Tuesday 12 November 2019

The Dutch East India Company's Place in the History of the Emirates

We went to stay with friends over the summer - they had lived here in the Emirates but returned to Holland, being Dutch as they is. Andre and Sonja live in Brouwershaven, in Zeeland. It's a funny little place, at one time an important mercantile (and, as the name attests, brewing) centre but now a sleepy, pleasant sort of small town with a marina and assorted leisure facilities and camp sites. Because it was once a bustling port, it has a church sized out of all proportion to the town's current scale, a huge cathedral-like construction. And inside it, on the floor, I found this gravestone from the 1700s, carved with a Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship.

In our time wandering around the Netherlands, I kept coming up against references to the Company and Holland's colonial past. I found brass cannon inscribed in Arabic and maps of the Gulf drawn by early Dutch cartographers. In Amsterdam we spent a happy hour or so wandering around a reconstructed VOC ship. It seemed as if everywhere I went, there was a reminder of the VOC and its links with the Gulf - and the story of how European powers smashed the great Arab monopoly of eastern trade that forms such an important part of the Emirates' past.

While it's most closely associated these days with South Africa and Indonesia, the VOC was actually very much involved in commerce with India and the Arabian Gulf - the VOC comes from the company's Dutch name, Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie. Dutch is an insane language that I confess to finding as unpronounceable as I am shamed at how the Dutch all speak impeccable English.

In the late 1500s, the Dutch went to war against Spain and its ally Portugal. This triggered a series of Dutch moves against Portugal's very successful eastern trade network over the next century and saw Portugal's trading stations throughout the east fall into Dutch hands. Although the focus of Dutch expansionism was the 'Far East', the VOC nevertheless established 'factories' in the Gulf, particularly at Gombroon (Bandar Abbas), Bandar Kong and, further up the Gulf, Kharg Island.

You'll see a lot of references to these 'factories' - established at various times by the Portuguese, French, Dutch and English. They're not manufacturing plants, but trading posts. And each successive eastwards wave of European expansion (or, if you prefer, Empire) would see all sorts of skulduggery practiced in order to suppress rival influence and trade - from the co-option and coercion of local leaders and populaces to outright warfare against colonial rivals and locals alike.

Having weakened the Portuguese stranglehold on the great Arab trade networks of (and monopoly of trade with) the east, the Dutch then went to war with the British in the late 1600s. The result was a flourishing of the British East India Company at Dutch expense - much as the VOC had flourished at Portuguese expense. Over the next century, the Dutch would see their influence and trading links with the East wane as the sun rose over the British Empire.

Which is why, as we enter the late 1700s, it was the Brits in the Gulf and their government in Bombay who found themselves arrayed against the local maritime force - the fearsome Huwala and Qawasim. Which is, as they say, another story...

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