Artillery and artillerists

As the first VOC fleets entered the Asian waters, back in Europe people were still in the process of perfecting the various uses that artillery could have. Whereas, in the sixteenth century, it had proven its worth in tearing down or defending fortifications, as well as war at sea, the effective use of field artillery in an open battle was only developed in the first decades of the 17th century. At the time, artillerists as yet had no place in European military traditions and hierarchy, and therefore had a somewhat eccentric place in the military chain of command. They were not considered soldiers, but rather, as Howard puts it, ‘witchdoctors’, exercising their voodoo with their strange machines. It was only in the 1650s that the French army made the first attempt to really incorporate artillerists in the military structures.[1]

This state of the art with regard to artillery in Europe is reflected in the ways in which the VOC used it. As we have already seen, much of the military strength of the VOC came from its ability to deploy artillery from ships, and defend its fortifications with it. In a trade empire which was mainly oriented upon the sea, these two uses of artillery were of even greater importance than in Europe. Also, like in Europe, deploying artillery was a profession which had nothing to do with soldiering. Shipboard artillery was not operated by the VOC’s soldiers but by the sailors, some of whom were specialized boschschieters (bus firers), under the command of a constable-major. The land-based artillerists defending the various fortresses were recruited from among these sailors: whereas a soldier signed up as such back in the Republic, artillerists only became artillerists once in the East, and from the point of view of the soldiers were ‘witchdoctors’ as much as their colleagues back in Europe. The quality of VOC soldiers, as has been discussed above, is subject to some discussion, but it would at any rate seem that these VOC artillerists stood in very high esteem. Because of their high quality, they were very much sought after by other companies, and for that reason they deserted quite often.[2]

While extremely useful against fortifications as well as for defence, the use of artillery in open battles and skirmishes seems to have been very limited in this period. Even in Europe, the use of field artillery as had as yet to be perfected. The kinds of wars the VOC waged in the period under study rarely involved sending expeditions inland at any rate, and insofar as they did, these were usually small-scale penal or scouting expeditions against relatively weak or unorganised adversaries: kinds of war which brought with them their own problems, but which hardly involved trains of field artillery. [3] Cannon were often brought along, but their military value seems to have consisted mainly of the shock effect that their noise and indiscriminate destruction brought about against adversaries who had little or no experience with firearms.[4] Their worth, in that respect, was psychological rather than tactical. Nonetheless we find instances in which cannon were effectively used in open battles. In most of these instances they were loaded with scrap, which was very effective against adversaries not wearing any kind of body armour.

Cannon, however, were far from rare in the Indian Ocean world. Gun founding might have been an art at which some societies were better than others, but it certainly was not an art which only the Europeans had mastered, or kept secret for that matter. Some Asian rulers would seem to have obtained guns by way of Arab traders early in the 16th century, the Moghul armies were famous for their artillery, cannon founders from the Ottoman Empire were in service of the Achinese sultan in the 1560s and Chinese and Japanese residents in various places also seem to have produced cannon locally in the 16th century. Subsequently, European competition in 17th century Asia caused rapid proliferation of both the possession of cannon and the art of making them: the English, finding that European firearms were rather in demand in Asia, saw no problem in selling them there, particularly in areas where the Dutch were active. The Makassarese locally produced their own cannon by the first decade of the 17th century, in all probability learning from the Portuguese. Mataram, the Javanese state, was making its first attempts at gunfounding in the 1650s.[5]

Having a lot of guns is one thing; putting them to good use is quite another. Although these guns were in some cases also deployed for the defence of fortifications (as in the case of Makassar), the eagerness with which particularly Southeast Asian rulers tried to obtain firearms also seems to have had a more psychological motive. In Southeast Asian cultures, weapons in general were considered to have a supernatural aspect (that which O.W. Wolters called soul stuff), contributing to victory not only in the practical sense of the word, but also making victory more likely by bringing their supernatural power to the field of battle. Cannon were perceived as having a great amount of this supernatural power, and for this reason it was important to have as many guns as possible, and the larger the better. For this reason, Southeast Asian rulers were particularly keen on founding large guns, and tried to lay their hands on as many pieces as possible, even if these weapons were not really useable in practice or when they did not have the appropriate ammunition for them.[6] Today the huge ‘holy cannon’ in Banten (Bantam) and Jakarta still bear witness to this fondness of large guns. An inventory of the various guns present at the kraton of Surakarta also shows this, as well as the complete lack of uniformity of the guns with which the Javanese court was defended: the cannon can be identified as being of Dutch, Javanese, English and Portuguese origin, and hardly two pieces are the same. In addition, the remarks in Dutch sources on the ill use of cannon (such as overloading and bad aiming) are too numerous to attribute merely to a general disdain of the enemy.[7] It therefore seems plausible that, although many Southeast Asian states built up impressive arsenals of artillery in the 16th and 17th centuries, the types of warfare in which these states were involved, as well as the perceived role of artillery in warfare, did not really give it a clear practical application in Southeast Asian warfare, which in turn did not facilitate the development of standardization and professionalism in its use. The same, however, might to a lesser degree be said of the VOC for this period: where artillery was used from fortresses and ships, its use was clear, but out in the field, its role was often no more than psychological.

List footnotes

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Parker, Military Revolution, 23-24; Howard, War in European History, C4.
Kuypers, III, 237-239.
For examples of these kinds of expeditions, see De Iongh, 114pp, and Albrecht Herport (S.P. L’Honoré Naber,ed.), Reise nach Java, Formosa, Vorder-Indien und Ceylon (Den Haag 1930, originally published 1669).
Reid, Military balance, 4-5; Charney, Southeast Asian warfare, C4 For a telling example of the unpractical nature yet huge psychological effect of cannon in these kinds of wars, once again see Herport, Reise, 44pp.
Reid, Military balance, 3-4.
Charney, 63.
K.C. Crucq, ‘De kanonnen in den Kraton te Soerakarta’ in: TBG 77, 93-110.