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Economic and Social History Blog

40. East of Suez (5-5-2020)

East of Suez (5-5-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

In one of the episodes of the Netflix series The Queen there is this choir of colonial officials singing the song of Mandalay:

Ship me somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst

I am not sure what the meaning of the ‘thirst’ is in this context (probably mainly to fill in the rhyme, the song is based on a poem by Kipling and he was arguably a better novelist than a poet), but the rest is clear: these men long for a world in which other rules apply than the ten commandments. It is a late colonial illustration of the duality of moral codes that was inherent to the colonial system that was created in the 17th and 18th centuries, as we saw yesterday. Slavery, arguably the worst of all institutions, was perhaps the ‘best’ example of this systematic double standard.

The history of slavery in the early modern period has always focused on the Atlantic slave trade, but from the Dutch perspective, it was much more relevant what happened in Asia, in the domain of the VOC, as this predated the systematic involvement of Dutch merchants in this trade by more than three decades. When the first Dutch fleets arrived in the Indian Ocean, they had to decide what to do with indigenous slavery. The sources are silent here: there was no public or internal-VOC discussion about the use of and trade in slaves, and from the start slave labour was used to satisfy the growing needs of the VOC for labour (for building fortifications for example). Initially slaves were bought at the various ports the VOC visited, but after some time they began to organize their own raids to islands of the archipelago to forcefully recruit slave labour for, amongst others, the cultivation and in particular harvesting of spices on the Banda islands. Batavia, which in 1621 became the central node of the Asian trade network, was from a start a town with a large slave population. The only discussion about the moral side of this occurred in the 1620s, when the newly established West Indian Company appointed a committee to address the question whether the company should participate in the slave trade. This committee asked the classes of Walcheren and Amsterdam for advice, which was clearly negative (Amsterdam for example wrote that it ‘niet christelijk was lijffeigene te hebben’). The kerkenraad in Batavia, confronted with these indictments, strongly defended slavery as an institution typical of Asia, much like freedom was a Holland tradition. And that was it – in Asia slavery remained a core institution, and the WIC began to participate in the slave trade (it is perhaps significant that the committee did not produce an official report, and also left no traces in the archives). But at the same time returning VOC employees were not allowed to take their slaves with them to the Netherlands (only in exceptional cases, such as a wet-nurse that took care of a baby, could the ban be lifted, but at considerable costs to the employee). Similarly, the Estates General formalized the rule that a slave that was brought to the Netherlands by his master, would be automatically manumitted after a period of one year. So by and large the Netherlands remained a country without slavery, but it was very normal – in fact the basis of the economy – in large parts of the empire, where ‘the best is like the worst’.

Slavery is an extreme example of the double standard of colonialism. Sexual morale offers another: from the start it became not unusual for VOC employees to have a concubine or a slave for sex. Coen tried to ban these practices – which conflicted with his strategic goal of forming a European settler colony on Java, he tried to convince the VOC officials to send more European women to Batavia – but to no avail. It is another example of the ease with which moral behaviour was adapted to local circumstances and norms – and there are probably many more. Indeed, the ten commandments did not apply to ‘east of Suez’ (nor south of Suez, for that matter). I once learned that Dutch families who migrated to Indonesia in the late colonial period, also changed their religious behaviour after Suez: they stopped praying before dinner (but I can’t remember where I read this).

Perhaps there is an element of inevitability in this: when you relocate small groups of people from one society to another one, where they are a tiny minority, you can expect them to adapt to local circumstances. And there is a temporal element as well: imperialism under Coen or during the Cultivation System was another matter than during the Ethical Policy of the post 1900 period. But still, what does it tell us about (wo)man that he/she does not find it problematic to live in two separate, to some extent conflicting moral world – the colonial and the ‘home’ world. Do we adapt so easily that only a tiny minority – single individuals like Multatuli – sees and feels the conflict between them? What is the value of norms and values if people adapt so easily to other norms and values? And more positively, if you want to maintain good behaviour, norms only do not help sufficiently, you need ‘institutions’ – distinct ‘rules of the game’ which are enforced by peers, by courts, by the state – to keep on the right track. Because, let us not forget that, The Netherlands remained on track, managed to keep the temptations of slavery outside its borders – thanks to attentive mayors of Middelburg and others, who maintained a tradition of criticizing slavery. In short, norms and values alone do not keep you on track, because they are quite malleable; institutions are required which are embedded in norms and values, and reinforced by them – as without them the hero of our story, Adriaen Heindricxsen ten Haeff, would not have acted.

Continue reading: Women at the Olympics (7-5-2020)