Society for the History of Discoveries


Zandvliet, Kees, editor. 
The Dutch Encounter with Asia, 1600-1950.  Zwolle:  Waanders Publishers, 2002.  Rijksmuseum Exhibition, Amsterdam.  462 pp.  ISBN  9040087172.

Rarely does one encounter a combined exhibition publication and historical treatise of the scholarly depth and pictorial excellence achieved by twenty-three authors that Kees Zandvliet marshalled with the assistance of Peter Sigmond.  The exhibition of more than two hundred works of art and artifacts assembled in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum from thirty-six repositories in six countries, to mark almost four centuries of Dutch encounter and presence in Asia, was in itself a triumph.  Fourteen introductory texts of good scholarly quality offer not only an historical overview of this Dutch activity but also a new perspective on this involvement focused on the objects and illustrations in their context.  Dutch operations revolved especially around the East India Company (VOC) which assumed commercially, administrative and military control of Dutch outposts in Asia in 1602.  It relinquished this control to the Crown in 1799.  Company rule had been initiated by a civilizing missionary approach that soon gave way to a pragmatic commercial policy.  Like the Portuguese, the Dutch built a seaborne empire of trading stations rather than engage in extensive settlement.  Their commercial centers in the East Indies, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, India, Malaysia and Ceylon were also diplomatic bridgeheads.

Their presence represented an expansion of the existing inter-Asian trading network as well as a European intrusion.  Dutch colonial rule was often harsh and exploitive and commerce was controlled largely by the Netherlands Trading Company (NHM) organized in 1825.  By 1898, the Dutch had abandoned all pretence of native semi-autonomy to embark on a policy of annexation and imposition of its sovereignty.  Soon thereafter, there arose a growing consciousness of the need for local development on the part of the ruling class.  This “ethical policy” was challenged by mounting Indonesian nationalism until in the 1920’s the Dutch imposed a veritable police state.  In this context, the Japanese invasion in 1942 was welcomed initially as a liberation from colonialism.  Poverty and forced labor rapidly altered that perception of events.  In the aftermath of World War II and the defeat of Japan, the Philippines gained independence in 1946, India in 1947, but Indonesia only in 1949 after a bloody war that defeated Dutch attempts to restore colonial rule.  Two photographs in the exhibition record this momentous event:  a smiling Javanese boy carrying away from school a wall map of the Dutch East Indies; a pair of workmen removing a portrait of Governor-General Van Heutz, who personified Dutch supremacy, from the palace for shipment to the Netherlands.

The originality and the aesthetic luster of this book reside more particularly in the fine quality of its illustrations and interpretative descriptions thereof, which include provenance, interpretation and significance.  Interspersed throughout are relevant citations from contemporary and authoritative sources.  A Chinese or Japanese lacquered screen, for example, is not only notable for its artistic merit but also for its documentation of local customs, interpersonal relations, material culture and historical events.  An engraving depicting a mosque and a Hindu temple portrays the customs and traditions of Malabar and India in a series that compares various Asiatic civilizations in hierarchical order.  Statues of various deities illustrate European interest in, and generally distaste for, non-Christian religions, and are accompanied by seventeenth-century comments by Calvinist missionaries.  In addition to the portraits and commemorative medals of governors, there are ornamental regalia, official uniforms and engravings of funeral processions.  The layout and architectural details of forts, palaces, churches, town squares, markets and ceremonial constructions are preserved in etchings, paintings, engravings and chinaware.  The grandeur of the Governor-General’s palace at Weltevreden, for example, is captured in an oval dish and a round dish along with the preparatory drawings, showing the bridge, triumphal arch and central section of the palace before it was demolished to be replaced by a military hospital.  A number of artifacts document for posterity the architectural gems of the period, while at the same time their details reveal such contemporary realities as slavery, client-patron relations, military preparedness, sumptuous living and landscaping techniques.

Naturally, one would expect such an exhibition to highlight the positive material contributions of the encounter.  A sculpture of a cross-legged, nearly naked Javanese youth contemplating a diesel engine block may be a study of Eastern mysticism and Western technology.  On the other hand, the artist chose a Brons engine because they were reputed to be easy to operate and to run without major repairs for decades, therefore particularly suitable for Asian engineers, all indicative of a racist conception of Indonesian inferiority.  Similarily, a model of the first aircraft to fly to the East Indies in 1924 was meant to underscore technological superiority.  The commentary, on the other hand, cautions that the plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Bulgaria, was damaged and had to have an engine replaced, and was later returned to the Netherlands dismantled on board a ship.

Concerning a bronze cannon from the Witte Leeuw that was recovered off St. Helena in 1976, North American readers will be interested to learn of a connection with Champlain.  The Witte Leeuw (Lion Blanc), owned by Bernart Berrewijns and associates and under the command of Hendrick Lonck, in 1601 intercepted two ships off Tadoussac in the Gulf of St. Lawrence belonging to Pierre Dugua de Monts, patron of Samuel de Champlain.  They seized the cargo of furs, arms and ammunition.  Henry IV complained to the Dutch States-General, de Monts was compensated for his losses and his trade monopoly was renewed for a year in the St. Lawrence, which enabled Champlain to return and found Quebec in 1608.  The authors were probably not aware of the Canadian connection of this vessel, just as I was only aware it had subsequently sailed to Asia but did not know its fate in an engagement with Portuguese vessels off Africa.

This is but one example of the richness of information contained in the descriptive passages from which readers may enrich their own knowledge.  It is clear that Amsterdam was a dominant center of commercial enterprise and banking at the beginning of the seventeenth century, having succeeded the earlier business enterprises of Antwerp and Bruges, and the even earlier Florentine houses of commerce.  Trade then, as now, was international, following the price list more often than the flag.

As the title suggests, the exhibition volume celebrates the Dutch encounter with Asia, not a cultural exchange between the Dutch and Asiatics.  The thread of continuity may be the series of portraits of the governors and the self-confidence of the European intruders into what was a changing political environment.  An exhibition as an historical experience is determined and limited by its collection, often ignoring some important historical events.  The Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) had a virtual monopoly of the spice trade in the seventeenth century but its military expenses were so high that the entrepot in Batavia lost money.  The company had to send ever larger amounts of bullion to Batavia.  Moreover, during the eighteenth century merchants in Sweden, Denmark and the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) established rival companies, sometimes with Dutch capital.  Under van Imhoff, who is favorably presented in this exhibition, the company regained some ground, largely through the opium trade.  By the late eighteenth century, the Asian trade encountered further difficulties as the Dutch pursued profits in the Caribbean and smuggling to the British colonies in North America.  Nevertheless, it is estimated that by 1780 the Asian trade employed 27,000 people and the VOC shipyards employed several thousands, thereby justifying the predominant role accorded the company in the exhibition.

The exhibition ends in 1950.  Had it continued beyond that date, Asian interest in Europe would have been an appropriate addition.  In the 1980s, some Indonesian companies became interested in acquiring European firms.  Ironically, in 1982, an Indonesian company acquired a controlling interest in a Dutch trading house that had risen to prosperity in the colonial economy.  Perhaps this underscores another value of this publication by presenting to the reading public an illustrated overview of an era in the world’s history that may very soon seem very distant, if not somewhat irrelevant.

 Cornelius J. Jaenen
University of Ottawa


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