Sunday, January 3, 2010

The dark side of the VOC mentality

  The dark side of the VOC mentality
The kingdom of Arakan on the border of Bangladesh and Burma was the VOC's largest supplier of slaves.  The need for workers for the spice plantations on the Banda island transformed the slave trade from a supply-driven into a demand-driven market.
The kingdom of Arakan on the border of Bangladesh and Burma was the VOC's largest supplier of slaves.  The need for workers for the spice plantations on the Banda island transformed the slave trade from a supply-driven into a demand-driven market.


Map of Arakan circa 1595 byPieter van den Keere. Source: Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, Itinerario, voyage ofte schipvaert, van Ian Huygen van Linschoten naer de Oost ofte Portugaels Indien, inhoudende een corte beschrijvinghe der selver landen ende zeecusten... (Amsterdam 1595-96)
Powerful state
Using primarily Dutch source material, historian Stephan van Galen has examined the rise and fall of the Mrauk U kingdom in Arakan. From the fifteenth century, it grew from an agrarian realm into a powerful state controlling an area from the coastal strips of Dhaka (Bangladesh) to Rangoon (Burma). However, it only flourished for a short period.  At the end of the seventeenth century, the empire collapsed as quickly as it had risen.  No-man's-land
For a long time, Arakan remained unexplored territory for historians.  'This was because of its location,' says van Galen.  'It lay on the border of the academic research areas of South-East Asia and South Asia: an academic no-man's-land.  What is more important is that Arakan never developed into a national state, the starting point of most historical research.  In the 1990s, scientific interest in the Gulf of Bengal increased, including interest in the role of Arakan in the history of the region.


The Letsekan gate, in Mrauk U, Burma
Trading post
Between 1608 and 1682, the VOC had an important trading post in Arakan.  The source material provided by these trading contacts is invaluable for the history of the kingdom. Van Galen: 'The diaries which have not previously been consulted, journals and intensive letter exchanges between Batavia, the Netherlands and Mrauk U are very valuable because there are almost no contemporary Burmese sources available.  Using VOC archives, and to a lesser extent, Persian and Portuguese sources, I have been able to write the history of Arakan.'
Explosive growth
Van Galen was particularly interested in the rapid rise and fall of the kingdom.  He attributes the rapid expansion which Arakan underwent to the relationship with neighbouring Bengal.  'From the fifteenth century, the Bengali economy experienced enormous growth.  The kings of Arakan formed alliances with Portuguese adventurers and traders, which gained them a large part of the riches of Bengal.  And now it appears that the sixteenth and seventeenth century kings of Mrauk U controlled a much greater area of Bengal  than had been assumed.


Arakan women praying to Buddha in the central chamber of the Dukhanthein temple in Mrauk U.
Tax revenues
Van Galen has reached this conclusion based on sources which record tax revenues.  Large parts of Bengal, which were thought to have been under the rule of Indonesian Moguls, paid taxes to the Arakan court. These tax revenues were considerably greater than the income from trade, and contributed to the success of Arakan.  The Arakan kings used this revenue to build numerous Buddhist temples. The ruins of the city of Mrauk U, an almost undiscovered city in the jungle of Burma, are evidence of the power and wealth of the kingdom.
Prime period
But this prime period was short-lived.  While Arakan spread in the sixteenth century to East Bengal, the Indonesian Mogul empire advanced towards West Bengal.  This confrontation led to a war which was to last for ninety years. The Buddhist kings of Araken suffered defeat. The loss of Bengal brought to an end the flourishing of the empire, which declined further in the course of the seventeenth century.  
Slaves
'The war did have one remarkable by-product,' says Van Galen.  'Large numbers of prisoners of war were captured, who were later to be traded as slaves. The main destination for these slaves was the VOC. In his determination to gain control of the valuable spice plantations on the Banda islands, Governor General Jan-Pieterszoon Coen had massacred an estimated 15,000 people.  As a result of this massive slaughter, the Netherlands probably had the world's only source of nutmeg and mace, but there were no more workers left to tend the plantations.  Slaves from Arakan offered the solution.


Slave market in Pipli: Lusu Arakanese slave traders selling slaves to the VOC. Source: Wouter Schouten, Oost-Indische Voyagie.
Indiscriminate and random
Van Galen states that the supply of slaves to Indonesia up to 1624 had been indiscriminate and random. This situation changed when, from 1623, Arakan, with its structural supply, became the major supplier of slaves to the VOC.  Together with the kings of Arakan, the VOC became the biggest trader in slaves of the seventeenth century. The VOC's great need for slaves transformed the character of the Arakan slave market from a supply-driven into a demand-driven market.
Rice
The significance of Arakan for the VOC was apparent, not only from the slave trade, but also from the trade in rice.  'Rice from the most fertile fields in Bengal and Arakan was an important source of food for the hungry population in Batavia,' says Van Galen.  'It probably saved Batavia from a famine. It is clear that both empires profited from the intensive trading contacts.  It is not inconceivable that the Arakan kings may have been able to postpone the decline of their empire ar a result of their trade with the VOC.'

Ref: The dark side of the VOC mentality

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