The July 2004 IIAS Newsletter includes an article by Wil O. Dijk on the Dutch VOC in Burma during the 17th century, the same period in which they were conquering one sultanate after another in the Spice Islands and the rest of the Indonesian archipelago.
This article highlights a little known aspect of the Dutch East India Company (VOC)’s inter-Asian trade: the trade with Burma. The vast archives of the VOC at the National Archives in The Hague have yielded a treasure trove of detailed information on seventeenth century Dutch-Burmese relations. The archives throws light on the composition of the VOC’s Burma trade, and how it fit into the grand design of the Company’s inter-Asian commerce, where it was not as marginal as some historians would have it. Vital statistics on shipping, imports and exports, wages and prices, and inventories of Indian textiles the Dutch shipped across the Bay of Bengal, together with purchasing and selling prices, allow us a unique glimpse into life in seventeenth century Burma….
The VOC’s years in Burma can be divided into three distinct periods: the early years of indecision (1634-1648), the golden middle years (1649-1669) and the final years of decline and departure (1670-1680). During the first period suggestions were made, in turn by Pulicat and Batavia (the company’s head office in Asia), to close down the Burmese factories. Pulicat and Batavia, however, seemed unable to agree, with the result that trade continued halfheartedly. The second period witnessed a great improvement in conditions for trade. In the final years, a new king with little interest in trade or foreigners ascended the Burmese throne. By this time the objectives of the Dutch East India Company had altered, while forces beyond its control were working to undermine the company. In the end the Burma trade became a casualty of the company’s new priorities….
Empire of trade
Burma offered a large assortment of export goods. Statistics indicate that the Dutch generally took what they could get. Tin was a constant as were lac, elephant tusks, chillies (long peppers) and beeswax. In the 1650s, Chinese copper coins and Burmese ganza (a metal akin to bell metal) became major exports. The Company turned large quantities of Chinese copper coins, flowing into Burma from Yunnan, into money to be used as legal tender in Batavia and Ceylon. In the final years, the Dutch also exported a great deal of gold, much of it originating in China. The VOC, through its elaborate inter-Asian network, was in a position to trade Burmese goods in the most profitable markets throughout Asia.
[Ming China was at this time selling off copper and gold to convert to silver coinage, thereby fueling global trade, especially with Tokugawa Japan and the Spanish Empire in the New World.]
Their Bengal factory, always in need of additional funds, was sent valuable Burmese cargoes (including Chinese coins, ganza, and zinc). The copper extracted from Chinese coins and ganza was in great demand in Coromandel, as were gold, tin, timber and chillies. In Japan a profitable market existed for Burmese catechu, namrack, deerskins, buffalo hides and horns. Lac generated excellent profits in Mocha, as well as in Persia, where there was a good market for Burmese tin, elephant tusks, cardamom, and the costliest of Burma’s fabled rubies. Considerable quantities of Burmese elephant tusks were shipped to Surat, while in Holland there was demand for the excellent Burmese lac. As for Burma’s famous Martaban jars, there was constant demand throughout Asia for these huge, glazed pots used to store and transport a myriad of things, from potable water and rice to gunpowder and, on occasion, stowaways….
The main points of contention – the ban on direct trade with China at Bhamo, royal monopolies, high tolls, and the disarming of ships – were exasperating but not new. Rather, the circumstances and priorities of the Company had changed. Trade was no longer its main concern; the VOC had changed into a territorial enterprise with military and political commitments and began to operate increasingly from its two power bases, Batavia and Ceylon.
More importantly, a radical shift occurred in its commercial priorities. Whereas in the early days the company’s inter-Asian sea-borne traffic was a key element in its drive to create a vast empire of trade – with the outcome of this traffic largely determining the flow of trade between Asia and Europe – by 1680 the situation was different. The VOC’s inter-Asian trade had peaked by the 1670s, and was replaced by direct trade between Asia and Europe. This is perhaps the main reason behind the Dutch decision to abandon Burma. Whereas Burma had been an integral part of the VOC’s inter-Asian trade for nearly half a century, the company’s new priorities now made it irrelevant.