Jan Pronk

Exploring the Dutch Empire

Speech Book Launch ‘Exploring the Dutch Empire. Agents, Networks and Institutions 1600 –2000’, by Catia Antunes and Jos Gommans (ed.). Leiden University, 3 June 2015

This is a book about dilemmas in empire building. While in theory the construction of an empire may seem to be a matter of simply applying a surplus of power, dominating weaker nations, exercising force without hesitation, no questions asked, the reality is different. As the authors of this study make clear, building an empire raises questions to be addressed, deals to be closed and dilemma’s to be faced.  

There is the dilemma of a small country with a large empire. How to handle this in order to get the desired results? How far can the empire be stretched, before withering away, due to forces from within? How far can it be expanded, before being defeated by competing empires?  In which directions on the globe would expansion offer the greatest chance for success? Which are those desired results, and what is success? Economic or political, or otherwise?  What should be strived for: short term gains, or long term benefits? Who decides about all this: the government back home, or companies which form the backbone of the empire? Or should it be the people and authorities who represent the home country in the field, far away, but who may have developed their own interest, and who may feel a certain bond with indigenous people in the periphery of the empire rather than with the power brokers in the centre?

These are the dilemmas of power, the power of the metropolis. But these are also the dilemmas of the people in the centre and in the periphery: politicians, administrators, merchants, entrepreneurs, investors, tradesmen, the military, missionaries, explorers and researchers, all of them with their own views and their own interests.

No wonder that empires compete and fight, that they expand and crumble, that they rise and fall.

The authors of this book have studied the ways and means in which the Dutch empire - a vast empire of a small country - has operated in order to sustain itself. Their main conclusion is that these operations have been very flexible throughout a period of four centuries, from 1600 to 2000. This flexibility implied a capacity to adapt to local circumstances, to meet competition from outside, and to address resistance from within, either by force - often - or, not seldom, by negotiation, forging alliances, embracing cosmopolitanism, or even creolization.

The flexibility and adaptability of the empire is one of the most intriguing findings of this book. These findings were brought together by a broad range of authors, who studied the Dutch empire in successive phases of its history and in different parts of the world, geographically as well as culturally. While Emmer and other historians had argued that Dutch expansion overseas took place without building an empire, the authors of this book conclude that an empire did exist, not as a homogenous physical construction, but as a heterogeneous network. The Dutch empire did not consist of a vast peripheral territory under complete physical command and control by the centre in the Low Lands at the sea, far away in Europe. On the contrary, Dutch expansion overseas developed into an empire by constructing an intricate, differentiated and flexible combination of agents, networks and institutions.


Agents, networks and institutions

Agents operate through networks; networks are structured by institutions, and institutions will guide the agents. The functioning of neither of these can be understood in isolation. They influence each other and depend on each other. In this book the authors have portrayed the Dutch empire as the outcome of a ‘plurality of agency, a complexity of networks and an ever mutating institutional status’. The empire did have an impact on the local situation and people. However, its shape and structure was not fully preordained, but influenced by local circumstances as well. It frequently experienced changes and adaptations, which resulted from action by many different individuals, with different interests and different views.

In this book the explorers of the Dutch empire have portrayed some of those agents, their views, and the steps they were taking. Three of them in particular embody the dilemmas which the empire has been facing on the ground.

In the first half of the seventeenth century Johan Maurits faced the dilemma of having to choose between the interests of the state and those of the Dutch West India Company, a public enterprise avant la lettre, which had sent him as Governor to Brazil. He choose the first, and was ordered home. A decade later the company had to relinquish powers to metropolitan institutions with different interests, which resulted in a so-called ‘loss’ of Brazil for the Dutch.

Towards the end of that century in Cochin, Kerala, Rijcklof van Goens and his successor Hendrik van Reede exercised different colonial rule in the region for which they were held responsible. As Jos Gommans, one of the authors of this book, describes, van Goens was a rigid military man, who had chosen a defensive policy of splendid isolation of a Dutch microcosm. Van Reede, his successor, was a nobleman, intellectual and scientist, a development policy maker avant la lettre, who applied a liberal and cosmopolitan approach towards other foreign traders and local authorities. Van Goens and van Reede had to deal with different circumstances, but Gommans makes clear that their different personalities mattered a lot for the choices they made.

More than a century later Jacques Nicolaas Vosmaer, a naval officer, made the choice to become adventurer and merchant in the East Indies, where he engaged himself with the local population. He was not so much a development policy maker avant la lettre, but a pioneer development worker. While crossing political, economic and cultural borders, Vosmaer made an effort to transform pirates into fishermen, traders and farmers, and to convince the authorities in Batavia and back home to choose in favour of negotiations with local rulers rather than military expeditions.

The descriptions of these and other people in the book are a reader’s treat. They provide an excellent illustration of the thesis that people matter. In designing a policy and its implementation in practice, people make all the difference. Indeed, but so do different institutions and structures.

There is a great variety of institutions, over time, and also between countries. The authors of this book explore the Dutch empire: how did it come about and how did it develop further? They refer to other empires as well. They do not present general conclusions based on a detailed comparison between the ways in which different empires have been structured. However, taken together, the articles in this book would seem to justify the conclusion that empires of bigger countries, with a larger population, and a more centralized governance structure at home, were more likely to be designed as territories under physical command, while an empire of a smaller country, with fewer people and a decentralized governance structure, did necessarily develop a network structure, ruled by control rather than command.



