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1620-1784 - The Dutch

The Dutch had been the primary local distributors in Europe for the Portuguese trade, but during their war to win independence from Spain, Lisbon was closed to them. Unless spices could be obtained nearer the source, the Dutch economy was threatened with collapse. By 1606, Dutch raids on Portuguese shipping in the Indian Ocean had begun to shake the foundations of Portuguese commerce.

The Dutch did not come alone, however; English shippers, too, were seeking a share of the spice trade. Merchants of the British East India Company, founded in 1600, and of the Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, entered the competition for concessions in the Spice Islands—the Moluccas—at about the same time. Although for a time united in Europe against the Spanish and Portuguese, the English and Dutch could not achieve a common policy in Southeast Asia because of their basic rivalry in trade. By 1620 the Dutch had obtained a near monopoly over the export of spices from the Moluccas, and the English withdrew to their factories on the coast of India, keeping only Bencoolen, on the southwest coast of Sumatra, as their port in Southeast Asia.

The Dutch undercut the Portuguese position in Malacca even before attacking, when, early in the seventeenth century, Dutch merchants opened a new trade route which bypassed Malacca: from the Cape of Good Hope they sailed across the southern Indian Ocean to the Sunda Straits. The Dutch capital was established at Batavia in Java; although Malacca remained important in regional trade, Batavia usurped its position as the primary entrepdt. Until the nineteenth century the southern route remained more important than the northern. As long as Portugal retained a base at Malacca, however, its ships could and did harass Dutch shipping, and Malacca also retained importance as a port in the trade between India and China.

To expel the Portuguese from their Malacca stronghold, the Dutch enlisted Portugal's enemies, Johore and Acheh. Those rival kingdoms each in turn invited in the Dutch in order to destroy the other and to get rid of Portugal at the same time. In 1620 the Achinese conquered Johore, Pahang, Perak, Kedah and the Riau and Lingga Archipelagoes, virtually liquidating the Johore holdings and royal family. Acheh could not hold these territories for long, however; in 1636 a prince of the Johore house proclaimed himself King of Johore and Pahang and made a treaty with the Dutch against the Portuguese. A combined attack on Portuguese Malacca began in 1640, and after 6 months of blockade and bombardment the starving port surrendered. The Dutch replaced the Portuguese as masters of the Strait of Malacca, and Johore gradually succeeded Acheh as the dominant Malay power.

The conquest of Malacca initiated the Dutch East India Company's most profitable half century. Secure in the control of both of the area's essential trade routes, the Company's interest in the Peninsula was solely on such commercial matters as collecting port tolls, monopolizing the tin exports of Perak and Kedah and exacting a tax in rice from Naning, the area surrounding Malacca. To control the tin export, the Dutch blockaded the coasts of Perak and Kedah, but with only partial success. Kedah, especially, maintained a separate trade with Indian and Javanese ports.

For the Malay Peninsula the Dutch conquest of Malacca was of less immediate significance than was the consequent decline of Acheh. Again a European power destroyed a regional power, and other local powers sought to benefit. Encouraged by Acheh's weakness, the Sultan of Johore reasserted suzerainty over Johore, itself a collection of petty chieftainships, Pahang and the Riau and Lingga Archipelagoes ; a loose and often meaningless hegemony over those areas was retained by Johore until the nineteenth century. Although Acheh retained some control over Perak, important for its tin, the Dutch were soon able to undermine the monopoly. Kedah and Trengganu once again became vassals of Siam.

The major contest for power within the Peninsula during this period of Dutch paramountcy was between two groups of comparatively recent immigrants, the Bugis and the Menangkabau. The Bugis had migrated from Celebes to Malaya in the late seventeenth century. Sea fighters, pirates and mercenary soldiers, they settled the Selangor coastal area. The Menangkabau, at that time Hindu in religion, had crossed the Strait from the Sumatran highlands in the sixteenth century, encouraged by the Moslem-hating Portuguese, and settled the Negri Sembilan area under the nominal suzerainty of Johore.

Conflict between these two groups began in 1673 during a war between Johore and the Sumatran kingdom of Jambi and lasted for well over a century. When Jambi defeated Johore, the Menangkabu seized the chance to renounce their allegiance to the Johore ruler and elected their own suitan. Johore enlisted the aid of Bugi mercenaries against Jambi and its Menangkabau supporters. Having successfully defeated Jambi, the Bugis obtained most of the highest official positions in Johore and virtually ruled the kingdom. A Malay sultan lived at Johore, but the Bugi's underking ruled from Riau. In 1742 a Bugi chief became Sultan of Selangor. The Menangkabau pretender tried again to gain power, and in the states of Kedah, Perak and Selangor the Bugis and the Menangkabau fought for supremacy.

The Dutch remained aloof from these dynastic struggles until 1745, when they agreed, in return for a complete monopoly of the tin trade, to help the Malay Sultan of Johore expel his Bugi overlord. By this time the Bugis had obtained sufficient control of the Peninsula to cut off Dutch Malacca from its tin supply and to carry on a forbidden trade with English and other ships at ports in Kedah and Perak. The Dutch were initially successful, but the Bugis regained control in 1760 and held it until 1782. During this time Kedah, under intermittent attack from both the Menangkabau and the Thai, sought and was refused protection against its enemies in return for a cession of territory.

In 1784 the Dutch won decisive victories over the Bugis at both Riau and Selangor. In return, the Malay Sultan of Johore accepted a Dutch resident and garrison at Tand- jungpinang, the capital of Riau. The Dutch were given full trading privileges and the coveted right to purchase tin for export. Dutch interest, however, remained entirely commercial. They entered the Malay hinterland only when threatened with the possibility that the Peninsula would be united under a single power — whether that of Acheh, Jambi, or Riau under the Bugis—which could make inroads on Malacca's trade. The influence of the Dutch on later Malayan history was negligible, but their policy contributed to the continuance of warfare between the disunited petty states.

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Page last modified: 10-04-2012 18:38:50 ZULU