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Dutch Attitudes Towards Colonial Empires, Indigenous Cultures, and Slaves

From: Eighteenth-Century Studies
Volume 31, Number 3, Spring 1998
pp. 349-355 | 10.1353/ecs.1998.0021

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Eighteenth-Century Studies 31.3 (1998) 349-355

Forum: Urban Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Dutch Republic Part III

I. Introduction

From its very beginnings, Dutch colonial ventures gravitated towards Asia. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) was established in 1602, nineteen years before its West Indian counterpart, the WIC. In addition to various trading posts along the Indian subcontinent and along the Asian coast, Dutch expansion under the aegis of the VOC resulted in the colonization of the Cape Colony and, most importantly, the vast and populous Dutch East Indies. The importance of the Dutch West Indies pales in comparison. The New Netherlands' colony was ceded to the British in 1664; the Dutch intermezzo in Brazil was short-lived. By the late seventeenth century, the Dutch empire in the West consisted of six tiny Antillean islands and three as yet barely exploited and inhabited colonies on the "Wild Coast" of the Guyanas (fig. 1). Apart from this, the WIC only supported a few trading posts on the West African coast.

Dutch colonialism had started in the geopolitical context of the struggle against Spain. Initially therefore, there had been an obvious ideological rationale behind the overseas expansion. Once independence was attained, however, pragmatism ruled. In contrast to the Catholic nations, there was no serious attempt to convert the subjected peoples to Christianity, much less to socialize them into Dutch culture. Apart from the numerically insignificant colonial expatriates, metropolis and colonial world remained separate entities for all but economic purposes. Moreover as the physical presence of colonial subjects in the Netherlands was negligible, for ordinary Dutch people the colonial empire must have been an extremely distant reality at best. Accordingly, the rare debates about themes such as colonialism, slavery, or Christianization had a very limited participation and impact. At the same time, within the colonial empire, the divide between the VOC's and the WIC's respective territories was hardly ever bridged. This short paper therefore discusses these two parts of empire in separate sections.

II. The Dutch East Indies

When the Portuguese arrived in Southeast Asia in the early sixteenth century, they found people with highly developed cultures, including their own languages and religions. European supremacy existed only in technology, especially in maritime and military fields. When the Dutch arrived about one century later, Portuguese had already become the lingua franca in most of Southeast Asia, certainly on the coasts. This was also true of the western part of the Indonesian archipelago; in the eastern part Malay served that purpose. In and around the Portuguese trading posts there were already large numbers of Eurasians (offspring of a European father and an Asian mother, or of mixed parents), the so-called mestizos, with their own culture. The Portuguese had already begun missionary work; the Jesuits in particular were active. The VOC, clad with sovereign rights by the States General, tried to push back the Portuguese influence by taking over trade contracts, conquering trading posts, and by replacing the Roman Catholic mission with a Calvinist one. Portuguese remained the major language in the "central rendezvous" of the Company, Batavia, as well as in other settlements far into the eighteenth century. Dutch was only spoken in the offices of the VOC by the governor general, the Councillors of the Dutch East Indies and other officials, and in some churches and schools. In the eighteenth century Malay gradually replaced Portuguese, while Dutch still played a minor role. Because of the influence of Asian and Eurasian women and their slaves, who raised the children, Portuguese or Malay was often spoken in the family circle. The so-called mestizo culture became more and more important during the eighteenth century. Every European staying in the East Indies for a period of time began to live like a mestizo to a greater or lesser extent. Marrying into mestizo families was even a means to make a career for oneself in the Company. Having obtained a monopoly for the whole [Begin Page 351] territory between South Africa and the Strait of Magellan, the VOC did not intend to colonize at first but aimed at making as much profit as possible by trading. Yet colony-like areas arose around the...

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