History of the Dutch Empire in the Indian Ocean: A Multidimensional Perspective

Green College Staff

Green College's first public event of 2023-24 began with a splash!

It was five minutes prior to start time, yet students and scholars had laid claim to every seat in the Coach House. Organizers were spurred to action, hastily opening the overflow room for late arrivals to watch the livestream just a short distance from the event's center. Eric Tagliacozzo, Professor of History at Cornell University, would be the subject of everyone’s gaze, closing the first day of a successful conference on Empire and Economy in the Pre-Modern Indian Ocean.

Eric began by introducing a number of scholars integral to the study of the Indian Ocean as a “coherent system,” including Karl Polanyi, whose theory of the Great Transformation provides a broader thematic context for the historical events discussed over the next 50 minutes. As Polanyi argued, competitive markets such as those set up by the Dutch East India Company cannot be understood from a purely economic viewpoint—rather, markets are embedded within political and social systems. The Dutch East India Company, or Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), exemplifies Polanyi’s theory through their great control over more than the money flowing throughout the Indian Ocean; the Dutch also sought to understand and manipulate religious practices for their own commercial gain. Of course, the Dutch were not the only players within this trans-oceanic trade system. The perspective of a European corporation is just one of many that need to be considered when studying the history of the Indian Ocean. To illustrate this point, Eric presented a photo from the original Star Trek TV show, in which Captain Kirk and Spock are playing three-dimensional chess. Just as Kirk and Spock see chess, Eric suggests that the audience approach these transoceanic patterns in a multidimensional way.

By the late 16th century, the Dutch had set up Cape Town to service their interests in South Africa, although they understood little about the continent, and disease was rampant along the coast. Their ships carried pathogens, causing mass fatalities in a city that saw immense imports and exports. Although contact with the Dutch fueled the overwhelming death and constant repopulation of Cape Town, their seafaring connected the Indian Ocean, building upon what had previously been a segmentary trade system. The Dutch immediately recognized the economic viability of the Red Sea, where the coastal cities served as important way-stations for religious travel. According to records, the Dutch first noticed Indian hajes along the transit routes in 1656, and they sought to take advantage of this stream.

Mocha, known for their coffee exports, was one such place where “economic and political possibilities fused for the Dutch.” The practice of drinking coffee spread from mystics, soon becoming known as a stimulant which could improve your health and keep you warm. Plus, unlike alcohol, coffee was “not prohibited by Islamic texts.” Its demand spread quickly, yet Europeans were dependent upon the Red Sea for their supplies. Just as tired college students desperately seek a $7 venti mocha from their closest Starbucks, so too did Europeans rely on Mocha, Yemen for stimulation.

In India, where “monsoons were of crucial importance to the international orbit of trade,” exports specialized in textiles, spices and luxuries. The state’s geography “assured its importance” but proved difficult for Europeans to control. The Portuguese attempted a passport system in the 16th century, which collapsed under the weight of its disorganization. It wasn’t until the Dutch and British arrived in the 17th century that substantial changes were made, “providing new capital, shipping, navigational technology and marketing.” According to records, Europeans “initially served as a boon for Indigenous commerce,” although Indian fleets dwindled as “more and more of the carrying trade was monopolized by foreign vessels.” Sri Lanka was the VOC’s off-shore base, serving as the center of coordination for all efforts across the subcontinent.

At this point, the audience reaches the culmination of our journey from West to East, as Eric concludes his speech in the Indies. Here, the straits of Malacca were a thoroughfare for economic and political purposes. As Eric said, Indonesia became “the most important destination for the Dutch across the Indian Ocean, mainly predicated on the wealth of the spice trade.” Nutmeg and mace, the “gold of the spice trade,” grew in the Maluku Islands—and nowhere else on Earth. The VOC, threatened by Arab and Chinese competitors around these valuable islands, committed atrocities in order to establish a firm hold. The Dutch also had to reckon with the many pilgrimages to Mecca originating from Indonesia, creating linkages across the Ocean which helped to create a larger, interdependent ecumene. As Eric said, “one of the great ironies of colonial rule is that Christian powers left such profoundly detailed records on the Southeast Asian haj.”

By the mid-19th century, the straits of Malacca were divided between Dutch and British control. While the British were ascending into a greater position of power, the VOC fell victim to overextension and corruption. One surprising consequence of this corruption is a notable institution in the “New World.” The Governor of British Madras made a “huge fortune under the table,” which he then used to establish Eric’s alma mater, Yale University. As Eric points out, many of the students at Yale pay tens of thousands of US. dollars a year in order to attend an educational institution founded by a British Colonial officer—and a deceitful one, at that.

Spock popped up on the screen again, the three-dimensional chess set just barely in view. With this fantastical future as his backdrop, Eric smiled at his audience with hope that we too saw the world in three dimensions over the last hour.

Eric Tagliacozzo is the John Stambaugh Professor of History at Cornell University. Much of his work has centred on the history of people, ideas and material in motion in and around Southeast Asia, especially in the colonial age. His first book, Secret Trades, Porous Borders: Smuggling and States Along a Southeast Asian Frontier (Yale 2005), examined many of these ideas by analyzing the history of smuggling in the region. His last book project was called The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and the Pilgrimage to Mecca (Oxford 2013), which attempts to write a history of this very broad topic from the earliest times to the present. He has most recently finished a monograph about the linked maritime histories of Asia, from Yemen east to Yokohama (Princeton 2022). He is also the editor or co-editor of several other books, the full list of which can be reviewed online.

Post by: Kyla McCallum, Green College Content Writer and Resident Member.