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265th Meeting - Tuesday, August 9th 2005

"Dr. Muller's Asian Journey: Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Yunnan (1907-1909)"

The author, Carool Kersten, talking about his new book

Present: Ian Cragg, Thanaphum Inthasroi, Jacques Op de Laak, Ken Kampe, Hans Bänziger, Manus Brinkman, Annelie Hendriks, Bodil Blokker-Viggerby, Lorenz Ferrari, Micah Morton, John Butt, Martha Butt, Thomas Ohlson, Angela Michie, Michael Ball, Anna Schouten, Victoria Voureiter, Piyawee Ruenjinda, Chris Bland, Hanna Braendli, Louis Gabaude, John Cadet, Kanokwan Cadet, Sarah Wassall, Stephen Cottrell, Patrick McGowan, Joe Herr, Klaus Berkmüller, Roxanne Oddie, Mathew Oddie, Jeff and Yang Petry, Reinhard Hohler, Lilli Saxer, Chris Carpenter, Tingting Huang, Anchalee Katipratoom. An audience of 37.

The full text of Carool's talk :

This talk introduces my latest book, published with White Lotus Press in Bangkok. It is based on a travelogue by one Hendrik Pieter Nicolaas Muller, a kind of gentleman-traveler, relating his experiences during a two-year journey in Asia, between July 1907 and June 1909.

Dr. Muller's Asian Journey covers sections of the first part of a two-volume book entitled Azië Gespiegeld -- which could be translated in English as a Mirror on Asia -- and which was published in 1912. In this first part, Muller describes his visits to the Philippines, the mainland of Southeast Asia - that is the section which I have covered in Dr. Muller's Asian Journey -- Korea, Manchuria, and the Tran Siberian Railway. In the second volume Muller tackles British Malaya and China. The First World War delayed the release of that book until 1918.

Unfortunately, Muller never got around to writing about his travels through British India and the Dutch East Indies - although he makes references to his experiences there in his many comparisons between Dutch colonial policies and the practices of the French and British in Asia.

I came across Muller's writings when I was researching my previous book 'Strange Events in the Kingdoms of Cambodia and Laos 1635-1644', which deals with Dutch-Cambodian contacts in the seventeenth century. Muller has made a substantial amount of primary documents covering that period available. It was then that I discovered he had also traveled in Asia himself and written about it.

In this introduction I want to talk a bit about the author's life; some of his other writings, in particular those related to Asia, and give a brief evaluation of some of the topics addressed in Dr. Muller's Asian Journey. This is partly in attempt to answer the question of what the significance is of a nearly one hundred-year old book for us contemporary residents or travelers in Asia, apart from being some historical curiosum of travel writing.

The author

During his lifetime (1859-1941) Hendrik Muller pursued with reasonable success three careers. That of a businessman, a diplomat, and a - one could say scholarly - writer.

As a member of a prominent trading family from Rotterdam, with interests in the West Indies, Africa, and the Dutch East Indies, Henk Muller -- as he was commonly referred to -- was destined to become a businessman himself. So for the first ten years of his working life -- from 1881 until 1891 Muller was involved in international trade, but soon also in diplomacy - eventually taking over from his father as the honorary consul of Liberia in the Netherlands.

Since most of his business dealings were connected with Africa and because of his experiences as a diplomat, Muller became recognized as some sort of Africa expert. A Dutch historian (Dr. Michel Doortmont of the University of Groningen) whose research focuses on that part of Muller's career has even called him the Netherlands' first "Africanist". During the decade he worked as an Africa trader, Muller made two long trips to the Dark Continent. One trip took him to Mozambique and South Africa (1881-83), the other to Ghana and Liberia (1890). In between there was a shorter visit to North Africa (1889).

After falling-out with his father in the early 1890s Muller left the family business and decided to continue his interest in things African from an academic angle. The settlement he reached with his family was of such a nature that Muller did not need to work for his money for the rest of his life.

During his business trips to Africa, Muller had also collected numerous indigenous artifacts. These activities provided a basis for his studies in ethnography at a number of German universities (Heidelberg, Leipzig, Giessen) after 1891. Three years later, in 1894, he obtained a doctorate from the University at Giessen.

But there was to be no university career for Muller. He never succeeded in getting an appointment as a lecturer or professor (in spite of a formal appeal to one no less than the queen-regent, Queen Emma). However, he had already established himself as a talented writer. His African adventures had resulted in four books. With his additional credentials as a doctor of ethnography, he also cut out a niche for himself as an independent scholar. A few years later he was also able to extend his diplomatic activities a bit further. Because of his familiarity with African affairs, he first became the acting consul for Orange Free State in the provinces of North and South Holland to assist the consul-general, Mr. Hamelberg, who had fallen ill. When the consul-general eventually died, Muller was appointed as his successor and became the senior representative of Orange Free State in the Netherlands. In 1898 he traveled for the second time to South Africa. Soon that job became much more high-profile then he could have imagined because in that same year - 1898 -- the Boer War erupted in South Africa and Henk Muller found himself the official representative of a country at war. Muller executed his duties with great zeal: looking after stranded South Africans in Europe, arranging supplies for the embattled country, and gaining diplomatic recognition (Postal Union, Red Cross Conventions).