There are exceptions to such a pattern, of course.  While the Dutch imperial presence in the Middle East, Japan, Sri Lanka, India, South Africa, Brazil and North America had been structured as a network with nodal points, large parts of the Netherlands Indies, West Indies and Suriname were under physical control. Constructing an imperial network requires negotiation. Imperial physical control demands force.

Force, rather than negotiation, has very different consequences for the indigenous population. Until today it is not uncommon to belittle the tragedies of millions of people in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean ant the Guyana’s, due to colonisation, slave trade, foreign plantations and the pillaging of resources. Throughout the centuries the powers in the centre, and many people enjoying colonial profits and windfalls, have played down the plight of people in the periphery of empires, including the colonies of the Dutch.  Quite a few commentators persist in the judgment that in the end the empire has served the people overseas, and that on balance their descendants should not complain: ‘That is how history takes its course; no help for it’.

The authors of this book will undoubtedly come to a different conclusion: The course of history is the result of a complex combination of agency, networks and institutions, all different and all man-made.

However, often the argument is being made that, anyway, whatever past choices, right or wrong, the colonial period is behind us. The overseas empires of the Dutch, Belgians, Portuguese, Spanish, British, French and Germans, no longer exist. Since 1945 decolonisation progressed at a rapid pace, worldwide and for good, heralding a new epoch in the globalisation of international relations. The empires shrank. Former peripheral zones became independent new nation states. And the advice was: ‘Look forward, not backward’. 

That is what new generations tried to do: take the destiny in their own hands.  However, that was not easy. The new epoch of globalisation did not provide these nations with equal opportunities. The former empires could capitalise on the advantages they had reaped, and robbed before.

Commentators belittling the plight of previous generations who had been enlisted by force into foreign empires often also close their eyes for the still visible wounds inflicted by colonisation: national frontiers inherited after imperial occupation, indigenous social structures uprooted by foreign governance systems, the pillaging of resources and the skimming of an economic surplus, cultural discrimination, and festering racism.  

The authors of this book have focused on the agents taking part in the construction of the empire, its networks and institutions. They refer to views expressed by the indigenous population, the common people and their domestic rulers, but they do so mainly in order to clarify the dilemmas of the foreign agents. Particular attention is given to indigenous views in areas which were part of the network - such as Decima and Cochin - rather than areas under physical control, such as Sumatra, Sulawesi and Suriname.

This is legitimate, of course, but I look forward to a companion volume, exploring the Dutch empire not with the eyes and minds of the builders, but from the angle of those who had been brought into its confines.



Please allow me a second observation. As we have seen, the Dutch empire had been structured along two lines: those of a network, and those of direct occupation. The imperial network seems to have faded away towards the end of the nineteenth century, while the imposed empire, using physical control and command by force, could last until the mid-twentieth century. The new phase of globalisation which followed decolonisation was characterised in particular by economic integration, technological unification and intensification of communication. Throughout the world this new form of globalisation took place not by occupying physical space, but by constructing all-encompassing global network systems.  One could argue that early Dutch imperial networks were quite modern, far ahead of their time.

However, the striking evidence is, that while these leading edge imperial networks were fading away earlier than the age old practice of imperial occupation, today the Dutch presence in those previous network areas is stronger than in the once occupied territories. Dutch political, economic and cultural influence in the East and West Indies has shrunk. It still meets animosity. But the former Dutch empire lives on in the communication channels and the nodal points of a global network.

However, I venture the observation that globalisation is a new form of Westernisation, based on Western capital, Western technology, and Western systems of production and trade. Communication between countries and peoples takes place within the confines of a Western imperial network. The agents come from all around the world, but they are working within institutions which reflect Western views on concepts such as wealth and welfare, growth, profit, markets, mass consumption, innovation through destruction, and the subordination of the natural environment to the economy. It is still the culture of Western imperial hegemony during colonial times. The dominant institutions of today are finance corporations, ICT companies, global media and transnationals, such as food chains, pharmaceuticals and oil companies. They are neither Dutch, Portuguese, British nor American. They are global. They have incorporated Brazilian, Mexican, Nigerian, South African, Saudi, Chinese and other Asian capital and commerce. They are transnational. But despite being global and transnational, they still are basically Western. Like in the Dutch empire of the past, in the networks of the present global network a clever use has been made of negotiation, accommodation, alliance building with foreign elites, domestication, and self-transformation.  

This Western global empire is facing new dilemmas. It can be eroded by internal social and economic inequalities. It has to meet challenges by forces from outside, witness the competition with China for a sphere of influence in the Pacific, and with Russia in Central Europe. It has to find an answer to threats from groups which present themselves as enemies of Western culture and globalisation, such as Islamic fundamentalists in the Arab world. Sometimes the empire  is resorting to techniques of negotiation and accommodation, sometimes to occupation: land grabbing, military intervention and the pervasion of the atmosphere by emitting greenhouse gases.

So, despite the caesura provided by decolonisation, continuity prevails. The agents, networks and institutions have changed, but the Western empire is alive and kicking. There must be something that is stronger than those ever changing agents, mutating networks and adapting institutions. There must be story behind the system, a powerful common general driving force behind empire building and colonisation, whenever and in whatever form. The workings, and the ways and means have been analysed and described brilliantly in this book. But this description of the ‘how’ has made me even more curious about the ‘what’ and the ‘why’.


Jan Pronk


Speech at Book Launch: Exploring the Dutch Empire. Agents, Networks and Institution 1600-2000, by Catia Antunes and Jos Gommans (ed.). Leiden University, June 3, 2015