Colonization without Colonialism?

by on 週二, 10 十一月 2009 評論
When did European colonialism start? What were its original objectives? How did it develop and shape the destiny of the nations that would later be established on its ruins? The question resonates in various ways in different parts of the world. In East Asia, the Dutch were one of the early colonizers – or were they? The question of the original nature and purposes of Dutch Asian settlements remains a hotly debated question. Presently residing at Leiden University, I am surprised to see how sensitive the issue remains, both for Dutch historians and for scholars of the nations where the Dutch staged their expansion. Much of it has to do with the intricate relationship between commerce, military force and nation-building….

It has been argued that the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC), the forefront of Dutch expansion, went through a transition from commercial power to territorial empire in the second half of the 17th century. Arguably, the transition was mainly caused by the local political situation in Java, where Jan Pietersz Coen had established the company headquarters in 1619. Such a change would be the watershed through which the VOC was supposed to have evolved from a “mere commercial powerhouse” to a power “colonial” in nature.

However, the rapid expansion of the VOC in eastern Indonesia and the Far East already undertaken during the first decades of its existence indicates otherwise: the change of character, if any, occurred well before it was embroiled into Javanese politics. Patronized by the States-General of the Netherlands, the VOC was – to borrow Leonard Blussé’s words – a “strange company” ever since the time of its foundation. It was meant to compete with other European powers for the Oriental riches – and not only through pure commercial means. Besides a 21-year monopoly on all Dutch trade in Asia, the VOC was also given quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to wage war, negotiate treaties, coin money and even establish colonies. That is to say, even in terms of the character determined by its founders at the very beginning, the VOC was more than a company of commerce.

In fact, attempting to characterize or qualify an enterprise set up in pre-modern times through our modern categories might be utterly anachronistic – and this applies to the question of determining whether the VOC was or was not “colonial” in nature, as the word chiefly refers to an array of phenomena linked to European expansionism during the course of the 19th century. Nevertheless, the rich literature on this issue reveals how much the “nature” of the VOC has aroused the historian’s curiosity. Such curiosity might be linked to the perplexities we feel when confronted with the mindset of a time when international trade was not supposed to be inscribed into a world order regulated by civil laws and concord. In other words, the question of the nature of the VOC is to be understood as an interrogation on the way colonization was interwoven with trade in the pre-modern era. When dealing with such an issue we are thus led to revise our understanding of how a certain kind of activity (in this case, trade) is defined and takes place in a given temporal context.

We may begin our investigation with a statement made in 1685 by Coenraad van Beuningen, one of the Heeren XVII. In expressing his serious concern about the company’s ever increasing expenses, he explicitly admitted that “it is commonplace and to a certain extent the truth to say that the Dutch East India Company is not just a company of commerce but also of state.” With this acknowledgement of the twofold character of the VOC he further stressed: “it would be very wrong... if from this it were decided that for reasons of State, and not just for commercial profit, cost must be made for occupation, conquest, fortification.” To Van Beuningen, the employment of violence itself was not a problem – as long as it was justified by commercial incentives.

That coercion and trade could go hand in hand had been demonstrated a few decades earlier, when the dazzling profit of monopolized spice trade necessitated violent intervention in the Moluccas: the bloody conquest of Banda in 1621 left the islands practically depopulated. The introduction of Moluccan slavery and the creation of a “plantation colony” on Banda (very much similar to the Spanish colonies in the New World but unique in the Company’s history) were the inevitable consequences of the conquest - though the conquest itself was not motivated by the idea of building up a colony. As Els Jacobs has indicated, the “entire Dutch adventure in Asia, the founding of the VOC, and the building of an Asia trade network had originally been initiated for no other reason than the extremely lucrative trade in spices.” What happened in the Moluccas, from the Dutch takeover of Amboina from Portuguese hands in 1605 to “the solemn submission of Ternate” in 1648, was not done for gaining political prestige but for securing a profit. Still, there was no way of achieving such a goal without using violence and legitimizing its use through state-granted powers and privileges.

The same can be said about the curious Dutch colony on Formosa. A “sudden, relatively uncontested expansion,” says Leonard Blussé, and a seemingly unnecessary one for a commercial enterprise. The Formosan conquest makes sense only when understood as a part of Coen’s construction work – building up an intra-Asian network for the company. Initially, the Dutch settled in Taoyuan for no other reason than creating an entrepôt for trade with China and Japan. It proved to be a worthy investment, as a regular trade relationship gradually took shape in the following decade. But before the island was lost to Koxinga, the company (just as happened in the Moluccas and Java) became more and more affected by local politics, which eventually led the directors to cast their doubts on the necessity of expansion.

The VOC expansion in Asia was undoubtedly colonization, in the sense that it included the seizure and control of lands on which the natives were subjected to Dutch law and mere coercion, and also because the whole endeavour was depleting the resources of these lands for the sole benefit of Dutch merchants. However, as exemplified by the Moluccas and Formosa examples, it was mercantile in nature rather than colonialist. The term “colonialism” is understood and used today with rather vague Marxist undertones: it has become roughly interchangeable with the one of “imperialism” and relates to the development of capitalism rather than to the mercantilist era. When referring to this complex web of meaning, it is indeed problematic to say that the VOC was a colonial power if we cannot prove that its endeavour was guided by a colonialist/imperialist ideology.

Indeed, historical documents do not offer evidence that the enterprise was guided by such underlying ideology. Still, a last point needs to be made: the Company was founded also to finance the war against the Spanish Crown, namely, in the context and for the purpose of building the Dutch Republic. In that respect, though it cannot be described as a full-fledged colonial power, the VOC played a major role in the development of European colonialism: the contest of its creation provides us with the missing link between the formation of the European nation-state and the colonial expansion of the latter. Ultimately, the extent to which we use the term “colonial power” to define the nature and role of the VOC is closely related to our understanding of the Dutch Republic as an early case of nation-state building, long before the rise of nationalism in the 19th century.

Photo by N. Priniotakis

Nakao Eki

Formosan Melon|Endemic to Tafalong

那瓜|太巴塱特有種

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