early modern Dutch overseas empire was very much a peripheral phenomenon. The Dutch had founded an immense empire that stretched like a string of pearls along the edges of the continents of Europe, Asia, America and Africa. The actual pearls consisted mostly of trading hubs, which were only partially conquered by the Dutch. Especially along the coasts of the powerful Asian empires such as Iran, India, China and Japan, and on the coast of West Africa, the Dutch had only small trading offices with no territorial rights. The Dutch Empire was therefore primarily a maritime phenomenon, with only a few ‘real’ colonies in the Caribbean, the Cape, on Java, the Moluccas, Ceylon and, for a short time, also in North America, Brazil and Taiwan. The Dutch Republic itself was also a rather marginal, maritime European phenomenon. After a long eighty-year revolt, the Rhine and Maas delta had formally shrugged off the grip of a continental European empire.
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.
Dutch overseas expansion in the seventeenth century is a difficult phenomenon for a modern political scientist to explain. In terms of their administrative structure, the long string of Dutch settlements along the coasts of Asia, Africa and America was something between a trading diaspora and an empire. Certainly, Dutch contemporaries themselves neither regarded it as an empire, nor did they feel any sympathies for the very idea of empire. Had they not succeeded in repelling such an empire in a tremendously bloody uprising lasting a staggering eighty years? Their rebellion had been against an imperial tyrant who rode roughshod over their traditional privileges and freedoms. Or, as the present-day Dutch national anthem has it: the Spanish-Habsburg Empire was a ‘tyranny that had to be driven out’.
In South America, the Dutch managed to conquer part of Portuguese Brazil and in North America the Dutch settled the area along the Hudson River. This chapter discusses the establishment and the demise of these two colonies in the context of fierce imperial competition and difficult exchanges with the indigenous populations. In both cases, tensions with the administrators in the Dutch Republic were unavoidable. The regional interests of the cosmopolitan court of the Orange prince Johan Maurits in New Holland (Brazil) and a true settlement colony in New Netherland (later New York) clashed with the commercial objectives of the West India Company.
The Dutch traded with all of the other Atlantic empires in spite of the increasingly protectionist policies. That is why the Dutch activities in the Atlantic consisted for the most part of trade and that is why the Dutch presence in that region has been labelled as ‘expansion without empire’. This chapter, however, tells the story of the Dutch colonial expansion in the Caribbean in a comparative perspective. Here the Dutch founded several plantation colonies in addition to conquering several small islands that were used for the transit trade. Much of this chapter is devoted to the Dutch participation in the Atlantic slave trade. The Dutch might have been the first to introduce that trade in the Middle and North Atlantic; they were unable to oust the Portuguese in the South Atlantic. Very quickly the Dutch encountered strong competition from English and French slavers, and in about 1700 the Dutch slave trade concentrated more and more on selling slaves in the Dutch colonies in the Caribbean. Only during the periods of war were the Dutch able to resume their role as neutral suppliers of slaves, particularly to the French West Indies.
This chapter deals primarily with the Company commercial policy in East Asia and mainland Southeast Asia but also discusses extensively the first territorial Dutch colony in Taiwan. It highlights the crucial position of Japan where the Dutch could build on their exclusive trading rights in Deshima to procure the precious metals that were necessary for the India trade. The China trade is discussed in connection with the restrictive policies of the Ming and Qing states as well as in the context of the trading interests of the Dutch headquarters in Batavia. In conclusion, a comparison is made between the Dutch position in Mughal India and Qing China as well as between the Dutch Empire and other European empires in Asia.
In the first chapter of Part I the authors discuss the rise and decline of the two Dutch monopoly companies, and how they, formally and informally, operated in the Dutch Republic, Asia and the Atlantic. The histories of these two companies are very different. The Dutch West India Company, operating in the Atlantic, was always threatened by competitors such as private traders, Dutch merchants who used foreign companies to get around the monopoly, and French and English competitors. The Dutch East India Company, the largest enterprise in the world, employing at the height of its existence about 40,000 personnel, went bankrupt not because of the competition from other trading houses in the Netherlands, but because the directors of the Company were aware which products brought in profits and which did not, but had no idea about the total financial results. In order to increase its turnover, the Company switched from the trade in spices to that of Indian textiles and Chinese porcelain, which necessitated larger ships and more personnel, resulting in lower profit rates. This chapter ends with a discussion of the shrinking naval and military capacity of the Dutch Empire in comparison with its main European rivals.
The Coda discusses the economic and cultural impact of the Dutch Empire on the Americas, Africa and Asia and reflects on some unique Dutch characteristics of that empire in comparison with other colonial empires.
The third chapter studies the religious, scientific and artistic dialogue between the Dutch Republic and the various civilisations with which it engaged through its overseas empire. After discussing some sporadic instances of religious dialogue through the relatively feeble Dutch missionary effort, it is shown how the Japanese mirrored European orientalism by using their own version of Dutch science to emancipate themselves from Chinese and other more traditional worldviews. Another rare but fascinating case of cross-cultural dialogue is provided by Dutch painters who were able to connect the Dutch Republic to the imperial courts of Iran and India in catering for a common appreciation of naturalism.
Contemplating the overall impact of the overseas activities on the Dutch Republic, we can conclude that the direct effects of overseas trade with America, Africa and Asia were much more limited than is generally assumed. Having said that, it is also true that the Netherlands experienced the very far-reaching social effects of an almost worldwide changing pattern of consumption. The consumption of tobacco, tea and coffee played an important role as early as the seventeenth century, but in the eighteenth century their usage became more widespread, which had sweeping repercussions for the rhythm of daily life for the wealthy bourgeoisie. The bulk import of Indian textiles and Chinese porcelain brought about a similar drastic change in patterns of consumption in the eighteenth century. Both caused real manias and stimulated the production of cheaper, home-made alternatives in the form of ‘typically Dutch’ Delft blue and printed chintzes. Although these products were introduced in the seventeenth century, the enormous influence of potato and corn, two originally South American crops, is mainly a story of the nineteenth century.