- The Memoirs and Memorials of Jacques de Coutre: Security, Trade and Society in 16th- and 17th-century Southeast Asia ed. by Peter Borschberg
Peter Borschberg (editor); Roopanjali Roy (translator)
Singapore: NUS Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-9971-69-528-6 (paperback); 978-9971-69-783-9 (hardback)
Jacobus van de Koutere, or Jacques de Coutre as he is better known, was born in the Flemish city of Bruges. He and his brother Joseph went to find their fortunes abroad, travelling to Lisbon, and thence east to Goa. While in Asia he was a trader in gemstones and other goods. The de Coutres were Flemish residents in a Portuguese colony, so they naturally came under suspicion in times of particular tension between the Portuguese and the Dutch. Deported from Goa in 1623 with his brother, on charges of treason, Jacques de Coutre busied himself writing about his experiences in Asia and about the problems of the Portuguese Estado da India. His Memoirs (Vida de Iaques de Couttre) contain detailed accounts of his adventures in South and Southeast Asia, including vivid descriptions of many countries, cities and royal courts in the region.
Since the source materials for the history of sixteenth-century Southeast Asia are far from abundant, the de Coutre documents constitute a valuable set of documents. Peter Borschberg has chosen to publish in this translation by Roopanjali Roy the parts of de Coutre’s memoirs which deal with the author’s experiences in Southeast Asia (including Melaka, Pahang, Patani, Johor, Siam, Manila). The latter parts of the book contain several of de Coutre’s Memorials (memoranda) on the topic of the Portuguese empire in the East and its decline in the face of fierce Dutch competition.
Scholars of Southeast Asia who avail themselves of the rich mine of information contained in de Coutre’s works, especially the Memoirs, should however be cautious about the genre of the work, and the likelihood that Jacques’ son Esteban may well have had a substantial role in ‘editing’ his father’s manuscript to suit a wider readership. The narrative style of de Coutre’s Memoirs has been characterized as picaresque, and de Coutre himself as a quixotic figure haplessly drawn into all sorts of potentially fatal situations—rather like a fictional hero. He certainly portrays himself as a resourceful (and at times plainly fortunate) traveller, a [End Page 109] survivor in a perilous exotic world where not only the natives were dangerous, but the ruthless Dutch were also enemies. De Coutre loses his fortune not once but twice. He escapes death on several occasions (such as at Patani). The Memoirs may indeed be seen as his ‘self-promotion and self-glorification’—in Borschberg’s words.
As befits a source publication, there is a learned and informative Introduction which deals with the various issues concerning the manuscripts, their authorship and contents in brief. A short summary of Jacques de Coutre’s life and career is also included. Moreover, the book is generously illustrated with maps, engravings and reproductions of paintings. The annotations and wide-ranging glossary are extremely useful in helping us understand the texts and their contexts.
The importance of de Coutre’s texts to the study of Southeast Asian history and the history of European expansion is not limited to the incidental data to be found in the narrative of his experiences in Asia. The Memoirs, and in particular the Memorials, were designed to show off his wide knowledge of the Asian trading world and the state of Portugal’s Eastern empire. He pointed out many problems and weaknesses, and suggested that the Spanish crown should help remedy the situation.
De Coutre’s Memorials were clearly attempts by the author to ingratiate himself with the Spanish crown at a time when he and his brother were under suspicion of having given away ‘secrets’ to the VOC. The brothers were exonerated and rehabilitated in 1632, so these Memorials must have been effective in ‘proving’ their loyalty to the Habsburgs. Before his death in 1640 Jacques de Coutre was even awarded a...