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Dutch Footprints Along the Irrawaddy

By Bertil Lintner

Britain and Porutgal weren't the only foreign powers in early Burmese history

Seventeenth-century Burma and the Dutch East India Company, by Wil O. Dijk. Singapore University Press, 2006. 348 pages

There are numerous books about the Anglo-Burmese wars in the 19th century, politics and the economy in Burma under British colonial rule and the Burmese struggle for independence in the 1930s and 1940s.

But Burma's colonial history did not begin with the arrival of the British; the Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in East Asia. In 1511, they captured Malacca and soon established colonies and trading posts in Goa on the west coast of India, Macau on the south China coast, in the Spice Islands in what now is Indonesia — and the newly independent nation of East Timor — as well as in Martaban in today's Mon State, and along the coast of Tenasserim.

According to Czech Burma scholar Jan Becka, the Portuguese had a major impact on the course of Burmese history by bringing firearms to the country and serving as mercenary gunners in the royal army of several Burmese kings, including Tabinshwehti, the founder of the Second Burmese Empire and conqueror of the Mons in the 16th century and his successor, Bayintnaung, Burma's most celebrated warrior king, who invaded the Shan States, Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and Vientiane in Laos, and whose statue now stands in the center of the new, militaristic show-capital of Naypyidaw along with two other icons of today's Burmese military: Anawratha and Alaungpaya.

Every Burmese schoolchild is also taught about the Portuguese mercenary Felipe de Brito, who ruled over parts of southern Burma in the early 17th century, and then was executed in 1613 in Syriam, or, more precisely, impaled on a sharpened bamboo pole. He died after two days of agony. A few hundred of his Portuguese followers, however, were taken captive and settled in villages north of Mandalay, where their descendants, known as bayingyi or feringhi, still live.

But the Dutch? They are mentioned only in passing even in authoritative histories such as F S V Donnison's Burma, published in 1970, and not at all in Frank Trager's 1966 classic Burma: From Kingdom to Republic, Hugh Tinker's The Union of Burma from 1957, or in Becka's more recent and otherwise meticulously detailed Historical Dictionary of Myanmar. Even well-known Southeast Asia historian D G E Hall wrote in the August 1939 edition of the Journal of the Burma Research Society: "The history [of the Dutch] factories in Burma] seems never to have been written, though many references to it that lie buried in the published volumes of the Daghregister of Batavia (now Jakarta) lead one to think that the Dutch archives probably contain more than enough material for such a purpose."

Wil O Dijk's study of the colonial power that dominated Burma, or at least foreign trade with Burma, from the decline of Portugal's maritime power in the mid 17th century to the rise of the British Empire in Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries, is, therefore, an invaluable contribution to the study of Burmese history. And she has gone through the vast archives of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or the VOC, which now are being kept in the Dutch National Archives in The Hague. The VOC was present in Burma from 1634 to 1680, and its accounts and records of that time provide are an invaluable source of information about the time in Burmese history just as the Second Empire was about to fall apart. It was also a time of Dutch expansion in Asia, as they drove the Portuguese out of Malacca, southern India, today's Sri Lanka and most of the Spice Islands.

But the Dutch were also facing setbacks in the region. In 1662 Chinese forces from the mainland expelled them from Taiwan, then known as Formosa, and the loss of that access to the China trade made the Dutch desperate to find alternative channels. Burma seemed to be the obvious route from the Bay of Bengal to the vast Chinese market — and that, Dijk states, was one of the main reasons why the VOC for nearly half a century maintained a significant presence in Burma. But it did not succeed.

"Time and again," Dijk writes, "the Company's factors in Burma pleaded with the King to allow the VOC a trading post on the Sino-Burmese border, but to no avail. Eventually this ban became a major factor contributing to the Dutch decision to abandon Burma."

But, even in the final years of British rule, a few Dutch businessmen were trading in Burma, including Kemp Dijk, the author's father. His wife, and the author's mother, was Florence Beatrix, the daughter of a Montenegrin immigrant and his Burmese wife, E Me. The author grew up partly in Rangoon in the 1930s, and she has visited Burma on numerous occasions since then. No one could be better suited to write about a little-known, yet important, chapter in Burma's history.

This review first appeared in The Irrawaddy, February, 2007

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