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The Dutch Sources and Our History

 

Azizul Rasel

 

Introduction:

 

Sources for reconstructing early modern history of Bengal are very scant. For early modern history of Bengal we have Persian chronicles and traveler accounts. Persian chronicles written by Mughal officials mostly focus on political and courtly affairs and seldom refer to economy and society. Furthermore these chronicles are often biased. Although traveler accounts supply essential information, these kinds of accounts are not many in number and do not always offer close observation of the society and economy. In some cases these accounts are prejudiced. Apart from these sources, we have another important sources, which historians of Bengal have hardly used in their works. These are Dutch. The Dutch sources can add important knowledge on the early modern history of Bengal. Two historians from India namely Sushill Chaudhury and Om Prakash have so far used the Dutch sources to write the early modern history of Bengal. But their main focus was on western part of Bengal. However, no historians from our part have used the Dutch sources. But these sources can provide important insight to our knowledge of early modern eastern Bengal, particularly Dhaka and the areas around.  In this article, I will try to show the importance of the Dutch sources to reconstruct the history of eastern Bengal.

 

VOC Records

 

Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie or the Dutch East India Company, commonly known as the VOC, was established in 1602. The Company received charter from the States General of the Dutch Republic to trade in Asian water. Within few years of the establishment of the Company it made significant progress in trade. It had its principal trading settlement in Batavia, present day Jakarta[1]. In the course of time the VOC expanded its trade to South Asia, particularly India, Ceylon and Persia. The VOC had its factory in Bengal by 1630’s. In the 1650’s the Company also established a factory in Dhaka, as by that time Dhaka emerged as a potential supply center for textile trade.[2] It traded different commodities from Dhaka and other parts of eastern Bengal. The common characteristic of the chartered European companies was that they maintained their records very well. From practical needs the companies would produce different records and send to the headquarters through Batavia. The documents were preserved in the Company headquarters. Later, the National Archives of the Netherlands collected the documents and preserved it in the Archives in the Hague. There are kilometers of records on Bengal preserved in the Archives. Among the documents there are General Missiven or official correspondences, casa boek or cashbook, Memorie Overgave final report of the company chief, Dag register etc.

           

Relevance of the VOC archives in studying history of early modern eastern Bengal:

 

As the VOC had its factory in Dhaka it produced a lot of records on it. Unfortunately the Nataonaal Archief does not have especial department on Dhaka factory. These records can be found in Bengalen and Chinsura and even in the Batavia department. One can also take the help from TANAP website to search sources on Dhaka and other areas of eastern Bengal.

            In addition to official records, we can find some other kinds of Dutch sources, which are very important. These are Personal Diary, Log Book and the Dutch Traveler accounts. These unofficial Dutch records provide detail description on their experience in Dhaka and the areas of eastern Bengal. One such example is Diary on Dhaka written by VOC officials. In these diaries they maintained their day to experience in Dhaka. A good example of traveler account can be Vervarelyke schip-breuk van‘T Oost-Indisch Jacht Ter Schelling or the Terrible Shipwreck of a Dutch East India company ship Ter Schellingwritten by a Dutch sailor, Frantz van Der Heiden, who had the experience of traveling the coastal areas of eastern Bengal and Dhaka. Later, the unfortunate sailor and his fellow Dutchmen were conscripted as Mughal soldiers and forced to join in Mir Jumla’s Assam campaign. In his book Van der Heiden provides a vivid description of the villages, markets, economy, rural subaltern society and the Mughal warfare in the field.[3]

 

Conclusion:

 

From the aforesaid discussion and examples I have tried to demonstrate that the Dutch sources can open up new insights and perspective in studying the early modern history of Bengal, particularly eastern part of Bengal.


[1] For detail see Femme S. Gaastra, The Dutch East India Company: Expansion and Decline (Leiden: Walburg Press, 2003), pp.13-55

[2] For detail see, Azizul Rasel, ‘ The Mughals and the Dutch in the making of Dhaka’ (BA Thesis, Leiden University, 2011)

[3] For detail see Azizul Rasel, ‘The Seventeenth-century Dutch Travel Account and the Production of Knowledge on Asia: A study of Vervarelyke schip-breuk van ‘T Oost-Indisch Jacht Ter Schelling‘ (MA Thesis, Leiden University, 2012), can be accessed at https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/19453

 

 

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