Peter Borschberg (ed.)
Singapore: NUS Press, 2016.
ISBN: 978-981-4722-18-6. 260pp.
This attractive paperback, with a generous number of beautiful and apposite illustrations, is designed for use by students as well as advanced researchers. It contains a long introduction of over 80 pages by the editor, Peter Borschberg, lucidly outlining the issues covered by the contents of the book. This is followed by a selection of documents and document extracts around and about the voyage of Admiral Cornelis Matelieff (or Matelief) de Jonge to Johor or, as the title insists, ‘Singapore and Johor’. Many of the texts come from the former working papers of Hugo Grotius. At the end of the book are a glossary and list of place names, both extremely useful tools in helping the reader make sense of the documents.
Peter Borschberg has assembled a collection of rarely studied sources, notably Matelieff’s ‘memorials’ concerning the Singapore-Johor region and the state of Dutch trade in the East Indies. This is a continuation of his scholarly, detailed and often revelatory studies on the area’s geo-political and historical significance [End Page 144] during the early seventeenth century. Borschberg has previously published a monograph on the Singapore and Melaka Straits region, as well as edited the writings of the Flemish trader Jacques de Coutre, some of which concerns the Singapore-Johor-Melaka area.1 Two of the longest documents in this volume are the excerpts from Admiral Matelieff’s Journal of his voyage to Asia (1605–1608), and excerpt from Matelieff’s Memorial of June 1607, both of which contain astute observations on Johor, on the conclusion of the Dutch–Johor treaties of May and September 1606 as well as other related matters. Other fascinating documents include the letters written by King Ala’udin of Johor and Raja Bongsu to Prince Maurits (the stadhouder or Stadholder of the Dutch Republic). Although translated from the original Malay into Dutch (and now into English), they still reflect a Malay perception of diplomacy and international relations. The study of diplomatic correspondence between Asian potentates and European rulers or governors-general continues to be essential to a deeper understanding of how the rulers of indigenous states dealt with Western diplomatic and commercial norms. The archives of the Dutch United East India Company (VOC) are especially rich in this genre of correspondence, for instance the diplomatic letters from Asian rulers to the Governors-General and Council in Batavia included in the daily journals of Batavia Castle (Daghregister Batavia).2
A key issue analysed in this volume (and the analysis may be found both in Borschberg’s own introduction and the sources themselves) is the VOC’s search for a suitable spot to serve as a ‘rendezvous’ or ‘central warehouse’ for its ships, cargoes and merchants in Southeast Asia. The Matelieff documents reveal that around 1606 Jayakerta (the future Batavia) was far from being the only possible candidate as the VOC’s headquarters in the Indies. The Singapore-Johor area, especially the site of present-day Singapore, was also seriously considered, as were Aceh, Melaka (then still in Portuguese hands), Palembang, Banten, and even Pulau Condor and the Spice Islands. That the Dutch eventually opted for a location near the Sunda Straits (rather than Singapore or Melaka Straits) was because of a perception (espoused by Matelieff) that those seas were navigable all year round, unaffected by monsoons. Such an advantage would enable Dutch vessels to travel without costly delays. Other factors which weakened Johor’s case were the apparent instability of Johorese court politics and the lure of Malukan spices.
Though the book’s major emphasis is on Dutch perceptions and decision-making, the Malay element is never neglected by Borschberg. Indeed, he manfully grapples with the complex nomenclature as well as the convoluted intrigues of the leading personalities at the Johor court. However much focus is concentrated on the figure of Matelieff and, to a lesser extent, on his fellow-admiral Pieter Willemsz Verhoeff, the royal house and orang kaya of Johor also feature prominently in the story. Matelieff’s depictions of Johor royalty were rather...