The Dutch East India Company


Episode 17 is now online, come and get it! Today we meet the third group of Europeans to explore and exploit Southeast Asia, the Dutch, and learn how they used a corporation, the Dutch East India Company (also called the V.O.C.), to get involved in Indonesia.


(Transcript, added 02/20/2020.)

Episode 17: The Dutch East India Company

Greetings, dear listeners! If you have listened to this podcast before, you know that for the past few episodes, we have been covering events in the early modern era, from 1500 to 1800. In real time, the podcast has been doing this since 2017 began. I promised that Southeast Asia would become a more complicated place with the arrival of the Europeans, and I have introduced two European powers, Portugal and Spain. How do you like the story so far? Well, now it is time to introduce a third group of Europeans, the Dutch, and tell how they got involved in Indonesia. We will also introduce the English in this episode, but they won’t become an important player in Southeast Asia until the nineteenth century.


Among the European nations of the late sixteenth century, the Netherlands was the newest kid on the block. In ancient times a Low German tribe called the Batavi lived in the Rhine River delta; because of them the Romans named the surrounding land Batavia. Remember the name Batavia; you’re going to hear it again soon. Another important tribe in the area were the Frisians, who lived on the shore of the North Sea. Today’s Dutch have a mixed ancestry, being descended from both the Batavi and the Frisians, plus some Franks and Saxons from France and Germany respectively. The culture and language of all these tribes was mostly German, with a few Latin elements thrown in. Throughout the Middle Ages, ownership of the Netherlands passed from the Frankish kingdom, to the Holy Roman Empire, to the Duchy of Burgundy, to the Hapsburg family, and finally in 1516, to Charles V, the new king of Spain.


During the Middle Ages, the Dutch also developed the business sense they would become famous for later on. It looks like several enterprises encouraged this skill. From the fifth to the eighth century, Frisian merchants managed commerce on the North Sea, between the British Isles and continental Europe. That ended when Charlemagne conquered the Frisians, and after his empire broke up, the Vikings moved in to fill the naval vacuum on the North Sea. Then by the year 1000, the weavers of Flanders were producing the best woolen cloth in Europe, and because the local farmers could not provide enough wool to meet the demand of the weavers, the local merchants began importing raw wool from England, forming an international textile industry. Then after 1200, because the Dutch were members of the Holy Roman Empire, their cities joined the Hanseatic League, the great trading cartel of the late Middle Ages. With the arrival of the modern era, the Dutch would become the first Europeans to practice capitalism as we know it; for example, Amsterdam had one of the first stock exchanges. Also, the Dutch learned how to build and run ships at a lower cost than anybody else. As a result, by 1600 Amsterdam was the busiest commercial center in northern Europe, and half of the larger ships used by Venice, the great merchant city of the Middle Ages, were Dutch built.


Previously, the Dutch did not have a national identity of their own; they did not see themselves as being different from their German neighbors. That changed in the sixteenth century, when a distinct Dutch language emerged, and with the arrival of the Protestant Refomation, the northern Netherlands converted to Calvinism. However, this conversion alienated them from the kings of Spain. Tempers remained cool while Charles V was in charge, because he was born in Flanders, so the Dutch saw him as one of them, but the next king, Philip II, wanted nothing to do with their Calvinism or capitalism, and tried to stamp both out. The Dutch of the northern Netherlands responded by revolting in 1568, beginning a war for independence that would last eighty years.


We won’t cover the revolt of the Netherlands here, because that is part of European history, not Southeast Asian history. However, I have a feeling that another podcast will be covering it soon. A few episodes back I called Ben Jacobs the most enthusiastic listener to this series, but I did not mention that he has his own podcast, so I will take care of that oversight and mention it now. Since 2014 Ben has been podcasting about the Wars of the Reformation; his podcast is called Wittenberg to Westphalia. At the time of this recording, he has not gotten to the Eighty Years War yet, but this conflict is too big to ignore, especially when the Spanish Armada appears, so it is only a matter of time before he covers the Dutch struggle for independence. If you are interested in the conflicts that transformed medieval Europe into modern Europe, I heartily recommend you check out the Wittenberg to Westphalia podcast; Ben leaves no stone unturned when it comes to giving you the background you need to understand what is happening in this important time period.


By the time the Netherlands revolted, the Dutch knew plenty about what Spain and Portugal were doing in the Far East. Dutch crewmen had been employed on Portuguese ships, and the Netherlands was under Spanish rule when Spain sent its first expeditions to the Philippines; moreover, some of the spices brought back from the Spice Islands found their way to the markets of Antwerp and Amsterdam. In addition, a Dutchman named Jan Huyghen van Linschoten spent nine years working for the Portuguese at their Indian base, Goa, and he wrote a book called Itinerario, which gave detailed descriptions of India and the Far East and included maps. Much of this information had been kept secret by the Portuguese, and now the Dutch had it in the form of a travel guide!


After the battle of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the Dutch still had to fight Spain, but their homeland in the northern Netherlands was secure enough for them to go on the offensive. Therefore, when they entered the field of international trade and colonization, they did so dramatically. Instead of building their own empire from scratch, the Dutch goal was to take over the two Iberian trading networks. From 1580 to 1640, as we noted previously, the king of Spain was also the king of Portugal, but he neglected the Portuguese half of his empire, so the Portuguese colonies became the most vulnerable targets, the “low-hanging fruit,” so to speak. We also saw that the Portuguese had not been very good businessmen, and their colonies barely generated enough money for them to pay their bills; now the Dutch, who always kept an eye on the bottom line, would show the world how to make an empire profitable.


