THE DUTCH IN SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BURMA

By Wil O. Dijk

 

The VOC had three factories in seventeenth century Burma: the main office in Syriam and subsidiaries in Ava and Pegu City. The present research adds a new dimension to VOC as well as Burma studies seeing that till now, even Dutch historians were quite unaware of the fact that the VOC traded successfully with Burma for almost half a century.

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The vast archives of the Dutch East Asia Company (VOC) at the ARA (Algemeen Rijksarchief / General State Archives) at The Hague have yielded a veritable treasure trove of information on Dutch relations with seventeenth century Burma. This newly unearthed material enables us to finally determine what the VOCís Burma trade entailed and how it fitted into the grand design of the Companyís inter-Asian commerce, where it was not as marginal as some historians would have it. This complete set of invaluable contemporary materials also allows us a unique glimpse of life in seventeenth century Burma. There are no lacunae at all in the collection of VOC documents covering the Burma years, consequently, it has been possible to compile complete series of indispensable statistics, such as shipping, import and export, profit and loss, wages and prices (standard of living), as well as details on all the Indian textiles the Dutch imported into Burma, together with their purchasing and selling prices and the margins of profit.

 

The VOCís trade with Burma began formally on 14 May 1634, when the Vlielandt sailed from Masulipatnam to Syriam with a cargo worth about 36.000 guilders and high hopes for profitable trade. The Dutch established three factories: the main lodge in the port city of Syriam, a subsidiary office in the capital, Ava, and a small establishment in Pegu City, often referred to as 'The Little Store' (Het Winkeltje). For a while, in the early years, the Dutch also had a place in Prome. Their Burma establishment always remained within the jurisdiction of Pulicat, the Company's head-office on the Choromandel Coast. The number of VOC servants stationed in Burma barely fluctuated and generally numbered 14 in all- 3 senior merchants, 2 junior merchants, 4 assistants, and 5 sailors.

 

The VOCís Burma years can be divided into three distinct periods: 1) The Early Years (1634-1648): Years of Indecision; 2) The Middle Years (1649-1669): Golden Years; 3) The Final Years (1670-1680): Decline and Departure. During the first period there were repeated suggestions, in turn by Pulicat and Batavia (the Companyís head office in the East), to close down the Burma factories. The two seemed unable to agree so that trade continued, albeit half-heartedly. The second period saw a great improvement in overall conditions in Burma and Dutch trade flourished. In the final years, a new king with little interest in foreigners or their trade ascended Burmaís throne. But perhaps more importantly, over the preceding decades, the character and the objectives of the VOC itself had altered markedly, while forces beyond its control now worked to undermine the Company. In the end, their Burma trade became a casualty of these profoundly changed conditions.

 

During their time in Burma, the Dutch had dealings with four Toungoo Kings (Thalun, PindalŤ, Pye, and MinyŤkyawdin). As is the case with relations the world over, the exchange of gifts played a key role in smoothing ruffled feathers and lubricating the wheels of social and commercial intercourse. This has provided us with detailed lists of many of the gifts that were exchanged between the Dutch and the Kings as well as other Burmese dignitaries. Among Burmese return gifts were ruby rings, betel boxes, tin, lac, chillies, elephant tusks, teak, musk and, as a great favour, the odd elephant. On occasion, Dutch gifts could be quite exotic; once, King Thalun was even presented with a lion and a bear. But typically, Dutch gifts consisted chiefly of luxurious and costly textiles. Now, when comparing the lists of gift textiles with those of commercial textiles, it is clear that these two distinct categories of fabrics moved in vastly different worlds. On the one hand, there were the exquisite and extremely expensive textiles that were offered as gifts in the elite and rarefied world of palaces and kings and then there were the cheap, coarse commercial textiles that were traded in the dusty, down to earth world of shops and marketplaces. It is this second category of textiles that formed the backbone of the VOCís Burma trade.

