Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Serpent and the King: The Dutch-Arakanese Relationship

by Stephan Van Galen

D.G.E. Hall, the eminent historian of Southeast Asia, in his ‘’Studies in Dutch relations with Arakan’’, was the first to point out the importance of the Dutch language sources for a study on the history of Arakan. Hall pieced together a preliminary overview of the Dutch-Arakanese relationship on the basis of the published Daghregisters or diaries of Batavia. In his history of Southeast Asia Hall even based his description of 17th century Arakan almost entirely on the Daghregister and further source publications: the Corpus Diplomaticum Neerlando-Indicum and De Jonge’’s Opkomst van het Nederlandsch gezag in Oost-Indie.

The scope of Halls description of the Arakanese-Dutch relationship could however only be limited because of the nature of these source publications. A recent article by Prof. Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Slaves and tyrants: Dutch tribulations in seventeenth-century Mrauk-U further highlights the need for a structured overview of the Arakanese-Dutch relationship. In this article Subrahmanyam has sketched the built-up of a proto-colonial discourse around the disastrous 1649 embassy of the Dutch ambassador Hensbroeck to the Arakanese court. The daghregister of this embassy, which ended in outright-armed conflict, has been used by Subrahmanyam to characterize the relationship between ‘’European’’ and ‘’Southeast Asian’’.

In this paper I will describe Arakanese-Dutch relations from 1608, when the first contacts were established, until the end of the era of systematic contacts in 168 when the Dutch factory in Arakan was closed. This description will not only be an attempt at providing a first structured overview of the relationship, it will also aim to provide a basis for further research.I will begin with a short overview of the available sources for a study of the Arakanese-Dutch relationship and continue with a tentative periodisation, which I will illustrate with some occurrences from these periods that can be seen as characteristic for these phases in the relationship.

This paper is based on a re-examination of the Source publications used by Hall and study of unpublished source materials from the VOC archives. The published sources can be divided in four groups, that is:

First the Daghregister of Batavia, which covers in its published form the period from 1624 to 1682.4

Secondly the Corpus Diplomaticum Neerlando-Indicum which is a compilation of what might be called the treaties between the United East India Company and various Asian rulers, this publication covers the period from 1596 to 1799.5

Thirdly De Jonge’’s formidable Opkomst van het Nederlandsch gezag in Oost-Indie, being a somewhat haphazard but still useful compilation of primary documents from the VOC archive covering the period 1595 to 1811.6

And finally the Generale Missiven van Gouverneur-Generaal en Raden aan Heeren XVII der Verenidge Oost-Indische Compagnie being the letters sent by the Governor-General and Council from Batavia to the Board of the VOC in the Netherlands, this last publication covers the period 1610 to 1750.7

The archival material from the VOC archives at the Hague used for this paper can be roughly divided into three categories.8

The missiven, or reports sent by the head of the Dutch factory in Arakan to the Governor and Council in Batavia constitute the first category, The daghregistersinstructies to new factors the third. held by the factors of the Company the second, and The Although we have access to only a few examples of the daghregisters they are of primary importance because they consist of day-to -day observations of VOC employees on trade and politics. They provide verbatim reproductions of conversations between VOC employees and Court officials and observations on Arakanese culture. Originally there must have been a continuous collections of these daghregisters for Arakan and even for Chittagong, but the majority of the Arakan diaries and all the Chittagong diaries have supposedly been destroyed during the early years of the nineteenth century on orders of the then Governor-General Herman Daendels.9