The Dutch began their venture by sending traders to compete with the Portuguese in the Spice Islands. Their expeditions would be larger than the Spanish and Portuguese ones we saw previously, because the Dutch found a better way to finance their ships. The rulers of Spain and Portugal had paid out of their pockets for the ships used on their expeditions; not only did this take a bite out of the royal treasury, but it made the expeditions dependent on the mood of the king; at least one historian has suggested that a king might have refused to pay for the ships if he had a hangover on the day an expedition was proposed. However, the Dutch did not have a king; their government was a republic in which a figure called a Stadtholder was the head of state. Instead of relying on royal financing, the Dutch floated companies, where merchants got together to raise enough money for their voyages by selling stock in those companies. When talking about teamwork, the billionaire J. Paul Getty once said, “I would rather have one percent of the efforts of a hundred people than a hundred percent of my own efforts,” and now the same kind of thinking was applied to fundraising. In this way, it became possible for an ordinary citizen, rather than a king, to make a difference in the world.


The first expedition, however, was almost a total disaster. Cornelis Houtman had been a spy in Lisbon, and was picked to lead the expedition because he knew more about the spice trade than any other Dutchman. Unfortunately, spies are expected to work alone, or as members of a small team; they make poor leaders. Houtman set sail in 1595 with four ships, the Amsterdam, Mauritius, Hollandia, and Duyfken, crewed by 248 men, but by the time they reached the Indian Ocean, seventy-one had died of scurvy, dysentery and malaria. Originally the expedition had planned a brief stop at Madagascar, but when they got there, they had to stay long enough to bury their dead. Today the location of the graves is unknown, but the place on Madagascar where the Dutch first landed is still called Dutch Cemetery. As for those who survived, they constantly fought among themselves, because they had no other way to relieve months of boredom.


When they got to the port of Bantam, on the west end of Java, they found that the Portuguese knew the Dutch were coming, and had ordered the natives to raise the price of their spices ridiculously high. Even worse, Houtman made a bad impression on the local rulers, insulting them when they would not let him wait until the next crop of pepper was harvested, instead of buying what was available now. Before long, he was bombarding the town and sending his men ashore to do some pillaging; they only took a break long enough to decide whether they should stab their prisoners, shoot them with arrows, or blow them out of cannon! I couldn’t find anything on which sentence they carried out. Sorry.


The sultan of Bantam sent messages to the other rulers on Java, warning them not to do business with the Dutch. As a result, Houtman had to forget about Java, so he sailed on to the next island, Madura. Here the natives had not heard what happened at Bantam, giving Houtman a chance to start with a clean slate. Instead, a misunderstanding led to another fight, when the local prince came with a flotilla of boats, welcoming the Dutch with a boat parade in their honor.


We noted in the previous episode that cockfighting is a Southeast Asian tradition. So are boat parades. Back in the day, if you were a Southeast Asian king, rajah or sultan, and you had visitors you wanted to impress, you held a boat parade. The court of Siam had the grandest boat parades of all, and because modern Thailand is still a monarchy, even today the Thais keep some royal barges in Bangkok, and bring them out occasionally to stage this spectacle.


Unfortunately the Dutch did not see the boat parade this way; they thought it was an attacking fleet. Houtman agreed with his crew and opened fire, killing everyone in the welcoming party, including the prince. After the battle, Houtman managed to get a small cargo of spices, but far less than his ships could hold, since naturally few natives wanted to trade with him. At this point the ships were both unseaworthy and undermanned, so the sailors burned the Amsterdam and put the Amsterdam’s crew on the other three ships. Houtman also decided that they would not go to the Spice Islands, but turn around at this point. They made a rest stop at Bali. Today Bali is a famous island paradaise, and two men liked the local girls so much that they chose to spend the rest of their lives here. For them, if nobody else, the story had a happy ending. Aside from that, the return trip wasn’t very exciting, because more than half of the crew was dead. On the remote south Atlantic island of St. Helena, the crew tried to take on fresh water and other supplies, but the Portuguese had a base on the island, and drove them away. When they reached the Netherlands, 87 crewmen, about one third of those who had left, were still alive.


Before we continue, I want to digress to point out another accomplishment made by one of Houtman’s ships. This was the Duyfken, a name which means “Little Dove.” In 1605 the Duyfken was sent on another expedition, this time commanded by Willem Janszoon. The purpose of this expedition was to map the southern coast of New Guinea, but the ship also stumbled upon Australia, becoming the first European ship to visit that continent. Since one of my fellow podcasters, Anthony Frisina, is Australian, I’m sure he will also mention this, in the History of Indonesia Podcast.


Back to the narrative. The one positive accomplishment of Houtman’s voyage was that it proved the Portuguese couldn’t keep competitors out of the Indies. The Dutch response was enthusiastic; no less than 22 Dutch ships left Europe in 1598, to improve on what Houtman had done. Even Houtman himself led one of the follow-up expeditions, this time going to Aceh. If you listened to Episodes 11 and 12, you will remember that Aceh was a state in northwestern Sumatra, governed by religious extremists. Here Houtman pushed his luck too far; he insulted the sultan and then ordered an attack — not a smart move! Aceh’s forces were led by a female admiral, Malahayati, and after several clashes, Houtman was killed.


Anyway, when you have 22 vessels, you can try sailing more than one route to your destination, and because more than one company was involved, they did just that; some ships took the Portuguese route around Africa, while others took the Spanish route through the Straits of Magellan. Those that went by way of the straits fared no better than the Spanish ships, proving, in case anyone still wasn’t convinced, that the westbound passage across the Pacific took too great a toll in ships and lives to be competitive with the eastbound passage across the Indian Ocean.


The five ships in the first squadron to cross the Atlantic lost more than half their men to scurvy, starvation and fevers, before they reached the straits, and then they had to wait four months before entering, due to the wind constantly blowing the wrong way. One ship had such a rough time in the straits that it waited for the second squadron, and then gave up and returned to the Netherlands. Of the four that got through, one ship was captured by the Spaniards near Valparaiso, Chile, and one was sunk by a storm. The third ship, the Liefde, carried a cargo of woolen clothing; and the captain decided he wouldn’t be able to sell this in the tropics, so instead of heading for the Indies, he took a course that went straight to the north Pacific. Because of this, the Liefde became the first Dutch ship to visit Japan. The last ship made it to the Moluccas, only to be captured by the Portuguese.


