A great deal has been written about the Atlantic trade in African slaves in which the Dutch, under the aegis of their West Indian Company, were heavily involved. Far less is known about the participation of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the seventeenth century Asian slave trade, particularly in and around the Bay of Bengal. I propose to investigate the degree to which the VOC was involved in this branch of the slave trade: how and where did the Dutch procure their Asian slaves and in what numbers, what was their gender and average age, under what conditions were they shipped from the Bay of Bengal (mainly Arakan and the Coromandel Coast) to the (Dutch) East Indies, how many survived the journey and how were they afterwards employed? How vital were slaves to the VOC's economy and general prosperity?
The VOC's early central government in the East (at Bantam before the Company established its head quarters at Batavia) had to admit that one slave could put in as much work as two or three Dutchmen, unaccustomed as the Europeans were to the intense tropical heat. Moreover, the Company men were wont to drink themselves into a stupor, what with the abundantly available cheap liquor.
The Dutch set large numbers of slaves to work at their many forts, trading posts and settlements in the East Indies. Not only were these slaves shipped in from South and Mainland Southeast Asia, but the Southeast Asian archipelago and the Philippines were a major source of slave labour as well.
Arakan generally had a plentiful supply of slaves. In fact, one of the chief reasons the VOC established a trading post at Mrauk-U, the country's capital, was precisely for the procurement of slaves and rice. Many if not most of the slaves that were sold in Arakan had actually been hunted down and caught in Bengal and the Dutch could only obtain them in Arakan if the King himself did not need them. The death rate among these slaves was enormous. In 1626, for example, 4000 of the 10.000 slaves died shortly after they were captured. And the year before, more than half of the 1300 slaves perished. At this point it was even suggested that the Dutch should venture forth to do their own capturing!
The VOC sources are quite explicit about the Company's involvement in the trade in Asian slaves and I would hope that this research might shed some light on the dark side of the Dutch East India Company's activities in Asia.
- Mainland Southeast Asian history
Country of origin
Period of stay at IIAS
The VOC's trade in Asian Slaves