223rd Meeting – Tuesday, June 11th  2002

‘Traders and Travellers’ The Dutch in 17th Century Laos and Cambodia

A talk by Carool Kersten

The full text of Carool's talk:


The intention of this talk is to provide an impression of the ventures of the Dutch East India Company in Phnom Penh during the years 1635 until 1644, and the first recorded European expedition sent by the Dutch trading post in Phnom Penh to Vientiane, under the leadership of the merchant Geraerd Wusthof. My talk is based on a booklet, published in 1669, under a lengthy title, which translated reads as follows:

Strange Events in the Kingdoms of Cambodia and Laos, in the East Indies, having occurred there from the year 1635 until the year 1644. As well as the voyage of the Dutch from Cambodia up the Lao River to Viang Chan, court of the Lao Majesty. And finally the cruel massacre by the Indians in Cambodia, which has occurred in 1643’.

Although I am still in the process of making the text ready for publication, I have chosen to make a presentation at this point in time because it was 400 years ago that the Dutch East India Company was founded. In the Netherlands most of the attention is obviously dedicated to the company in the former Dutch East Indies. I understand from the Dutch Embassy in Bangkok that the commemoration of Dutch-Thai relations will focus on the first trading relations established at Pattani in 1604, as well as the factory at Ayutthaya, which was, virtually without interruption, in business from 1617 until 1767. With this presentation I hope to draw some attention for the East India Company’s activities elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

For briefness sake I will refer to the East India Company under its Dutch acronym ‘VOC’ (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie)

Before saying a bit more about the earlier mentioned book I would like to point out that the developments described in there took place during a crucial episode in the Dutch expansion overseas. For a correct appreciation I think it is important to keep the following points in mind:

       1.         At the same time as they were taking control over world trade, the Dutch at home were fighting a protracted war against their former overlords, the Spanish.  It was a period in which the world would become engulfed in what could be described as the first wave of globalization.

       2.         The Dutch Cambodia adventure coincided with Antonie van Diemen’s years in office as Governor General of the VOC in Batavia, from 1636 until 1645. Apart from the controversial Jan Pietersz. Coen, van Diemen was probably the most influential individual in the history of the VOC.

       3.         A 'window of opportunity' offered to the Dutch at this time was the decision of the Japanese Shogun to introduce a policy of sakoku or ‘national seclusion’. This meant that all Japanese citizens abroad were ordered to return home, while at the same time Japan would be closed off to foreigners.

But before going into that, let me say a few things about the book Strange Events.

The book

Because of the paucity of surviving indigenous source material, historians studying early-modern mainland Southeast Asia have had to rely disproportionately on Western writings about the region. However, the importance of a book like Strange Events lies not so much in the documentary evidence it provides on an important historical episode. In that respect professionals may rightly argue that primary source material held in archives, such as the famous Daghregister maintained at Batavia, journals, diaries, treaties, etc. should prevail.

But as a contemporary and edited account based on the material contained in these archives, it has a significance of its own.  Because publications such as Strange Events give rise to interesting questions, such as:

1.      Compared to primary sources, what is in it and what has been left out?

2.      Which events are highlighted?

3.      How are they described and contextualized?

4.      Are there any conjectures to be made with regards to the author’s ‘hidden agenda’? And so on.

Let me add that historians do appreciate the importance of contemporary publications. In that respect I bring to mind the book written by Baas Terwiel on the image of Siam as it appears from 19th century travel writings. Also I happen to know that Tamara Loos of Cornell University has taught a Sophomore Seminar under the title ‘The Occidental Tourist: Travel Writing and Orientalism in Southeast Asia

Apart from the historical perspective there is also the cultural angle. The book, published by the printer Pieter Casteleyn of Haarlem in 1669, belongs to a larger body of texts dealing with distant lands, faraway peoples, and their strange customs and habits. From the era of the great discoveries onwards, the European public had been eager for the exotic. So books written in the vernacular, comprising of travelogues, pieces of oriental history, as well as tales of the ‘fantastical’ were published all over Europe.

In an article that appeared in the Journal of the Siam Society of 1997, Sven Trakulhun pointed out that all these early travel accounts are to be considered a literary genre, written in response to the intellectual challenge posed by the encounter with non-Western cultures.

Strange Events was not published until 25 years after the last incidents it describes. This delay may be explained by the fact that all the information it contains was derived from VOC records, bearing direct relevance to VOC activities. In order to safeguard its position in the face of, especially, English and Portuguese competition, such data were closely guarded secrets. As a matter of fact, in 1596 the Dutch had been able to break the century-old Iberian monopoly on the spice trade, thanks, in no small measure, to the wealth of details derived from the Itinerario of Jan Huygen van Linschoten, a Dutchman who had been in Portuguese service at Goa for six years. Consequently the Company enforced a strict censorship on all writings of its personnel in Asia and at home.

