Transnationalising the English Corporation

By David Veevers


Members of the Centre for the Political Economies of International Commerce recently returned from a research trip to India in which, amongst other things, we launched a new edited volume at the Delhi Book Fair (found here), participated in a very constructive seminar at St Stephen’s College, and spent a highly exploratory week on the Coromandel Coast, investigating Dutch, Portuguese and English Company settlements at Pulicat, Madras, and Sadras. As a historian of the English East India Company, the visit to the old Company settlements dotted along the Coast helped contextualise my own understanding of how these Companies, their settlements and their inhabitants interacted. Indeed, what struck me most was the sheer proximity of these quite considerable centres of Dutch, Portuguese, English, French and Danish power. Pulicat and Madras, for instance, sit hardly thirty miles from one another, and in the seventeenth century were enmeshed within the same social, cultural, commercial and, most importantly, constitutional landscape – as indeed they are today. In fact, whereas today one has to ply (or brave) the crowded and congested highways which snake their way up the Coast between Fort Geldria at Pulicat and Fort St George at Madras, contemporaries could exploit a network of rivers and canals which stretched out from Pulicat Lake almost to within the immediate vicinity of Madras. They may have belonged to ‘rival’ colonial powers, but both settlements were brought together by the landscape and the economic infrastructure of local Indian communities. It was the same across India and Asia: the settlements of the various European East India Companies operated within the same communities, networks, spaces and geographic regions, creating an intimate interaction – sometimes welcomed, sometimes strategic, sometimes even unwanted – that shaped the way these seemingly divergent Companies operated on the ground. From adopting similar models of settlement and commercial transactions, to sharing judicial practices and cultural conventions, European Companies developed within a common framework that made them less the national enterprises they had been conceived as, and more the transnational interlocutors they quickly became in order to succeed as commercial and constitutional actors within a composite, integrative and fluid Asian environment.


Dutch map of the Coromandel Coast c. 1667, with Madras on the left and Pulicat on the right, published in the ‘Secret Atlas’ of the Dutch VOC, by Johannes van Keulen II, Amsterdam, 1753


The transition of Europe’s East India Companies into transnational vehicles was a considerable transformation. England’s overseas trading companies were undoubtedly conceptualised as national enterprises, brought about through a desire and need to adapt to a competitive mercantilist system defined by rivalry and conflict. In response to this dynamic, a group of City merchants, nobles and elites came together in 1599 to petition the English Crown for a charter which would grant them a monopoly over the trading routes to Asia. As Queen Elizabeth I concisely summed up in a letter of introduction to any Asian prince the Company’s first fleet may happen upon, ‘out of the abundance of ffruit which some region enjoyeth, the neccessitie or wante of others should be supplied.’ This was the mercantilist mind-set which drove Europeans into Asia. Starting with the Portuguese Estado da India at the end of the fifteenth century, the Dutch Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie and the English East India Company followed in close proximity at the turn of the seventeenth century, triggering a so-called ‘spice race’ which supposedly culminated in the ‘Amboyna Massacre’ in 1623. The latter event, in which ten English factors were seized and killed by the Dutch when implicated in a Spanish conspiracy to seize control of Fort Victoria on the island of Amboyna, largely framed European narratives of trade, rivalry and conflict in Asia that was constantly appropriated and regurgitated throughout the seventeenth century in books and pamphlets in both nations. A pamphlet printed by the English Company about the Dutch massacre of its factors on the island of Amboyna more than forty years after the event heeded its readers to ‘consider the different end and Design of the English and Dutch Companies Trading in the Indies’. These, imagined on the one hand as a peaceful, cautious and contented English nation trading from factories, and on the other an aggressive, expansive military Dutch empire governing from forts, were deployed by the writer to articulate the seemingly diverging paths pursued by Europe’s two most prominent East India Companies that ultimately led to conflict.


Amboyna clearly demonstrates that elements of conflict did underpin the European engagement with Asia in the seventeenth century. But it’s also demonstrative of the transnationalism which could equally integrate Europeans together. Conflict was not so much the result of the projection or pursuit of colliding nationalist paths of development, but rather the tensions and factionalism which often emerged from sharing the same social, cultural, commercial and political spaces, systems, and communities. Amboyna was typical of the hybrid, intermeshing and transnational European settlement in Asia in the seventeenth century. Fort Victoria had been established by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, and while the Dutch had seized it by force in 1605, a sizeable Portuguese community remained entrenched on the island, along with groups of Japanese and Chinese mercenaries, merchants, labourers and settlers. In to this mix, the English arrived shortly after as part of the Anglo-Dutch ‘Treaty of Defence’ of 1619 which saw both Companies share the spice trade, establish settlements in the same regions, and join their political and military interests together, for instance, in the brutal suppression of the Bandanese. This was most acute on Amboyna, where the English and Dutch actually cohabitated in the same house and factory. Thus even the most violent and shocking examples of European hostility and conflict in Asia can shed light on the transnational landscape within which these Companies and their servants operated. Shared markets, mixed settlements, aligned interests and intra-corporate treaties shaped Europeans in Asia as much as rivalry and war.

