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An Empire in Decline

End of an Era

Cold weather in January 1795 worked against the Dutch Republic by freezing the rivers which normally protected her.  French revolutionary armies easily advanced over the ice. They were aided in their advance by Dutch revolutionary committees, which saw the invasion as an opportunity to rid themselves of an unpopular government.  By year-end, the new government had changed its name from the Dutch Republic to the Batavian Republic.  In December it would formally liquidate the Dutch East India Company (VOC).  A final audit of the company's books revealed that it was twelve million guilders in debt, an indication of a dramatic, if not necessarily sudden, reversal of fortune.  As recently as 1756, profits from the Banda holdings were running above a million guilders a year.

The swiftness of the decline could be partially explained by the fortunes of war, although a war not necessarily of Dutch origin.  England and France had now become the principal protagonists in Europe.  Holland had been drawn in on the side of France, which provided the increasingly powerful English navy the opportunity to eliminate the once-powerful Dutch fleet.  The Dutch watched as their navy was decimated in the English Channel between 1780 and 1784, while their shipping fell prey to English privateers.

Signs of economic difficulties could be seen in the state of the shipbuilding and shipping industries.  Shipyards at Delft, Enkhuizen, and Hoorn were closed down, while older ships were rotting in port.  The VOC began hiring ships from neutral countries in hopes of escaping the blockade.  The costs of the war left the government saddled with such a debt load that interest payments alone were a serious financial burden by 1785.

A 150-Year Monopoly

Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, complained once that many of the Dutch settlers were wholly unsuitable for the planting of colonies.  Some were worse than animals. A Leiden professor in 1678 was less diplomatic in his description of the East Indies.  They were, he said, "a real sewer of a country into which all the garbage of Holland flows."  Despite the shortcomings associated with their rule over distant islands, the Dutch had one significant accomplishment to their credit.  They had maintained a near-perfect monopoly over the spice trade for 150 years, finally broken in 1770 by a French clerk named Provost who managed to smuggle 400 nutmeg trees and seventy rooted clove trees off the small island of Patani.

Biological limitations and the seemingly temperamental nature of the nutmeg plant provided a natural barrier to the expansion of spice production.  Few seedlings survived transport, and those which did failed to do well.  The soil or climate of the Spice Islands seemed to hold a secret ingredient required for survival.  The Dutch raised the bar even higher by shelling and roasting the nuts, then coating them in lime prior to shipping to prevent germination. In addition they limited production to groves which received official authorization.  Trees found growing in areas outside officially sanctioned groves were cut down under Jan Coen's 'extirpation' policy.  In 1636, when the English first tried to reclaim Run, they found that the Dutch had either chopped down or removed every single nutmeg tree growing there.  The Dutch would resume production but before they returned Run Island to the English in 1665, they again destroyed the groves. The French expedition of Provost in March 1770 hoped that the uninhabited island of Miao, northwest of Ternate, would provide a source of nutmeg seedlings.  They found instead that the Dutch had again eliminated all the nutmeg plants growing there. If their production and processing restrictions failed, the Dutch fell back on capital punishment as the final deterrent.  They imposed the death penalty on anyone caught exporting seedlings.

With an agricultural production base comprised of small islands spread over vast oceans it is surprising that the Dutch were able to maintain their monopoly for as long as they did.  Part of their success could be attributed to a military superiority which was unmatched in the region.  But there was an economic element, apart from a single-minded determination to control the spice trade, which favored them.  Potential rivals found commodities just as marketable as spices to exploit in other regions of the world.  India proved to be a profitable consolation prize for the English loss of Run. Indian calicoes, silks, and saltpeter sold just as well.

The Dutch did pay a price for their monopoly.  In concentrating all their resources on the Spice Islands, they neglected other interests and ultimately  lost them. When the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, surrendered Manhattan Island on September 8, 1664, he had been bluffed into believing the four English ships were all top-of-the-line fighting ships, with 100 guns, and a combined crew of 800.  In fact, only the 'Guinea' was a warship, while the other three were converted trading vessels.  They carried only 400 men.  On his part, Stuyvesant would have been hard-pressed to mount a vigorous defense.  Fort Amsterdam was defended by only twenty-four guns,  most of which were rusting and obsolete, and  inadequately supplied with powder.

An unworkable system

The promise of profits had motivated the Dutch to enter the spice trade and soon guided efforts to regulate and monopolize it.  It also began to work against them to undermine their efforts.  Coen's depopulation of the Banda Islands did not end opposition by islanders to Dutch rule.  The Ambon Wars, a series of native revolts, continued from 1618 until 1657.  The plantation system which encouraged the immigration of European settlers did not solve the problem of dissatisfaction, it merely replaced one unhappy group with another.  The profit motive was at the core of the conflict.  The VOC may have been seeking to maximize its profits, but so were the native producers and the newly arriving settlers and planters.  Unfortunately the VOC's means of increasing its profits, production limits and low payments, came at the expense of the settlers and native producers.

