War with whom? And why?

Above it has already been recalled how the VOC started off as a Company with limited military ambitions.[1] It tried to coexist with the Portuguese and avoided them as much as possible. Only when the animosity between the Portuguese and Dutch rapidly escalated within the first years of the Dutch overseas adventure, did the VOC adopt a strategy which was meant to harm the Portuguese colonial enterprise as much as possible. Van Heemskerck’s fleet and subsequent expeditions were given orders to that purpose, and were armed for the occasion. The first battles that the VOC fought in the East were with the Portuguese, and the first successful territorial conquest it made was a Portuguese fortress: fort Victoria on Ambon, in 1605. At the same time, the Spaniards were also creeping into Southeast Asia from the Philippines. The first military activities of the VOC were therefore triggered by rivalry between Europeans, and were directed against Europeans.

This escalation and military build-up, while directed against another European power, of course also had its effects on the interaction between the VOC and local societies, and the VOC’s role in Asian politics. In the course of the 16th century, the Portuguese had bound many Asian societies to them, which were of course immediately implicated in the rivalry. The pretty much open war that developed between the VOC and the Estado da India, was from the start also fought by setting people up against the other party, making people promise not to trade with other Europeans, and putting each other in a bad light. In addition, from a very early stage the VOC also tried to keep the Portuguese from buying spices in the Moluccas by simply fortifying the islands, which of course had its implications on the local population. The VOC’s 1608 attempt under Verhoeff to build a fortress in the Banda islands, which led to serious trouble with the local population because it did not wish to be compromised in these European rivalries, is a case in point. This form of violence, which was directed against other European parties, but was also conducted by proxy, could be considered the first form of violence that the Dutch used, and the rivalry with other Europeans would remain the most important motive for resorting to violence throughout the 17th century.

The exclusive contracts that the VOC’s minions in the East were already enforcing upon local societies in order to rival the Portuguese, soon awakened the idea that this trade could be even more profitable if the VOC could enforce a complete monopoly. What had in the first instance been an attempt to stay alive and acquire a place in the spice trade, very soon developed into a market strategy. Not only should the enemy Portuguese and Spaniards be forced out of the spice trade in the Moluccas: the Makassarese, Arab and Chinese traders should stay out as well. The aspiration to a complete spice monopoly was official VOC policy from 1609 onwards, as has been described above, and the VOC did not shun violence and territorial conquest in order to achieve this. Coen’s 1621 massacre and deportation of the population of Banda and subsequent territorial claim over the islands, which he repopulated with freeburghers and slaves, might be seen in this light, as might the readiness with which Coen escalated a conflict with the Bantamese and the English in order to obtain territory for the long-sought rendezvous.[2]

In this way, violence became a legitimate tool to influence the market. This form of violence did not limit itself to the Spice Islands in the first decades of the 17th century: the VOC learned from the Portuguese and also started using violence on other Asian parties to improve its trading position in other places. This violence, however, was always a means to an end. Whereas in the relatively undeveloped Moluccas, the VOC’s leaders knew they could get away with a very violent disposition towards the local population in order to achieve trade goals, it had to behave differently towards other parties. It was hardly a viable option to make the Japanese Shogun, the Chinese Emperor, or the Moghul Emperor all too angry with the VOC. Whereas the various Europeans Companies had a maritime hegemony in the Indian Ocean which, for one, the Moghul Empire did not even bother to compete with,[3] the trade interests that the VOC and other Companies had on land, in their undefended factories in the city of Suratte, could easily be disrupted by the Moghul authorities, which in case of trouble formed a counterbalance for the European power at sea. In spite of this balance, in some instances the VOC still managed to put its maritime hegemony to good use against the Moghuls as well. After a trade conflict over tin had escalated in Suratte, the VOC in 1648 decided to put a blockade before the Moghul port city. This blockade brought all trade grinding to a halt, and ultimately led to a compromise between the VOC and the Moghul authorities.[4]

Finally, the VOC became involved in local Asian politics and warfare in some of the areas in which it was operating. Whereas it often had, in the first instance, its own motives to get involved in wars between Asian parties, the circumstances often ran away with the VOC, up to the point where it was into Asian politics up to its neck. The clearest example is probably the various wars of succession on Java. There, the VOC got involved in dynastic wars more or less against its will, as it had no interest in conquering Java but was mainly concerned with keeping the island politically and economically stable. The city of Batavia was entirely dependent on rice and lumber from the central regions of Java, and an ongoing war of attrition in these same central regions might have had disastrous effects for Batavia. The VOC’s attempts to stabilize the island, by giving military support to what in their eyes was the ‘legitimate’ candidate, sucked them ever deeper into Javanese politics and gave them control over an ever growing portion of the Javanese coastal areas, which had not at all been their aim in the first place. On the basis of this view of the Javanese wars of succession, F. Gaastra feels it is justified to call the VOC a ‘reluctant imperialist’, at least for the case of Java.[5]

List footnotes

See p. 8.
Somers, Volkenrechtelijke actor, C9.
This was not in the first instance because it was impossible: the Moghul Empire was a agriculturally based land Empire and could really not be bothered by all these traders at the fringes of the empire; it therefore did not feel any need to fight for a maritime hegemony in the Indian Ocean. Yet another battle that did not take place.
Hans van Santen, ‘Shah Jahan wore glasses: remarks on the impact of the Dutch East India Company on Northern India and some suggestions for further research’ in: Jos Gommans and Om Prakash eds., Circumambulations in South Asian history: essays in honour of Dirk H.A. Kolff (Leiden 2003), 47-68, there 49-52.
Gaastra, The Dutch East India Company, 60pp; Ricklefs, War Culture and the Economy; H.T. Colenbrander, Koloniale Geschiedenis, vol 2. (The Hague 1925).