Having become increasingly rare since its first, and apparently only, print in 1669, Casteleyn’s text was reprinted in 1917, when it was added to a body of documents on Dutch activities in 17th-century Cambodia and Laos, edited by the scholar-diplomat Hendrik Muller. In his introduction Muller recalled that, during his visit to the École Française d’ Extrême-Orient in Hanoi, he was proudly shown a copy of the rare Casteleyn booklet. It was therefore decided to add Strange Events to the collection of previously unpublished material.

The authorship of Strange Events cannot be determined with any degree of certainty. In his ‘preface to the reader’, publisher Casteleyn stated that the writer had ‘cruised and experienced these wild districts himself, and had been commissioned with the administration of the voyage to the Lao Kingdom by [Governor] General van Diemen’. One would be tempted to conclude from this that Geraerd Wusthof was the author.

However, from a comparison between the texts of Strange Events and Wusthof's journal, Muller had already observed that the differences were too great to draw such a conclusion. Perusing the journal, he considered Wusthof not a very accomplished writer. Even for the expert on 17th-century Dutch his writing style was often succinct to the extreme, and his syntax and punctuation so erratic that one has often to guess for the exact meaning. Muller added to this that ‘sometimes one has to take recourse to German to be able to understand him’.

The French linguist Jean-Claude Lejosne, who has made a French translation of the Wusthof diary, is of the opinion that Wusthof was most probably of German origin, or, if Dutch, that he hailed from one of the eastern border provinces.

To this I may add that even the spelling of the supposed author’s name is not consistent. In Strange Events he is ‘Geraerd Wusthof’, while in the journal it is rendered as ‘Gerrit van Wuysthoff’. 

Muller was therefore of the opinion that Casteleyn had composed the text of Strange Events, relying for the Laos episode on a copy of Wusthof’s diary. Lejosne is more careful and states that, if not the author, then Casteleyn had most likely commissioned the writing of the booklet.

In addition to these linguistic observations, it should also not be forgotten that Wusthof was not even present at the establishment of the VOC trading post in Phnom Penh in 1636, nor could he have witnessed the dramatic events unfolding in Cambodia during his journey and after his release from duty, shortly upon his return in April 1642.

Until the publication of the texts collected and edited by Muller, hardly any Dutch material pertaining to the VOC’s activities in Cambodia and Laos had been made accessible. The only exception was an 1871 French translation of Strange Events, commissioned by Francis Garnier, a former member of the French Mekong expedition (1866-68). This translation was allegedly completed by Paul Voelkel, director of the German Institute (!) in Paris.

It was not until 1986 that Lejosne’s translation of three other texts from the 1917 collection, appeared. A revised and extended translation of these documents: namely the journals kept by the expedition leader and his assistants respectively, as well as of Wusthof’s letter addressed to the Governor General in Batavia, was published 1993.

Historical setting

I would now like to return to the historical setting of the VOC episode in Cambodia and Laos. As I have mentioned earlier the relatively short episode covered by this book was part of a wide-scale Dutch endeavor to monopolize international trade, which reached its zenith during the period in which the Dutch also established a presence in Cambodia and visited Laos. Let us take a look at how this came about.

Before their first ships set sail for the East Indies in April 1595, the Dutch had already made a name for themselves as the bulk carriers of Europe. Prior to the establishment of the Republic of the United Provinces (Dutch Republic for short) they had, for more than one hundred years, played an important part in the shuttling of goods between the Mediterranean and Northern Europe.

All resources were geared up to support this effort. The Dutch introduced a new trading vessel, named fluyt or ‘flute-ship’, which proved superior to the outdated Portuguese caravel. Developed in the 1590s in the North-Holland town of Hoorn, it was a relatively small ship, but very maneuverable and, given its dimensions, able to carry an amazing volume of cargo. Ownership of Dutch merchantmen was divided in many shares, allotted to merchants and non-merchants, such as shipbuilders, outfitters, millers, timber traders, and brewers alike.

In seems somewhat paradoxical that in the space of a few decades the Dutch were able to dominate world trade, when at the end of the 16th century the odds appeared to be overwhelmingly stacked against them. Barely a decade old, the infant Dutch Republic was involved in a protracted war with its former overlord, Spain, at that time, the most powerful political force on the continent. Ironically the circumstances created by this war provided the window of opportunity through which the Dutch leaped to take control of a rapidly growing global trade system.

The war situation, with its ensuing embargoes, had made access to the Iberian and Mediterranean ports increasingly uncertain. The Dutch realized that in order to obtain the products of the rich trade, they had to go directly to their source. Following the first reconnaissance expedition in 1595, a number of Dutch mercantile cities established ‘Compagniëen van Verre’ (Long-Distance Companies) to engage in the East India trade.

