In the period that is under consideration in this thesis, allies were of much greater importance than the VOC’s few hundred local soldiers. In the above paragraphs, we have already come across various examples of how the VOC made allies, and used existing hostilities and antagonisms to achieve its aims. It actively sought local help in conflicts, as in the case of the blockade Goa from 1636 onwards. Governor General Van Diemen had a mind to definitively finish off the Portuguese headquarters in the East, but did not feel like conquering it and having to bother with ruling this very unprofitable city itself. It therefore sent an embassy under Johan van Twist to the court of the Indian state of Bijapur, at the time the most powerful state south of the Moghul Empire. The treaty which was the result of this mission gives a wonderful insight into the way in which the VOC tried to do politics. As the VOC was seeking to consolidate its interests on the Malabar Coast and Ceylon, it wanted to do away with the Portuguese on the west coast of India for good. The articles of the treaty come down to the following: the VOC would block the harbour (using its naval superiority, doing what it was best at), thus disrupting the flow of reinforcements to Goa, and the flow of information throughout the Portuguese empire. At the same time, the raja of Bijapur, who was ill-disposed towards the Portuguese and claimed sovereignty over the area surrounding Goa, would attack the city by land and conquer it. The VOC would back up this attack by landing an army. All the while, the blockading fleet would be supplied from Wingurla, a Bijapur port town. In the end, the raja would be handed the sovereignty over the city.[1] Thus the VOC had made a deal which would work to the benefit of both the Company and the Bijapur Empire. The Company did not have to bother to provide a land army strong enough to conquer Goa, neither did it have to bother to conquer and occupy the town.[2]

In other cases, allies were practically handed to the Company on a platter, before the VOC even knew it needed them. A case in point is the call for help that the VOC received from the Raja Singha, the raja of Kandy, the mid-Ceylonese kingdom, in 1637. Here, the exact opposite of the situation with regard to Goa seems to have developed. The VOC had just started an extensive military campaign against the Portuguese strongholds along the west coast of the Indian subcontinent, but it would appear that Ceylon as yet had no place in these plans. An invitation to drive out the Portuguese from the Raja Singha, who was increasingly isolated by Portuguese strongholds along the coast, and felt increasingly frustrated with this fact, seems to have changed the VOC’s mind.

Another famous case of an ally simply presenting himself is the story of Arung Palakka, the Buginese leader who, after a failed rebellion against his Makassarese overlords, simply appeared in Batavia and offered his services. As the Makassarese state was at that time the last remaining rivalling sea power in the Archipelago, with which the VOC had already been at war in 1660, this was once again a case in which both parties apparently saw their mutual benefit. After his failed rebellion, and aware of the struggle between the VOC and the Makassarese state, Arung Palakka saw a perfect party in the VOC to help him regain his lost honour and position. After the VOC had made use of Arung Palakka and his warriors on several other expeditions, these finally got their revenge in 1666, when the VOC once again went to war with the Makassarese. The VOC merely provided ship transport for the various Buginese and Butonnese groups joining the Company’s war against Makassar. After one of the most intense wars the VOC fought in the 17th century, the Makassarese state was defeated, the VOC was rid of its competitor, various Bugi and Butonnese groups were rid of an unwanted overlord, and Arung Palakka had his honour back.

Whereas the number of troops that the VOC could attract from the Ommelanden in these times was limited to several hundreds, the above alliances usually involved much larger armies. The Bijapurian state, like the Moghul Empire, was a thoroughly military organisation, and in the seventeenth century, high nobles commonly had standing armies of 5000 horsemen alone, which in times of war could be supplemented by considerable infantry peasant levies.[3] This gives us some impression of the kind of army that would have appeared before the walls of Goa, had the attack actually taken place. The various Buginese and Butonnese groups which had joined Speelman’s fleet in the course of his campaign against Makassar, at a certain moment numbered 10.000 warriors, whereas disease left only 250 European soldiers able to fight at the time.[4] The fact that the Company, through its political role and diplomatic efforts, got these kinds of armies to fight for its causes, illustrates the fact that in many cases, politics might have been far more instrumental for the VOC winning its wars, than military superiority.

List footnotes

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J.E. Heeres ed., Corpus Diplomaticum Neederlando-Indicum: verzameling van politieke contracten en verdere verdragen door de Nederlanders in het Oosten gesloten, van privilegebrieven aan hen verleend enz., II (The Hague, 1931), CXXII, Kust van Malabaar [sic], maart 1637, 294-297.
In the end, the Raja did not live up to his end of the bargain. An attack from the Moghul Empire was expected, while at the same time the Portuguese pressured the raja of Bijapur to end his relations with the Dutch (for one, by seizing some merchant vessels). The land attack therefore never came. The VOC then contented itself with structurally blocking the Goa harbour, until it reached a peace agreement with the Portuguese in 1644. D.C. Varma, History of Bijapur (New Delhi 1974), 59-60.
D.C. Varma, History of Bijapur, 236pp.
De Iongh, 108.