How the Other Half Traded
The Commercial Might of Southeast Asian Women in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
Even today, companies often find that keeping up the morale of employees sent overseas is difficult. But consider an earlier multinational: the Dutch East India Company (VOC) of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its outposts in India, Southeast Asia, Japan and Taiwan were places where few Dutch women were willing to live; and while most men working for the company were quite willing to seek mates among indigenous women, this brought complications of its own. Given the cultural gulf separating these couples, it may be no great surprise that the private letters of these men are full of references to how hard it was to “tame” these women into the kinds of wives they expected. What may be more surprising is how hard the VOC, the Dutch Reformed Church and other Europeans in Southeast Asia found it to break the commercial power of these women, many of whom were substantial traders in their own right.
Long before Europeans arrived, maritime Southeast Asia (including present-day Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines) carried on a substantial long-distance trade. Many of the merchants were women—in some cases because commerce was thought too base an occupation for upper-class men, but too lucrative for elite families to abstain from completely. (Some elites carried this snobbery a step further and held that noble women were also too lofty to barter in the marketplace or to visit the Chinese settlements where much long-distance trading was arranged; they were not, however, too noble to supervise a team of servants who carried out these businesses.) Malay proverbs of the 1500s spoke of the importance of teaching daughters how to calculate and make a profit.
More generally, these societies typically allowed women to control their own property, gave them considerable voice in the choice of husbands and were often quite tolerant of other liaisons. The long journeys away from home that some of these women took even made it necessary to allow them, within the crude limits of available technology, to control their own fertility. (Herbal medicines, jumping from rocks to induce miscarriages and even occasional infanticides were among the methods used.) Both the Islamic missionaries who swept through the area in the 1400s and the Christians who followed a hundred years later were appalled, and hoped to bring such women to heel.
But despite these qualms, the Portuguese, the first Europeans to establish themselves in this world, had found intermarrying with such women to be an indispensable part of creating profitable and defensible colonies. When the VOC gave up on importing Dutch women—having sometimes found “willing” candidates only in the orphanages or even brothels of Holland, and facing discontent among the intended husbands of these women—it turned to the daughters of these earlier Portuguese-Asian unions: they at least spoke a Western language and were at least nominally Christian. Many had also learned from their mothers how useful a European husband could be for protecting their business interests in an increasingly multinational and often violent trading world. Councilors of the Dutch court in Batavia (present-day Jakarta), who were rarely rich themselves, but were very well placed to prevent the VOC’s rules and monopoly claims from interfering with their wives’ trade, were often particularly good matches for the richest of these women. Thus, arranging elite interracial marriages proved relatively easy. Making the resulting families conform to visions hatched in Amsterdam proved harder.
The VOC’s principal goal, of course, was profit, and profit was best secured by monopolizing the export of all sorts of Asian goods—from pepper to porcelain—back to Europe. In theory, the company also claimed—at least intermittently—the right to license and tax (or sink) all the ships participating in the much larger intra-Asian trade, including those of Southeast Asia’s women traders. But the realities of huge oceans and numerous rivals made enforcing such a system impossible, and the VOC also faced powerful enemies within. Most company servants soon discovered that while smuggling goods back to Holland was risky and difficult, they could earn sums by trading illegally (or semi-legally) within Asia that dwarfed their official salaries. Here their wives were a perfect vehicle for making a fortune: they were well connected in and knowledgeable about local markets, often possessed considerable capital and able to manage the family business continuously without being susceptible to sudden transfer by the company.
And for some particularly unscrupulous Dutch men there was the possibility of a kind of lucrative cultural arbitrage: after profiting from the relatively high status of Southeast Asian women, one might take advantage of their low status in Dutch law to gain sole control of the family fortune, and then perhaps even return to the Netherlands to settle down with a “proper” wife. (Though even with the law on the man’s side, such a process could be very complex if the woman used her informal influence cleverly and hid her assets—in one such case the man eventually won control of most of his wife’s profits, but the legal proceedings took 19 years.)
But if men had powerful allies in the Dutch law and church, women had the climate on their side. Foreigners tended to die young in India and Southeast Asia, leaving behind wealthy widows. Such women were often eagerly sought after by the next wave of incoming European adventurers, enabling them to strike marriage bargains that safeguarded at least some of their independence; many wed and survived three or four husbands. The rare Dutchman who did live a long life in Batavia was likely to rise quite high in the VOC, become very wealthy and marry more than once himself. But since such men (not needing a particularly well-connected or rich spouse once they’d risen this high) often chose a last wife much younger than themselves, they tended to leave behind a small circle of very wealthy widows, whose behavior often scandalized those Dutchmen who took their Calvinism seriously.
From the founding of Batavia in 1619 until the late 1800s, Dutch moralists and monopolists waged an endless battle to “tame” these women and at least partially succeeded; later generations, for instance, seem to have conformed much more than earlier ones to European sexual mores. And as the scale of capital and international contacts needed to succeed in long-distance trade grew larger, European companies and their Chinese or Indian merchant allies—all of them male—did increasingly shrink the sphere in which these women operated.
Eventually, when late nineteenth-century innovations—the Suez Canal, telegraphs, refrigerated shipping, vaccinations and so on—made it more and more possible to live a truly European lifestyle in Southeast Asia, a new generation of Dutch officials chose to bring wives with them, or to assume they would quickly return to Holland and marry there. Even so, trade managed by Eurasian women remained a crucial part of local and regional economies: many, for instance, managed commercial real estate and money-lending operations through which they funneled profits from their husbands’ activities into local development around the fringes of Southeast Asian trading cities. (Ironically, this niche may have been kept for them in part through the racism of many of their husbands, who preferred to deal with the locals as little as possible.)
As late as the turn of this century, this sphere and those who managed it refused to disappear—the Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Toer has painted a powerful portrait of one such woman, who waged a running battle to hold on to the businesses (and children) she had handled for years against her half-mad Dutch consort and his “legal” family back in Holland. Along with most of her real-life counterparts, this fictional woman was ultimately defeated; but for three centuries, women like her had built and sustained much of the world their husbands claimed was theirs.
Kenneth Pomeranz is a professor of history at the University of Chicago. With Steven Topik, he is the author of The World that Trade Created: Society, Culture and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present (M.E. Sharpe).
Trade With Confidence