In 1875, writer GC Klerk de Reus, observed in a Dutch colonial journal that while the British and the French had managed to succeed in Bengal, “the Dutch [East India] Company could not even muster the basic strength required to gain respect and independence there”. While writing, de Reus named Joseph Marquis Dupleix, the governor general of French India, and British Governor Robert Clive.

He wrote that had the Dutch had even half the power that they wasted in Hooghly, “they could have acquired a name in Hindusthan as great as they have acquired in the Indonesian Archipelago”.

The Dutch East India Company faded from India after 1825 but became a successful colonial power in the Indonesian archipelago. The Dutch maintained their hold over Indonesia until its independence in 1945. They had penetrated the local legal systems and practiced a politics of racial difference between the colonisers and the colonised. The Indonesian archipelago became for the Dutch what India was for the British.

Trading in Bengal

The Dutch East India Company had arrived in Bengal in 1603 for trade. Bengal supplied textiles, sugar, saltpetre – the chemical compound potassium nitrate – opium and clarified butter, all used for Dutch intra-Asiatic trade while the textiles were meant for direct trade with Amsterdam.

Between 1697 and 1718, the wealthy in Amsterdam set the fashion trend and this drove the demand for raw silk with exports from Bengal accounting for 83%.

Different accounts have detailed the significance of Bengal for the Dutch East India Company. Dutch poet Antonides van der Goes wrote in 1671: “The rich settlement of Bengal in the lands of the future/ Gives the Batavians, a sea of treasures at best.” Batavia is a region in present-day Netherlands and it was also the name given to Jakarta at the time of the Dutch East India Company.

Fort Gustavus in Chinsurah in Bengal by Johannes Rach, 1762. Credit: Rijksmuseum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dutch physician Wouter Schouten gave an impressive description of the Dutch East India Company’s factory in a place called Chinsurah, close to the Hooghly River, in 1676:

“There is nothing here in Hooghly, however, that dazzles more than the Dutch lodge. It is situated on a remarkable square at a musket-shot’s range from the large river, the Ganges, in order to not be washed away. The lodge resembles more of a robust castle: its walls and bastions are carved out elegantly of fine stones…There are also stone warehouses, where both foreign as well as local commodities are stored daily.”

How, then, did it come to be that the English East India Company successfully ended the exploits of the Dutch by 1825?

Spoils of trade

In Amsterdam, the directors of the Dutch East India Company had tried in vain to control officials overseas. But Bengal had a lot to offer company officials based there.

As they amassed wealth, officials of the Dutch East India Company began behaving like local elites. While travelling, they were carried around in palanquins. Even their graves became ornate, with features resembling Islamic tombs.

One of the Dutch directors, Jan Albert Sichtermann, maintained a lavish household in Bengal. When he returned with his riches to Groningen in the Dutch Republic, he was referred to as the “nabob of Groningen”.

In fact, a 1665 painting by Hendrik van Schuylenburg depicts Dutch director Peter Sterthemius travelling from Kasimbazar to Hooghly in a palanquin. Two Dutch officials can be seen in a palanquin while some Europeans follow on horseback. A retinue of foot soldiers accompany these officials, with a man in front blowing the trumpet to herald the advance of this stately procession. The villagers are shown to witness this display of power and pomp.

The Dutch East India Company directors conducted this ceremonial journey of travelling back and forth between Hooghly and Kasimbazar till the late 17th century. Kasimbazar had a prominent Dutch factory where textiles were procured.

A trading post of the Dutch East India Company in Hooghly, Bengal. Credit: Hendrik van Schuylenburgh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Dutch ‘zamindars’

How did the Dutch officials acquire such wealth? Corruption and embezzlement in trade was a major source of their illegally amassed fortunes. Illegal trade had plagued the Dutch East India Company for long. In 1684, the company sent a committee to Bengal to investigate its factories. There, Dutch officials were found working with local brokers to trade in illegal goods.

A small group of officials had formed a club called the “Small Company” within the Dutch East India Company and embezzled funds, used the company to purchase commodities for their personal use, and withheld customs duties from the Mughal governors.