The available daghregisters at the Algemeen Rijksarchief at the Hague have survived because they were sent to the Heeren XVII in the Netherlands to serve as background information for the Generale Missiven or the copies of the missiven sent from Arakan to Batavia.
This brings us to the bulk of the material, the missiven. As I just mentioned copies of the missiven sent from Arakan to Batavia were annually forwarded to the Netherlands to provide the Board of the VOC with the necessary information for their policy decisions. These letters refer in the first place to the commercial situation in Arakan and the results of VOC’’s investments in the Arakanese markets. They provide information on the market structure, give analyses of market forces and describe the other players on the market. But this is only part of the information contained in these letters. They also provide us with a synopsis of the information contained in the daghregister, they give an overview of the situation at the Arakanese court and if necessary they sketch Arakans relations with its neighbours-especially when these might impair the Companies trade in Arakan. The instructies lastly contain the instructions sent fro Batavia or the early seventeenth century from the Choromandel coast to factors going out to Arakan. As one might expect the first of these provide the best information on the Arakanese situation while the latter say more about the objectives of the Company itself.

As a last remark on the sources, I want to add that in some respect the following discussion will be limited because I have not been in the position yet to conduct a systematic research in the original resolutions and the uitgaande brieven van Gouverneur-Generaal en Raden. This paper thus leaves aside the directions send from Batavia to the factors in Arakan. This should however not present a substantial hindrance as a thorough reading of the missiven from Arakan and the published sources gives us a good impression of the content of the instructions sent to Arakan by the Dutch directors at Batavia.

After this lengthy digression to the source materials I will now come to a provisional periodisation of the Dutch-Arakanese relationship. A first analysis of the materials collected from the VOC archives at the Hague suggests that we may divide the period under consideration into three phases. The first phase in the Dutch-Arakanese relationship can probably be best described as one during which both parties shared a common enemy and as a result there was room for military cooperation. I suggest that this was the case from 1608 to 1620. The second phase can be best described as being dominated by a growing economic interdependence of the Arakanese court of Batavia. This was the period from 1625 to 1647. The last phase of systematic contact runs from 165 to 1682 when it might be argued the interests of both parties slowly diverged. I. 1608-1620

The first contacts between the Dutch and the Arakanese took place in 1608 when the Dutch arrived in Arakan to investigate trading possibilities in the bay of Bengal.10

They arrived in Arakan just after Mong Razagri had returned from an abortive expedition to lower Burma against Philip de Brito. The Arakanese king seemed determined to find new allies in his battle with the Portuguese. The king was faced not only with a hostile Portuguese community on his Eastern, but also on his Western flank. Here Sebastiao Gopcalves Tibau was well under way in becoming a potentially bigger embarrassment of the Arakanese king then de Brito already was.11

Mong Razagri was well aware of Dutch successes in their battles with the Portuguese.12

After the Arakanese king had sent an embassy to the Dutch in Masulipatnam in 1610 to enquire whether any support was still forthcoming, it was decided by the Dutch Company to send Jacob Dirksz. Kortenhoef to Arakan, not with any definite promises on military cooperation but to inform the Arakanese of the possibilities and limitations of any cooperation.13

As you can see on the sheet Kortenhoef was followed by several other employees, not because the trade with Arakan was extremely profitable, but mainly to keep the Company informed about events in the area and to provide a base for VOC ships cruising for Portuguese prizes.14

To understand this situation we have to take into consideration that at this movement trade meant also war for the VOC, moreover, it was reckoned that with a few good prizes the Company could more than defray its operating costs in the Bay of Bengal area.15

It is in this light that we have to look at the events of 1615 which I have selected as exemplary for this phase. In 1615 a large fleet from Goa to assist Tibau in his conflict with Mong Khamoung, the successor to Mong Razagri. The importance of the ensuing naval battles between the Portuguese on the one hand and the Arakanese and the Dutch on the other having hitherto been misinterpreted or not well understand.16

Arthur Phayre in his history of Burma comments on this event as ‘’There happened to be lying there some Dutch vessels, and they joined the Arakanese flotilla to resist the [Portuguese] attack.17

Also in G.E. Harvey’’s history of Burma and in Hall’’s history of Southeast Asia it has remained an open question just why the Dutch ships had arrived in Arakan at such a critical juncture.18