Then came the second squadron, four ships and 248 men commanded by Olivier van Noort. Van Noort tried to imitate Sir Francis Drake by raiding Spanish ships as they went along, but instead his ships suffered almost as badly as the first squadron. Along the coasts of Brazil and Patagonia, they were attacked more than once by the local Indians. One ship was lost to a storm before it reached the straits, and one reached the Spice Islands only to run aground upon arrival. The other two made it to the Philippines, and engaged two Spanish ships in Manila Bay; because the Spaniards outnumbered the Dutch, one Dutch ship was captured. The last ship returned to the Netherlands by way of Indonesia and the Cape of Good Hope; van Noort and 45 of his men completed the journey. In terms of profits, van Noort’s expedition barely broke even; its main achievement was becoming the fourth expedition to circumnavigate the world, after the voyages of Magellan, Drake, and Cavendish.


It was the largest squadron going around Africa that found the best way to sail from Europe to the Far East. Eight ships, commanded by Jacob van Neck, cast off in May 1598. One hundred years earlier, Vasco da Gama had proven that if you sail into the middle of the south Atlantic, and turn east when you reach the same latitude as the Cape of Good Hope, you can cut travel time from Europe to the Cape in half, because the winds and currents closer to Africa tend to push ships back to Europe. By following the same course, the squadron got to the Cape in only three months. But right afterwards, a severe storm split the squadron into two groups. The group van Neck was in had three ships; it went to Madagascar, resupplied itself, and then it sailed straight across the Indian Ocean, making a beeline to Java. The other group could not land on Madagascar because of more bad weather, and landed on the nearby island of Mauritius instead.


Until now, most European ships in the Indian Ocean had followed the ocean’s rim, sailing close to East Africa, Arabia and India. While this kept land nearby, it also meant the ships would pass Portuguese forts in places like Goa, and that was only a good idea if you were Portuguese. Even better, because van Neck sailed in the middle of the ocean, his ships caught a strong tailwind. Below latitude 30° South, the prevailing winds blow from west to east, like those in the northern temperate latitudes, but because the southern hemisphere has less land getting in the way, the southern winds are stronger, and the farther south you go, the more powerful these winds get. Today’s sailors refer to these winds as the “Roaring Forties,” the “Furious Fifties,” and the “Shrieking Sixties.” After 1600, Dutch ships crossing the Indian Ocean would head due east from South Africa, in order to sail in the Roaring Forties for as long as possible, and only turn north at the last moment, before they came to Australia.


By catching the Roaring Forties, van Neck arrived at Bantam in November, six months and three weeks after leaving Europe. From Bantam he continued to the Spice Islands, so he could buy cloves and pepper at the wholesale price, and loaded the three ships with this cargo. On December 30 he returned to Bantam, and here he got to meet the missing five ships, which straggled into port on the same day. They celebrated their reunion with a big New Year’s party, and van Neck filled a fourth ship with spices. Then he sent the remaining four ships to load up in the Spice Islands, while he took the four loaded ships home. They reached Amsterdam in July 1599, and the rest of the ships returned by September 1600. The whole city was overjoyed by this news; not only did all the ships make it back, but the stockholders who paid for the expedition received a very nice return of 400 percent on their investment.


Now that they knew how to do it, there was no shortage of Dutchmen willing to go to Indonesia; 65 ships headed east in 1601. However, they weren’t alone; a fourth European power, England, had taken an interest in the wealth of the Far East. In 1594 an English privateer, James Lancaster, crossed the Indian Ocean, came to the island of Penang, off the west coast of Malaya, and stayed there for three months, attacking every ship he saw during that time. Then in 1601 the English followed the Dutch example and floated a company, the famous English East India Company, to support future expeditions in the Indian Ocean and beyond. Lancaster led the Company’s first expedition, which left England in 1601 and returned in 1603. In Indonesia he first secured an alliance between England and Aceh, and then at Bantam he set up England’s first trading post in Southeast Asia, to manage the spices brought there from the Moluccas.


For his success, Lancaster was knighted by the new king of England, James I, and the Dutch realized that if they wanted to take over the spice trade, they needed to act in unison. While the Dutch had more ships available, they were divided between several companies, and they competed with each other almost as fiercely as they had competed against foreigners. Therefore, in 1602 the Dutch companies involved united to form a single company with monopoly rights, the Vereenigde Ost-Indische Compagnie. That translates to Chartered East India Company in English, but most of the time it is called the Dutch East India Company, or simply the V.O.C. To finance the venture, £540,000 worth of V.O.C. shares, were issued on the Amsterdam stock market. This was an awesome amount in those days, worth more than $153 million in today’s American dollars. By contrast, the stock issued for the English East India Company’s Initial Public Offering was worth one eighth as much. Nevertheless, the shares were all sold in a month.


The V.O.C. was the first multinational corporation in history, and it was a complete success; by 1613 the Portuguese had been driven out of the spice trade. It was most aggressive during the years when Jan Pieterszoon Coen was the governor general, the highest-ranked Company official in Asia; he held that post from 1618 to 1623 and from 1627 to 1629. Coen quickly decided that the Company needed a better place to do business than Bantam, so in 1619 he seized the port of Jakarta, and renamed it Batavia (I told you we would hear that name again!). That became the Company headquarters. The sultan of Bantam told him he could keep Batavia on condition that it remain an unfortified trading post, but because it grew quickly after the Company moved in, Coen built walls for it anyway.