When internal competition got out of hand, a number of merchants were able to convince state authorities that the trade would soon be ruined, and worse, that the Portuguese would benefit from it, unless the government intervened. So it was in 1602 that the ‘Staten-Generaal’ (a sort of parliament which effectively ruled the Republic) granted approval to the charter of the ‘Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie’ (United East India Company, better know under its acronym ‘VOC’).

By 1602, a system was taking shape that would enable the Dutch to take primacy in world trade for the next century and a half. It was as the expert on VOC history, Jonathan Israel, has it: “a unique and characteristically Dutch blend of political intervention and business efficiency” in which the VOC established an ever closer relationship with the Dutch ruling oligarchy. 

Under its charter, the VOC was accorded vast commercial, military and political powers. The VOC was entitled to mint its own currency and manage the building and outfitting of ships. In the political field it would be allowed to build fortresses and found plantations and colonies in its own name. It could mobilize and maintain armies and – very important – sign treaties with foreign potentates in the name of the ‘Stadtholder’ (Chief of the Republic’s executive branch, a position held by the Prince of Orange).

This seems strangely at odds with the carefully designed balance of power in the Republic itself. But in the East Indies the Dutch were up against the Portuguese, still a formidable adversary, who, after more than a century in Asia, were firmly entrenched in most of the entrepots throughout the Indian Ocean region and Far East.

Ever since the conquest of Malacca in 1511, Portuguese colonial administrators like d’Albuquerque and his successors had encouraged the Portuguese colonists to marry into the local population. Not serving under contracts for a fixed period of time like VOC officials, many of the Portuguese expatriates had come east to stay. I quote in this context the observation of VOC Governor General Antonie van Diemen:

Most of the Portuguese in India [= Asia] look upon this region as their fatherland. They think no more about Portugal. They drive little or no trade thither, but content themselves with the interport trade of Asia, just as if they were natives thereof and had no other country’.

Moreover, since 1580, Portugal was united with Spain under the dynasty of Spanish Habsburg. In the Dutch perception, ousting the Portuguese from their positions in Asia was an extension of the war being fought in Europe.

As a matter of fact, the struggle was of truly global proportions with confrontations taking place on four continents and seven seas. For this reason, C.R. Boxer, one of the greatest authorities on the Luso-Dutch conflict, is of the opinion that “this seventeenth-century contest deserves to be called the First World War rather than the holocaust of 1914-18”

The battle-line was drawn along a religious divide as well, pitting staunchly Protestant Dutch against fervently Roman-Catholic Iberians. The growth of Protestant ‘heresies’ during the 16th century had led to a Roman Catholic revival called the Counter Reformation, culminating in the establishment of the Inquisition at the Council of Trent (1536), an institution wholehearted supported by the Portuguese. In the course of the long struggle for independence, the stand of the Protestants in the Netherlands had hardened likewise.

In short, the international political climate during the first half of the 17th century was extremely explosive. On their own soil the Dutch were engaged in the Eighty-Year War against Spain, while the rest of Europe was ravaged by the vicious Thirty-Year War. At the same time, Dutch and Portuguese were at loggerheads everywhere else on the globe.

After nearly two decades in the East Indies, the Dutch presence was no longer confined to the Indonesian Archipelago alone. In 1601 and 1604 the first VOC ships had called at Pattani and Ayutthaya, and trading posts were founded on India’s Coromandel coast.

The occupation of the settlement of Cakarta, soon renamed ‘Batavia’, in 1619 heralded the establishment of a permanent set-up in Southeast Asia. It became the seat of the Governor General, who chaired the so-called ‘Council of India’. This body was responsible for maintaining relations with the metropolis in the Netherlands and coordinating trade activities in the East. In order to fulfill its commercial objectives, the Council of India could not detach itself from politics. Although officially under the authority of the VOC’s board of management in the Netherlands (called ‘Heeren XVII’ in Dutch), the enormous distance and the politico-military powers with which it had been invested, caused the Council of India - and especially certain independent-minded governor generals - to take certain liberties.

Outside Batavia, the VOC founded an increasing number of (semi-) permanent trading stations in the region’s centres of commerce. They were called either factorijen (‘factories’, from the Portuguese feitorias) or ‘comptoiren (a French word literally meaning ‘warehouse counter’). These factories were of vital importance for a new element which the Dutch introduced into the European Asia trade; participation in the intra-regional commerce. This initiative was born out of necessity. Not only did the Dutch have few commodities to offer which were of interest to Asian merchants, but they needed also to find means to finance their return trips home.

The Dutch considered Siam the most promising trading partner on the Southeast Asian mainland. However, Portuguese and English competition delayed the conclusion of a permanent treaty of privileges until 1617. Ayutthaya soon became the nodal point for the Dutch involvement in the trade between Java, Taiwan and Japan, and it would also function as the springboard for further Dutch activities on the Southeast Asian mainland.

