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Dutch & Spanish Dominance in South & Southeast Asia

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  • 0:01 First Europeans in Asia
  • 1:25 Dutch in Indonesia
  • 3:34 Spain in the Philippines
  • 4:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

While many of us think of the Spanish operated solely in Latin America during the colonial period, a surprising amount of its wealth went west. Likewise, the Dutch built many fortunes by focusing on Asia instead of its scattered colonies in the New World.

First Europeans in Asia

The lands of India and Southeast Asia had held a great allure for Europeans since the time of Alexander the Great. While his military was not able to conquer much of the land, later, merchants would come back with stories of unimaginable wealth and rich spices. Among the most famous of these was Marco Polo, who traveled throughout the region, and remarked that many would find his stories to be unbelievable.

Needless to say, once European states began to have the organizational and financial ability to sail beyond their own territorial waters, it was a route to the lands of India and Southeast Asia that were among the most captivating for the sailors' imaginations. While Columbus is the most famous of these explorers, it was a Portuguese mariner, named Vasco da Gama, who first opened up a sea route linking South and Southeast Asia with Europe by sailing around the southern tip of Africa.

Not surprisingly, the Portuguese were among the first to arrive in numbers throughout Asia. However, it was through the greater economic ability of the Dutch, especially with their use of joint-stock companies, which allowed individuals to buy shares of a given mission, that the Dutch were able to establish their economic dominance over much of the region.

Dutch in Indonesia

The Dutch experience mirrored that of the early Portuguese, in that, they first went to India. However, the Dutch were consummate businessmen, and while the peppercorns of India were still profitable, the price for that particular spice had already dropped significantly from the High Middle Ages, where it was literally worth its weight in gold. As such, the Dutch moved further east, into the islands of Southeast Asia, to set up the majority of their successful operations.

Southeast Asia offered numerous islands governed by local rulers, instead of the rather centralized commercial operations of mainland India, nominally under the rule of the Mughal Empire. However, in Southeast Asia, the Dutch found merchants willing to provide the best prices imaginable. So, unlike India, peppercorns were not the focus of trade in Southeast Asia. In fact, these islands had received the name 'Spice Islands' due to their overwhelming emphasis on growing spices, such as cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, and mace. This constant competition meant that the Dutch were able to secure even better prices on their wares.

Given the fact that the Dutch were largely bringing goods out of the region, as opposed to other forms of colonization, which actively sought to send people to a region - such as British colonization in the Americas or Australia, or Holland's own colonization of South Africa - it is not surprising that the Dutch never formed a significant population in the diverse region. However, as the wealthiest and most military adept culture in the islands, the Dutch soon became very prestigious amongst the locals. In Java, the most populated island of the region and site of Dutch staging posts for shipment between Europe and the rest of the islands, demand for Dutch culture by the elites meant that even today, native Indonesians use more Dutch words in their vocabularies than those of any other European language.

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