Outside of Indonesia, the Dutch goal was to evict the Portuguese and Spaniards from as many outposts as possible. They got off to a bad start, besieging Manila in 1609, 1616, and 1646, but each time the Spanish garrison was strong enough to keep the Dutch from taking the city. Likewise, when they tried to take Macao in 1622, Spain sent ships from Manila to successfully defend it. The Dutch also stationed three ships in the Philippines from 1640 to 1641, in an attempt to capture the galleon loaded with silver that was sent from Mexico every year, but the galleons escaped by taking a different route to Manila. However, the Dutch were more successful elsewhere; they took Taiwan in 1624, Malacca in 1641, and between 1638 and 1658 they conquered the coast of Sri Lanka, while an independent state remained in the interior. To the north, the Japanese expelled all foreigners from their country in 1641, except for the Dutch, who were allowed to keep an outpost on a small island in Nagasaki Harbor. Finally, in 1648 the Eighty Years War ended in Europe, and peace came to the overseas European colonies as well. The end result was that Spain remained in control of the Philippines and the Portuguese held onto Macao, Goa, and Timor, but now all commerce in the Far East was under V.O.C. control. Now that the war was over, the Dutch were pleased to fit the remaining Iberian outposts into their trading system; they could forgive any enemy who became a customer of theirs.


The V.O.C. brought the Netherlands an annual profit averaging $750 million in today’s US dollars. For the shareholders this worked out to a dividend of 18% during the Company’s best years. But only a fourth of its trade went between Asia and Europe. Instead of committing all their resources to one money-making scheme, the shrewd Dutch merchants used most of their ships in an intra-Asian trade network. Most of this trade involved shipping rice from places that grew rice to places that didn’t have enough of it. Other commodities were crops introduced to Java from elsewhere, like potatoes, yams, peanuts, corn, sugar and coffee. The coffee yielded fantastic profits until prices tumbled in 1727. So next time you have Sumatran coffee, you can thank the Dutch for introducing coffee to Indonesia.


Meanwhile, the V.O.C. faced challenges from native rulers, since it was Dutch policy to leave them in charge as long as they were willing to do business. In 1661 they lost Taiwan to a Chinese pirate named Zheng Chenggong, known to Europeans as Coxinga. The biggest threat came from Sultan Agung of Mataram, who dreamed of conquering all of Indonesia and restoring the old Majapahit empire. Agung spent the first fifteen years of his reign, from 1613 to 1628, defeating rivals in the small coastal states. When he got done he was master of most of Java, ruling all of it except Batavia, Bantam and the eastern tip of the island; he also ruled all of Madura. Then he attacked the Dutch by using a variant of the Trojan Horse trick; he sent a fleet of merchant ships to Batavia with cargo holds full of armed men, and the ruse very nearly succeeded. In the next year, 1629, he sent a huge army to take Batavia by land, but because he lacked a navy to accompany it, the Dutch destroyed his supply ships, leaving the Javanese too weak from hunger to attack the city when they arrived. After Sultan Agung’s death in 1645, the Dutch began to roll back the borders of Mataram from their doorstep.


It took most of the seventeenth century for the V.O.C. to gain a total monopoly over the spice trade. The biggest leak came from the Sultanate of Makassar, on nearby Sulawesi; this sultan was willing to sell spices to anybody, including the Portuguese, Spanish, English and natives, and provided a safe harbor for their ships. Cornelis Speelman, an admiral nicknamed the “Sword of the Company,” put an end to this by conquering the Sultanate of Tidore in 1667, and Makassar in 1669; the latter required two expeditions and a lengthy siege. From 1681 until his death in 1684, Speelman was also the Company governor-general; during that time he conquered Ternate and reduced Mataram and Bantam to vassalage. By 1705 about one third of Java was directly ruled by the V.O.C., and the rest was held by friendly sultans. The Moluccas were also under direct company control, but on other islands like Sumatra and Borneo, the Dutch limited their influence to small enclaves. The V.O.C. only liked military action when Coen and Speelman were in charge; the rest of the time it preferred to keep patrols to the minimum needed for security, because capital ships tie up capital.


Competition from the English East India Company had to be handled carefully. While the Dutch were fighting for independence from Spain they needed England’s military support, so the V.O.C.’s directors in Amsterdam were willing to let English ships grab a few cargoes of spices. However, the V.O.C. men in Indonesia did not see the need for restraint, and hostilities broke out as soon as they felt they could get away with it. The worst incident came in 1623, right after Jan Coen’s first term as governor-general ended; one of his subordinates massacred eight English workers at their factory on Amboina. After that the English East India Company scaled back its activities in Indonesia and concentrated on India instead. In that way England and the Netherlands reached an unwritten agreement; England would not interfere with the Dutch in Indonesia, in return for a free hand in India. In 1685 the English built a trading post at Bencoolen, on Sumatra’s southwest coast. Because Bencoolen was off the beaten path, and it failed to tap into the west Sumatran pepper trade, the Dutch left it alone.


It was a combination of bad business practices, corruption among Company employees, and a profitless war that brought down the Company in the late 18th century. The first mistake was in 1740, when the Dutch let fright take command of reason. The rapidly growing Chinese community in Batavia gave rise to fears that the Chinese and Javanese would join together in an anti-Dutch revolt; if Batavia was lost, the V.O.C. would be finished. Most alarming was the fact that many of the Chinese immigrants were unemployed. Why not send them to the Dutch colonies in Sri Lanka and South Africa, where skilled labor was in short supply? That seemed like a satisfactory solution; the Chinese would have jobs, the Dutch would feel safer, and everybody would be happy. Unfortunately nobody asked the Chinese what they thought about it before they were rounded up for deportation. Rumors said that the Dutch actually intended to throw their captives overboard once the ships went out to sea. Fearing a Chinese riot, the Dutch and Indonesians ran amok first, killing the Chinese they found and putting the rest to flight. The result was the same as when the Spaniards tried to get rid of their Chinese community in Manila. Without the Chinese, business stagnated, and eventually the feared immigrants had to be invited back to Batavia.


