Political structure and culture

In his lecture Tussen geveinsde vrunden en verklaarde vijanden, Blussé recalls the solemn yet festive occasion that took place on the 24th of September 1691 in Fortress Batavia. On this day Joannes Camphuys, who had been the Governor General of the Company for the past seven-and-a-half years, transferred the keys of the fortress to his successor, Willem van Outhoorn.
The solemn ceremony centered itself around a long table in the main hall of the fortress. Seated at the head of the table were the old Governor General and his successor. On the long sides of the table, the entire civic body of the city of Batavia was present: first the members of the Council of the Indies, then the judges, the police force, harbor masters, tax administrators, and so it went on. The entire upper class of Batavia was present, but those who were no part of the civic institutions had to content themselves with a standing place. Speeches full of bad jokes and grave words were held by the old and the new Governor, and finally, Camphuys presented the keys to the city and the castle to his successor.
In addition to the pomp of the city of Batavia, also present was a guest from somewhat further away: an ambassador from the emperor of Ethiopia, who happened to be in Batavia at the time. While the Batavian upper class, standing around him, tried to look as distinguished as possible, the Ethiopian ambassador observed the ceremony taking place at the far end of the table with disbelief. He shook is head and expressed his amazement to the person standing next to him: "In my country, this would not pass so easily, but it would have cost thousands of lives, before someone could have acquired this high position!"[1]

Our Ethiopian ambassador, so surprised about the peaceful way in which the power over the entire Company was transferred, witnessed the fifteenth 'changing of the guard', and the eleventh time that this took place in fortress Batavia. Quite a few things had changed in the political form of the Company since its founding.
Above it was already recalled how the Company developed a 'political' body in Asia, as well as its own capital in Asia, in the first few decades of its existence. The development of these institutions in Asia had not been foreseen when the Company was founded; neither can they be said to have come forth from a masterplan made in the Netherlands, either by the Estates-General or by the directors of the VOC. Rather, we see all these institutions developing as a historical result of interactions between the directors, whose first priority was trade and profit, and the people working for the Company in Asia, who looked at the Company through different glasses.
The decision to found a rendezvous and send a Governor-General to the East was originally inspired on several reports by Cornelis Matelieff, who, having been the admiral of the third fleet to sail out after the founding of the VOC, returned to Europe frustrated about the fact that every admiral going east was merely responsible for his own fleet, which yielded a very divided and impermanent management of affairs. A plan to send a director of all things related to trade eastward (a Director- General) was deemed unsatisfactory by him: what the Company really needed was someone in charge of the whole Asian venture, right there on the ground in Asia. By making his plans known to various parties, among whom Hugo de Groot (the advocate of the VOC) and Oldenbarneveldt himself, he managed to get the directors to resolve on the first of September 1609, that a Governor- General would be sent East, who would, in cooperation with a Council of the Indies, function as a spider in the web with regard to the Asian side of the VOC. Also part of Matelieff 's suggestions after his return, was the plan for the rendezvous. This plan, as has been recalled above, was realised only in 1619, when Jan Pieterszoon Coen deliberately escalated a conflict with the English and Bantamese in order to conquer Jakarta and found the long-sought rendezvous.
What had not been part of anyone's plans back in Europe, however, was the alacrity with which Coen tried to turn this rendezvous into a state capital. Coen apparently wanted to transform Batavia into a veritable city republic, as he claimed jurisdiction over the entire area between Cheribon and Bantam, all the way from Batavia (on the north coast) to the south coast, on the basis of 'conquest in a just war'. Coen had effectively carved out a state on Java: a state based on a European political system, which legitimized itself on the basis of European legal notions, but which was situated in Asia, and was ruled from Asia as well.[2]
Of course, the jurisdiction of the Governor-General and Council did not limit itself to Batavia and surroundings: all matters with regard to the administration of the other Asian possessions of the VOC were communicated to patria through Batavia. Each of the six members of the Council was responsible for the communication with a few of the various gouvernementen (governmental districts) and factories.[3] This system, which took shape in the first decades of the 17th century, thus constituted a very effective and well-organised government of the VOC's Asian possessions. Whereas clearly based on a European tradition of government, it was adapted to the huge Asian world in which the VOC was active, and formed a 'state' which was to a large degree independent of the directors back in the Netherlands.
This made the VOC's Asian possessions a very interesting phenomenon: we cannot simply regard it as the exponent of a European power. Neither, however, can we see it as an Asian state. The Dutch Republic might not have had much influence on Batavian politics; however, the laws and traditions by which Batavia was ruled, , the way in which the administration justified and conducted wars, and the way in which it perceived itself and its neighbours was thoroughly European. It was this European political culture that gave 'the Kingdom of Jakarta', as Batavia was often called, a very unique role in Asian politics, war and diplomacy.
This European political culture gave the VOC characteristics which were relatively uncommon in the Asian world in which it operated. In the first place, as our Ethiopian ambassador noted to his amazement, it was a remarkably stable system, compared to the state systems with which it interacted. In the political system of the Javanese state, Batavia's next door neighbour, as well as most other Southeast Asian polities, the most important characteristic of a leader was his prestige, obtained by, for one, prowess in battle and the number of subjects one had. This latter trait, in which the King's divine right to rule was not a given but had to be obtained by showing one's worth (in battle or otherwise), made the Southeast Asian state form remarkably unstable. Close kin of the ruler would without exception use their prestige to try and conquer the throne for themselves, or start their own mandala. Wars of succession were not an exception that only occurred in case of a dynastic crisis: they were an accepted and normal part of the political process.[4] The Malabar Coast, then, consisted of four kingdoms and many smaller polities ruled by lesser nobles, which were also taken up in unabating rivalry. The four larger kingdoms all pretended to be the true heirs to a legendary kingdom which had once unified all of the Coast, and acted accordingly. Regions changed hands all the time, and dynastic trouble were the rule rather than the exception.[5] In the Moghul Empire, the divine right to rule also had to be seized, and the approaching death of any Moghul always hailed a dynastic war between the various members of the royal family that could realistically covet the throne. Durable as the Moghul Empire was, this did not provide for a very continuous administration. In the Moluccas, the political process was defined by rivalling villages and clusters of villages, raiding each other for heads and captives.[6] Looking at the world in which the VOC operated from this perspective, the amazement of our Ethiopian ambassador becomes quite understandable. Although certain other state forms in Asia, like the Tokugawa Shogunate, were remarkably stable, continuous and well-organised, the VOC system, in which power was transferred to an appointed candidate after a set term, was unique, and would have been very unusual in Europe too. It made the VOC political system very stable and continuous. This political stability was further reinforced by a factor which is at first sight not political: its political institutions resided in artillery fortresses, which were for all practical purposes unconquerable to any local power, as will be discussed in detail below.[7] For these reasons, the VOC had a very long breath in Asian politics.
Another characteristic of VOC's orchestration in Asia was the division of competence in its organisation. Valentijn, in the anecdote with which this paragraph started, already noted that the entire upper class of Batavia was present, but that only the people exerting a public function were allowed a seat at the table. The political system which took shape had its various functions, and, at least in the 17th century, these functions were not manned by an elite but by people who had the competence for that particular function.[8]
A final important characteristic of the VOC's Asian institutions was its administration. Very early on in the history of the VOC, a system developed in which practically all information relevant to the functioning of the Company was relayed to Batavia. Whereas the fact that all the outposts were required to keep Batavia up to date (as well as send all their goods there instead of sending them off to the Dutch Republic directly) of course took up a lot of resources in terms of shipping and manpower, the benefits outweighed the costs by far.[9] Back in Batavia, people were opening all these letters that were shipped to them across half the globe. They assessed, plotted and planned, mobilizing Ambonese allies to fight Portuguese enemies half the world away, recalling armies from one place to have them fight elsewhere months later. This enormous administrative system which the VOC developed, in which news, financial transactions, prices, the number of personnel, the political situation and everything was sent to a central 'information hub', gave the VOC an extremely well-documented bigger picture of the things going on in Asia, with regard to trade, politics and warfare.

