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The role of economy

Twee mensen uit Siam en een Chinese soldaat [Two men from Siam and a Chinese soldier], Pieter Schenk (I) (possibly), after Romeyn de Hooghe, 1682 – 1711, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-1967-946. [Cropped]

The role of economy

We usually assume that early modern diplomatic relations were driven by the economic rationale of foreign or maritime trade. Anthony Reid’s vivid portrait of the lands below the winds has shaped our views of ports as sources of wealth and power for local rulers. Makassar being just one of several examples of a maritime entity benefitting from the dynamics of the ‘Age of Commerce’. Merchants had a keen interest in receiving exclusive rights to buying, selling, or shipping certain goods, while local rulers and other stakeholders were eager to control and take revenue from profitable business transactions. This interdependence materialized in various forms of trust building while the same reciprocal dynamics would come to determine what was considered legal or illegal in maritime transactions. The intertwined nature of maritime trade and diplomacy reflects in such diverse practices as tributary relations, gift economies and coastal raiding and other seaborne violence. Indeed, the relationship or rather tension between external trade and the presence of foreigners, the question of extraterritorial rights, passports and custom duties are all deeply intertwined. But was that really the case in all Southeast Asian polities prior to the nineteenth century or is this a rather Eurocentric view of historical processes? In this conversation Matthew Mosca starts with a discussion of Qing China’s coastal policies and its engagement with developments in the insular world in the south before Tristan Mostert and Hans Hägerdal discuss to what extent economic considerations influenced diplomatic practices in maritime Southeast Asia.

Matthew Mosca reflects on the position of China and the role of the commercial and diplomatic practices of the Sinosphere in the economic developments of maritime Southeast Asia during colonial expansion.

The first European empires to establish themselves in maritime Southeast Asia, the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch, had occasionally troubled but never acutely threatened China’s coastline. Moreover, by the time the Qing government secured full control of the coast in 1683, whatever military threat they had once posed was already in the past. To be sure, informed Chinese observers had recognized since the mid Ming period that Europeans possessed cutting-edge technology in navigation and firearms.  Yet they also recognized that even the most formidable European ships, operating far from their bases, posed at most a fleeting and local danger.  Thanks to the effective economic leverage held by the Qing state, even this limited threat did not materialize.  Between 1500 and 1800, from the Ming and Qing perspective, a European imperial presence in Southeast Asia did not fundamentally challenge China’s coastal security.

Coastal security between 1500 and 1800 rested in part on a profound resource disparity that made a sustained European maritime campaign against China unthinkable: neither Spanish territories in the Philippines nor Dutch territories in Java could fund, supply, and staff a campaign on a scale large enough to overwhelm Ming or Qing defenses.  With the benefit of hindsight, we can identify the British conquest of Bengal between 1757 and 1764 as the harbinger of a major shift that would eventually imperil the Qing coast. Bengal, and soon other parts of India, gave the British East India Company (EIC) resources far beyond those available to other European empires in maritime Asia.  Still, if we adopt a Qing perspective – and remember that Indian affairs had never before had direct implications for China’s security – it is no surprise that the long-term consequences of events in Bengal were not immediately apparent to observers in Beijing or Canton. Indeed, in the 1770s and 1780s, the EIC, still grappling with formidable rivals within India, had limited ability to project its power eastward.  Only during the course of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815) did the EIC both emerge as the hegemonic power in India and decisively eclipse other European empires in maritime Southeast Asia.  Given this chronology, even 1792 would be a relatively early date to expect a major Qing reevaluation of the geopolitics of maritime Southeast Asia.  The British occupation of Java (1811-1814), or even the founding of Singapore (1819), would be a more reasonable moment to expect serious Qing alarm about a future British threat to coastal security.  Even so, a further two decades would pass before British forces took up arms against the Qing state.  In short, there were compelling reasons why Qing observers should not have viewed the first Opium War as the culmination of centuries of “European maritime imperialism.”  If the Qing state was to be indicted for informational negligence, the case must be made specifically regarding its response to novel developments between the early nineteenth century and 1840.