The Company’s fate was sealed in 1780 when the Netherlands declared its support for the American Revolution. From the Dutch viewpoint the American Revolution was a disaster; the Dutch got nothing when the American Patriots won, England sank more Dutch ships than could be replaced, and in the treaty ending the war, the Dutch were forced to give up all monopoly trading claims. Indonesian ports were opened to foreign shipping, and the V.O.C. found it could no longer compete with the other traders. During the final years, Dutchmen remarked that the V.O.C. acronym had a new meaning: Vergaan Onder Corruptie, or “Perished By Corruption.” The Company declared bankruptcy in 1791, and in 1799 its holdings were taken over by the Dutch government. It was the end of an era in Dutch-Indonesian relations, but the company’s influence lingered on; until the mid-twentieth century, Indonesians referred to any European authority over them as the kompeni.


Alright, that’s enough for this episode. We have reached the year 1800 with Indonesia, and in the next few episodes we will do the same thing with the mainland states. But first we need to take care of two states that will disappear before 1800 — Arakan and Lan Xang. The best years for Arakan fell between 1430 and 1666, so next time we will take a closer look at that coastal kingdom, and then head east to see the fall of Lan Xang, the first Laotian state. And we will also learn about another attempt by a meddlesome European to take control of a mainland kingdom, this time Siam.


If you enjoyed what you just heard and would like me to produce more, you can make a donation by going to the Paypal button on this episode’s page. Also consider writing a review on iTunes, if you haven’t done so already. If you are on Facebook and haven’t done so yet, by all means “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page, so you won’t miss new episodes or announcements concerning them. As always, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right! 


The Elephant Wars, Part 2


Now it is time to drop the other foot. Episode 16 of the podcast finishes what we started covering last time, the wars on the Southeast Asian mainland in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Whereas we mainly looked at two Burmese kings last time, here we will concentrate our attention on Naresuan, whom modern-day Thais consider their greatest king. Also, we have a strange adventure in which two Europeans, a Portuguese and a Spaniard, try to turn Cambodia into a pro-Spanish puppet state.


(Transcript, added 02/09/2020.)


Episode 16: The Elephant Wars, Part 2

Greetings, dear listeners! Last time we began the first multi-part episode in this podcast, covering Myanmar and Thailand in the sixteenth century, or as they were called back then, Burma and Siam. Now get ready for more action; it is time to finish the story. If you haven’t yet listened to Episode 15, I urge you to stop here and listen to that episode first, so you will know what you missed. And if you want to hear the background of the nations involved, Episodes 5 and 9 cover the ancient and medieval history of Burma, Episode 10 covers the origin of Siam and Laos, and Episode 7 covers Cambodia’s glory days.


For Southeast Asia’s military technology, the sixteenth century was a time of transition. Guns are now available; the armies are equipped with the crude cannon and muskets of the day. On the other hand, city walls are still the main line of defense, medieval armor is still in fashion, and officers still ride war elephants. In the Western world, military commanders realized in ancient times that war elephants can be more trouble than they are worth; when elephants are frightened in battle, they tend to turn around and trample the soldiers on their side. And while the great general Hannibal is famous for leading an army over the Alps that included 37 elephants, most of the elephants soon died in the cool climate of Switzerland and north Italy. When Hannibal won his greatest victories, he had no elephants at all. The last use of war elephants in the West happened in the 160s B.C.; they were in the Seleucid, or Syrian Greek army, when it tried to put down the revolt of the Maccabees in Judea. However, war elephants remained in use in the armies of India and Southeast Asia well into the modern era, right up until the Europeans took over. This probably happened for two reasons. First, the tropics are not a good place to raise horses, so in this part of the world, the horses needed for a regular cavalry are always in short supply. Second, the liabilities of war elephants weren’t so obvious when every army used them.


When the previous episode broke off, Burma had conquered Siam and Laos completely, and also Manipur from the nearest part of India. Those conquests were all the achievements of one man, Bayinnaung, the king of Burma from 1550 to 1581. Today in Naypyidaw, the new capital of Myanmar, one of the landmarks is the Three Kings Monument, three statues depicting the greatest Burmese kings: Anawrahta from the eleventh century, Bayinnaung from the sixteenth century, and Alaungpaya from the eighteenth century. Now we will find out how Siam and Laos regained their independence, since they certainly aren’t part of Myanmar today.


Since we talked more about the Burmese kings than anyone else in the last episode, this time we will give equal time to Siam’s royal family. Along that line, who is your favorite Siamese king? We saw several good ones in Episode 10. My favorite is Ramkhamhaeng, because he was a true Renaissance man; he had a skill set that could be useful in both wartime and peacetime. You could also like Rama Tibodi I, who moved the capital from Sukhothai to Ayutthaya; or Boromoraja II, who cut Cambodia down to size by looting Angkor; or Trailok, the great lawgiver. However, the overwhelming favorite of modern-day Thais is Naresuan, the king of Siam from 1590 to 1605. That’s not a long reign for a great king, but it was definitely an exciting reign, because Naresuan didn’t just sit around in a palace and lead his armies from a distance; he was a warrior who went with the armies to as many battles as possible, in an age when commanders in chief no longer had to do so. If you want a king who can fight as well as rule a nation, Naresuan is the king for you. Recently a film director in Thailand made six action movies about the life of Naresuan, entitled “The Legend of King Naresuan”; the first movie was released in 2007, and the sixth was completed in 2015.


