MAINLAND SOUTHEAST ASIA

EMBRACING RIVERS


hree great rivers-the Mekong, the Menam and the Irrawaddy-and their giant deltas embrace the states of mainland Southeast Asia. Alongside these arteries of the local economies numerous towns, villages and peoples flourished. Unfamiliar with the rugged hinterlands, the Dutch limited themselves to a number of small trading posts along the littoral of mainland Southeast Asia. From northern Vietnam (Tonkin) in the east to Myanmar (Arakan) in the west, VOC scribes observed movements in trade and the political activities of kings and kingdoms great and small. Numerous travel reports, diplomatic accounts, and curious stories bear witness to great quests for wealth and power, both temporal and spiritual.

The Vietnamese Connection

lying the regular sea route passing through the Bay of Tonkin to and from China and Japan, Dutch merchants also explored the Red River in the north of Vietnam and settled down at the flourishing port of Pho Hien. Warehouses were then built there for the purchase of silk, ceramics and porcelain. Although the remains of the VOC buildings in Pho Hien have not yet been excavated, a few old Vietnamese houses still provide a glimpse of the once bustling international port community.

During the 17th century the Dutch also briefly maintained an office in the southern seaport of Hoi An (Faifo), which was a crossroads astride several trade routes that absorbed social and cultural elements from Japan, China, and many Southeast Asian lands in addition to many influences from the West. Owing to the VOC 's involvement in trade and politics in Tonkin, Champa, and Cochin China the VOC archives contain valuable historical material on Vietnam's overseas trade relations.

Peoples of the Mekong

he lands and peoples along the lower basin of the great Mekong River were also well-known to the VOC . Dutch explorers and traders described early Khmer trade and society in lively terms. A single collection of VOC material written on Laos and Cambodia between 1635 and 1644 runs more than 170,000 words across a vast array of documents, as remarkable for what they say as for what they do not. In 1636 the VOC established a trading post in Udong, on lake Tonle Sap near Phnom Penh, to purchase rice, deerskins, and lacquer for sale in Japan. In 1669, the VOC official Gerrit van Wuysthoff published an account of his 1641 expedition to Vientiane to promote trade with the Lao kingdom.

Court and Company in Siam

he Siamese capital Ayutthaya, on the banks of the river Menam, was the site of countless diplomatic overtures from both East and West, and served as the administrative and cultural capital of a powerful potential ally and a trading partner rich in natural products. Unfortunately, most of the historical records of Ayutthaya did not survive the Burmese invasions of the late 18th century. Thai-VOC records however did. During much of the 17th century, Dutch trade represented by far the most significant and extensive Western contact with Siam.

VOC records on Siam are currently among the least-consulted sources on Thai history, despite the archive's extent and relative completeness. Changes in royal administration, political infighting, tributary relations, rebellions against the crown, Siam's wars with various mainland kingdoms, court ritual, the Thai court's attitudes toward overseas trade, and information about local and foreign trading communities were all regularly discussed in VOC letters.

Pegu and Arakan

long the third great river running through the Southeast Asian mainland, the Irrawaddy, a few other kingdoms traded with the VOC , including Pegu and Arakan. Although traditional Pegu kings had built their city gates towards the east, they were open to trade with the West. Situated between the Straits ports of Melaka and Tenasserim on the one hand and the Bay of Bengal on the other, the small port of Syriam near today's Rangoon served as an important exchange market. Syriam was particularly famous for the huge jars, called martabans, that could be purchased there, in order to transport rice, oil and not to mention gunpowder, safely and securely. Owing to continuous warfare between Bengal and Arakan, numerous prisoners of war were locally offered for sale as slaves to the VOC , and afterwards most were transported to Batavia and Maluku under its flag.


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