The importance of Ayutthaya is further evidenced by the fact that the factory would operate uninterruptedly until 1767, with the exception of the year 1623-24 when business sentiment was down because of ongoing conflicts between Ayutthaya on one side, and Pattani and Cambodia on the other. As a matter of fact, as early as 1622 the VOC had briefly maintained a presence in Cambodia, but the war erupting between Ayutthaya and Cambodia after the latter’s renunciation of Siamese suzerainty had forced the company to close its office down under pressure from the Siamese.

After 1632 however, having defeated the powerful Javanese Sultanate of Mataram the Dutch ‘entered upon a period of spectacular success and expansion. The great advance began under Antonie van Diemen 1636-1645’.

Van Diemen pursued his policy of pushing the Portuguese out of the Asian trade network, with singular determination. He extended the span of VOC control not only further into the Indonesian Archipelago and mainland Southeast Asia, but also over the lucrative Japan trade as well.

Maintaining a string of factories along the route from Batavia to Taiwan and Japan was therefore of paramount importance and Cambodia was considered an indispensable link in that chain. Following the death of King Song Tham (1628) and the ensuing succession troubles, by 1636 Ayutthaya’s relative strength had weakened while the VOC’s position had become stronger. Consequently the VOC faced little opposition to its decision to reopen the factory in Cambodia.

Jeremias van Vliet, a Dutch merchant in Ayutthaya, recalls in his book, ‘Description of the Kingdom of Siam’ (1692), having advised the Governor General to station VOC merchants in Phnom Penh ‘in order to ensure that the Siamese leave the Cambodians in peace’.

 With decisive figures like van Diemen in Batavia and the newly appointed chief merchant of Ayutthaya, Jeremias van Vliet, in charge - and an additional foothold in Indochina to the boot - 1636 may be considered a watershed year for the Dutch influence in mainland Southeast Asia.

Cambodia’s strategic importance within the master plan was twofold. Trade with the mainland interior was gaining importance because the forest produce to be obtained there was vital for the lucrative Japan trade, as it could be bartered against copper and silver. Cambodia was considered the gateway to these products of the Indochinese hinterland.

Until then commerce between Cambodia and Japan had been the domain of overseas Japanese, but with the introduction of the policy of Sakoku or ‘national seclusion’, the Tokogawa shogunate was ordering its citizens to return to the homeland. This provided an opportunity for the Dutch to capture the traffic between Cambodia and Japan.

The most important commodities the Dutch hoped to obtain via Cambodia were deerskins, benzoin and gum-lac. Benzoin also known as ‘Benjamin’, is an aromatic resin secreted by a shrub-tree, Storax Benzoin. The name is a corruption of the Arabic Lubân Jawi or ‘Javanese frankincense’. It was used for making incense and certain medicines.

Gum-lac or lakka, is the sticky, resinous secretion of the tiny lac insect (laccifer lacca) which is a species of scale insect. This insect deposits lac on the twigs and young branches of several varieties of soapberry and acacia trees and particularly on the sacred fig (Ficus Religiosa). It is mainly used in the production of dyes.

All three were luxury goods highly valued in both China and Japan, and therefore of great importance for conducting intra-regional trade.

To be able to appreciate the political situation as the Dutch found it on their arrival in Cambodia in 1636, it is necessary to take a step back in time.

A very important development had been the relocation of the country’s capital from its ancient site at Angkor to the Phnom Penh area. Too often historians have taken the abandonment of Angkor as the result of an ‘absolute decline’. But one authority on Cambodian History, David Chandler, prefers to speak of ‘change’ instead, associating it with the rise of Ayutthaya in the west of mainland Southeast Asia.

Within Cambodian territory itself the shift of the geographical center of gravity from Angkor to the Phnom Penh area as a result of a move of both institutions and large numbers of people made good sense because of the suitability of Phnom Penh’s location. Phnom Penh was also known as Chatomuk (Catur Mukha) meaning ‘Four Faces’. Generally taken as a reference to the confluence of the Mekong River with the tributary of the inland lake of Tonlé Sap and their subsequent continuation in two separate river arms towards the delta.

Moving the country's geographical center to Phnom Penh made good sense to the Cambodians because, in addition to being a safer distance from the encroaching Siamese, its location allowed the Cambodians to become more actively involved in commerce with Chinese merchants traveling up the Mekong from ports on the South China Sea, and also to establish control over the Laos trade coming down-river. Also, Phnom Penh gave them better access to the rice fields of the fertile Mekong Delta and the fisheries on the inland lake of Tonlé Sap. By moving its capital Cambodia had thus become a more outward-looking trading kingdom.

