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Knowledge-making Endeavours of the Dutch East India Company in Malabar, 1663-1795

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posted on 2021-12-09, 11:25 authored by Meera Muralidharan

The Malabar Coast of south-western India, presently comprising the modern state of Kerala, played a unique role in the history of Indian Ocean trade in the early modern period. Of the spices involved in expanding trade networks, the most important was pepper (Piper nigrum), indigenous to the region. Malabar’s fame as a garden of spices (prompting European authors to call it the Pepper Coast) attracted ships from Europe, Africa, Arabia and East Asia. The Portuguese trading company, Estado da India, was the sole European enterprise that traded in Malabar in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. However, in the seventeenth century, the Dutch challenged Portugal’s monopoly on trade. In 1663, the Dutch successfully captured the Portuguese settlements in Malabar including their major fort in Cochin. The Dutch remained in Malabar for the next hundred and thirty-two years after which the settlements passed to the English East India Company.  The primary motive behind European territorial expansion to Asia was not the production of knowledge; rather, trading networks required a detailed understanding of the natural world, especially its land, flora and fauna. By the late seventeenth century, the pursuit of knowledge, commerce and colonies, and a nascent patriotism were bound together. In this context, the present thesis examines the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie in Dutch) trade in Malabar. The thesis is set in the period between 1663 (when it first took over the territory from the Portuguese) and 1795 (when the Dutch possessions were usurped by the English East India Company). Two significant themes pursued in this context are how the VOC produced knowledge of the region, and how that knowledge-production relied heavily on patronage from the Dutch Republic as well as inputs from a variety of local actors in Malabar itself, as well as the Company’s other territories. Nowhere can these themes be better explained than in the synergistic relationship of the sciences of botany and cartography.   The study analyses a variety of works produced about Malabar. This includes the Hortus Malabaricus, a seventeenth-century botanical work, which is analysed in the context of the development of botany in the Dutch Republic and early modern European trade in medicinal plants. Alongside natural history works, the study examines the VOC maps, topographical plans, and surveys of forts and gardens in Malabar to understand why the Dutch enterprise in Malabar failed in the eighteenth century. While scientific botany reflected the European need to master the natural world, the science of cartography reflected the need to govern it. In contrast to the Golden image of the Republic (in the seventeenth century), arts and science were not effectively promoted by the Company administration. By re-examining and contextualising official and unofficial records of Dutch trading settlements in Asia, this thesis argues that contrary to dominant historiography, ‘science’ was not used as an effective tool by the Company in Malabar.  Using Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer’s theory of ‘boundary objects’, the chapters in the thesis address the heterogeneity in Company knowledge-production. The first half of the thesis focuses on botanical knowledge-production and the many actors involved in the making of early modern natural history works. The second half of the thesis examines geographical and bureaucratic knowledge-production and a significant shift in the Company policies from trade to land revenue in the second half of the eighteenth century. By historicising how knowledge was produced, the thesis attempts to understand if ‘knowledge-making’ was crucial for ‘profit-making’ in Malabar. This thesis thereby explores the intersectional character of early modern knowledge-production.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



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Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar; Beattie, James