Jun 14, 2008

Book Review: The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600-1800

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Boxer, CR

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965


Charles R. Boxer was easily one of the most influential historians working on the subfield of European expansion, and The Dutch Seaborne Empire remains an important text in the field. Ostensibly a synthesis, this text nonetheless incorporates a great deal of Boxer’s own original research into the Dutch efforts to carve out a commercial empire in Asia and the Americas, and the author effectively sketched out the first two decades of an empire that was born in the midst of the simultaneous Dutch struggle to create a nation. The Dutch Seaborne Empire, despite the fact that the text is currently out of print, contains a wealth of information for scholars interested in the evolution of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and Dutch West India Company (WIC), and should be considered an essential component of any library of books on European expansion. Moreover, given Boxer’s inimitable ability to balance broad views of the empire with micro-historical vignettes of life in the Dutch provinces, readers leave the book with an enhanced perspective on how the Dutch managed to simultaneously govern a nation and a global commercial empire.

Boxer argued that the capture of Antwerp by the Duke of Parma in 1585 worked in the favor of northern Dutch provinces like Zeeland and Holland, as Dutch Calvinists were allowed two years to vacate the city, and consequently there was a migration of wealthy members of the burgher class to Amsterdam. Boxer noted that the population of Amsterdam increased by 75,000 people from 1585 to 1622, over one-third of whom traced their lineage to the southern Netherlands. In addition, argued the author, the efforts by the Spanish (and the Portuguese after the union of the Iberian crowns in 1580) to engage in policies of confiscatory embargo forced the Dutch to look beyond the Baltic and the Mediterranean for commercial opportunities. By 1621, noted Boxer, the Dutch managed to secure “between half and two-thirds of the carrying-trade between Europe and Brazil,” and routes across the Arctic to Russia, from Guinea to Holland, and especially to the East Indies became the source of immense wealth to Amsterdam merchants and ship owners. The Dutch Republic thus emerged from the Eighty Years War dominated by a class of merchant-oligarchs, maintained Boxer, because it was largely through the wealth of the overseas empire that the Spanish could be held at bay and forced to make such favorable concessions to the Dutch in the Treaty of Münster.

Yet the Dutch elite gradually transitioned from a merchant oligarchy to a rentier oligarchy during the 17th century, noted Boxer, and he argued that this “closed oligarchy” bred a tradition of “regent nepotism” that “probably did more harm to the body politic than bribery and corruption” in the young Dutch Republic. Government posts in the Republic became largely the province of the new elites, while posts with the VOC and WIC devolved to a class of people Boxer described as “merchant-adventurers,” or “men who came from the middle and lower ranks of the burgher class, with a sprinkling from the urban patriciate.” Boxer argued that attempts by contemporary Dutch writers to disparage such Company employees should be examined with a critical eye, since “it was not only the dregs of the Dutch nation” who ventured overseas. Moreover, he added, additional factors should be considered in any sweeping judgment that condemns Company employees as an unscrupulous lot:
The VOC, like the Portuguese Crown before it, and like the English and French companies competing with it, paid all but a few of its servants such small wages that they could not possibly live on their pay and allowances. They were thus compelled to resort to more or less dishonest means in order to earn a livelihood.

Drawing of the Dutch imperial center of Batavia (now Jakarta) in the 17th century

Boxer cited a number of contemporary sources who believed that the Dutch rise to a commercial power also owed much to the frugality with which ships from Holland and Zeeland were managed. One source provided by Boxer indicated that Dutch ship captains saved ship owners “‘at least one third of the expenses in men and rations’” as compared with their European counterparts. Such thriftiness in outfitting expeditions, however, may have come at a steep human price; a contemporary writer quoted by Boxer claimed that “the poor quality and quantity of the rations were responsible for the higher mortality on board Dutch ships than in those of their English rivals.”

Despite their historical reputation as practitioners and promoters of a form of proto-capitalism – especially as exemplified in the early 16th century free trade writings of Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius - Boxer noted that the Dutch were just as likely to advocate mare clausum as they might demand mare liberum. Boxer argued that the propensity of the Dutch to adopt a free trade stance was often situational in nature:
The Dutch were not slow to abandon their free trade principles when it suited them, or when they thought they could obtain a profitable monopoly. As [Sir George] Downing observed truly enough on the eve of the second Anglo-Dutch war: ‘It is mare liberum in the British seas but mare clausum on the coast of Africa and in the East Indies.’
The period of gradual decline of the Dutch as an imperial power, argued Boxer, necessarily began with the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), and he maintained that the United Provinces made a number of strategic mistakes during this lengthy conflict. Chief among these miscalculations, according to Boxer, was the Dutch decision to sacrifice “its naval strength to enable it to support the cost of a disproportionately great military effort in Flanders and in the Iberian peninsula.” By 1709, noted Boxer, the Dutch were forced to pay 50 percent more than did the Bank of England on loans to Holland banks, while the national debt of the Dutch Republic grew almost fivefold between 1688 and 1714. As a result, the Dutch began the 18th century under the strain of a mountain of debt, and this financial burden inhibited the ability of the United Provinces from being able to compete with European colonial competitors, especially the British.

Boxer took to task earlier historians, such as W.H. Moreland, who credited the Dutch with the strategy of using the factory-fort system (factorijen) to protect their colonial interests in Asia and Africa. It was the Portuguese feitoria system, noted Boxer, which set the precedent for the European colonial powers who followed in the wake of the Estado da India. Irrespective of the origin of the factorijen, though, the Dutch successfully adapted the feitoria as means by which they could protect merchandise, repair and resupply ships, and to help enforce trade monopolies, like the efforts to create a Moluccan spice monopoly. Yet the Dutch could not duplicate their initial monopolistic successes beyond the Indonesian islands, argued Boxer, because they failed to secure a strong base on the Indian subcontinent on par with Portuguese Goa.

The 18th century has traditionally been characterized by Dutch historians as the “Periwig Period” in contrast with the so-called “Golden Age” of the 17th century. Boxer argued that, despite revisionist efforts by such noteworthy historians as J.C. van Leur, there is much to recommend to these labels. Boxer cited a number of 18th century Dutch writers who noted significant economic decline in the United Provinces, and he noted that the “Dutch periodical press during the second half of the 18th century is full of complaints about the real or alleged decline of the national character and energy as compared with a century earlier.” English author James Boswell, cited by Boxer, offered this grim description of the United Provinces:
In such circumstances this trading nation must be in a very bad way. Most of their principal towns are sadly decayed, and instead of finding every mortal employed you meet with multitudes of poor creatures who are starving in idleness. Utrecht is remarkably ruined. There are whole lanes of wretches who have no other subsistence than potatoes, gin, and stuff which they call tea and coffee.
Despite its relative chronological age, Boxer’s The Dutch Seaborne Empire remains a valuable resource for both graduate scholars and non-specialist historians seeking an overview of the VOC and the first centuries of an independent United Provinces. Boxer assembled the book in a thematic fashion, and included a number of insightful appendices and a select bibliography. Unfortunately, the cross-referenced index seems inadequate, and only individual names and geographic designations are items for which the index is useful. Still, this is a minor complaint against a book of exemplary scholarship and rhetorical brilliance, and The Dutch Seaborne Empire belongs on the bookshelf of every student of modern Europe.

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