Hugo Grotius, the Portuguese and Free Trade in the East Indies

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Hugo Grotius, the Portuguese and free trade in the East Indies


Singapore: NUS Press, 2011. Pp. xxv + 482. Maps, Illustrations, Appendix, Notes, Bibliography, Index.

In this scholarly and tightly-argued book, Peter Borschberg re-examines Hugo Grotius's De Iure Praedae (and that part of it that appeared as Mare Liberum in particular), considering why and how the jurist composed the work, what sources he used, and what long-term impact resulted. Grotius is usually assumed to have been a champion of freedom of navigation and access to markets, but Borschberg suggests this image needs considerable qualification. De Iure Praedae was nota product of independent scholarship, having been commissioned by the VOC (Dutch East India Company). Its purpose was to demonstrate that the Dutch seizure in the Johor River estuary in February 1603 of the Portuguese carrack Santa Catarina off Singapore was just and lawful rather than an act of piracy. Fundamental to Grotius's argument was that, because the Portuguese had denied the Dutch their natural right to access Asian markets via the maritime highways, which were open to ali and over which no sovereign lawfully exercised lordship, the VOC was entitled to retaliate with force. Moreover, the seizure of the Santa Catarina was demonstrably lawful because the company was acting in support of the king of Johor--an ally with full sovereign rights, who was, at the time, at war with the Portuguese.

As well as finding that De Iure Praedae was a tendentious work, Borschberg concludes that it was based on unacceptably 'sloppy' research. This he deduces from careful and telling analysis not only of the text of De lure Praedae itself, but also of Grotius's seldom-consulted notes and working fragments, which are now in the Leiden University Library. These sources are particularly revealing on how Grotius went about his work. They show that he did not undertake any independent research in the VOC archives. Nor did he have access to any substantial Portuguese sources, relying instead on just a limited range of Spanish material, particularly the writings of the celebrated sixteenth-century theologian and jurist, Francisco de Vitoria of Salamanca--who was, however, writing not about maritime Asia but the quite different situation in Spanish America. As Borschberg clearly demonstrates, Grotius had minimal knowledge and understanding of Portuguese commercial structures in maritime Asia and of the theoretical and legal concepts that underlay them. He knew even less about Malay kingship and ideas of sovereignty, and about Southeast Asian geography. …


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