or the rapidly changing societies of modern Island Southeast Asia, the past seems nowadays like a foreign country. Yet there are some constants. For over 600 years the Straits of Melaka have pulsed with commercial energy. The big port cities along its coasts were and continue to be cultural melting pots where countless ethnic groups meet. World religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity now as then share their space with local belief systems. Historians can now discover the roots of Island Southeast Asia in the VOC records of yesteryear.

A Violent Entrance

number of aggressive conquests marked the VOC 's arrival in insular Southeast Asia as they sought a profitable source of spices. The Dutch occupation of Ambon in 1605 and Jakarta in 1619, the annexation of the nutmeg production centre of Banda in 1622, and the conquest of Makassar (Ujung Pandang) in 1669 sent shockwaves throughout the archipelago, especially among Javanese, Malay, and Makassarese overseas traders. These operators were forced to regroup, reorganize their ancient networks, and look for other allies.

In contrast to the mainland of Southeast Asia, in the Indonesian archipelago the VOC was not just another of many traders. The VOC 's administrative and diplomatic centre at Batavia, its interests in the Spice Islands of Maluku, and its presence to varying degrees throughout the entire archipelago have made its documents an indispensable part of studying Indonesia's history.

Example of the countless VOC documents in Indonesia wich are a rich source for local history
(click image to enlarge)

Beyond the Shadows of History: Java and the VOC

uropeans arrived in Java at the height of the last and greatest of the imperial states of Java, the Sultanate of Mataram. Sultan Agung (1613-1646) conquered most of Java, but his son, Susuhunan Amangkurat I, virtually destroyed the state his father had forged. The period that followed the collapse of Mataram in 1677 was one of confusion. In 1680, Amangkurat II could only restore the kingdom in East and Central Java with the help of the VOC , who in return gained more control over trade. A new Mataram court was established in Kartasura, but the period that followed was one of Javanese bloodshed, succession wars, rebellion of regional kingdoms against the central court, and growing Dutch interference with Javanese matters of state.

Subsequent events during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries show that tensions between the core region of Java and the coastal periphery gave way to increasing VOC intervention. As a trading company, the VOC 's aims were initially not directed towards territorial expansion. Direct involvement in Javanese civil wars and the country's instability, however, smoothed the way for the VOC to become a territorial power controlling much of western Java (Priangan), the Pasisir (the north-east coast), and eventually eastern Java as well (1743-1746).

The renewed study of Javanese and VOC sources concerning Java has changed the historical picture. The Dutch presence on Java is now seen as a sort of laboratory of early colonialism. But it is also obvious that Javanese early modern politics can be judged solely on its own terms. A combination of Javanese and Dutch sources will eventually present a clearer picture of this important episode in Indonesian history.

The Ports: Their Rise and Demise

he rise and demise of ports such as Melaka, Banten, Makassar, Gresik and Semarang, are inextricably connected to the history and fortunes of the VOC itself. The daily arrival and departures of numerous local vessels in various south-east Asian ports, cross-cultural contacts between trading families and diaspora communities, and even ecological changes such as deforestation as a result of extensive shipbuilding were all dutifully noted in the records of the VOC . In exploring the history of the maritime towns of the archipelago during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the more that VOC sources have been explored, the more complex and remarkable our historical picture of the archipelago has become.

Forgotten Islands

he breadth of subjects and depth of detail in the enormous quantities of VOC documents from eastern Indonesia make them ideal resources for new and innovative approaches to the histories of seafaring nomads, island societies, the practice and propagation of Islam and Christianity, systems of slavery and bondage, and petty trade in spices and marine products. The Moluccas (Maluku) were the main target of western trading companies in the early seventeenth century. The Dutch administrations resident in strong fortresses on Ternate in the north, Ambon in the centre, and Banda in the south have left voluminous collections of VOC records in Jakarta and The Hague. From the Banda archives, detailed seventeenth-century surveys of forgotten Austronesian island cultures from Maluku Tenggara (south-east Maluku) come to us. How these island peoples, who cherished a distinct nautical symbolism in their artefacts, housing, and shipbuilding, lived their lives just a few centuries ago is still a mystery today.

View of Malacca, 17th century
(click image to enlarge)

The World of the Malay

n the past, the world of the Malay stretched much further than present day Malaysia. The Malay world included a number of local polities such as Johor, Perak, Aceh, Palembang, the Minangkabau and many more. The presence of the VOC did not change a fundamental pattern which had been in place since at least the time of the Sumatran kingdom of Srivijaya and perhaps much earlier, in that all of the states in the region reacted to shifting balances more or less as they long had, with an eye to maintaining--and if possible improving--their position in both local and long-range commerce relative to their neighbours. Initially, the VOC simply added an additional variable to this dynamic system.

During the 18th century the relationships between many Southeast Asian states and the European trading settlements underwent change. VOC sources complement Malay texts to show how some polities successfully navigated narrowing political and economic straits while others in the region did not. These sources show, for instance, how the kingdom of Johor successfully used the presence of the VOC to strengthen its own position towards Aceh, and without the help of Johor the Dutch attack on Portuguese Melaka would have ended quite differently. The political relations between the Malay states in the eighteenth century, their role in the upsurge of regional trade, and the creation of an environment that encouraged the English to settle in Singapore, are important themes still insufficiently studied through VOC sources.

Early Philippine - Indonesian Relations

ess well known than the VOC records on Indonesia and Southeast Asia are those collections of documents that pertain to the Philippines. There are hundreds of documents extant, including the correspondence between Ternate (both VOC and the sultan) and the kings of Magindanao and Zamboanga, that promise to reveal vital new information about the poorly understood and often ephemeral island kingdoms in the liminal between the present-day states of the Philippines and Indonesia.

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