An undecided battle
Since the Dutch colonial era came to an end in the ‘40s of the last century, relatively little attention
has been given to the warfare of the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company,
henceforth VOC) by Dutch historians. Whereas, during the colonial era, the military history of the
Dutch overseas was always a popular source of epic stories about the Dutch, heroically defeating
the English and Portuguese, as well as occasionally fighting it out with nuisant local powers on
distant shores, this form of history writing became somewhat unfashionable in the postwar years.
Historians of Dutch overseas expansion subsequently turned their attention to other aspects of
the colonial past, such as its economic system, or the interaction between the Dutch and local
cultures. Along with nationalist, congratulatory accounts of the glorious Dutch colonial past, the
VOC’s military history quietly left through the back door.
Whereas historians of the Dutch colonial past grew less interested in the military aspects of their subject, this was, however, certainly not the case for the historical profession as a whole. In the course of the last few decades, the military exploits of Europeans overseas have once again become a hot topic within several realms of history.
One of these realms is the world-historical debate. Seeking to explain why the West became so rich and powerful in relation to the rest of the world, many authors suspect that part of the answers they are looking for are to be found in the military balance between East and West, and by implication, the military aspects of European expansion overseas. These authors, usually specialists in European history, have typically described the military history of European expansion as an exponent of developments that took place in Europe in the course of the early modern period. Advances in military technology, such as the development of good and cheap artillery, developments in fortification, the armed sailing vessel as well as advancements in the realm of strategy, tactics and logistics, are seen as defining for the European military performance abroad. These developments are claimed to also have given the European powers a decisive edge in warfare against non-European powers. It was therefore of great importance in tilting the global balance of power in favour of Europe, and thus both a result of and a factor in the “Rise of the West.”.
Although the notion that certain early modern Western military innovations gave Europe an edge
from the 16th century onwards goes back a long time, it has once again become an issue of debate
since the appearance of Geoffrey Parker’s 1988 work The Military Revolution: Military innovation and
the Rise of the West 1500-1800. This study claims that the various changes in weapons technology,
strategy and logistics that took place in the course of the Early Modern period, amounted to a
Military Revolution. With the advent of European colonialism, so the argument proceeds, various
aspects of this Military Revolution were subsequently exported beyond the boundaries of Europe
with the advent of European colonialism, and in various ways aided the Europeans in bringing
35% of the world under their sphere of influence before 1800.
In a similar vein, military historian Jeremy Black states in his introduction of War in the Early Modern World 1450-1815, that, regardless of the limited impact of European colonialism up to the 18th century, the most important fact is that Europe was able to project its power, in however modest proportions, onto the rest of the world, and not the other way around. He concludes a paragraph, with the telling title “the Rise of the West”, as follows: “The Europeans remoulded the world, creating new political, economic, demographic, religious and cultural spaces and links that still greatly affect the world in which we live.”
On the other side of the spectrum, we find various authors from the realm of non-western history
and historical anthropology, who look at the history of European colonial war in a wholly different
light. These authors seek to create a counterbalance for what in their eyes is a one-sided and
overly complacent view on the military encounters between East and West. They credit the various
Asian powers with rich military traditions as well as a proficiency in tactics and strategies that, however
different from the European ones, often matched the latter. In the case of South East Asia,
authors have emphasized the early date at which various indigenous states got hold of guns and
gunmakers, the alacrity with which the local military cultures incorporated the new military gadgets
and strategies of their adversaries, the very relative relevance of western military tactics in junglewarfare, and the fact that the Dutch copied military innovations from the various Asian states just
as well as the other way around. In this way, they attempt to give Asia its own autonomous military
history, which in their eyes has long been ignored or misinterpreted.
Whereas some authors simply make clear that the Asian side of the story is too often overlooked, others are bent on proving that the West’s complacent view on its own military prowess is wholly unjustified. Thus we find Ricklefs and Charney, who counter arguments such as those of Cipolla and Parker by claiming that Javanese cannon and fortresses were of the same standard as European ones, and that the slight advantages that the Europeans had were always rapidly copied by the various local powers. Some authors go quite far in their claims: Sudjoko, for example, first points out that Southeast Asian shipbuilding traditions were both older and richer than European ones, and accounts for the development of a technological gap as follows (and please note that he is talking about the 17th century): “[T]here then, was how the technological gap opened between Holland and Indonesia. By forcibly thwarting the attempts of the militarily weaker party to advance, by destroying its political and economic power, and by stultifying its status into that of servitude, the gap was immeasurably widened.”
All in all, the military side of European overseas expansion, in which the VOC figured as the most aggressive player of the 17th century, stirs the emotions within the historical profession. It is therefore all the more surprising that the subject has remained thoroughly understudied, and all but ignored by historians of the Dutch colonial past. Only recently has this started to change: it was only in 1999 that, in his inaugural lecture as special professor in the history of Asian-European relations, Leonard Blussé made a case for reinstating the VOC as a diplomatic and political actor. A few years later, in 2002, an edited volume about the VOC’s role in war and diplomacy appeared. While still far from formulating a new coherent vision on VOC warfare, this book brought the military side of the VOC under the attention in its own right once again.