List footnotes

« Previous: Capital
Next: War with whom? And why? »
Francois Valentijn, Oud en Nieuw Oost-IndiĆ«n (Dordrecht 1724-26), vol IVa, 320. Originally found in Leonard Blussé, Tussen geveinsde vrunden en verklaarde vijanden, 18.
Somers, Volkenrechtelijke actor, C7.
Gaastra, Dutch East India Company, 66pp.
Wolters, History, Culture and Region in Southeast Asian perspectives (Cornell, rev. ed. Of 1999), C1, C2; Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the age of commerce, vol. 1., The lands below the winds, (Yale 1988), 120pp; Ricklefs, War culture and the economy, C1.
M.A.P. Meilink-Roelofsz, De vestiging der Nederlanders ter kuste Malabar, Verhandelingen van het KITLV 4 (The Hague 1943), C1, C2. The book appeared under her maiden name, M.A.P. Roelofsz.
Gerrit Knaap, 'Kora kora en kruitdamp: De VOC in oorlog en vrede in Ambon' in: Tussen oorlog en diplomatie, 257-282.
Geoffrey Parker, 'The artillery fortress as an engine of European overseas expansion' in: Parker, Success is never final: empire war and faith in early modern Europe (New York 2002), 192-221.; Kees Zandvliet, 'Vestingbouw in de Oost' in: Tussen oorlog en diplomatie, 151-180.
Holden Furber, Rival empires of trade in the Orient, 1600-1800 (Oxford 1976), 308pp.
M.A.P. Meilink-Roelofsz, 'Hoe rationeel was de VOC?' in: Economisch- en Sociaal-Historisch Jaarboek, vol. 45 (1982), 182-183.