Reading the accounts as presented by these authors one might be lead to believe that the sudden arrival of the Dutch on the scene came as much as a surprise to the Arakanese as to the Portuguese. There are however three important considerations that contradict this view. Firstly it has to be remembered that the main objective of the Portuguese expedition was to assert control over the Arakanese country trade and to keep the Dutch Company out of the coast waters of lower Burma. The Portuguese were well aware of the presence of two Dutch ships in Arakan and were actively seeking a naval engagement.19

Secondly, as we have seen, the Dutch presence in Arakan was not only aimed at commerce but also centred around military objectives, namely to secure access to the trade of the Bay of Bengal. The Dutch ships in Arakan had permission to assist the Arakanese in their conflict with Portuguese.20

And thirdly, the Arakanese not only counted on an attack from Tibau, no they had even requested and obtained Dutch support for an offensive action against Tibau.21

The arrival of the Portuguese fleet at the mouth of the Kaladan River on the rd of October 1615 could therefore not have been a total surprise to the Arakanese-Dutch alliance.22

A full scale attack finally came on the 15th of October1, leaving the allies more than a week to prepare for battle, the Portuguese commander had lost the element of surprise and was driven of the river by the combined Arakanese-Dutch forces.24

The Portuguese armada under Dom Francisco de Menezes consequently set sail to unite with Tibau’’s forces and they planned a second attack at Mrauk-U.25

This attack came on the 18th of November when the combined Portuguese forces appeared in the Kaladan river once again. This time the Allies were even more prepared. They had constructed six batteries on the Eastern bank of the river and arranged their ships in a line, surrounded with a stockade in the shallow part of the river. After a heavy cannonade from both sides the Allies broke their line and chased the Portuguese with the tide from the river.26

Directly following this victory Mong Khamoung forces were attacked on the island of Cheduba by a Burmese force, a conflict that ended in a stand-off after which the Burmese were forced to retreat.27

Having thus secured his position in Arakan Mong Khamoung invited the Dutch to join him in an attack on what was left of Tibau’’s forces on Sundiva, this attack took place in January 1616. The Allies were again successful and after a 2-day battle Tibau was driven of the island.28

As we have seen the stationing of the two Dutch vessels in Arakan had been a conscious move of the Dutch and the Arakanese, totally in accordance with the objectives of both parties. It was not a mere lucky coincidence. These victories however didn’’t mean that Arakan now controlled the Bengal’’s coastal trade, as late as 1625 the Portuguese were able to disrupt the Arakan trade to a considerable extent. Moreover the control of the restored Toungoo dynasty over Lower Burma meant that also the direct trade with Ava had come to a standstill.29

Mong Khamoung control over the area from Chittagong to Cape Negrais was still constantly being questioned and tested. Because of this instability Arakan had lost its commercial and military value to the VOC, which accordingly withdrew its personal from Mrauk-U in 1620.0

(To be continued) I. 162-1647

The second phase of the Arakanese-Dutch relationship started in 162 when Hendrick Lambrechts arrived at the court of the new king Thiri Thudhamma. The latter offered Lambrechts a large supply of slaves and a stone factory building, to be built on account of the king. After Jan Pietersz Goens ruthless expedition to Banda in 1622 this was welcome news in Batavia.1 Slaves would however not be the only incentive the VOC had to pursue the Arakan trade. After 1628 the wars with Mataram meant that the Company had no access to Javanese rice, this combined with the fact that plantations on Banda could not produce enough rice for their own subsistence meant that the VOC had to look elsewhere for its rice. Siam and Arakan where two obvious places to look for rice imports.2 In the years from 162 to 161 the Company was busy trying to establish a permanent factory in Arakan, when this did not meet with success the Arakan trade was left from 161 to 165 to the Batavian free-burgher.