To tell the story of Naresuan, we have to begin by stepping back a generation. Naresuan was born in 1555; his birth name was Naret or Pra Naret, and his father was not a king but a noble from Sukhothai, named Maha Thammarachathirat. I know, that name is a jawbreaker, so I won’t expect you to remember it; that’s why I didn’t give it to you in the last episode. He was related to Maha Chakkraphat, the current king of Siam, by marriage, not by blood; his wife was Maha Chakkraphat’s sister. When the Burmese king Bayinnaung invaded Siam in 1563, Maha Thammarachathirat was put in charge of defending Phitsanulok, an important city in northern Siam. He couldn’t do it because the siege lasted long enough for food to run out, and a smallpox epidemic broke out in the city, so he surrendered in January 1564, and Bayinnaung made him the city’s new ruler. To make sure Maha Thammarachathirat stayed loyal, Bayinnaung took his two sons, Naret and Ekathotsarot, back to Burma with him, and they grew up at the Burmese court in Bago. Naret, nicknamed the “Black Prince,” was nine years old at this time, while Ekathotsarot, the “White Prince,” was four. Then in 1569, Bayinnaung invaded Siam for the second time; Maha Chakkraphat died during this campaign, and after Ayutthaya was captured, Bayinnaung installed Maha Thammarachathirat as the vassal king of Siam. This also meant that Naret was now the crown prince of Siam, so his father changed the prince’s name to Naresuan, the name he has been known by ever since.


Bayinnaung was kind to the Siamese princes, treating them a lot like his own kids. He made them monks, which wasn’t a punishment; in Buddhist countries, a lot of boys do temporary service as monks. He even gave Naresuan military training, because he would need it after he became king, to defend Siam from Cambodian raids. Naresuan used this opportunity to learn everything he could about the Burmese armed forces, and that would help him later. During this time, Naresuan also had a falling out with Bayinnaung’s son, Nanda Bayin. If the Thai legends can be trusted, Naresuan and Nanda Bayin had been friends when they were kids, but later they became rivals, and their friendship ended over a cockfight. Cockfights are an ancient sport in Southeast Asia, and because Southeast Asia had chickens first, cockfighting was probably practiced here before any other part of the world tried it. Anyway, both princes brought roosters, Naresuan’s rooster won, and Nanda Bayin tried to save face by calling the champion rooster a “war slave animal.”


Despite the good treatment, a gilded cage is still a cage, and the princes must have looked forward to the day when they would be free again. That came about because the princes had a big sister, Suphankanlaya. Unfortunately, this princess is barely mentioned in the historical records that we have; a lot of what is told about her comes from Thai legends, some of which were first written down as recently as the 1990s, so you decide if you want to believe them or not. According to these legends, Suphankanlaya sacrified herself to free her brothers; she agreed to become a minor wife of Bayinnaung in 1571, if he would let Naresuan and Ekathotsarot go back to Siam. An alternate version of the story has the king of Siam request that his sons be sent back to him, and Bayinnaung granted the request when Princess Suphankanlaya was sent to Burma to take their place.


In 1581 Bayinnaung died and Nanda Bayin became the next king of Burma. Instead of being released from the Burmese court, Princess Suphankanlaya was remarried, this time to Nanda Bayin. Meanwhile in Siam, the royal family stayed loyal to their Burmese overlords — reluctantly. I’m guessing Naresuan found it irksome that his sister was forced to share the bed of his enemy.


By the standards of the day, Nanda Bayin was a good king. However, it would take a great king to hold onto the empire Bayinnaung had put together, and Nanda Bayin was not up to that. Author Victor Lieberman described the realm he inherited as an “absurdly overextended” empire built mainly on patron-client relationships. Likewise G. E. Harvey, the author we quoted several times in the previous episode, wrote that Nanda Bayin was, quote: “saddled with an impossible legacy” of holding the empire together, and his “one hope of keeping the country together was to evacuate Siam and retrench in every direction.” End Quote.


The first revolt came in 1583, not from one of the puppet kings Bayinnaung installed in the conquered territories, but from a member of the Burmese royal family, Nanda Bayin’s uncle at Ava. Nanda Bayin called on all his viceroys and vassals for help.




Together they marched to Ava, and when they arrived, Nanda Bayin defeated the rebellious uncle in a battle that featured another duel fought between commanders on elephants, in April 1584.


The Siamese had answered Nanda Bayin’s call by sending 6,000 troops, led by Prince Naresuan, but they never joined the king’s force. They marched so quickly that they entered Lower Burma only two months after leaving Ayutthaya, and that made Nanda Bayin suspicious, so he ordered his son, Mingyi Swa, to ambush the Siamese. Naresuan discovered this plot to kill him, and he called a council of his officers and clergymen. At that meeting Naresuan poured water from a golden goblet, signifying that he was no longer the friend of the Burmese. Today in Thailand you can see several statues and pictures that show Naresuan pouring the water, since that is when the country began to recover its independence. Afterwards, he continued to Bago, and was allowed to enter the Burmese capital, since the Burmese thought he was still on their side. Here Naresuan freed more than 10,000 Siamese that Bayinnaung had brought to Burma, and when he heard that Nanda Bayin was on the way back from Ava, he returned to Siam, with his army and the rescued prisoners.


The Burmese pursued the retreating Siamese, and the lead unit, commanded by a general named Surakamma, caught up with them at the Sittaung River. Suddenly a shot rang out.

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Naresuan had fired a musket all the way from the other side of the river, and Surakamma dropped dead. With their leader gone, the Burmese panicked and fled, and the Siamese were not chased for the rest of their trip home. Because muskets are not very accurate weapons, this had to be a lucky shot, but until I hear otherwise, I will call this the first successful sniper kill in history.


After the Burmese recovered their wits, Nanda Bayin launched three more invasions of Siam in rapid succession — one in 1585 and two in 1586. The Burmese armies were larger than the Siamese ones, but the invasions were never planned very well, and Naresuan was a self-taught expert on those armies, so every time they clashed, the Siamese won. At the high point of one invasion, when the Burmese were besieging Ayutthaya, Naresuan led an assault on a Burmese camp by climbing the wooden stockade surrounding it, carrying a saber in his mouth by the blunt side. When Naresuan wasn’t busy fighting the Burmese, he was defeating the Cambodian invasions that we mentioned in the last episode. Then in 1590 King Maha Thammarachathirat died, and Naresuan was crowned as the new king of Siam.


