Dutch imperial overstretch

As a historian I should have known better but on my first trip to Kerala I stumbled to my astonishment into the remarkable Dutch legacy in Cochin. I was, of course, aware of the Dutch expansion in the Indian Ocean in the 17th century. In primary school we used to study what we considered the amazing adventures of our ancestors.

How they founded New Amsterdam which is now called New York and made it all the way to the polar zone in a futile attempt to reach India via the North rather than the South. How they founded the United Dutch East India Company in 1602 which would take Dutch ships as far as Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Japan, and Muscat! How they were the first to reach New Zealand and Tasmania. But somehow Cochin remained below my radar. So it was a surprise, when I visited the gravestone of Vasco da Gama in Saint Francis Church, to find out that most of the other gravestones were actually Dutch. The Dutch turned out to have had a presence in Cochin from 1663 to 1795, as also testified by the Dutch Fortress and Dutch cemetery.

There are many aspects to this part of Dutch history. The first I would call astonishment: how is it possible that such a tiny Northern European nation was able to become a major player in the Indian Ocean region? One could point to several elements. At the end of the 16th century the Dutch fought a historic battle for independence against the super power of those days, Spain. In 1581 they abjured the Spanish king as their sovereign and became a republic, quite an oddity in those days. The Dutch independence gave the nation an enormous confidence boost.

More importantly, the Dutch were the classic example of early capitalism. In the 16th century they made fortunes from the grain trade with the countries around the Baltic Sea. That money was subsequently invested in the Dutch East India Company which led to the incredible economic boom of the 17th century, Holland's Golden Age. As Robert Kaplan describes it in his book Monsoon: "Trade was to them a religion". By the 1650s Holland had more ships than the English, Scottish and French fleets combined. Art especially painting and science blossomed.

It was not to last. The remarkable empire of this small nation was simply not sustainable. For some time the Dutch were able to keep their European competitors - often embroiled in (civil) wars at bay. However, in 1672 four enemies the Britain, the French and the bishops of Cologne and Münster attacked the annoying Dutch Republic and defeated the Dutch badly. The Dutch call it their 'Year of Calamity'. There is even an Omani dimension to this event. In 1672 a Dutch delegation visited the then Imam of Muscat and managed to obtain a preferential trading status.

The Imam must have thought: "The Dutch rule the waves, so let's make business with them". But British traders informed the Imam some months later about what had happened and that was the end of the preferential status. Robert Kaplan compares the gradual Dutch decline even to America's imperial overstretch. The Dutch were involved in too many regions and just could not pay for it anymore.

Still, one cannot kill history. Nations that once had an empire, tend to keep a strong self-awareness. There the Dutch and the Omanis actually meet. A minuscule example for this is what I observed when I worked at the European Union in Brussels. Dutch diplomats will almost always intervene in the discussions. They want to be part of the game, unlike some nations who only take the floor when their top priorities are at stake. Let me add one other short reflection. More than ever the Dutch are aware of the negative sides of our empire of yore. Slave trade and colonialism were very much part of that legacy. Also in this regard one cannot kill history. In the last sixty years quite some self-reflection has regularly taken place in the Netherlands. I sincerely think that we did learn the necessary lessons about this part of our history.

Stefan Van Wersch is the Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the Sultanate


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