Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The VOC's Trade in Indian Textiles with Burma, 1634-80

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The VOC's Trade in Indian Textiles with Burma, 1634-80

Article excerpt

Even in Dutch academic circles historians have remained quite unaware of the fact that in the 1600s the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) maintained several trading posts in Burma for almost half a century. As there are no lacunae at all in the collection of VOC documents covering the Burma years, it has been possible to compile complete sets of key statistics for this period. These vital data were gathered over several years from the primary source and focus of this research, namely, the VOC archives at the General State Archives (Algemeen Rijksarchief--ARA) in The Hague. Since the Dutch East India Company was principally a trading company, the data are of a correspondingly commercial nature, but not exclusively so. These Dutch documents and letters form a complete set of invaluable contemporary materials and allow us a rare glimpse of life in seventeenth-century Burma.

The VOC's trade with Burma began formally on 14 May 1634, when the Vlielandt sailed from the Coromandel Coast across the Bay of Bengal to Syriam. The Dutch established three factories in Burma: a main office in the port city of Syriam with subsidiaries in Ava and Pegu. Indian textiles and red cotton yarn formed the foundation on which the Company built its Burma trade. To have a clear understanding of the function of textiles in Burmese society, it is essential to realise that two distinct categories of textiles moved in completely different worlds. The first category was made up of exquisite and expensive textiles that served as gifts in the elite world of palaces and kings. The second category consisted of coarse, cheap functional cloth that was traded in the rather more prosaic world of shops and marketplaces. These simple everyday textiles, geared to the needs of the man in the street, were the mainstay of the VOC's Burma trade.

The VOC's customers in Burma came from all walks of life, from kings to slaves. Dutch records indicate that their clientele included Muslims, Hindus, Armenians, Banyans (Hindu traders, especially from Gujarat), Portuguese, Chinese, Siamese, Turks, Mon and Burmans and that certain customers would drop in on a regular basis, spending as little as 50 viss of ganza (v/g) (1) at any one time, while others came infrequently but would then sometimes spend as much as 3275 (v/g). When one correlates the average price of imported common textiles with local wages and the cost of daily necessities, it is plain that Burma's common people could well afford an occasional piece of Indian cloth. In fact, a comparison of the earning power of the local labour force with that of its Indian counterpart shows that the Burmese clearly enjoyed a relatively high standard of living in the seventeenth century, certainly when weighed against economic conditions on the opposite side of the Bay of Bengal.

Even though the VOC's Burma trade was consistently profitable, it was discontinued towards the end of the 1670s. A new king with little interest in foreigners or their trade (Minyekyawdin, 1673-98) ascended Burma's throne, but more importantly, by this time the VOC's character and objectives had changed markedly under the influence of territorial conflicts in Southeast Asia along with military and political commitments. In the end, disastrous developments in Europe and the Far East had serious ramifications for the Company both at home and in Asia, where their Burma trade became the victim of a change in Dutch fortunes.

Textiles and Burmese society: elite versus common textiles

Referring specifically to the category of fabrics intended for the elite, Victor Lieberman points out that in the sixteenth century Indian textiles available in Ava, Toungoo, Prome and other markets 'became the basic apparel of interior elites, and possibly even of sections of the cultivating classes', stressing that the only desirable textiles were those sold by Indian merchants. …

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