Review Essay Of “Jacques de Coutre’s And Matelieff’s Singapore and Johor”: Exploring Sources On Pre-Modern History of Singapore, pp. 5 of 11

Between the Portuguese and the Dutch, the Portuguese having arrived in the East Indies earlier (1513 in Sunda Kelapa in Jayakarta) was trying to prevent the Dutch ships from sailing and trading in the region (Cortesão, 1944). The battle was being fought out at the level of philosophical and legal debates as well as cold steel and murderous firepower on the ground. The war of words were pitted between Hugo Grotius’ Commentary on law of prize and booty and Frei Serafim de Freitas’ Of the just Asiatic empire of the Portuguese (Grotius, 2006; Freitas, 1983). Reeling back on the defensive, Dutch predatory activities were causing the loss of many ships or vessels destined for Iberian ports.

From Matelieff’s documents, an assessment of the region’s political economy where there was stepped-up aggression is evident from two entries: 1. “discourse on the state of the East Indies”, 2. “discourse on trade possibilities for VOC in the East Indies.” In the first, Matelieff proposed supporting Johor against the Portuguese. Going by the same rationale as the Iberians of using it as a base (refer to Jacques de Coutre’s recommendations below), Matelieff’s suggestion was to fortify the royal settlement of the Johor Kingdom and use it as an interdicting base to interrupt the traffic going to Melaka (Borschberg, 2015c, p. 149). At the point of writing however, Matelieff did not think the trade activities (in for example, pepper) in Johor was profitable enough to sustain a base there in the long term even if the collaboration had made the trade “more safe.” The Dutch had a problem trusting the king of Johor, who was said  to be “very greedy [and liable] to shear the sheep [himself] and let [the Dutch] shear the pigs” (Borschberg, 2015c, p. 152). Hence, as long as pepper could be obtained at Banten and Jeyakarta, the bases or factories in Aceh (supposedly allied against the Portuguese) and Patani (on the opposite coast of the Malay Peninsula) could be given up (Borschberg, 2015c, p. 150). 

Jacques de Coutre’s assessment and recommendation to the Spanish king (Philip IV) reflected a real concern over the Dutch who had not only appropriated places where the Portuguese used to be but also setting themselves up in places nearby routes in which ships were carrying goods to Portuguese-affiliated ports (Borschberg, 2015a, pp. 72-73). He suggested the building of a fortress at the tip of Blakang Mati (now Sentosa) stationed with smaller ships (bantins) to patrol the waters nearby (Borschberg, 2015a, p. 91). The details of this, being so close geographically to the main Island of Singapore, will be discussed in the upcoming paragraph. 

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