Daily Archives: 2 August 2004

The Dutch VOC in Burma in the 17th Century

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….

Military commitments

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.

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The Appeal of Stalinism to Intellectuals

Crooked Timber has a long and interesting comment thread in response to John Quiggin’s response to Tyler Cowen’s challenge on Marginal Revolution: “If I could have the answers to five questions in political science/sociology, the appeal of Stalinism to intellectuals would be one of them.” Here are a few of the less esoteric responses.

Chris Bertram:

I can’t agree with you entirely John. The [Beatrice and Sydney] Webbs, in particular don’t seem to me to be a good example of people who backed the Soviet Union because they thought it was more just and democratic. Rather, they seem (along with others like [George Bernard Shaw]) to have been captivated by the idea of a rationally managed society. Tidiness and orderliness were the reasons for a certain type of intellectual being attracted to Stalinism.

An entirely different type of person was attracted to communism (in its various forms rather than Stalinism) by their perception of the injustice of capitalism, the experience of mass slaughter in WW1 and by the feeble response of the Western democracies to the rise of fascism. Unlike what motivate the Webbs of this world, those are laudable aspirations.

The twist comes when you add a dose of “realism” to the mixture. Once you’ve identified some agency as the best means of fighting injustice, war and fascism, it is all too easy to convince yourself of something like Sherman’s “war is hell” doctrine and to shield yourself from a proper appreciation of what your side is really becoming. If you want a recent parallel for this psychological process, look at the way that people who believe the values of the West need to be defended by any means necessary and take solace in the writings of Victor Davis Hanson and the like.

And the fact is that there is something (but exactly how much?) to the idea that one shouldn’t be too squeamish in fighting for a just cause when the other side will use any means at its disposal. Differing views on that question and on whether the Soviet Union remained an effective means for prosecuting justice etc or had turned into part of the problem, explain many of the fractures in the communist movement from 1917 on….


It’s simply not true that few intellectuals supported ultra-right politics.

In continental Europe, there were always a very large percentage of prominent intellectuals who were on the right, at least before 1939 or so. Heidegger, probably the greatest of all twentieth-century philosophers, is but the best-known of cases …. Before 1918, ultra-right intellectuals were arguably more important: Baudelaire, the most influential poet of the nineteenth century; Flaubert, the most influential post-Romantic novelist; Celine, Yeats / Eliot/ Pound and many others.

It’s that intellectuals have been attracted to radical politics on both sides. It’s interesting that Cowen wants to ignore half of the equation….

Lindsay Beyerstein:

Anyone who thinks they have True Knowledge is at high risk for self-deception. In retrospect, it seems amazing that these smart people would continue to support Stalin.

Self-deception isn’t pure wishful thinking. Simply wanting X to be true isn’t usually sufficient to sustain massive self-deception. The self-deceiver must also engage in an active process of rationalization in which she explains away inconvenient observations in terms of her background theory. We call people self-deceived when they are unwilling to reexamine their background theories in light of the evidence, especially if wishful thinking fuels that reluctance.

When Stalinist intellectuals were confronted with evidence of Stalinist crimes against humanity they persuaded themselves that these were i) Lies and distortions perpetrated by an unreliable capitalist media, or, ii) Historical inevitabilities on the way to an equally inevitable utopia, and/or, iii) Snags that were only to be expected in the greatest experiment in human history.

Simon Kinahan:

While some intellectuals no doubt deceived themselves (and some still do) into believing that the Soviet Union really lived up to its proclaimed ideals, there were others for whom the totalitarianism that was implied by Marxism was part of the appeal.

The claim to knowledge of how history was going to progress. The ordering of society along “rational” lines. The important role of intellectuals in the revolution itself. Surely it’s not too hard to see how that might appeal? And still does, for that matter….

Brett Bellmore:

Why does it matter? Well, there’s that dictator just off the coast of Florida academics are still making excuses for, for one. The intellectual embrace of monsters in the name of ideology isn’t history, it’s still with us today.

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