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Monsoon Traders: Ships, Skippers and Commodities in Eighteenth-century Makassar

Author(s):Knaap, Gerrit
Sutherland, Heather
Reviewer(s):Prakash, Om

Published by EH.NET (October 2005)

Gerrit Knaap and Heather Sutherland, Monsoon Traders: Ships, Skippers and Commodities in Eighteenth-century Makassar. Leiden: KITLV Press, 2005. ix + 269 pp. ?30 (hardcover), ISBN: 90-6718-232-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Om Prakash, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi.

With the rise of an early modern world economy and the arrival of European corporate enterprises in the Indian Ocean from the sixteenth century onward, there was a significant increase in the amount of trade carried on in the Indian Ocean – South China Sea complex. At least one of these enterprises, namely the Dutch East India Company, engaged, in addition to Euro-Asian trade, in a substantial amount of trade within Asia as an integral part of its overall trading strategy through the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. While a part of this latter trade was probably at the expense of the Asian merchants’ trade in the ocean going back many centuries, an overwhelming bulk of it was a net addition to the trade in the Indian Ocean – South China Sea complex. The Company’s documentation preserved at the National Archives in The Hague enables one to reconstruct in good measure the Company’s Euro-Asian as well as intra-Asian trade. But remarkably what it also does is to facilitate a substantive reconstruction of the Asian merchants’ trade in the Indian Ocean – South China Sea complex in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. This is made possible by the availability in the Company’s documentation of a body of material generally referred to as the “shipping lists.” These are records of non-Company ships’ departure from and arrival into a whole range of ports in the region. The lists record the name of the ship together with that of its captain as well as owner, its type, the port of destination in the case of departing ships and of origin in that of the arriving ships and the cargo carried by the ship. This is a unique body of information in so far as no other source — European or Asian — provides such information in such detail on a long-term basis. The factors of the Company stationed at the various Asian ports were instructed to copy the material from the port’s customs house records to enable the Governor-General-in-Council at Batavia to keep an eye on the trading activities of the Company’s principal rivals in intra-Asian trade.

Gerrit Knaap, the head of the Archives and Images Department at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies at Leiden, and Heather Sutherland, Professor of Non-Western History at the Free University of Amsterdam, are two of the very small number of historians globally who are completely at home with the intricacies of the Dutch East India Company documentation and particularly the shipping lists. The publication of the Monsoon Traders, which has been in the making for almost twenty years, is therefore to be greatly welcomed. The book provides a very detailed account of the maritime trade from and to Makassar for particular blocks of years in the course of the eighteenth century. In the context of the growing international trade in exotic spices such as cloves, nutmeg and mace grown exclusively in Maluku (the Moluccas) in the eastern extremity of the Indonesian archipelago in the early modern period, the port of Makassar, by virtue of its location, suddenly acquired a great deal of importance as an entrepot for the spice trade. Indeed, until its conquest by the Company between 1667 and 1669, smuggling of the monopoly spices via Makassar was the principal circumstance enabling the English East India Company to acquire a substantial quantity of cloves and thus compromise the Dutch Company’s efforts at establishing a complete monopoly in this spice in Europe

In addition to the introduction, the book consists of four basic chapters, a conclusion, an appendix on weights and measures and an appended set of 26 large tables, showing the most important quantitative results of the manipulation of data from the sources. These tables provide the backbone for the analysis in the basic chapters, and each table is accompanied by a commentary describing how it was compiled and what its limitations were. Chapter II provides an outline of the structure and development of the VOC-controlled town of Makassar, of its pre-conquest shipping and trade networks, and of attempts to rebuild these networks, at least in part, after the Dutch takeover. By the mid-eighteenth century, the taxation of trade was no longer in the hands of the VOC’s own harbormaster, but had been delegated to tax farmers. The chapter closes with the treatment of the Company’s own trade in Makassar which centered around the sale of Indian textiles.

Chapter III deals with shipping. It starts by describing the most important types of vessels, both of Sulawesian and non-Sulawesian origin, including those of the VOC. The evolution of the shipbuilding tradition of Sulawesi itself is also considered. This is followed by an analysis of the sources’ information on shipboard weapons. The chapter also includes a discussion of the commanders on board, their numbers over the years, their places of residence and the ethnic and/or status labels assigned to them. The chapter also examines the volume and direction of both private and VOC shipping over the course of the century.

The first section of Chapter IV deals with the general characteristics of cargoes. Another section considers the most important commodities handled in Makassar: money, cereal foods, products derived from coconut palms and sugar cane, addictive drugs in a broad sense of the word, salt and other sea produce, forest-derived goods, Chinese earthenware, iron and various tools and utensils, semi-manufactured textiles, Sulawesian, other Indonesian and Indian cloth, and finally slaves.

In the last chapter before the one containing the conclusions of the study, the value of the trade to and from Makassar is analyzed. The chapter also compares the general development of trade and shipping on the main routes to and from Makassar, for instance with Batavia, Semarang, Sumbawa, Arakan, etc. Then follows a comparison of the performance of the main categories of skippers: Burghers, Chinese, Malays and the most important group of Sulawesians. The chapter also considers the distribution of major trade items over the most important routes and groups of skippers. Interestingly, the authors also analyze the connection with Amoy, now Xiamen, in China which was a special case.

The depth and the care with which the data, derived from the sources, are presented in Monsoon Traders make the book a veritable source for future researchers. Based on years of extremely careful and dedicated work on hard to match original source materials, it will serve as a model for similar micro-level studies.

Om Prakash is the author of European Commercial Enterprise in Precolonial India, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):18th Century