The Factory of the English East India Company at Bantam, 1602-1682 detailing the struggle of the English in Bantam to maintain their position in the valuable pepper trade and the wider trade of the archipelago. David Bassett documents the declining profit from pepper when the Sultan adopted a policy of monopolization, and the decision of the English Company’s directers to withdraw their formal presence from the archipelago following Dutch conquest of Bantam in 1682.
When David Kenneth Bassett died in 1989, he left behind a solid body of articles on the history of British and Dutch trade in South-East Asia in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, a legacy which is justly valued by scholars and students in the field. His premature death prevented the completion of a monograph on the subject on which he had been working. He did, however, leave one book-length work, his first. He submitted his PhD thesis, The Factory of the English East India Company at Bantam, 1602-1682 to the University of London, in April, 1955; but, though he continued to work on the manuscript for the rest of his life, it was never published.
The present edition is an attempt to remedy this, and to pay tribute to a scholar who pointed the way for so many. In the early 19505, when Bassett entered the field, ‘South-East Asian history’ was a new concept. The idea of viewing South-East Asia as a whole, instead of packaging it up into the areas controlled by their various nineteenth and early twentieth century colonial rulers, was just gaining ground as the countries themselves were winning their independence.
In 1950, the Department of South-East Asian History in the School of Oriental and African Studies (London) was a new creation; in 1949, D.G.E. Hall had been appointed as its first Professor, and 1955 saw the first edition of his History of South-East Asia, the first such over-all study of the region attempted in any language. The young Bassett, who had been introduced to the subject at the University of Wales in Cardiff, chose for his doctoral thesis a study of English trade to Banten in western Java, the English Company’s first contact with Asia and its only official attempt to initiate trade with the fabulous ‘spice islands’ of the Moluccas. It was an interesting choice for several reasons.
Up till then, the history of the many islands which after 1949 became known as Indonesia and Malaysia had mainly been written in the ‘colonial’ style, with the emphasis on the expanding control of the European powers in Asia. Historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Richard Winstedt writing on Malaya, or Elisa Netscher on Johor and Siak in Sumatra, were dedicated scholars to whom we owe much for their efforts to capture and record the early history of the Malay archipelago. However, they were also servants of their European homelands and viewed the history of the European chartered companies in Asia, and their relations with the local Asian peoples, as early chapters in the history of their respective colonial states. By the 1950s, young historians like Bassett were reacting against this old-style ‘colonial’ history which depicted early South-East Asian states merely as ‘precursors’ of the colonial regimes of the nineteenth century, rather than as independent polities in their own right.
In choosing to study the relationship of the English Company with Banten, Bassett broke with the ‘colonial’ tradition in several significant ways. For a start, he opted to study the English East India Company (EEIC)’s connection with Indonesia instead of India. Till then, as Bassett pointed out, Indonesia had been the academic province of Dutch historians, and the history of Java had been written as if “the conflict between the English and Dutch Companies had been irrevocably settled in favour of the latter body by 1623”; and by extension, as if the Dutch had controlled the archipelago from that date on.
This, as Bassett was quick to point out, had lead to an inflated conception of the control wielded by the Dutch in the archipelago prior to the end of the nineteenth century. This lop-sided view obscured the continuing vigour of the local kingdoms in the precolonial era, pushing them into a twilight region of supposed decay and dissolution. Jacob van Leur, a radical Dutch scholar the first half of the twentieth century, who also died prematurely, had already questioned his colleagues’s approach to the history of Indonesia in his writings in the 1930s.
Whether or not Bassett was aware of this work—it was not published in English till 1955—he was one of the first of the new generation of historians to tackle the question posed by van Leur, of whether it was possible to take the history of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), as the frame of reference for the history of Indonesia? Bassett answered this question with a resounding negative.
By then, Bassett was teaching in Malaya, and had found his own route to the writing of ‘autonomous’ South-East Asian history. It was all very well to advocate the use of local rather than European sources; the problem was, that even for such an important entrepot as Banten, which commanded the Sunda Straits, one of the two major routes into the archipelago from the wesg and controlled the pepper growing regions of south-west Sumatra, there are very few indigenous sources available for the early modern period. But there is an abundance of European material in the archives of the various European trading companies. Bassett mined this material, both in English and Dutch, and published numerous articles on the trade of the Malay and Indonesian archipelago in the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, articles which threw a new light on the local polities as well as on the English ‘country trade’ that had succeeded the EEIC in the archipelago and its surrounds.
With the present publication of The Factory of the English East India Company at Bantam, 1602-1682, scholars and teachers will finally have access to the work which preceded and gave birth to, these articles Though it was written at the very beginning of the modern period of the study of South-East Asian history as we know it, and though it began as a study of Anglo-Dutch relations in Asia, it presents a vital and necessary piece of our picture of the history of the early modern Malay world. As a refutation of the ‘colonial’ view of history, little more could be asked of any study Bassett’s thesis opened the gates to many studies of trade in the archipelago which all helped to dispel the old, erroneous vision of an area controlled by the VOC from the early seventeenth century.
Of these, the most important were Kristoff Glaman’s Dutch Asiatic Trade published in 1958, Mrs. Meilink-Roelofsz’s Asian Trade and European Influence in 1962, and K.N. Chaudhari’s The Trading World of Asia and the East India Company in 1978.