However, due to his personality he rubbed a number of people the wrong way. His character flaws would haunt him also later in his career. During the First World War he lost his position as a commissioner for refugees because of the way he treated his subordinates. Biographers have characterized Henk Muller with words like self-confident; emotional; dominating - even overbearing - and not very suited for teamwork; vain; very active, but also mercurial.

As the Consul for Orange Free State, Muller behaved indeed somewhat as a loose canon. Without authorization he traveled to the United States in order to canvass support for the Boer cause. Arriving in New York on New Year's Eve 1901, he soon discovered, however, that without official backing he would have to limit himself to a lecture tour. Five months later -- by that time he had reached San Francisco -- he received news that the war was over.

Muller did not return home immediately but traveled onward to Central America. Upon returning to the Netherlands he closed down the consulate in The Hague and settled down to write two more books; one on his American travels, and the other an edited volume on South Africa based on the papers of his predecessor, consul-general Hamelberg. When that work was done, the restless Henk Muller embarked on his longest journey: the one to Asia.

The Asian journey

When you take Muller's book on his travels in Asia, it is not possible to establish the exact itinerary he followed. Also the family archive is not of much help. The contents of that archive revolve mainly around the activities of his father, a prominent businessman and politician. Apart from transcripts of some of his letters written during the trip, there are no diaries or other documents. It is a bit of a mystery where these have gone. There is a chance they may have ended up in Bloemfontein, South-Africa, because that is were his personals papers pertaining to his work as a consul for Orange Free State have been deposited. But based on the surviving letters in the family archive and piecing together certain sections of his travel book, we are able to plot part of the route he took. We know that in August 1907 he traveled by boat from Port Said to Sumatra because we have a letter written on board a ship called the 'Goentoer'. Later that year he was in East Java. From there he must have gone to India because for January and March 1908 we have letters from Calcutta and Bombay. After that he most likely backtracked again to the Dutch East Indies. British Malaya was either visited on the way back from India or en route to the Southeast Asian mainland.

During the last few months of 1908 he was in Thailand - that is were the book begins. He then travels to neighboring French Indochina, with visits to Cambodia, current-day Vietnam and the excursion into Yunnan. Although the next letter in the archive is postdated Seoul, April 13, 1909, we know from his book that he first traveled by ship from Haiphong to Hong Kong. From there he most likely traveled via Macao, to Shanghai and Beijing and then to Tientsin. From there he took a boat to Dairen, where he transferred to a Japanese vessel bound for Korea. >From Seoul the journey continued to Mukden and Harbin in Manchuria. From there he went into the Russian Far East, where he boarded the Tran Siberian Railway. The last archived letters we have are from Moscow and Dresden. By July 1909, Muller was back in The Hague.

Other writings by Muller and later life 

Muller's oeuvre consists mainly of books on Africa and Asia. The first two he published in Dutch in 1887 and 1889: Een Bezoek aan de Delgoa Baai en de Lijdenburgse Gouldvelden; Zuid-Africa: Reisherinneringen [A Visit to Delgoa Bay and the Lydenburg Gold Fields; South Africa: Travel Memoirs]. Both are based on his travels in East and South Africa. These took place during a very interesting period: namely the great scramble for Africa. By the way, in 1884 Muller had attended the Congress of Berlin where Africa was carved up between the Great Powers.

As part of his preparations to become an Africa-scholar, Muller also compiled a very detailed museum catalogue in French of his collection of artifacts, which became part for the Colonial Exhibition in Amsterdam. Muller's fourth book was a commercial issue of his dissertation on the tribes of Southeast Africa, published as Land und Leute zwischen Zambesi und Limpopo [Land and People between Zambezi and Limpopo] (1896). His last book on Africa, dealing with the early history of Orange Free State, appeared in 1907. But before that he had already written his one book on his travels in the Americas. This appeared again in Dutch was entitled: Door het Land van Columbus. [Through the Land of Columbus] (1905). In his travel books Muller used a recipe that went down well with the readers of his time: a mixture of information on geography, ethnology, history, economy and trade. He used it in his travel memoirs on Southern Africa, America, and in Mirror on Asia.

The ten years after his return from the Far East, Muller dedicated to the further study of that part of the world, in particular its relations with the Dutch East India Company or VOC. His third book on Asia was based on that research and is -- from a scholarly point of view -- perhaps also his most valuable. It is called De Oost-Indische Compagnie in Cambodja en Laos: Verzameling van Bescheiden van 1636 tot 1670 [The East India Company in Cambodia and Laos: Collection of Documents from 1636 to 1670]. After surveying the National Archives for materials on Cambodia and Laos, Muller collated a number of journals, reports, letters, and summarized letters by VOC officials and had them printed and published in 1917 through the Van Linschooten Vereniging - in its objectives comparable to the Hakluyt Society. With that book Muller has provided historians of Southeast Asia with a very handy compendium. That does not mean that the book is exhaustive but it is definitely a very useful resource.