 

The VOCís main interest in Burma was as an import market. At no time did the Dutch go there with silver or gold to procure Burmese goods. Burmaís importance as an import market lay in the fact that the considerable Burmese profits from the sale of Indian textiles and red cotton yarn provided the Companyís factories in Choromandel and Bengal with much-needed additional funds to reinvest in yet more textiles for the Burmese and other Asian markets.

 

The textiles most in demand in Burma were of an average quality, medium to coarse and low in price, such as the plain and coarse bethilles, chelas and allegias from which the Burmese made their cabayas and lungis. However, it was the lowliest of the textiles, like chiavonis, tampis, cortis, coarse chintz and narrow black taffachelas and, above all, the coarse and cheap brandams, blue boulongs and single-ply taffachelas that sold best. As for the colourfast Indian red cotton yarn that was in such great demand, the Burmese mixed it with indigenous yarns to weave cloth of their own.

 

There was a large assortment of Burmese export goods. Statistics indicate that the Dutch generally took what they could get. Tin was a constant throughout as was beeís wax and chillies (long pepper), while lac and elephant tusks were important as well. In the 1650s, Chinese copper coins and Burmese ganza (a metal akin to bell metal) were major exports. The Dutch turned large quantities of Chinese copper coins flowing into Burma from Yunnan into ready money to be used as legal tender in Batavia and Ceylon. In the final years, they also exported a great deal of gold, much of it from China. The Dutch sold Burmese export goods in the most profitable markets throughout the East. The VOCís Bengal factory, always in need of additional funds, was sent valuable Burmese cargoes (including Chinese coins, ganza, and zinc) to generate capital. The copper extracted from Chinese coins and ganza was in great demand in Choromandel as was gold, tin, timber and chillies. In Japan there was a profitable market for Burmese catechu, namrack, deerskins, buffalo hides and horns. Lac gave excellent profits in Mocha as well as in Persia where there was also a good market for Burmese tin, elephant tusks and cardamom, not to mention, the costliest of Burmaís fabled rubies. Considerable quantities of Burmese elephant tusks were regularly shipped to Surat, while in Holland there was a demand for the excellent Burmese lac. As for Burmaís famous Martaban jars, throughout the East there was a constant demand for these huge, glazed pots that could be used to store and transport a myriad things, from potable water and rice to gunpowder and on occasion even stowaways.

 

One of the chief problems inherent in the VOCís Burma trade was that, due to a lack of sufficient export goods, the Dutch experienced difficulty in transferring their money (the proceeds from the sale of Indian textiles and yarn) from Burma to Choromandel and Bengal where additional funds were desperately needed. To this end, the Dutch provided Indian ruby merchants with large loans in Burma that they were contracted to repay within a certain period after their return to India. Nonetheless, comparatively large amounts of capital remained tied up in Burma. Even though the steadily accumulating sums of Company money had always been the cause of great worry, it was not a major factor in the VOCís decision to abandon Burma.

 

Why then did the Dutch decide to discontinue their Burma trade at that particular point in time? After all, it had been profitable throughout. But was it still sufficiently profitable towards the end of the seventeenth century? Here, the Eurasian context is essential to understanding how the VOC developed and carried on its trade with Burma. The Dutch East India Companyís overall circumstances and policies had altered greatly since those early days when they first came to the Bay of Bengal and established trade relations with Burma. During the 1670s and 80s, destructive forces began working against the Company from the furthest reaches of the Eurasian continent bringing an era of great prosperity for the VOC to an end and diminishing the relative importance of the Dutch inter-Asian sea borne traffic. Ultimately, their Burma trade became the victim of a change in Dutch fortunes.

 

While it lasted, trade with Burma had been so lucrative that in the first half of the eighteenth century the Dutch made several attempts to re-enter the Burmese market. By then, however, Burma had entered a period of civil unrest. The country was in the throes of the demise of the Toungoo Dynasty and the emergence of the Konbaung Dynasty, not the best of times for the VOC to renew its highly profitable Burma trade.

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(Mrs) Wil O. Dijk is a PhD candidate at Leiden University in The Netherlands and is researching the Dutch East Asia Company (VOC) in Burma in the seventeenth century.

E-mail: Wil.Dijk@compaqnet.nl.