A crucial event in setting the stage for the state of affairs confronting the VOC merchants in the 1630s had occurred in 1594 when the Siamese had finally succeeded in capturing the Cambodian capital, then located at Lovek. Sources present the fall of Lovek as the turning point but, according to David Chandler, Cambodia’s presumed decline at the hands of the Siamese was much more of a gradual affair and should not be attributed to a single, cataclysmic event. In the following decades foreign traders would continue to deal with both Ayutthaya and Cambodia.

Anyway, after losing his capital, King Sattha fled to seek refuge in the Lao capital, Vientiane The king’s brother, Srei Suriyopor, who carried the title Ubhayorâj or ‘Second King’, was taken captive and, together with his relatives, transferred to Ayutthaya as hostages.

What stands out in the period following the fall of Lovek are the bungled attempts by two Iberian soldiers of fortune, the Spaniard Blas Ruiz de Hernan Gonzales and the Portuguese Diego Belloso (Veloso), to restore Sattha as the ‘legitimate’ king of Cambodia.

This incident contained two elements which were to have a lasting effect on the political situation in Cambodia in the following decades. First, there was the increasing entanglement of the Cambodian court with the outside world, whereby foreign merchants of various nationalities competed with each other for influence. In addition to that the conduct of warfare was revolutionized as a result of the introduction of superior military technology, in particular naval cannon. The latter had enabled foreigners to quickly obtain the upper hand during armed conflicts, in spite of their numerical disadvantage. Realizing this, Cambodian kings would make every effort to obtain such weaponry for themselves.

The two mercenaries soon became entangled in a power play of Byzantine complexity, which ended with their death during a Malay-led revolt in the summer of 1599. The confusion lasted until 1603; kings were murdered while rival factions of noble families fought each other over suitable successors. The resident Malays, led by the so-called Laksamana, continued to play an important role in this web of conspiracies and intrigue.

Eventually one group of mandarins, with the support of Ayutthaya, prevailed and Sattha’s exiled brother, Srei Soriyopor, was allowed to return with his family to Cambodia and take the throne. With the restoration of this line of the Royal family, the scene was also set for an intensive rivalry between the offspring of two sons of this king, Chei Chettha and Outei. This family feud would haunt the Dutch throughout their eight or nine years in Cambodia. 

Although there appears to be little recorded evidence of indiscretions committed by Outei with the spouse of his brother Chei Chettha, it is possible that these were the root cause for the future rivalry between the Chei Chettha line and Outei line.

After fifteen years of rule, the 67-year old king abdicated in favor of his oldest son, who ruled for the next eight years as Chei Chettha II. The kings’ death in 1627 heralded a new period of uncertainty, which was the situation that the Dutch encountered when establishing a permanent trading post in Phnom Penh in 1636.

Chei Chettha was succeeded by his son Chau Ponhea To, who was still a minor and an ordained Buddhist monk at the time of his father’s passing. Consequently, Chei Chettha’s younger brother Outei took on the title Ubhayoraj and started to act as ‘regent’ on behalf of his nephew.

One of the first acts of the new king was to build himself a new residence on Koh Khlok – an island in Tonlé Thom. While the exact motivations for this act remain unclear, it did effectively prevented the king from having any direct involvement in state affairs because Outei and most of the courtiers remained at the old location of Udong. This way the regent had a free hand in Cambodian politics.

Around 1632, the smouldering tensions between the king and the regent erupted. According to historian Mak Phoeun, by then there was a real power struggle going on between Chau Ponhea To and Outei. However, in the royal chronicles the king’s re-establishment of a liaison with Princess Ang Vati, by then consort of the Ubhayoraj, was presented as the pretext for the regent to taking decisive action against the king.

Five thousand troops, a proportion of whom were Portuguese mercenaries, besieged the king at Koh Khlok. The exact fate of the king following the initial clash is not entirely clear. One of the extant chronicles states that Chau Ponhea To died in 1634, but Geraerd Wusthof mentioned in his journal that the king was murdered in Koh Khlok in 1632.

With the disappearance of Chau Ponhea To from the scene, important courtiers invited Outei to become king. But the regent again refused – as he had done in 1627 – and arrangements were made for Chau Ponhea Nu, a younger brother of the dead king, to take the throne. It was during this reign that the Dutch relations with Cambodia described in Strange Events became established.

With this background in mind, we now can turn to the first section of Strange Events, dedicated to the VOC in Cambodia.

The Dutch in 17th-century Cambodia

 We can discern two important strands along which the narrative is developed:

1.      One gives a description of Cambodia’s internal affairs - and its ‘palace politics’ in particular -as well as of the relationships the Dutch maintained with Cambodian royalty.