The state of the Dutch colonial archives in the 19th, and early 20th century was rather messy. First of all, records were kept in two places: The Hague and Batavia - current day Jakarta. For centuries VOC ships had carried documents and reports of company representatives to the Netherlands. At a certain point the available material became so bulky that it was kept in warehouses and occasionally auctioned. So we do not have a picture of how much has actually ended up in private hands - where it probably still is. Unknown quantities have also been sold off as scrap paper. This gives you a bit of an impression of what actually may also have been lost over the years! Most of the material still kept at the Arsip National in Jakarta is still waiting to be catalogued, so we only have a very fragmentary picture of what is available Anyway, after the release of the second volume of Mirror on Asia, Muller wrote no more books.

Soon afterwards Muller took up his diplomatic career again, but this time not as the representative of a foreign country in the Netherlands, but as an ambassador of the Netherlands abroad. Muller would spend the remainder of his professional life in Eastern Europe, first as envoy to Romania, and finally eight years as ambassador in Prague. When he retired in 1932 he was the oldest member of the Dutch diplomatic corps.

Muller's preoccupations during the voyage 

As a former businessman and a diplomat (he would remain the honorary consul of Liberia until 1913), Muller's writings betray a keen interest in commercial issues and economic affairs, as well as international diplomacy. In fact, most of the letters in the family archive are addressed to the trade department at the Ministry of Agriculture, Trade and Industry in The Hague. They are full of cantankerous observations on such things as the marketing of Brazilian Santos coffee as Java coffee; the sale of a strong liquor of unknown origin as Dutch gin; the lack of competitive edge of Dutch shipping lines in Asia in comparison to their rivals from the UK, Germany, Denmark, etc.

Another thing that was often on Muller's mind was the lack of bravado on the part of the Dutch Foreign Service. Muller usually took the glory days of the Dutch East India Company as his benchmark. In comparison with that period, he considered the Dutch presence overseas during his own time and age as rather pathetic.

For example, he was very upset over the fact that the Dutch had not been able to secure a proper legation in Bangkok. While the Dutch rented a small house, the British consul resided in very impressive quarters and even the Portuguese -- whom the Dutch by the middle of the 17th century had muscled out of their dominance in Asia -- had been able to negotiate the free use of a villa.

Another hot issue at the time was the matter of extraterritoriality. Colonial powers like the British, French, and also the Dutch claimed jurisdiction over subjects from their colonies residing in other Asian countries on the grounds that they were subjects of their governments. In the final years of his reign, King Chulalongkorn was challenging these privileges.

Muller was not unsympathetic to the king's argument that extraterritoriality was an affront to his sovereignty, but he complained that the Dutch had not tried to secure sufficient concessions (on import duties etc.) in return for withdrawing their jurisdiction over Javanese, overseas Chinese, and other people originating from the Dutch East Indies. Muller's dissatisfaction also extended to the relations between the Dutch East Indies and British and French Colonies. Changes in Dutch law withdrawing the protective consular hand over their Asian subjects were not met by similar concessions of the British and French regarding their subjects in the Dutch East Indies.

Muller had also an axe to grind with the French, and more even with the British, over the recruitment of Africans for the Dutch colonial army. Here Muller had a personal interest. The recruitment of African "soldiers" from the Gold Coast (Ghana) had been an important source of income for the Muller family business. With the transfer of the Gold Coast to the UK in 1877, the British put a stop to what is in fact a form of slave trade. During his journey to West Africa, Muller had tried in vain to get permission to resume that trade.

In the early 20th-century both the British and the French were very interested in the recruitment of contract workers from Java for their plantations. Muller considered this a golden opportunity to demand permission for the recruitment of Africans for the East Indies in return. He was clearly frustrated that the Dutch government was not playing hardball on this. Muller addressed these issues not only in his book, but they were also recurring subjects in his writings in the Dutch press. 

The value of the book 

It is the frank discussion of issues such as these that make a book like Dr. Muller's Asian Journey worthwhile reading. It tells us a lot about international relations on a more detailed level. Muller illustrates his accounts with ample quotations from contemporaneous publications, government reports, statistics, etc.

Such data give us valuable information on trade volume, population figures, price levels, etc. in the early part of the 20th century. Although anecdotal, they can be significant to historians with an interest in economic history. 

As a blatant chauvinist, Muller also included extensive digressions into the earlier relations of the Dutch, in particular the Dutch East India Company or VOC, with the countries he visited. These digressions show not only that the VOC was active far beyond the colonies that where under its immediate control but, in many instances, the reports of these seventeenth and eighteenth century traders are often the only source we have on early modern Asian history. Only a fragment of these sources have been published and many are hard the come by. So for many readers, narratives like the ones by Muller are the only way to catch a glimpse of these parts of Asia in earlier centuries. 

The meeting concluded with an informative question and answer session, after which Carool sold a significant number of autographed copies of his book at a considerably discounted price.

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