If the planters did not openly rebel, they, along with their native slaves, engaged in a lucrative form of economic warfare against the VOC.  They began smuggling nutmeg and mace out of the islands.  An inferior "long nutmeg," grown on other islands was also marketable, particularly in Asia. These slow leaks may have been symptomatic of the declining economic power of the VOC or they may have contributed to it.  Whatever the explanation, beginning around 1750, a combination of events would bring about the end of the monopoly.

A Frenchman by the name of Pierre Poivre, working for the Dutch East India Company, out of Pondicherry, the Indian settlement on the Bay of Bengal, arrived in Manila in May 1751.  He was on a mission to obtain nutmeg and clove seedlings from the Spice Islands.  He found two allies, more than eager to challenge the hated VOC.  One was the Spanish governor of the Philippines, Ovando Solis; the other was the sultan of Jolo, located in the southern Philippines.  His initial progress was small.  In 1753, he had only acquired nine rooted nutmeg trees, of which only five survived a journey to Mauritius.  The five surviving plants would, in turn die, either of neglect or vandalism after Poivre left.  A second stock of eleven seedlings, obtained as a gift from the Portuguese governor of Timor in 1755, fared no better.

In 1767, Poivre was appointed intendant of Mauritius. In May 1769 he sent the clerk Provost with two ships on another nutmeg hunting mission to the Spice Islands.  Their hopes of accomplishing their mission on Miao, a small island northwest of Ternate, were dashed when they discovered that the nutmeg trees growing there had been cut down by the Dutch.

The mission was saved with the help of a Dutchman, who not only hated the VOC, but possessed substantial knowledge of nutmeg producing islands, particularly one named Gueby. At Gueby the French were well received by another potential ally, the orang kaya ruling there.  The chiefs knew of another island to the south, called Petani, undiscovered by the Dutch, which contained an even better supply of untouched plants.  The islanders of Patani soon gathered hundreds of nutmeg seedlings and, just as the French were ready to sail, a large collection of clove seedlings and seeds.  In June 1770 the plants were delivered to Mauritius.  From there they would eventually be transported to Zanzibar, Madagascar, and Martinique.  Nutmeg plants would thrive halfway around the world at Grenada, in the Caribbean.

Nature and the English conspired to obliterate what was left of the Dutch spice trade.  In 1778 the volcanic island of Gunung Api erupted, causing an earthquake and tidal wave.  The islands then had to endure a hurricane. Half the nutmeg groves were destroyed.  In August 1810, a party of English soldiers, led by a Captain Cole seized Fort Belgica on Neira Island, turned the fort's batteries on Fort Nassau and blasted it into surrender. The English had completed their conquest of the Spice Islands.  They returned the island to the Dutch in 1817.  However, while there, they removed hundreds of nutmeg seedlings, together with the native soil, and transported both to plantations in Sri Lanka, Pinang, Bencoolen, and Singapore.  The transplanted seedlings survived and were soon competing with what remained on the islands.

An Independent Enterprise

When Pierre Poivre made his first voyage to the Spice Islands in 1755, he didn't inform the crew of 'La Colombe' what he was trying to do until they were in Moluccan waters.  In order to avoid inspection when they were spotted by a Dutch patrol, he raised a Dutch flag.  One crew member came close to putting the venture in jeopardy, but was preventing from jumping overboard in an attempt to alert those on the patrol boat to the scheme. He was hoping to save his life while sending the rest of the crew to a meeting with the executioner.  Provost's expedition in 1770 had a similar close call.  Two Dutch officers, leading a patrol, actually boarded the 'Vigilant' near Buton on Celebes.  Provost's cover story was that they were heading for Batavia, but had been blown off course.  They left without searching the hold, even escorting the French safely through dangerous waters.  When the ship rendezvoused with the 'Étôile du Matin' at Timor, half the nutmeg and clove seedlings were transferred to ensure that at least part of the cargo would reach Mauritius.

Both incidents were a testament to the continuing effectiveness of the Dutch administration and the strength of their hold on the region.  The death penalty for defying Dutch authority was no laughing matter to the ship crews.  Why representatives of the French East India Company (Compagnie des Indes), and by extension, a country as powerful as France, felt compelled to resort to a ruse to escape authorities of a small European power is somewhat perplexing.  More intriguing, perhaps, is the question of why, or how, the Dutch remained a viable, even feared, power, in the Indies, when Holland was slowly being suffocated by the growing power of France and Britain.  Provost's expedition had taken place nearly one hundred years after the Republic had suffered the disastrous 1672 invasion by France.