2.      The other strand provides a few instances of how the global Portuguese-Dutch struggle unfolded in Cambodia.

Interestingly, the story starts by pointing out that in 1635 Cambodia was ruled by three kings. The names of the first two are not mentioned in the text, they are just called ‘Older King’ and ‘Younger King’. A little further on we are informed that the 'Younger King' died in 1640, that the surviving ‘Older King’ was his uncle, and that the deceased was a brother of the present king.  The 'present king' is the king ruling in 1644, at the end of the events described in the book.

With this information we can identify the ‘Older King’ as the regent Outei, and the ‘Younger King’ as Chau Ponhea Nu. The ‘present king’, another surviving son of Chei Chettha II, named Chau Ponhea Chan, does not return until later in the story.

The third ‘king’ of the triumvirate in power was in fact a queen, whose name is given as Nappra Thiemeda. She was a sister of Outei. When, in 1640, both the 'Younger King' and Nappra Thiemeda died, Outei appointed his own son as king and heir apparent. That son’s name is given as Nac Tomeretiat (a corruption of Dhammatiraj).

The Dutch relationships with this first trio were of varying quality. Because of Outei's apparently mercurial character, the initially cordial relation between him and the first Dutch factor, Jan Dirckz. Gaalen, became strained over a dispute involving the sale of cannon. It was only thanks to the intervention of the 'Younger King', that Outei was pacified. However, in the end the VOC had no option but to recall Gaalen. The 'Younger King’s' sudden death was therefore very much deplored in Strange Events, because, due to the loss of this benefactor, the Dutch were unable to obtain proper justice in what I have dubbed ‘the Tonkin silk case’.

Late 1638 or early 1639, the Dutch factor in Tonkin had chartered a Chinese junk to transport a cargo of silk and eighteen Dutchmen from Tonkin to Japan. After murdering the Dutchmen, the Chinese crew diverted the vessel to China. But when part of the cargo turned up in Cambodia, the Dutch, by chance, apprehended some of the perpetrators and subsequently filed a case with the court. Efforts to obtain justice however were frustrated by lengthy appeals procedures. It seemed also that the Dutch could no longer rely on Outei’s ‘favorable disposition’. As for the newly appointed heir apparent Nak Dhammatiraj, described as a ‘youthful lad of 21 years with a good and soft character’ who displayed ‘affection’ towards the Dutch, it appears that he was powerless.

Strange Events makes frequent mention of this great ‘affection’ towards the VOC. This needs some explanation. Taking into consideration Oliver Wolters’ concept of the ‘Single Ocean’, this attitude is to be viewed in terms of political expediency on the part of these Asian rulers. It should be realized that Southeast Asian ports were visited en route to other destinations, in contrast to ports around the Mediterranean which were terminal destinations. The enormous Asian coastline meant that in periods of political upheaval there was always an alternative destination to go to. Both Europeans and Asians were well aware of this. In effect, the Indian Ocean was a ‘vast zone of neutral water’ which all parties involved, independently and for their own interests, wanted to protect. Hospitality extended to foreign merchants by the Southeast Asian centres of commerce was a necessity if they to remain a port of call. On the other hand, this meant that  - in order to create a monopoly - Portuguese and Dutch were forced to maintain a string of strongholds along the entire route.

The Dutch would have been severely mistaken if they assumed that this friendly attitude was exclusively reserved for them. There are indications in Strange Events that the Dutch indeed took a pragmatic view of this royal benevolence, since donations made to members of the royal family and the court are repeatedly mentioned as a means to curry favor and obtain preferential treatment.

After the Tonkin incident, the narrative shifts to the Dutch-Portuguese struggle, which by 1640 is at its height. The two incidents, which the author of Strange Event mentions in this context, can be interpreted as serving a dual purpose.

First of all, the intensity of the rivalry is underscored by an explicit reference to the difference in morality. The author contrasts the alleged rectitude of the Dutch with examples of Portuguese perfidy.

Secondly, two violent encounters are employed to prepare the contention – to be made in a later stage – that the Portuguese instigated the massacre or enslavement of Dutch citizens present in Cambodia in November 1643.  Both incidents occurred at the time of the Laos expedition (July 1641 – October 1642), shortly after the Dutch conquest of Malacca in January 1641. This had been a major blow to the Portuguese and in its aftermath many Portuguese, eager for revenge, had sought refuge in Cambodia.

The first confrontation appears to have been a common brawl getting out of hand. It involved a number of sailors from the VOC vessel de Sayer, and left two Dutchmen dead. This incident led to a protracted court case, in which the Portuguese are accused of bribing the court into ruling financial compensation for the Dutch, instead of the execution of two Portuguese ‘of equal standing’ as demanded by the Dutch. Dutch chief merchants refused to accept the blood money, and the author ends the account with the self-righteous remark that 'until to date the Dutch have refused to collect the awarded sum.'

More complex and of greater political consequence was the second case, involving a Portuguese vessel outbound from Macao, with a cargo of silk.