Nanda Bayin had not given up on Siam yet, and in 1592 he ordered a final invasion to bring Naresuan to heel. This led to a showdown that today’s Thais regard as one of the most exciting moments in their history. The Burmese and Siamese armies met at Nong Sarai in January 1593, and there was a duel fought on elephants between Naresuan and Mingyi Swa, the Burmese crown prince.


The combatants were armed with glaives, a polearm with a blade that looks like a long knife. Think of a machete tied to the end of a long pole, and you’ll get the idea; the Japanese had a similar weapon called a naginata. A close swipe from Mingyi Swa’s blade cut off the front of the leather hat Naresuan was wearing, and cut the side of his face; then Naresuan struck a blow to the prince’s shoulder that cut him in two, sort of like what happened to Darth Maul in “Star Wars: Episode I.”


That is the Siamese version of the story, and today in Thailand, the anniversary of that battle is a national holiday. The Siamese version goes on to say that when Nanda Bayin learned that his son was dead, he was so enraged that he killed Princess Suphankanlaya with a sword, though she was eight months pregnant at the time, just because she was Naresuan’s brother. Nowadays, In the Thai royal family’s official regalia, there are three items which are said to have belonged to Naresuan: his sword — the one that we said he carried in his mouth in one battle, the musket he used to shoot the Burmese general at long range, and the trimmed hat he wore at the elephant duel. On the other hand, the Burmese version of the story isn’t as dramatic; while it admits that the Burmese lost the battle, it says nothing about an elephant duel, and simply says the crown prince was fatally shot. Again, you will have to decide which version is right.


Siam was free at last, but Naresuan didn’t think he was finished. Before 1593 was over he learned of Mon uprisings on the Tenasserim coast, so he turned the tables on Burma with an invasion that took the port of Tavoy, giving Siam access to the Indian Ocean. Next he stopped the Cambodian raids by launching an invasion of Cambodia that captured its capital, Longvek, and forced the king to flee; more about that in a few minutes. 1594 saw the revolt of another southern city, Martaban, and the Siamese took it, too. Martaban isn’t far from Bago, so Naresuan marched on and besieged the Burmese capital for three months, but then withdrew when he learned that the viceroys of Prome, Toungoo and Ava were coming to the rescue.


Nanda Bayin did not bother Siam after the 1593 showdown because the rest of the Burmese empire was now falling apart. One of the first areas to go was Laos. From 1583 to 1591 the Laotian throne was vacant, which put Laos in a state of anarchy. Eventually Nanda Bayin appointed a new Laotian king, 20-year-old Nokeo Koumane, a son of the former king Settathirat. Nokeo Koumane, like Naresuan, had been raised in Bago, and at first he only ruled the city of Vientiane, so it looked like he wouldn’t give any trouble. But then in 1595, after he gained control over the northern Laotian city of Luang Prabang, he declared that Lan Xang was restored and independent again. Then, because his father and grandfather had ruled the nearby city of Chiangmai, he tried to conquer Chiangmai as well. Because aid wasn’t coming from Burma, the Burmese governor of Chiangmai had to request Siamese aid to stop this invasion, and Naresuan gave it on condition that the governor switch his allegiance to Siam.


The revolts of the Siamese, Mons and Laotians now encouraged the Burmese themselves to revolt against Nanda Bayin. Prome revolted, and then Toungoo, while Ava simply refused to send troops to put down these rebellions. Toungoo decided to march on Bago, and called in help from Arakan, because Arakan had a powerful navy. Together they sacked Bago and burned it to the ground in 1599. If you visit Bago today, you can see the grand palace of Bayinnaung, but it’s not the original building; the Burmese rebuilt it in the 1990s. Nanda Bayin was taken to Toungoo, where he was assassinated a year later. Naresuan was also invited to participate in the siege of Bago, but he arrived too late to grab any loot, so he proceded on to Toungoo, besieged that city for two months, and withdrew to Siam when his army ran out of food. The march on Bago and Toungoo was Naresuan’s only defeat.


Arakan’s navy was strong because it included Portuguese mercenaries and pirates; I will tell you more about them in the future episode I promised about Arakan. The Portuguese unit at this date had three ships and around 3,000 men, and was led by Philip de Brito e Nicote. They did so well that after the fall of Bago, the king of Arakan, Min Razagyi, made de Brito the governor of Syriam, modern Thanlyin, a town at the mouth of the Irrawaddy. The king expected Syriam would become part of his kingdom, but instead de Brito invited more Portuguese to move in, began building forts, and declared independence from Arakan. Arakan and Toungoo sent forces to dislodge him, but de Brito defeated them, and captured Min Khamaung, the crown prince of Arakan, holding him hostage until his former allies accepted his independence in 1603. While waiting for them to concede, de Brito went to Goa, Portugal’s outpost in India, and the Portuguese government granted him titles like “Commander of Syriam” and “King of Bago.” This meant that Portugal now considered Syriam as another one of its outposts.


Meanwhile in the north, the prince of Ava, a brother of Nanda Bayin named Nyaungyan Min, proclaimed himself king of Upper Burma, but during his short reign, from 1599 to 1605, he did not try to conquer his rivals. Instead he marched east to conquer the Shans in 1605. Naresuan raised an army to stop this campaign, but in the neighborhood of Chiangmai he fell ill and died. He was succeeded by his brother, Ekathotsarot, the “White Prince” — remember him? Ekathotsarot ruled from 1605 to 1620, meaning his reign was as long as Naresuan’s, but it was a more peaceful reign, since he wasn’t as much of a warrior.


Among the Burmese, Nyaungyan Min’s son, Anaukpetlun, became the next king of Ava. Anaukpetlun ruled from 1605 to 1628, and he completed the task of reassembling Burma that his father had started. He captured Prome in 1607, Toungoo in 1610, and then began conquering the Irrawaddy delta.


