- Wives, Slaves, and Concubines: A History of the Female Underclass in Dutch Asia
In Wives, Slaves, and Concubines, Eric Jones proposes to recover the experiences of an emerging "underclass" of Asian women in a Dutch trading settlement and, in doing so, to trace the "profound structural changes occurring at the end of the early colonial period, changes that helped birth the modern world order" (p. 3). Contrary to the reference in the book's subtitle to "Dutch Asia"—a realm that encompassed parts of India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Japan—its analytical focus is exclusively on Batavia. It was here, on the north coast of Java, that the VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or United East India Company) established its regional headquarters. Jones's book thus provides a specific [End Page 193] case study of social relations in one (arguably the most important) of numerous Dutch settlements in Asia.
In doing so, Jones produces a book that is not without merit but also includes some considerable flaws. To begin with its strengths: in focusing on the eighteenth century, Jones examines a period that has been relatively neglected in social and women's histories of Southeast Asia. He contends that it was during this century that the position of a particular class of Asian women in Batavia—those with citizen (burger) status—was transformed by growing VOC interventions in local society. Before the arrival of Dutch traders in the late sixteenth century, Asian women had moved in and out of slavery, concubinage, and marriage according to their circumstances and opportunities. By the eighteenth century, however, the unequal yet flexible relations between Asian men and women became fixed and then codified through the rulings of Dutch institutions like the Court of Aldermen (Schepenbank). The thus-far neglected proceedings of this institution provide the empirical basis for Jones's study.
Court records provide a unique window into the declining status of Asian women in VOC territories at the end of the early modern period, shortly before the advent of plantation colonialism under formal Dutch rule. Just as the company sought to control the regional spice trade, Jones argues, so too did its citizens' court strive to convert fluid networks of Asian clients and patrons into more rigid relations between property owners and their chattels. The outcome was that relations between slaves and their mistresses became increasingly fraught. Asian and Eurasian slave-owning women used increasingly brutal measures against their subordinates to enforce what the Court of Aldermen viewed as slave owners' property rights. Interestingly, Jones's case studies reveal that the consequent violence was systematically gendered. Male slaves who tried to resist rough treatment resorted to counterviolence, whereas female slaves (for reasons that Jones does not quite explain) occasionally turned to self-harm, but more usually to absconding.
Unfortunately, readers will have to wait until chapter 4—more than halfway through the book—before they encounter Jones's case studies. The original research that Jones produces is thus confined to a surprisingly slim section of what is already a short book. His first three chapters are used primarily to synthesize extant scholarship on the status of early modern women in the region before the arrival of the VOC and the important differences between the trajectories of European expansion in the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic world. In doing so, Jones demonstrates how fragile and peripheral—in a geographic, [End Page 194] demographic, and biological sense—early modern Dutch trading settlements were in maritime Southeast Asia. To survive and prosper under such conditions, Jones asserts, the VOC gained control of a small sector of the Southeast Asian economy by eliminating its rivals in the region (often with military force), controlling local sites of production, and manipulating prices and supply in Europe. At the same time, it pursued a social policy of "pragmatism, the principle without principles" (p. 69). The generations of male European employees who formed the corpus of the company endured the ravages of distance (long voyages) and disease (malaria) by reproducing their...