The subtitle of this thesis promises the description of a ‘military system.’ Of course a master’s
thesis is hardly the place to try and come to an all-encompassing view on VOC warfare, even should
such a thing be possible. Nonetheless I hope the thesis has made a meaningful argument on VOC
warfare, which might serve as a first step towards a coherent view on VOC warfare.
The first stage of this argument has been a case for the research of VOC warfare in its own right, and making clear that, considering the unique kind of organisation that the VOC was, we might expect that the form of warfare it developed would also be ‘unique’, and only comparable to e.g. warfare in Europe in the early modern period to a limited degree. It would therefore make sense to attempt and sketch this form of warfare anew and, so to speak, from the bottom up.
I have subsequently tried to make such a sketch, by looking at various factors that would be determining for the military system the VOC developed in the first decades of its existence, and its success. This sketch has of course looked at the ‘military hardware’ the Company had at its disposal and its worth or significance in the Asian context within which it operated, but has also looked at other factors such as its financial system and goals and its political culture. On the basis of this I concluded that the VOC might to some degree have developed a ‘technological’ form of military superiority, particularly in the realm of naval warfare and fortress design, but that in the early modern context this technological gap alone, particularly considering the improbably small size of the Company’s armies, was insufficient to explain its military success. Other factors, such as the political longevity and the informational and logistical network that the Company had, were at least as determining for its military success.
This informational and logistical network has subsequently been the object of research for the period 1655-1663. By looking at the connection from patria, via Batavia, to the battlefield, both with regard to equipment and soldiers, politics, decisions and information, I hope to have shown this network in action, and proven that it existed, made sense, was practicable and indeed significantly contributed to the military success of the Company. The assessment of this network for the given period was subsequently further nuanced and substantiated by looking in more detail at its end result: several of the actual battles within the period 1655-1663.
This, then, might also be a good time to present some final thoughts which had no place in any
of the separate chapters, but are nonetheless the result of this thesis as a whole. Coming back to
the discussion on the quality of the Company’s soldiers, for one, we might now conclude that De
Iongh’s view of the VOC troops as lazy, ill-trained and mostly doing garrison work, might have applied
to the 18th century, but is definitely not appliccable to our period of study. For our period,
this is simply numerically impossible, witness the fact that, for instance, in the last few months of
1661, over 4200 Company soldiers (not even counting indigenous troops and sailors) were simultaneously
taking part in combat; in other words: about half of the total Company army was actually
off fighting somewhere at that moment. Stories like Herport’s, who in the course of his soldiering
career was literally dragged from one battle to another, go to illustrate what this meant for the
troops. Even if training in Batavia did not amount to much, the average soldier saw enough combat
in the course of his five years of duty to build up a lot of fighting experience. We see the value
of this combat experience confirmed in the trust Van Goens kept on putting in the troops that
had been with him since his first campaigns on Ceylon, as opposed to those soldiers that freshly
arrived from Batavia or the Netherlands. The soldiers’ actual fighting capabilities are furthermore
confirmed by the many descriptions of battles, in which we often see the Company armies fight in
closed ranks, succesfully using European tactics against superior numbers. How much the quality
of the troops contributed to the VOC’s military success in general remains hard to say, but at any
rate I did not recognize the rather rag-tag image of the Company soldiers as brought forward by
De Iongh and others in the descriptions of battles and soldiers in this period.
Another point that needs to be made here is of a more general nature. This thesis has mostly focused on the logistical and organizational aspects of VOC warfare, and one of the most prominent conclusions time and again was that the whole venture was remarkably well-organised. This conclusion of course echoes similar conclusions made in the last few decades about the VOC’s logistics and organisation with regard to trade. An obvious but important point to make here, is that these two networks are not only similar, but largely one and the same, not only in that soldiers, spices and letters were transported by the same ships, and that the Generale Eis listed trade goods right next to cannonballs, but also in terms of the chain of command. In all but the lowest echelons of hierarchy, the VOC did not have a separate military organisation: the Governor of Ceylon, to name but an example, was in charge of both the cinnamon trade and the garrisons there. Even Van Goens, sent to the Western Quarters with a predominantly military commission in the function of “admiral”, was also supposed to visit the various factories in the area and see if they were profitable and wellrun. The Company’s military aspects, which in this thesis I have studied to some degree separately from its trade, were in that respect simply part of the daily functioning of the entire enterprise. This opens up the question whether all kinds of arguments with regard to the VOC being rather ‘modern’ and ‘rational’, as have often been made with regard to its trade policy and organisation in the last few decades, do not simply extend to its military aspects. I hope that the description of the Company’s military logistics made in this thesis have to some degree laid the basis for such an approach.
Another question that perhaps deserves attention here, is whether the VOC was capable of plotting a ‘grand design’, as they would have called it in the 17th century, or a Grand Strategy, as it would be called in present-day strategic studies. An often-heard argument with regard to Dutch colonial history is that whereas the West India Company did have such a strategy, as it had effectively been called into existence for making war on the Spaniards and the Portuguese, the VOC did not. On the basis of the research for this thesis, I feel it is justified to question this view. Although the VOC had indeed been founded on very different grounds than the wic, in the period here under study it definitely did have a long-term strategy which we might dub ‘grand.’ If we take Grand Strategy to be the setting of long-term goals over a period of years or decades, and subsequently directing policy and strategy on all levels towards eventually reaching this goal, then this definition certainly applies to what we have seen the VOC do in the course of our period of study. The long-term goal set, in this case, was a complete monopoly over the trade of Asian goods in Europe, specifically fine spices and pepper. This long-term vision had been brooding in the heads of the directors and the Asian personnel from the 1620s onwards, and we might well see the subsequent concerted effort to secure the Spice Islands as part of a Grand Strategy towards this goal. As soon, then, as the Spice Islands had been largely secured, the strategy towards this goal shifted towards the complete expulsion of the Portuguese from Asia. Policy in this direction started materializing around 1636, when Antonio van Diemen became Governor-General, and was only brought to a grudging and temporary halt in 1644, in the wake of the restauração in Portugal and the subsequent treaty between Portugal and the Republic. The subsequent years of uneasy peace, and trouble with the English, which prevented this strategy from being put into effect for the time being, do not however seem to have changed it. As soon as the Company got a chance in 1654, it simply picked up where it had left off a decade earlier, and managed to almost completely drive the Portuguese from Asia by 1663, when another peace treaty definitively ended this strategy. This policy towards ousting the Portuguese, which can well be interpreted as a deliberate policy which lasted almost three decades and was ultimately largely successful, might thus definitely be seen as a Grand Strategy.
All the above statements are however merely some thoughts on the basis of this thesis, and deserve separate attention in the future. Which, of course, brings us to a final and important point. Above all I hope that this thesis has reconfirmed that the study of VOC warfare is a hugely interesting and important field, which has remained thoroughly understudied in the last few decades, and in which a lot of work is to be done in the future. I can only hope that this thesis has made a small contribution to filling this historiographical gap.