The population of the delta was still largely Mon, and it looks like the Mons would have accepted Philip de Brito as their ruler if he had left them alone. But de Brito was now an official Portuguese agent, and that probably explains his next action — he tried to convert all his subjects to Christianity. Wherever he went he destroyed Buddhas, stripped the gold and jewelry from pagodas, and melted down temple bells to cast cannon. The king of Toungoo, Natshinnaung, didn’t like being demoted to a governor when Anaukpetlun captured his city, so he invited de Brito to attack Toungoo. The attack failed, but Natshinnaung escaped, went back to Syriam with de Brito, and accepted baptism as a Catholic.


The superior technology of the Portuguese garrison meant that the advancing Burmese faced slow going, but because the Burmese had the advantage of numbers, they prevailed, finishing their conquest of the delta in 1613. After they surrendered, 400 Portuguese defenders and their families were taken to Ava, and eventually deported. Because de Brito had descecrated Buddhist temples, he was given the worst punishment the Burmese could think of: death by impalement on a wooden stake, and because of the way it was done, de Brito took three days to die. Ouch! Since Natshinnaung was a cousin, Anaukpetlun offered to pardon him if he would renounce Christianity and swear loyalty to him. Natshinnaung refused and Anaukpetlun reportedly said, quote: “You prefer to be the slave of a foreigner than serve the king of your own race.” End quote. The only source I have on Natshinnaung’s fate asserts that Anaukpetlun impaled him, too. Now that is what I call an angry king!


With Upper and Lower Burma under his belt, Anaukpetlun next marched on both Chiangmai and the Tenasserim coast, to take those territories back from Siam. Fighting went on until 1618, when Burma and Siam signed a treaty that gave Tavoy to Siam, and Chiangmai to Burma. Afterwards Anaukpetlun stopped going on military campaigns, and moved his capital to Bago; stability returned to Burma, because he did not try to restore the empire of Bayinnaung. The borders of Burma were now much like the present-day borders, if you don’t count Arakan, the reacquired Chiangmai, and Tavoy. Anaukpetlun’s successors returned to Ava, and there the Toungoo dynasty lasted until 1752, but the kings were weak, and holding the country together was all they could do.

Cambodian Escapade

The activities of Philip de Brito showed us that while Europeans were not yet strong enough to conquer the major kingdoms on the Southeast Asian mainland, they could still make mischief, all out of proportion to their numbers. Over in Cambodia, other Iberian adventurers were trying their luck in the late sixteenth century. A few missionaries had gone there as early as 1556, but Buddhist opposition had always forced them to leave again. This changed in the 1580s, when the ongoing struggle between Siam and Cambodia turned against the Cambodians. As the Siamese king, Naresuan, advanced on the current Cambodian capital, Longvek, the feeble Cambodian king, Satha, became desperate. He recruited Diogo Veloso, a Portuguese soldier of fortune, as his envoy, and used him to plead for aid, first from the Portuguese at Malacca, then from the Spaniards at Manila. A Spanish force was sent from Manila in 1594, but it arrived too late; the Spaniards found that Cambodia had fallen to the Siamese, Veloso was a prisoner in Siam, and King Satha was a refugee in Laos. The Spanish leader, Blaz Ruiz, was captured and placed on a prison ship headed for Siam. Unwilling to give up so easily, Ruiz managed to hijack the ship and take it back to Manila. Meanwhile Veloso, who was just as resourceful, gained favor with Naresuan. The Spaniards were new to the Siamese, and Naresuan wanted to establish diplomatic relations with them, so when he tried to do this by sending an ambassador to Manila, Veloso got himself appointed captain of the ambassador’s ship.


The adventure became even more bizarre once Veloso and Ruiz were united in Manila. Forgetting that he was now officially a Siamese diplomat, Veloso claimed that he represented Cambodia’s ex-king and signed a highly irregular treaty with the Spanish governor. This document allowed Spanish troops, merchants, and missionaries to travel freely in Cambodia, and promised that the king and queen would become Christians in return for military aid. Then Veloso and Ruiz led a raid on Siamese-occupied Phnom Penh. Deciding at first to return to Manila after this affair, they later changed their minds, jumped ship in a Vietnamese port, and marched overland from Vietnam to Laos. Because they were the first Europeans to set foot in Laos, they received a very nice welcome from the Laotians, and then discovered that Satha and his eldest son had died before their arrival. The adventurers returned to Cambodia in 1597, bringing Satha’s second son with them; fearing that these guys were leading another Spanish invasion, the terrified Cambodians allowed them to crown the prince as King Barom Reachea II.


The puppet monarchy was short-lived, though. In 1599 a fight between the Spaniards and some Cham and Malay mercenaries grew into a massacre that killed almost every Spaniard in Phnom Penh. Siamese forces retook Longvek, and the pro-Spanish king became yet another of Southeast Asia’s many victims of regicide. Ruiz escaped to Manila, while Veloso simply disappeared. Wikipedia claims that Veloso returned to Malacca, but it appears more likely that he was killed in the massacre. Four years later a fresh royal weakling sent a request for military aid to Manila, but Naresuan replaced him with a pro-Siamese monarch immediately. The Spanish game in Cambodia was over, and with it ended Spain’s only attempt to expand her empire onto the Asian mainland.


That does it for the Elephant Wars, and for this episode. All the fighting in the sixteenth century left Burma, Siam, Lan Xang and Cambodia exhausted, so the seventeenth century will be peaceful by comparison, as all these nations recover. For the seventeenth century, most of the action was on the islands of Indonesia; therefore we will shift our attention to Indonesia for the next episode. Also, in the next episode we will introduce another European player — the Dutch — and these Europeans will be very different from the Portuguese and Spaniards we have met already.


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