There is another sense in which indicting the Qing state for failing to recognize the threat posed by “European” imperialism misses the mark.  The early modern trends amplifying British power in Asia in the early nineteenth century did not transform the other European empires already present in maritime Southeast Asia into a significant threat to China. Even at the highest tide of European imperialism later in the late nineteenth century, Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands hardly figured as powers to be reckoned with. To the contrary, a well-informed Qing observer would have seen that the regional holdings of these European empires – Portuguese Macao (1808), Spanish Manila (1762-1764), and Dutch Java (1811-1814) – were at least as vulnerable to British assault as Asian polities in the region. In short, it is ahistorical to expect Ming and Qing observers to have identified a long-term, secular trend of rising “European imperialism” starting in 1500 and culminating in the coastal warfare of 1840.  Rather, from a Ming and, particularly, Qing perspective, European empires in Southeast Asia before 1800 were relatively anodyne regional actors whose strategic influence had long dwindled from a (relatively moderate) early peak.  What Qing observers should in theory have spotted was the typological difference between these other European empires and the sudden, aggressive onslaught of the British presence in Southeast and East Asia.

Tristan Mostert shows that all forms of negotiating and contact between the European East India Companies with the various polities of the eastern Archipelago were aimed at obtaining access, preferably exclusive access, to the spices and other trade goods that originated from the region.

The Dutch East India Company was a private commercial enterprise created to break into Asian trade but one that wielded powers we would now associate with the state, leading even contemporaries to observe that the organization was ‘both a commercial company and a state.’ The first diplomacy and treaty-making that the VOC was involved in was in the eastern archipelago, where it would typically enter into treaty-making by offering protection against a common enemy, in exchange for exclusive deliveries of the spices in the region, at a fixed price. The English, in turn, tried to set themselves up as a better alternative to the Dutch. This was possible as the latter managed to make themselves exceedingly unpopular exceedingly fast throughout the region. Yet, the English often applied very similar protection-for-trade schemes as the Dutch themselves.

It is essential to remember and to stress that the Europeans were not the only political powers in the region with an interest in trade. As the Dutch tried to become the sole buyer of the spices from the eastern archipelago, other traders and their states tried to prevent this through diplomacy and violence.

Makassar is, once again, the clearest example. In the extant literature, this trade entrepot situated in South Sulawesi is often presented as a bandar, a free and open port town, which is then juxtaposed to the controlling and monopolizing VOC. As Anthony Reid, for instance, summarized it, “Makassar’s prosperity depended on being a spice port open to all comers, at a time when the VOC was asserting every means to assert a monopoly over both clove and nutmeg. […] To the VOC’s demand for monopoly Makassar insisted on even-handed freedom for all.”[1] This characterization should, however, not close our eyes to  the fact that it was also the capital of a state forged by military expansion, not only on South Sulawesi but in the wider archipelago. Its role as an important harbour for spices was not only due to it being a bandar in a great trade network, but also due to the active expansionist policies of its rulers, in rivalry with other such states, such as Ternate, and that its expansionism was part and parcel of its conflicts with the VOC. The ‘spice traders’ themselves were a category overlapping with the war fleets that Makassar sent out throughout the eastern archipelago to make vassals, demand tribute, and militarily assist the Hituese and Hoamoalese in their conflicts with the Dutch. Early modern trade went hand in hand with violence, diplomacy, political affiliation, and considerations of state and power, not only for the Europeans, but for their Asian competitors as well.

[1] Reid, Critical Crossroads, 136.

Hans Hägerdal discusses the motivations of the East India Companies’ when desperately attempting to make inroads into the spice trade.

The rationale of European presence were valuable regional resources, first and foremost the spice trade, and secondly forest and sea products. These matters are often explicitly mentioned in agreements and contracts, in particular those set up by the VOC. In a first stage, the Malukan sultans or chiefs would pledge to sell their cloves and other strategical products to the representatives of the VOC. In a second stage, they promised to cooperate in the extirpation of clove and nutmeg trees in the island world, excepting a few places where they were grown under strict Dutch supervision. In a third stage, finally, the local polities were formally reduced to vassals whereby the diplomatic courtesy terms were changed from siblingship to a father-son relationship. Exclusion of outsiders was a vital part of these agreements, as the VOC contract with the west coast villages of Aru in 1658 confirms. Here the villagers are held accountable for promising not to allow or suffer that any foreign traders, such as Makassarese, Goromese, Javanese, Malays, Portuguese, English, Spaniards, or other Europeans, frequent their lands, or acquire any stronghold there, but immediately turn them away. In return, the Company would protect them from any hostilities, and defend their peace and freedom. The contract moreover specified a few economic advantages for the local polities, though they were circumcised, for instance that “every year as often as they wish, they may appear here in Banda with or without wares, and once again withdraw after selling to a moderate price.” In fact, these tightly regulated arrangements were continuously violated by the very seafarers that the contract meant to guard against, since the Dutch means of surveillance were limited. In that way the island world is reminiscent of highland Southeast Asia or Zomia, which has been depicted by James Scott as geared towards state-avoidance while still maintaining economic contacts with central places.


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