You’ll undoubtedly be familiar with the European histories telling stories of intrepid explorers and their discoveries of ‘new-found’ lands. As far back as the late 16th century, Dutch merchants ventured overseas in search of new goods to trade -- as did their European counterparts. Everywhere the Dutch set foot on their travels through the vast continents of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, they encountered people who had lived there for centuries, with complex trade relations and rich cultural traditions.
The trade in spices and other goods was extremely lucrative, but the Dutch also faced fierce competition from Portuguese, Chinese and Indian merchants. Initially they were also forced to go along with the trading conditions imposed by local rulers. The two big trading companies, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and its sister organisation the West India Company (WIC), built up an international network on the back of existing trading networks, often securing power and trade by force. From the beginning there was local resistance in response to Dutch aggression.
A central aspect of colonialism was slavery. The European colonizers forced people to work for them in both Asia and Africa, as well as in North and South America. They enslaved people and bought and sold them on an appalling scale. As such slavery formed the foundation of what was to burgeon into an international colonial network.
The ruler of Banten in West Java meets Cornelis de Houtman, senior merchant with the first Dutch fleet to Indonesia in 1596. Banten was the centre of the pepper trade, then still a luxury spice. The voyage was plagued by mishaps and many of the crew died. This romanticised image of the encounter is one of a series of plates made for Dutch classrooms. In reality ,we know that relations got off to a bad start thanks to De Houtman’s disrespectful, undiplomatic approach. The VOC was set up five years after his return.
Maker unknown; The Netherlands, Utrecht; 1900-1950; paper; purchase, 2002; TM-5976-1
Gates of Return II
In the title of this painting, artist Julien Sinzogan refers to the Gate of No Return: the gate at the fort through which enslaved Africans were herded toward the slave ships. Those who passed through would never see their homes again. In this work, however, they do return, in the form of egungun: ancestral spirits. A central figure guards the boundary separating the two worlds.
Julien Sinzogan (1957-); ‘Gates of Return II’; Benin; France, Paris; 2009; paper, paint, ink; purchase, Bank Giro Loterij, TM-6411-1
A royal gift
Before the European powers divided up the Africa in the nineteenth century, there existed many powerful kingdoms across the continent. This gold pipe is a gift from the king of one of these kingdoms: Asantehene Kwaku Dua, ruler of the Asante in Ghana. In 1836, he agreed a contract with the Dutch government to recruit African soldiers for the colonial army in Indonesia. The pipe was a gift to King Willem I.
Maker unknown; Asante; Ghana; 1837; gold; from J. Verveer, 1837; at Royal Cabinet of Curiosities to 1883; RV-360-5211
The Oldest Kris
This is the oldest known kris in the world, evident from the image representing the Javanese year 1264 (AD 1342). In the nineteenth century, the Javanese prince Paku Alam V gave the kris to the Indo-European physician and mystic Charles Knaud, after he cured the crown prince of alleged black magic. This kris was one of the most famous heirlooms of the monarch.
Maker unknown; Indonesia, Java; 1342; iron alloy, red copper; TM-6046-1; [loan];
In the room ‘A profitable business. But for whom?’ you will learn more about how the path of the Dutch crossed the path of other populations.