The VOC: a European organisation?

The aim of this thesis is to try and formulate a view of VOC warfare that is 'internal' to the VOC. Whereas the world-historical and the historical-anthropological approaches sketched above have led to interesting results, I believe that the general approach they take to early modern colonial warfare does no justice to its complexities. The VOC simply cannot be described as a mere exponent of developments in Europe, nor can it be interpreted in the same terms as the colonialism of the 19th century. After all, when the first Dutch ships rounded the Cape in search of spices, the scramble for Africa, the Maxim gun, Social Darwinism, Rudyard Kipling and the Opium Wars all still lay a good 250 years into the future. As to the goals and institutions of the VOC: these are also in no way comparable to the later colonial empires. Nor could they be: the organizational form of the later European empires was deeply rooted in institutions of the modern nation state, which simply did not exist yet. The VOC was not even a state institution. It was a commercial enterprise, which was granted a state Charter, yet was an entirely separate organizational body.

To make clear the implications of this point, we might borrow a small thought experiment from Black, who states that in a way the most important battles were those that didn't take place.[1] Black himself gives the example of the complete absence of naval battles between the various Asian land empires and the Portuguese fleets, because the land empires were simply thoroughly uninterested in sea power. In the same vein, we might here state that there was never an open war between any Asian party and the Dutch Republic until 1780.[2] Whereas in the nineteenth century, the Parliaments in Europe had a direct influence over, say, the Aceh War, British war efforts in North Africa, or French campaigns in Indochina, the influence that the governmental bodies of the Dutch Republic had in Asia had to go through the VOC and was therefore by definition extremely limited. This VOC was an entirely separate organisation, which, during the first few decades of its existence, developed into an institution of which a good part of the venture wholly took place in Asia, and which was moved by different considerations. Seen in this light, the fact that the VOC was always nominally acting as a representative of the Estates-General, became increasingly hollow in the course of the 17th century. There therefore were no wars between the Dutch Republic and any Asian power in early modern times. There certainly were Europeans fighting in the east in VOC service, but the decisions as to where and whom they were going to fight were usually made in Batavia, by officials that served causes completely different from those of the rulers of the Dutch Republic.

All this made the VOC into a unique institution. It had its own nature, which was defined by the world in which it operated, the organisational form that it had, the goals that it set for itself, and the people that were involved in it. The East-West dichotomy, insofar as it is valid in the early modern period, is in this respect not always a useful analytical tool with regard to it. The VOC cannot be interpreted as a purely European party, and therefore to a large degree eludes notions of a European- Asian military balance, or an exported European military revolution. In order to do justice to the complex body that the VOC was and the forms of warfare in which it was involved, we will have to throw all these notions overboard and look at it in all its specifics.

List footnotes

Jeremy Black, 'introduction' in: Black ed., War in the early modern world, 6-7.
In this year the Dutch navy came to the aid of the VOC against the Buginese to prevent the Company's demise, and even in this case it is doubtful whether we can see this as a war between the Buginese and the Dutch Republic.