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Phuket History: The Tin’acious Dutch

The Dutch had originally come to the Phuket peninsula to buy pepper. But as the market in Europe for porcelain, tea and silk began to boom they concentrated more on their trade with China and Japan. The problem was that Holland, in fact Europe, had few products that China needed. But China did always want tin, which was widely used in religious ceremonies and for making bronze (rust-proof) cannons. So the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC, widely known by it’s British name the Dutch East India Company, started to focus on obtaining tin in the Malay Peninsula for its China trade. For this it began to turn to the tin mines of southwestern Siam around Phuket. The official VOC “Dagregistrar” (records book) records that the first Dutch tin-buying expedition to Phuket had been in 1639 under Captain Orlando Thibault. However two years later, after conquering Ma­lacca in 1641, the Dutch moved more aggressively to expand their tin-buying activities up the surrounding peninsular west coast.

Sunday 22 December 2019, 01:00PM


Dutch in Malacca Photo: History in Phuket

Dutch in Malacca Photo: History in Phuket

The Dutch claimed that Malacca’s traditional “dominion” over Phuket had devolved on them “by right of conquest”. King Prasat Thong must have felt that having the powerful Dutch as semi-allies to cover the cantankerous and rebellious Malay lords in the peninsula was an attractive alterna­tive to sending and having to pay for his own less formidable warships. He therefore gave the Dutch permission to open fortified factories in several peninsular ports and the right to make exclusive trade contracts with the local lords there. In 1642 the Dutch established a factory in Keddah. In 1643, trade contracts were signed and factories built in both Phuket and Songkla and two years later at Bangkhli (a town in Phang Nga province just north of the bridge between Kokloi and Thai Muang today), which was then the main tin port of western Phang Nga province.

In 1644 the VOC then built a fortified trade factory in Phuket, probably just east of the big Chinese temple opposite the wat by Thepkasatri road in Tharua today. It was most likely constructed of a mortar of lime and stone, plastered, then whitewashed, with a nipa palm thatched roof and surrounded by a defensive earth rampart and wooden palisade about two meters high. Here the VOC agents lived (for security) and stored all the trade goods they were buying or selling.

VOC correspondence during the 17th century shows that the Dutch considered that the traditional Malaccan, not Ayutthayan, jurisdiction over Phuket Island and the west-coast tin centers still applied. For example, Governor Balthasar Bort, the VOC head in Malacca, wrote that Malacca’s “dominion and jurisdiction in this strait have always extended to the said island [Phuket] … tolls and licenses … instituted by the Portu­guese for the maintenance of the rights of Malacca have now devolved on us by right of conquest.” The Siamese court in Ayutthaya of course did not interpret this situation in the same way.

The VOC adopted the former Portuguese monopolistic licensing system from Malacca. The company started trying to force all non-Dutch ships trading in Phuket and other surrounding ports to get a license from it. In this way, the VOC believed local trade could be diverted through Malacca, which apart from allowing it to secure more tin at cheaper prices, was also a means to get rid of the pesky and more efficient Muslim trad­ers. As Commissioner Schouten in Malacca clearly stated, “It would be a good thing if the company’s territory could be cleared of Moors [Muslim Indians] and Gentyos [Hindu Indians] because not only would more tin be secured but also large quantities of cloth could be marketed.”

This VOC licensing blockade of the southwestern Siamese ports was enforced by armed Dutch blockade ships policing the region and forcing any unlicensed ships to go to Malacca to apply for expensive licenses. These were meant to oblige everyone to come to trade in Malacca at controlled prices favorable to the Dutch. The Dutch blockade captains were instructed that all non-VOC vessels must be “politely and not rashly ex­amined” and merchandise from unlicensed ships should be confiscated and “half the tin taken out and the owners paid 40 reals a bahar for it [below market price].” The English however described the activity of these Dutch blockade ships in less rosy terms. The English private trader William Dampier, for example, summarized this policy as:

Thanyapura

“Where there is any trade to be had, yet not sufficient to maintain a factory, so as to secure the whole trade for themselves, [the Dutch] send their guard ships which lying at the mouths of rivers deter strangers from coming thither and keep the petty princes in awe of them. They commonly make a show as if they did this out of kindness to the people, yet most of them know otherwise.”

Captain Francis Light, an Englishman who lived and traded on Phuket in the 18th cen­tury wrote of the Dutch blockade ships, “These vessels ill paid and commanded by the lowest people became pirates and smugglers as it suited their conveniency, Their custom is to order the Naqueda (Muslim trade captain) on board to examine his pass which they frequently take from him and plunder his vessel, and they sometimes meet with resistance, their barbarity proceeds so far as to destroy the whole crew.”

Local leaders soon realized that the VOC was insisting on paying unrealistically low prices for the tin by backing up its trading dictates with force. The local and Moorish traders attempted successfully to dodge their tall blockade ships. One VOC report at the time grumbled that, despite their trade agreements with the local rajahs, the Moors “still crept past the Dutch cruisers.” In response, the VOC increased the number of patrols and the harshness of its searches and confiscations, taking a further step down the slippery slope towards conflict.


Adapted with kind permission from the book ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin Mackay. Available from good bookshops and Amazon.com. Order the softcover 2nd edition directly at: www.historyofphuket.com

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