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Slaves and Tyrants: Dutch Tribulations in Seventeenth-Century Mrauk-U

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This paper is concerned with the travails of the factors of the Dutch East India Company (or VOC) in the northern Burmese kingdom of Mrauk-U (or Arakan). The Dutch entered into trade in this rather obscure region, at the frontier of South and Southeast Asia, primarily owing to their interest in slaves, to be used in urban and rural settlements under their control in Indonesia. Dutch demand fed into the logic by which the Mrauk-U state from the latter half of the sixteenth century developed a formidable war-fleet, through which raids on the peasantry in eastern Bengal were conducted by Magh captains and Luso-Asian mercenaries, who collaborated with them. However, the whole commercial relationship was underwritten by a moral and cultural tension. The Dutch factors in their writings analysed here, insisted that the Mrauk-U kings were "tyrants," citing their slave trade as a key sign; a particular target for their attacks was the ruler Thado Mintara (r. 1645-52). Yet the Dutch too were complicit in the very same slave trade, and were perhaps even aware of their own "bad faith." For their part, the rulers of Mrauk-U regarded the Dutch with suspicion, while criticising their hypocrisy and double-dealing. Such tensions, negotiated through the 1630s and a part of the 1640s, eventually led the Dutch to withdraw from the trade, and then to re-establish tenuous contacts with some difficulty in the 1650s. The paper thus explores both the history of a form of hostile trade, and the process of the creation of mutual stereotypes, that went with the nature of commercial relations.

Affiliations: 1: Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris)

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