Part of the reason for the continuing success of the VOC in Asia, (at least in comparison to the fortunes of the Republic in Holland), was that it developed an inter-Asian trade which was not dependent on European markets.  Success or failure was no longer tied as closely to the rise or fall of European prices, not even those of the spice market.  Demand for spices in Europe was still high enough to justify efforts to maintain the monopoly, but inter-Asian trade was also generating cash in quantities which made the East Indies trade largely self-sufficient.

Cotton textiles made in south India were shipped to Indonesia in exchange for spices.  Silk produced in Taiwan was transported to the VOC settlement at Nagasaki, where it was traded for Japanese silver and copper.  Silk obtained in Persia was eventually shipped to Europe.  The economic benefits of this trade proved to be only temporary, declining from a high point in 1670, when there were 107 VOC vessels plying this market, to thirty vessels in 1775.  There was a decrease in the number of seamen involved, which corresponded with the decline in shipping.  In 1688 there were 3,500.  By 1780 the number was down to 1,000.  The Dutch were fortunate in that declines in some areas were somewhat offset by increases in others.  Trade from northern India increased, as did trade with Europe.  In the 1680s an average of fourteen voyages to Europe were being made each year, with the number slightly increasing down to 1730.  After that the number began to fall, as did profits.

The Dutch Republic was not relying totally on European markets or on profits from the East Indies.  The New World was supplying it with both.  The Dutch West India Company (Westindische Compagnie) (WIC), held a monopoly on the Dutch slave trade, although its destination markets were primarily Cartagena, Venezuela, and Panama.  The WIC involved itself in other areas of trade, either directly, or indirectly, through private companies. Merchants often booked space aboard WIC vessels.  The English North American colonies provided an additional market for East Indies spices and European manufactured goods.  Sugar, supplied by plantations in Surinam and western Guyana became another source of revenue from the New World, as did coffee after 1700.

French Expansion Under Louis XIV

When Louis XIV came to power in 1661, the population of France was around eighteen or nineteen million, while that of England was between five and a half and six million.  The Dutch Republic was about one tenth the size of France, with a population of 1.9 to two million. Portugal's population was about the same as that of the Republic. The contest was clearly an uneven one, if population were the only factor.  It might have been deciding, if French economic and military power had corresponded to the size of her population.  Yet, both the Dutch and English had an overwhelming advantage at sea, and in a trade, such as the spice trade, where ocean shipping represented a major component of operations, success ultimately depended on sea power.  (The fact that the Republic and Portugal were of similar size might also explain why their experiences were similar, and why, in the long run, expectations that they could hold their empires permanently would have been unrealistic.)

Louis found that the French manufacturing and trading sectors were so weak that they were in danger of being overwhelmed by Dutch imports.  Sales of Dutch textiles, as well as East India wares, fish, and refined sugar were increasing in France. The imposition of tariffs on Dutch goods in 1664 and 1667, Louis' response, was a tacit admission that France was not competitive. Later evidence would suggest ongoing economic problems as well.  Five years of French support for the American colonies during the American Revolution, from 1778 to 1783, would humiliate the British, but would also bankrupt France. On the military side, the French fleet, one of the largest in Europe, was hampered by a lack of experience, a tendency on the part of Louis to favor the army, and a lack of depth.  The lack of experience contributed to conditions which resulted in a higher rate of disease and comparatively greater losses from sickness than from sea battles.  There were even signs that the French military, on land, was not the potent force suggested by its size.  When Louis declared war on the Republic in April 1672, he had an invasion force of over 100,000, capable in its early advance of capturing territory from the Dutch which they were never able to regain.  However, when Spain intervened in August 1673, the diversion of troops to that front forced a retreat and the abandonment of gains made against the Dutch.  In August 1678 France would be forced to sign a peace treaty.  France was dependent on Sweden for guns.  At the beginning of the War of the League of Augsburg, in 1688, she lacked some 2,000 cannon and a Baltic blockade by the allies denied her access to additional guns for much of the war.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister of finance under Louis XIV, at one time estimated that the Dutch had between 15,000 and 16,000 ships, the English 3,000 to 4,000, and the French between 5,000 and 6,000.  In an effort to expand trade with the East, he founded the French East India Company (Compagnie des Indes Orientales) in 1664.  While French trade increased in Asia, perhaps its first major accomplishment was the acquisition of Pondicherry on the Coromandel Coast of India in 1673.

In 1665 Colbert started a shipbuilding program which would make France the first maritime power in the Mediterranean and the third in the Atlantic, behind the Dutch and English.  By 1670, the French fleet totaled sixty-five battleships, including ten three-deckers.  It proved to be a comparatively short-lived reign.  By 1695 it had switched naval strategy from great-power dominance to privateering attacks on foreign shipping.  The Mediterranean would be conceded to the English in 1704.