The local brokers – Deepchand, Kalyan Das and Jai Biswas, also known as Ramsen – had tied up with Dutch officials. One of the Dutch directors of Bengal, Nicolas Schagen, was also accused of illegal trade while his wife was accused of illegally trading in silk with the help of local merchants and servants.

So rampant was the illegal trade in Bengal that an anonymous pamphlet, Het Sacspiegeltje, surfaced in Amsterdam highlighting the company’s corrupt state of affairs in Bengal.

But illegal trade was not the only means for the Dutch East India Company officials to grow their fortunes. The Dutch had acquired zamindari over the three villages of Chinsurah, Baranagar and Bazaar Mirzapur. Villagers complained of being extorted by the Dutch zamindars and the local administrators who worked at the katcheri. The katcheri was the office of the zamindar.

The Dutch zamindars had issued pattas, or title deeds, to the villagers. These ensured that the villagers got land on lease against the payment of rent, which required the zamindar’s seal and signature. If there was a dispute over a piece of land with a house after the death of a person, the zamindar had to intervene and arrange for the inheritance or sale of the property with the patta of the house.

An patta from 1819 in Bengali and Dutch. Credit: West Bengal State Archives.

For this purpose, the zamindar’s officials from the katcheri would visit the house and draw up a list of the belongings. The patta of the house was crucial in proving ownership of the house. It was here that some zamindars took to corrupt practices.

Willem Danckelmann, a Dutch zamindar, along with his mutasaddi – an official who helped the zamindar in his duties – Parboti Charan Ray, abused their power and sold houses or property by withholding the patta.

From the complaints in the archives of the Court of Justice at Batavia, a few such cases are known. One case notes that a widow named Bhowanie had sold two houses through the local katcheri but she complained that she never received the dues

One Sashidas Bairagi from Baranagore had approached the mutasaddi Parbati Charan Ray for help in selling land. Ray asked him for the patta of the land and vanished with it. The Dutch zamindars gained their riches through different means, sometimes as individual officials and at times in collaboration with local merchants and administrators.

As the officials accumulated wealth in Bengal, the Dutch East India Company continued to weaken in Amsterdam.

‘Lost glory’

Daniel Anthony Overbeek, the last resident of Dutch Bengal, lamented in 1824 that Chinsurah lost its glory with the rise of Calcutta. He talked about the growing number of residents of Chinsurah in Calcutta and of the schools and bazaars there.

After 1765, the English East India Company gained diwani rights – to collect taxes – and became powerful in India. Anglo-Dutch relations soon began to sour and the significance of Chinsurah as a port began declining with the rise of the English port of Calcutta. In 1781, the English wrested control of all Dutch areas in India, including Bengal.

At the end of 1784, the governance of Chinsurah and other villages was briefly restored to the Dutch East India Company. But the situation appeared bleak. Isaac Titsingh, the director of Bengal between 1785 and 1792, called Chinsurah an “adder’s nest”. He wrote of his experiences:

“Since my arrival here I have found little enjoyment; the landscape, which many appreciate, I do not like; I have little taste in company, every day one meets the same people, among whom hate and envy ensuing from former troubles are kept alive for ages; it is like purgatory in which it is my task to open the doors to Paradise so that trade can pick up again.”

Credit: Sumitsurai, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite Titsingh’s efforts to preserve the Dutch control of Bengal, the areas administered by them passed into the hands of the English again in 1795. After 1799, bankruptcy ended the existence of the Dutch East India Company. In 1817, Chinsurah was returned to the Dutch colonial government but it did not remain under its control for long.

By 1825, Overbeek had surrendered most of the documents and the control of Bengal entirely to the English East India Company, which went on to establish the British Raj in India. A few of the Dutch, like Overbeek, stayed back in Bengal until their death and were buried at the Dutch cemetery in Chinsurah.

Byapti Sur is an Assistant Professor of History at the Thapar School of Liberal Arts and Sciences in Patiala.