A very elongated and skewed Dutch depiction of the island of Amboina under Portuguese rule, as observed by Admiral Wijbrand van Warwijck in 1599. Fort Victoria stands in the centre. Published in Amsterdam, 1614


Alison Games, in her excellent comparative analysis of the Virginia and Amboyna ‘massacres’, observed that ‘Europeans, allies on the battlefields of Europe, lived in tension and animosity in Indonesia, and…Americans and English, at war a few years earlier, lived in relative peace in Virginia.’ While the ‘Amboyna Massacre’ seemingly vindicates Games’ view, this blog would suggest otherwise, and in fact I would go as far as to argue that such incidents were the exception to European interaction in Asia, and certainly not the rule. While the framework of integration which bound the Dutch VOC and the English Company together on the island of Amboyna eventually collapsed in paranoia, conspiracy and violence, similar processes of integration remained intact across Asia, binding Europeans into a wider, non-national engagement based upon cooperation and exchange. To return to Madras and Pulicat, each settlement and their inhabitants, both European and non-European, shared an intimate relationship. For instance, both settlements hosted large Portuguese and Indo-Portuguese communities, Pulicat having been Portuguese until 1609, while thousands of Portuguese migrated to Madras following the incorporation of St Thome into the Kingdom of Golconda in 1662. Moreover, these cross-cultural communities were not static, establishing highly mobile religious, commercial and kinship networks between different European settlements on the Coast. As Laurens Pit, Governor of Pulicat, observed that year, ‘some of the richest Portuguese merchants, especially those who had removed to St. Thome from Negapatam, have gone to Madrespatam. This town in consequence is much overcrowded, and is being extended very fast.’ When the Dutch captured St Thome in 1674, they sent the Portuguese relics and ornaments to Madras to adorn the Catholic churches there.


There was a more direct intercourse between the Dutch and the English in their respective Coromandel capitals, however. Despite the fact that, in Europe, the English and French were allies in the war against the Dutch Republic in 1674, the transnational dynamic which reshaped Companies in Asia enabled them to disassociate themselves from the interests of their domicile nation-states if required. Thus, when the newly chartered French Compagnie des Indes dispatched a fleet to India and captured St. Thome by force in 1672, the Dutch joined with Golconda to besiege the city and restore it to the Sultan. Despite French pleas for assistance from their European allies, the English refused. Instead, as the French occupying forces were starved into submission in 1674, Dutch officers from Pulicat were being treated to a lavish dinner and entertainment at Madras by Governor William Langhorn. Despite the Third Anglo-Dutch War in Europe, Madras joined with Pulicat in coordinating the dismantling of St. Thome’s enormous stone walls following its recapture, with Dutch and English engineers, surveyors and labourers working side by side. In fact, when the Court of Committees in London wrote to complain about the bill for dining expenses at Madras that year, Langhorn pleaded that such lavishness was necessary, ‘heere being such a concourse of Dutch and French, either on business or civillity, whom we cannot avoid entertaining at your table’.


The ‘concourse’ between Madras and Pulicat became more formal following the end of the Third Anglo-Dutch War in Europe, and in 1678 the Governor of Madras, Streynsham Master, hosted Dutch Councillors from Pulicat for a number of days, lodging them in his own private chambers. These social and commercial ties were reinforced with dynastic and political significance following the marriage of Princess Mary to William of Orange in 1678, the news of which Madras passed on to Pulicat. When Fort St George fired a 31 gun salute in celebration, Pulicat responded in kind. Following this, formal diplomatic visits between Pulicat and Madras took place on a regular basis. In 1679, Governor Master visited Fort Geldria, where he was ‘treated with a very Splendid Dinner,’ as he recorded in his diary, ‘the Table being spread with about 100 Dishes of Meate well dressed and well sett out…five healths were dranke about at Table, and all of the Canon in the ffort and some at the Redoubt, in all 51, fired every time’.  As the new Dutch Governor A. H. van Reede proclaimed to the English Governor Elihu Yale in 1690, ‘we are ever bound by manifold obligations…by Gods appointment to be so closely knit together, not only in a polliticall, but in a religious Sence, that our Severall interests cannot be devided’.


Although the engagement between Pulicat and Madras had clearly deepened and formalised following the Anglo-Dutch union in Europe, nonetheless this was an intensification of a process of transnational integration that, as this blog has hopefully shown, was underway as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century. Even as war raged in Europe and massacres were committed in Asia, the transnational ties which bound Company settlements and their inhabitants together were rarely disrupted, and, if anything, actually intensified. As Alison Games and a well-established historiography before her has shown, European engagement with Asia can be defined by rivalry and conflict. But it is not the only narrative historians can adopt, and in fact it serves to skewer and cloud the more common and perhaps mundane, every-day connections which blurred and broke down national and nationalist borders in what was a highly integrative Asian constitutional landscape in the seventeenth century. These are just some of the themes I hope to consider as I embark on a new project which considers the transnational integration of Europeans in Asia.

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