The problems of the current discourse

This renewed interest in the political and military aspects of VOC history from a VOC perspective is a refreshing development. Not only do the bold claims made by various scholars on the matter also deserve serious scholarly attention from VOC specialists; also, the perspectives that many of the scholars treated above take on the matter are far from unproblematic, and do no justice to the complicated nature that the wars waged by the VOC had.

The main problem of many works on the subject is that they disregard the very specific character of the VOC's possessions in Asia. Both fall into the trap of incorporating the VOC into a discourse which pretty much describes the world as a sort of total war between "the West" and "the rest." World historians often name the military exploits of the VOC in one breath with the conquest of the Americas and the defence of Europe against the Ottomans, as if the breaking of the siege of Vienna and the expeditions in the Moluccas were part of the same development. The tone of the debate, which takes military developments as a starting point and subsequent conflict as a given, inevitably creates the suggestion that colonialism was an ongoing European military campaign against all other people of the world, which, when the smoke cleared after some 250 years, turned out to have been successful. Even when the authors explicitly state that this was not what was afoot (as both Parker and Black do), the questions they ask and their mode of analysis forces their arguments into that direction.

The 'Asian apologists', on the other hand, do more or less the same, albeit in a 'mirrored' fashion. They seek to counter the bold claims of the above-mentioned authors by entering the same mental framework. When the eurocentric school claims that the Europeans were more successful because they had better cannon, fortresses, ships and tactics, these authors feel it their duty to point out that various Asian states had gunpowder and good ships too, as well as to claim that Southeast Asian fortress building was in no way inferior to European fortifications and that the armies of the various local powers learned to fire volleys with surprising speed. In this way the notion of a sort of arms race between the West and the East is merely confirmed. The titles of some of these works, like Reid's Europe and Southeast Asia: the military balance, make all the more clear that this is indeed the way in which the conflicts between the European Companies and various local powers were perceived.

This East-West dichotomy which pervades this debate has in the past few decades been interpreted by various scholars as being a legacy of the colonialist, 'eurocentric' worldview which developed in the nineteenth century. The ideological construct developing at that time combined perceived western economic success, nationalist ideas, (pseudo)scientific notions of race and inequality between races, as well as an evolutionary, progress-oriented worldview, to form a body of ideas in which the European nations were destined and obliged to help and guide the rest of the world on their path. These ideas have been projected back by historians, onto a time when the various axioms of this worldview simply did not apply yet. Thus, European exceptionalism, "the Rise of the West", imperialism, and the whole East-West dichotomy itself, which did not become manifest until the nineteenth century, are now by many scholars considered to have had their origin in early modern times, according to these authors. This mode of analysis certainly also to be seems to be applicable to the military debate here under consideration.[1]

In only a slightly different form, this same process of 'projecting back' can be discerned in the arguments of some of the 'Asian apologists.' Here it is not the general notion of western (military) superiority that is projected back, but imperialism's negative aspects: the conquest, economic abuse and degradation of the colonized peoples of the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which are often uncomplicatedly extended back all the way to Coen's days. It is this aspect of the perception of colonialism that we perceive when we hear Sudjoko complain that early modern European military superiority was only possible because of a conspiracy, in which the European powers purposefully and structurally withheld knowledge from the Southeast Asian states.

List footnotes

Edward Said, Orientalism (London 1978, many reprints); James Blaut, The Colonizer's model of the world: geographical diffusionism and eurocentric history (New York 1993).