How The Dutch East India Company Sank As Its Corrupt Officials Made Their Fortunes In Bengal

The Dutch became the local elites up until the British East India Company overthrew them in 1825 as a result of illegal commerce and the zamindari of three villages. This is the account of how the Dutch East India Company sank as its corrupt officials made their fortunes in Bengal.

While the British and the French had achieved success in Bengal, author GC Klerk de Reus wrote in a Dutch colonial journal in 1875 that “the Dutch [East India] Company could not even muster the basic strength required to gain respect and independence there.” In his writing, de Reus mentioned British Governor Robert Clive and Joseph Marquis Dupleix, the governor general of French India, reports

He stated that if the Dutch had just half the authority they squandered in Hooghly, “they could have acquired a name in Hindusthan as great as they have acquired in the Indonesian Archipelago.”

After 1825, the Dutch East India Company lost its influence in India, but it prospered as a colonial force in the Indonesian archipelago. Up until the country’s independence in 1945, the Dutch had control over Indonesia. They pursued a politics of racial distinction between the colonizers and the colonized and had infiltrated the local legal systems. What India was to the British, the Indonesian archipelago became to the Dutch.

Trading in Bengal

In 1603 the Dutch East India Company arrived in Bengal to do trade. Bengal provided textiles, sugar, saltpetre (the chemical compound potassium nitrate), opium, and clarified butter, all of which were utilized in Dutch intra-Asian trade, while the textiles were intended for direct trade with Amsterdam.

Between 1697 and 1718, the wealthy in Amsterdam defined the fashion trend, which boosted demand for raw silk, with Bengal accounting for 83% of total exports.

Various accounts have highlighted the Dutch East India Company’s importance in Bengal. In 1671, Dutch poet Antonides van der Goes wrote, “The rich settlement of Bengal in the lands of the future/ Gives the Batavians, a sea of treasures at best.” Batavia is a province in the Netherlands today, and it was also the name given to Jakarta by the Dutch East India Company.

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

In 1676, Dutch physician Wouter Schouten provided an excellent depiction of the Dutch East India Company’s factory in Chinsurah, near the Hooghly River:

“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 the English East India Company manage to put a halt to the Dutch’s antics by 1825?

Spoils of trade

The Dutch East India Company’s directors in Amsterdam had made fruitless attempts to exert control over foreign officials. Bengal, however, had a lot to offer business representatives residing there.

Dutch East India Company officials started acting like local elites as they become wealthy. They were carried about in palanquins while traveling. Even their graves had elaborate characteristics akin to Islamic tombs.

Jan Albert Sichtermann, one of the Dutch directors, kept an opulent home in Bengal. He was known as the “nabob of Groningen” when he brought his wealth back to Groningen in the Dutch Republic.

In fact, Dutch director Peter Sterthemius is shown riding in a palanquin from Kasimbazar to Hooghly in a 1665 picture by Hendrik van Schuylenburg. A palanquin carrying two Dutch officials is visible, with some Europeans riding horses at the rear. These officials are accompanied by an entourage of foot troops, and the entrance of this majestic procession is announced by the blowing of a trumpet by a man in front. The villagers are portrayed watching this act of grandeur and pomp.

Until the late 17th century, the Dutch East India Company directors undertook this ceremonial trip between Hooghly and Kasimbazar. Kasimbazar has a well-known Dutch factory where textiles were produced.

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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 Dutch government officials amass such wealth? Their illegally accumulated wealth was largely derived from trade corruption and embezzlement. For a long time, the Dutch East India Company had struggled with illegal trading. The corporation dispatched a delegation to Bengal in 1684 to look over its factories. Dutch officers were discovered trading in illegal items with local brokers there.

Within the Dutch East India Company, a small group of officials established a club called the “Small Company” and stole money, used the business to buy goods for their own use, and withheld customs charges from the Mughal authorities.

The local brokers, Kalyan Das, Jai Biswas, also known as Ramsen, and Deepchand, had agreements with Dutch government representatives. Nicolas Schagen, a Dutch director of Bengal, was charged with illegal trade, and his wife was charged with engaging in illicit silk trade with the aid of neighborhood shopkeepers and household staff.

The unlawful trade in Bengal was so pervasive that an anonymous brochure called Het Sacspiegeltje, which was published in Amsterdam, exposed the corrupt practices of the corporation there.

However, the Dutch East India Company officials used other methods besides illegal commerce to increase their wealth. Over the three villages of Chinsurah, Baranagar, and Bazaar Mirzapur, the Dutch had obtained zamindari. The Dutch zamindars and the regional authorities who worked at the katcheri were accused of extorting the villagers. The zamindar’s office was called the katcheri.

The villagers had received pattas, or title deeds, from the Dutch zamindars. These made sure that the peasants received land on lease in exchange for rent payments, which needed the zamindar’s seal and signature. When a person died and there was a disagreement over a plot of land with a dwelling, the zamindar was required to step in and make arrangements for the inheritance or sale of the property.

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

The zamindar’s representatives from the katcheri would go to the house for this reason and make a list of the possessions. In order to establish ownership of the house, the patta of the house was essential. Some zamindars started engaging in corrupt behavior here.

A Dutch zamindar named Willem Danckelmann and his mutasaddi, Parboti Charan Ray, exploited their position of authority by selling homes or other property without paying the patta.

A number of these cases are known from the complaints in the Court of Justice at Batavia’s records. In one instance, a widow by the name of Bhowanie sold two homes via the local katcheri, but she claimed she never got paid.

Sashidas Bairagi of Baranagore sought mutasaddi Parbati Charan Ray for assistance in selling land. Ray demanded for the patta of the property and then disappeared. The Dutch zamindars amassed wealth in a variety of ways, sometimes as individual officials and even sometimes in cooperation with local merchants and administrators.

As the officials amassed fortune in Bengal, the Dutch East India Company weakened in Amsterdam.

‘Lost glory’

Daniel Anthony Overbeek, the last inhabitant of Dutch Bengal, bemoaned in 1824 that the emergence of Calcutta had robbed Chinsurah of its splendour. He mentioned the expanding population of Chinsurah in Calcutta, as well as the schools and bazaars there.

After 1765, the English East India Company obtained diwani privileges (the ability to collect taxes) and grew in power in India. Anglo-Dutch ties quickly deteriorated, and the importance of Chinsurah as a port began to dwindle with the growth of the English port of Calcutta. The English took possession of all Dutch areas in India, including Bengal, in 1781.

The Dutch East India Company briefly regained control of Chinsurah and adjacent villages around the end of 1784. However, the situation appeared to be dismal. Chinsurah was described as a “adder’s nest” by Isaac Titsingh, the director of Bengal from 1785 to 1792. He described his experiences as follows:

“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.”

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

Despite Titsingh’s efforts to keep the Dutch in control of Bengal, the districts they oversaw fell back into English hands in 1795. After 1799, the Dutch East India Company declared bankruptcy. Chinsurah was restored to the Dutch colonial authority in 1817, but this did not last long.

By 1825, Overbeek had handed over the majority of the documents and complete control of Bengal to the English East India Company, who ended up going on to establish the British Raj in India. Some Dutch, such as Overbeek, remained in Bengal till death and were buried in the Dutch cemetery in Chinsurah.

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One Response

  1. This is a great post, as each colonialist or neocolonialist apparently learns from predecessors. It seems in India’s case that foreign colonizers finally forced long overdue cooperation from otherwise fractious principalities. Like the caste system, regional friction served its purpose in the past but was simply not fit for modern service.

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