In Phnom Penh, the Portuguese transshiped the cargo onto Cambodian junks en route for Japan. Fearing that a Dutch vessel, the Oost-Cappel, which was about to leave with Cambodian merchandise bound for Japan, might intercept their junks, the Portuguese lobbied the Cambodian court to instruct the VOC comptoir to allow safepassage. The chief merchant at the time, Pieter van Regemortes, replied that he had no mandate to do so.  Which was true, since the Governor General had just issued an instruction that no ships intending to travel to Japan should receive such a document.

Thereupon the Portuguese demanded a two-week head start, but van Regemortes remonstrated that he could not comply with this either because the southern monsoon, which the Oost-Cappel needed to reach Japan, was nearing its end. Consequently he instructed the ship’s commander, Abel Tasman – who later became a famous explorer, to leave port three days prior to the departure of the Cambodian vessels.  Portuguese fears were subsequently justified when Oost-Cappel, lying in wait a few miles offshore, captured one of the Cambodian vessels. Consequently the Portuguese sued the Dutch, but internal political developments in Cambodia prevented any orderly outcome of the court case.

At this point the author is about to tie together the two strands along which he developed his narrative: one dealing with the relations between Cambodian royalty and the VOC, the other dedicated to the Dutch-Portuguese encounter in Cambodia. But before he does this, he gives a lengthy description of how Outei’s decision of two years before, to appoint his son as heir apparent, finally catches up with him when suddenly the disfranchised Chau Ponhea Chan, claims the throne.  A tale of intrigue and conspiracy describing, in great detail, the prince’s bloody path to power.

I interpret the great detail in which all of the atrocities are depicted as being motivated not so much by the author’s horror of cruelty, as by his intention to underscore his indignation with the unfair way this oriental despot came to power.

A fascinating aspect of this whole affair is the surprising decision of the new king to convert to Islam. Let me leave it here with the remark that the author of Strange Events did not fail to notice that this conversion earned the king the unwavering support of the Muslim Malay and Javanese in Cambodia. I also recall that the Malays had already acted as kingmakers on an earlier occasion. Both the king’s conversion and the Malay influence in Cambodia are intriguing issues, which I intend to research further, for I suspect there is a connection between the two.

After explaining the importance of this alliance the author makes the connection between the two strands when he states that, and I quote:

With the help of the Javanese and Malays, who were very influential with the king, the Portuguese were able to take their advantage of this new monarch. Intent on frustrating Dutch trade in these regions in every possible way [..] It is believed that the Portuguese have sought to avenge themselves when in the year 1643 the chief merchant Pieter de Regemortes, together with many Dutch and servants, was scandalously murdered at the lodge in Cambodia [..]”

So at the very least the Portuguese were guilty by association. By his earlier elaborate descriptions of the various acts of barbarism committed on Chau Ponhea Chan’s instruction and their subsequent association with this ‘usurper’, the author pronounces a moral verdict over the Portuguese: they belong in the same category as Asian despots.

The Laos episode

Let’s now turn to the VOC expedition that was sent to Vientiane in July 1641.

Having established a presence in most of Southeast Asia’s coastal centres of commerce, the Dutch now turned their attention to the interior, from which they hoped to obtain the forest products that were so useful in the China and Japan trade. 

They had identified a mysterious kingdom known as Lansiangh (‘Lân Xâng’), but as it was inhabited by a people called ‘Lao’, the Dutch started to refer to it as Louwen-lant or Lauwen Landt (‘Land of the Lao’).

With respect to 17th-century Lao history, we face the same shortage of indigenous sources as for Cambodia in that period. It seems that when king Surinyavongsa took the throne in 1638, the country was emerging from a fifty-year period of political instability. The long reign of Surinyavongsa (1638-1694) was not only a period of restoration, but is even regarded as the most prosperous in Lao history.

It seems that under Surinyavongsa, Lân Xâng wanted to become a more outward looking country, because the king was very eager to get access to the maritime trade network of Southeast Asia. Until then the landlocked country had only taken part in a mercantile caravan network, depending for seaborne trade on Ayutthaya and Cambodia.

In March 1641, Antonie van Diemen had received a number of Lao merchants who had traveled from Phnom Penh to Batavia on board a VOC vessel. They had come to explain that Lao traders would like to enter into a direct business relation with the Dutch, because of the unfair treatment they received from the Siamese in Ayutthaya.

Having been extended an invitation for an exploratory visit, van Diemen instructed the factory in Phnom Penh to organize an expedition. The chief merchants van Regemortes and Broeckman decided to charge under-merchant Geraerd Wusthof with the command of this expedition.

For this presentation I will limit myself to the usefulness of the ‘Laos episode’ for discerning 17th-century European ways of describing and interpreting non-Western cultures.