The elimination of France as a competitor did not resurrect Dutch fortunes in Europe.  France, even in defeat, left the Dutch exhausted, even though France had entered the contest relatively late.  The Dutch had fought three wars with England after 1650, the First Anglo-Dutch War, from 1652 to 1654, the Second Anglo-Dutch War, from 1664 to 1667, and the Third Anglo-Dutch War, from 1672 to 1674.  In a war of attrition, it was not a question of winning or losing a particular battle or war, but of the ability to sustain losses and recover.  France receded as an overt military threat, only to be replaced by England, and a conflict which had been transformed into a long-term economic struggle.

The final battles

On August 11, 1673, the Dutch admiral, Michiel Adrianszoon de Ruyter, with sixty ships, defeated a combined force of eighty-six French and English ships at the battle of the Texel.  The defeat would not only contribute to major reforms in the English navy, but would also spur peace efforts, which would culminate in the Treaty of Westminster, signed in February 1674 between the Dutch and English.  Both sides now saw France as the common enemy, although the English would allow the Dutch to battle France alone for the next four years.

In 1676, with England out of the war, France decided to attack Spain in the Mediterranean.  The Dutch sent a fleet to help, but this time, Dutch tactics were not enough to overcome French numbers.  The Dutch were defeated in a battle off Sicily in April and de Ruyter was wounded.  He died six days after the battle.  The French admiral, Anne Hilarion de Cotentin, Comte de Tourville, would follow up with a second victory at Palermo on June 2, 1676.  The Dutch and Spanish fleets were driven onshore and then destroyed by fireships.  The Dutch fighting spirit had not been broken.  In July 1690, at Beachy Head, they attacked a much larger French fleet commanded by de Tourville, and suffered the loss of eleven ships.  However, the losses at Sicily marked the high point of  Dutch naval power.

The French fleet would lose fifteen ships at La Hogue in 1692.  It would replace those ships and would score a major victory in 1693, when it captured eighty ships of the annual Smyrna convoy off Cape St. Vincent.  However, after 1694, it would no longer risk a major battle.  Conceding command of the high seas to the English, it switched to a commercial raiding strategy, with privateers such as Jean Bart.  In October 1702 an Anglo-Dutch fleet broke through a defensive boom to attack the Spanish and French fleets anchored in the harbor of the Spanish port of Vigo, capturing eleven silver galleons and ten French warships.  In July 1704, the English would capture Gibraltar.  At the battle of Malaga, in August, the French fleet would fight its last battle in the Mediterranean.  The French commander, the Comte de Toulouse, would withdraw from the battle and the fight would never be resumed.

Dutch hopes for a rebirth of their trading empire were revived briefly some eighty years' later in the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, from 1780 to 1784.  The Dutch could not resist selling arms and supplies to the American colonists. The British intercepted a Dutch convoy in the Channel in 1779 and escorted it into Plymouth.  The unrestricted boarding carried out by the British during the year outraged the Dutch.  Their naval forces however were no longer a match for the British.  In January 1781 alone they lost 200 ships to the British navy and privateers.  St. Eustatius was captured by the British in February.  Most of the West African forts were lost, except for those in west Guyana and that of Elmina, as well as forts in southern India and Ceylon.  A rough gauge of the decline in the VOC's power was that its cargos, with a total value of 10 million guilders, were captured.

Suggestions for further reading.

F. L. Carsten, "The New Cambridge Modern History: Volume V: The Ascendancy of France: 1648-88," Cambridge University Press (Cambridge 1961).

Charles Corn, "The Scents of Eden: A Narrative of the Spice Trade," Kodansha America, Inc., (New York, NY 1998).

"The Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition," Grolier, (Danbury, CT 2002).

Jonathan I. Israel, "The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806," Clarendon Press, (Oxford 1995).

Jonathan I. Israel, "The Emerging Empire: The Continental Perspective, 1650-1713" from "The Oxford History of the British Empire, (Volume I): The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century," Nicholas Canny, ed., Oxford University Press, (Oxford 1998).

John Keay, "The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company," Macmillan Publishing Company, (New York, NY 1991).

Andrew Lambert, John Keegan, Gen. Ed., "War at Sea in the Age of Sail 1650-1851," Cassell & Co., (London 2000).

David S. Landes, "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some Are So Poor," W. W. Norton & Company, (New York, NY 1999).

Giles Milton, "Nathaniel's Nutmeg or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History," Farrar, Straus and  Giroux, (New York, NY 1999).

Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, eds., "Sri Lanka: A Country Study," Library of Congress (Washington, DC 1990).

Thomas Suárez, "Early Mapping of Southeast Asia," Periplus Editions Ltd., (Hong Kong 1999).

Antony Wild, "The East India Company: Trade and Conquest from 1600," The Lyons Press, (New York, NY 2000).