The first non-European troops ever to be incorporated into the VOC forces were 70 Japanese samurai, recruited as early as 1612. The head of the Hirado factory wasn’t the first European to decide to make use of the fighting skills of the Japanese, as the Portuguese and Spaniards had done so before. More Japanese were hired since, until the Tokugawa regime forbade the practice in 1621. They were the only ones for a while: in the first decades of the VOC’s activities, mutual trust and understanding between the VOC and various local societies was as yet not of such a nature that it would be conceivable that Asians would fight with or for the Company.
Only after the founding of Batavia did other non-Europeans slowly become involved in the VOC’s military efforts. The first of these groups were the ‘Mardijkers’, which is a derivative of the Malay word ‘merdeka’, meaning free. The Mardijkers, in other words, were ‘the free people.’ It was somewhat of a container term, as people from various backgrounds were considered to be Mardijkers: at first they were mostly prisoners of war of an Asian background, who had been fighting for the Portuguese. As the early VOC conquests of the Portuguese brought ever more of these fighters, usually Christian converts from the Indian subcontinent, under the control of the VOC, and allowed them to settle in and around Batavia, they started forming a distinct social group there. It was but a small step for the VOC also to include these ex-soldiers in the defence of the city as a separate schutterij (civil militia), and as soon as their role of soldiers took shape, they were also hired for military expeditions. The early Mardijkers were thus effectively people who had already served as military personnel for the Portuguese, but had switched employers.
To the Mardijker community were soon added people from other backgrounds as well. It was not uncommon that slaves, who were part of Batavian society, converted to Christianity, and were subsequently manumitted. Many of these decided to stay in or around Batavia, and these were also counted among the Mardijkers, and also contributed to the pool of military labour from which the VOC made use. Many mestizos were also considered to be Mardijkers. Thus, the term Mardijkers slowly shifted in meaning to become a general name for Christian free non-Europeans living in or around Batavia. The VOC was capable of mobilizing a few hundred soldiers from this pool to supplement its European forces in the first few decades of the 17th century.
The Mardijkers did not long remain the only pool of military labour in the vicinity of Batavia for the VOC to make use of. The city, as a centre of economic activity as well as the base of what was perceived by many to be a powerful state, attracted all kinds of groups who settled in the surrounding area: a development which actually had the active support of the Company, as it wanted the lands around Batavia (referred to as the Ommelanden, literally: the surrounding lands) to be cultivated. Some of these groups also consisted of freed slaves but were not considered to be Mardijkers (for one, because they were not Christians); other groups apparently just showed up and settled there. The VOC encouraged the division of all these people into groups, as that provided for more control and insight. These groups, or ‘nations’, as the VOC called them, would also appear on the battle field as such, under the banner of their nation. Whereas the VOC did supply them with weapons in times of war, they did not train these people in European warfare. We should not consider the soldiers from the Ommelanden to be preliminary sepoys. Each nation fought in its own way.
This wide array of groups would change all the time, as certain groups came into being, and other groups dissolved or merged. In the period up to 1663, when this system was still somewhat in its infant stages (in fact, the first ‘kampongs’, camps, for these groups were installed by the VOC in 1663), the most significant groups drawn from the Ommelanden, beside the Mardijkers, were the Bandanese and Ambonese. Other groups, among whom the Balinese, were certainly already living in the Ommelanden, but they are not mentioned in any documents on military matters until the 1660s. It is possible that they might have fought for the VOC before those times, but only then did they have a captain assigned to them and only from then onwards are they traceable as separate groups.
As to the Bandanese: these had ended up in the Ommelanden after Coen’s campaign on the Banda islands. Coen had taken several hundred captives and decided to bring these to Batavia in order to populate the city and surrounding area. Whereas this group was initially in a position approaching slavery, it slowly but steadily emancipated, until in the 1630’s it got its own political bodies and captain, and was incorporated into the defence system. They always remained a rather small group and ‘merged’ with the Butonnese in later times.
The Ambonese had come to Batavia in the wake of the Ambonese wars, fought between 1624 and 1658, and briefly touched upon above. In 1656, a group of Ambonese warriors who had been fighting for the VOC, under the leadership of Radja Tahalela, went along to Batavia with a returning VOC fleet, and took up residence in the Ommelanden. From that time onwards, they remained an important group in the VOC’s wars, both on Java and during expeditions.
The worth and role of these ‘indigenous’ troops, drawn from the Ommelanden, has been seen in various ways. Raben, for one, describes these groups as the VOC’s version of the peasant levies with which the Javanese kings reinforced their armies. A Javanese army had a professional core of prajurit, supplemented with vast numbers of peasants, and the VOC came to a very similar system, with European troops as the professional core and the various groups from the areas around Batavia as the peasants. It is my impression that this qualification of the VOC’s indigenous troops to some degree does injustice to their background and military worth. The peasant levies of the Javanese armies were hardly ever used for actual fighting, as they were considered to be very unreliable, and were mainly present to do things of a logistical nature. The groups in service of the VOC, however, did actually fight, and did well at it too. As we have seen, both the Ambonese and the Mardijkers had actually been soldiers/warriors before taking up residence in the Ommelanden, and are therefore not the VOC counterpart of peasants forced to do service in an army. In later times, when Balinese, Butonnese, Javanese and other groups had also become part of the pool of military labour from the Ommelanden, the Javanese were considered to be the least martial and reliable of all of them. Therefore, I believe that to consider these armies also to consist of a professional core supplemented with ‘peasants’ is an underestimation of the military value of the ‘Asian legion.’
On the other hand, we should not overestimate the importance of the soldiers from the Ommelanden during the 17th century. It was only by the end of the century, after the Butonnese and Balinese had been incorporated into the system, after Makassar had been defeated, and with the onset of the wars on Java, that the VOC’s reliance on this pool of military labour really became important. As, in this later period, the centre of gravity of the VOC’s military activities swung back from the Indian subcontinent to the Archipelago, the use of these troops became both more logical and more profitable. Up until 1663, the VOC did make use of lots of local troops, but these were usually allies instead of ‘local soldiers.’
A final, rather interesting consideration is what Pieter van Dam writes about the local soldiers that the VOC made use of. In the current literature, the local soldiers are considered to have been essential to VOC military success, as they were cheaper, they did not have to be brought in from the other side of the world, and their proficiency in local forms of warfare was an invaluable asset in the VOC’s military efforts. At the end of the 17th century, however, Van Dam wrote that the Hooge Regeering would rather see more European troops! Not only were these more reliable; using Europeans also prevented the diffusion of European tactics to the enemy, and, as Van Dam calculates, would be cheaper. I will not reproduce the entire calculation here, but since European soldiers only get paid half the year and have to buy their equipment and clothes from the Company, they are in the end cheaper than local soldiers, even though the latter officially get half the wage of their European colleagues, so Van Dam argues. He therefore recommends hiring a lot more Europeans than the 8200 which, according to his own calculations, were necessary. This contemporary observation which Van Dam based on the opinions of Governor General and council, and which flies right in the face of the current historical opinion on the value of local troops, leaves the reader puzzled and pondering. After all, who are we to doubt his word in this matter?