Reading the passages on the religion of Buddhism as the prime exponent of the author’s encounter with an unfamiliar culture, one is struck by Wusthof’s obvious powers of observation. For example, he appears to have been perceptive enough to distinguish differences between the practices of the Lao, Siamese and Cambodian monastic orders, and the relative status they enjoyed in their respective societies. Yet, at the same time, he lacked even the most basic knowledge of the teachings of the Buddha. The problem to adequately represent a non-Western culture and religion was further compounded by an apparent lack of suitable categories to describe what was observed. Consequently, Wusthof took his recourse to the only device available: contrasting it with his own religious background. To do this he cast Buddhism in the mould of the only other religion he was sufficiently familiar with: Roman Catholicism.

But it is not impossible that there may have been other forces at work. I think that certain underlying political motivations should not be discarded out of hand. If that is the case Wusthof may have been manipulating his descriptions by the intentional employment of the chosen terminology.

An indication for this is that members of the sangha or monastic order and temples are consistently referred to by – often derogatory – words, usually reserved for describing Roman Catholic clerics and institutions. In this context, the fact should not be ignored that a major objection of Protestants towards Roman Catholicism was the exalted position of clerics and the sway they held over the laity.

In Strange Events the Protestant Wusthof perceived Buddhism as having accorded a similar high status to a religious class which he perceived to be as morally corrupt as the Catholic priests. I will give a few examples to illustrate this:

In the chapter dedicated to a description of Laos, Wusthof claims that the largest part of the annual gold production of Laos was donated to the ‘Papists to decorate their idol churches and pyramids’, which are numerous and many.

The number of monks (idolaters as he calls them) is comparable to the ‘number of soldiers of the German Emperor’

Not only do they ‘fool the people in believing that God-in-Heaven has appeared in this land and that therefore all statues are fashioned in his image’, but that for the same reason the monks claim that ‘they have been raised over those from Siam and Cambodia’. Further proof of this is the fact that many Siamese and Cambodian monks come to Vientiane to study.

Wusthof now becomes really cynical, because in his opinion these monks come because the Lao treat them ‘like Gods. As anything they desire, with regard to food etc. is prepared in great abundance for them’, and ‘clothes they have more than they need’. Wusthof even ventures that they ‘use women whenever they desire so’.

I find Wusthof’s observation that "at home, Cambodian monks do not get away with such behavior" very interesting. He claims that in the case of such transgressions they are handed over to the judiciary. Wusthof adds also that Cambodian monks have to look after their own livelihood. These differences are cause for a lot of animosity between the two. Cambodians accuse Lao monks of indecency, while Lao consider the Cambodian monks as beggars.

In conclusion Wusthof states’ they promise that the one who offers them most will be most fortunate. Thus they are able to hold the people in subjection. In short, they are very apt at the art of retaining these people under their devotion and at the same time make them part with their money

The assumption of such intentional manipulation would also allow the interpretation that the Catholic Portuguese were implicitly categorized as being on an equal footing with the pagan ‘natives’, because this dovetails nicely with the earlier mentioned observation of van Diemen, one of the few zealously Calvinist Governors-General, concerning the Portuguese.

Furthermore, C.R. Boxer has pointed out that - much to the chagrin of the Dutch - the relative success of Catholic missionaries in Asia had led to the Portuguese in general enjoying a better reputation than the Dutch.

A more subtle parallel between Catholicism and Asian custom was drawn by Wusthof in his description of the audience with the king, where the barefoot approach -candles between folded hands - to the monarch is likened to participation in the ‘procession of Antwerp’.

My suspicion that the author is deliberately manipulating things may be speculative, but in his study of Jeremias van Vliet’s writings, the Australian economic historian Alfons van der Kraan has made similar conjectures concerning the behavior of Asian royalty. Van der Kraan was struck by the fact that in travel accounts, and I quote:

Apart from emphasizing the strange and exotic, there was a clear preference for material that stressed what these observers saw as the tyranny and despotism of Asian Kings.’

His explanation for this particular focus is based on the fact that, at the time, the Dutch were at the forefront of capitalist development and change in Europe. This new republic, controlled by merchants, was at that time considered an ‘unusual and much despised political formation’. The Dutch, in their turn, harboured a similar hatred for the absolutist monarchies still dominating Spain, France, Sweden, Russia, and - though not much longer - England. Accounts of exotic despotism provided them with a useful tool in their ideological struggle against these traditional political systems. Against this background the implicit Dutch sympathy for the tribulations suffered by Lao merchants in Ayutthaya becomes understandable.


I hope to have shown in the foregoing that, in the space of a mere forty pages, a booklet like Strange Events allows us to gain some insight into 17th-century views on such complex issues as the legitimacy of power, the rule of law, free trade, religious (in)tolerance, and cross-cultural understanding. Comparing these with the issues dominating the political debate today, it might be argued that the forces of continuity appear to be just as potent as the forces of change.