Repeated embassies (1627 and 164) sent by the Arakanese to Batavia confirmed the importance they attached to more durable trading relations and the settlement of a permanent factory in Mrauk-U.4 That this was also felt in Batavia proves the resolution of the Governor-General and Council taken in July 164, when it was decided to ‘’embrace’’ the trade of Bengal, Pegu and Arakan.5 With the arrival of Adam van der Mandere in 165 the contacts between the Dutch and the Arakanese became more permanent.6 During this period we can discern a growing economic interdependence of the Arakanese court and Batavia. Rice exports from Arakan to Batavia increased as a result of the stability brought by the reign of Thiri Thudhamma and his successors. The Arakanese economy in this period rapidly grew and trading relations between Arakan and Atjeh, Chronomandel and Tenasserim became more intense.

The daghregisters of Van der Mandere’’s successor, Arent van der Helm presented a good picture of the state of the Arakanese-Dutch relationship. Van der Helm appears almost daily at the court of Narabadigri where he discusses freely with the nobility of Arakan on all matters of state. His good relations with the Portuguese and the King’’s treasurer at Court was on the one hand the result of the large contribution made by the VOC to the Arakanese economy, and on the other a side effect of the potential military power he had at his disposal with the frequent arrival of large ships from Batavia and occasionally Choromandel. From the daghregisters kept by Van der Helm we can conclude that his sudden departure from Arakan in 1647 was closely related to the change in Government in the last months of 1645. It seems that the Dutch factor had been an active opponent of the accession to the throne of the new king Thado Mong Tara. It is in this light that we should view the embassy of Jacob Hensbroeck in 1650. Hensbroeck hostile reception at the Arakanese court was in my view directly related to Van der Helms efforts to block Thado Mong Tara pretensions to the crown. The new king did in fact not disguise the fact that he was much disturbed that Van der helm had behaved in such a way as if he was part of the Arakanese elite.

I. 165-1682
During the third and last phase the growth of the VOC’’s trade in Bengal and its diminishing dependence on Arakanese slaves and rice meant that the interest of the Arakanese and the Dutch slowly diverged. In 165 the contacts between Arakan and Batavia were renewed by an embassy under John Goessens.40 Goessens was able to negotiate a new contact with the young king Sandathudhamma Raza, who had been on the throne for less than a year when the embassy arrived.

A striking example of this new situation was the- often romanticized- episode of Shah Shuja.42 The VOC’’s growing dependence on its Bengal trade meant that it could not remain obvious to threats from the Mughal subahdar of Bengal. The VOC therefore discontinued its activities in Arakan in 1666 and even sent a small naval squadron to Bengal in aid of the Mughal conquest of Chittagong.4 Arakan had become only a cheap market for rice, but rice was also to be had at other places in the Bay of Bengal. Slaves on the other hand were during this period also available from a variety of sources. The only reason for the VOC to continue its factory in Arakan the rice market showed signs of collapse and the internal situation in Arakan became more and more unstable the VOC in 1682 decide to discontinue its operations in Arakan. Thus ended the era of systematic contacts between the Dutch and Arakan. As I have pointed out the nature of the Arakanese-Dutch relationship underwent several changes over time. While it started out as a military alliance to ensure that Portuguese dominance of the high seas be broken, it developed slowly to a more commercial relationship.

From the beginning of the 1620’’s a substantial trade in rice and slaves developed between Arakan and Batavia. Although it is difficult to assess the impact of this large-scale trade on the Arakanese economy it seems that trade in Arakan was growing rapidly during this period. It is therefore extremely difficult to construct a seventeenth century crisis for Arakan. Especially if we take into account the large building programmes initiated by king Narabadigri in the latter part of the century and add to this the extensive patronage of the arts, which made Arakan a cultural center of importance in the region one can only be left to conclude that from the mid 1620’’s the Arakanese economy went through a period of growth and expansion. Only after the conquest of Chittagong a gradual decline set in when not only the Dutch Company left Arakan, other merchants did the same, and so the rice market and other markets collapsed.

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