E10: The Role of the Netherlands

The English and Spanish became distracted from the action in the East Indies. They fought out their quarrels mostly in the West Indies and the Atlantic. This left the way was left open for the Dutch East India Company to monopolise trade from the Cape of Good Hope to the Strait of Magellan. It seems strange today to read that a business company had full authorisation of its national government to conduct its affairs from business trading through to full-scale war. Although the British East India Company set out at about the same time as its Dutch equivalent, the latter were able to achieve a dominant position for almost 180 years from 1604 onwards. This was assisted in no small part by the activities of the Dutchman Jan Pieterszoon Coen, who, among other things, established the port of Batavia in Java, that was to become a major trading centre and the modern city of Djakarta, capital of one of the most populous nations on Earth. Batavia flourished at the expense of Malacca, which was taken by the Dutch in 1641 and entered a phase of terminal decline.

The other nations continued to follow the well-trodden paths around southern Africa. Bases located on the Cape of Good Hope were a necessity. The Dutch created a base there in 1652 that proved vital in maintaining their supremacy in the East Indies. The base at the Cape was even given a government – one of nine created for the Dutch Indies and ultimately administered from Batavia. French bases were established in Angola, Dutch bases in Namibia. The British did the same, starting in the 1660s with the establishment of a trading centre at Bombay, which had been acquired from the Portuguese as part of the dowry given to Charles II on his marriage to Catherine of Braganza. We shall see later how this was to prove extremely fortuitous for the British.

The Dutch were extremely successful in achieving what the Portuguese could not and, in the seventeenth century, succeeded at the expense of the Portuguese. The years 1600-63 saw the Portuguese at war with the Dutch all over the world. Through the Dutch East India Company, they were able to conduct an inexorable progress towards total domination, first by cleverly manipulating the local princes and sultans, then by reducing them to subordinate allies, and finally by virtually enslaving them in the name of Company profits. In 1596, they established a port at Bantam in Java, from where Chinese tea began to be exported to Europe in 1606. More and more lands fell under Dutch control, and a true empire was created across this vast stretch of islands and ocean. But despite the unquestionable mastery of the sea, not to mention their dependence on it for wealth creation, the Dutch, as far as we know, never felt the need to build lighthouses during these times. We conclude that the conditions were simply too unsettled and that there were simply too many other things of higher importance on the ‘to do’ list.

The Dutch were never as interested in the territories of northern India as they were in the East Indies and, apart from Goa, India was left to the French and British. Factories established in northwest and northeast India were coming under increasing attack from locals and it had become necessary to establish military protection in each region. First, the British claimed Bombay from the Portuguese in 1665 as part of the marriage settlement of Charles II and formally took over in 1668, although it was leased to the British East India Company soon after. Later, in 1686, in the swamps of the Ganges, a defensible base was established that later became Calcutta.

In Japan, the Spanish and Portuguese were unsuccessful in establishing good relations because of religious conflicts, but the Dutch succeeded in creating a base in the southern island of Deshima, near Nagasaki. They had also succeeded in creating centres of influence along the coast of the Malay Peninsula and at Cochin in Southern India, Colombo in Ceylon and Chinsura in Northeast India. Their national East India Company, known by their initials in Dutch as the VOC, and set up to exploit the new trading activities, gradually assumed dominance over the spice trade. To further their commercial interests throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, they went so far as to destroy some spice centres mercilessly, so as to drive up prices. Lands were ravaged and local peoples impoverished.

In summary, we find that there was so much fighting going on throughout the whole of the region that no-one gained a sufficient degree of civilisation and stability to get to the point of wanting to build lighthouses.