Negotiating Maritime Power in Early Modern East Asia: An Interview with Adam Clulow

Adam Clulow. Source: Adam Clulow.

The Dutch in Japan have often been represented as a pragmatic company of merchants that prioritized the quiet progress of commerce over everything else. Not quite, says Adam Clulow, Associate Professor of history at Monash University and author of the acclaimed monograph The Company and the Shogun (Columbia University Press, 2013).

Clulow’s work on the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and its role in the turbulent political environment of East Asia challenges standard views of power relations in the diplomatic encounter between early modern Europe and East Asia. Looking at conflict and negotiation between a European overseas enterprise and a powerful military government in Japan, Clulow questions analytical categories such as state and company, piracy and privateering, diplomacy and violence. The VOC, he shows, was a master shapeshifter, altering its appearance whenever it needed to. When it came to Tokugawa Japan, the Company was in fact relatively small and weak. Clulow’s work challenges widespread notions about early modern relationships between Europe and East Asia, and the evolution of modern state institutions.

Jonas Rüegg (Harvard University)


JONAS RÜEGG: At least since Kenneth Pomeranz’s Great Divergence, England is often taken as the representative of Europe par excellence in historical competition with China. The result are narratives of complimentary ascent and decline. In your work, you look at the Dutch Empire, the only Western nation with diplomatic access to the early modern regime of Japan (1603-1868). Is this story very different if we look at the Netherlands and Japan?

ADAM CLULOW: The Great Divergence, as explained in Pomeranz’ classic work, really begins in a later period when Britain finally pulls away due to a combination sometimes summarized as coal and colonies.  In the seventeenth century, where most of my work has focused, Europeans found themselves in a world dominated by powerful Asian states that wielded military and economic resources far in excess of the most powerful European polities.  It is in many ways the key point of my book that Europeans struggled to manage their relations with these states.

My book is sometimes taken as being quite critical of the Dutch.  In fact, it is difficult not to be impressed by the energy and ambition of the Dutch Republic and its inhabitants in this period. The Netherlands was a remarkably successful state that had withstood an onslaught from the most powerful empire in Europe and Dutch society was characterized by a surge of ambition and energy that sent ships and merchants across the world.  The Dutch East India Company, the focus of much of my work, was, by any contemporary measure, a stunningly successful organization that converted itself from a mercantile interloper into a territorial power in the space of a few decades.

But this wider trajectory is precisely what makes it so significant that the representatives of such a dynamic organization were so effectively controlled and so efficiently domesticated in Japan. I sometimes think that East Asian specialists are slower to acknowledge just how formidable the VOC was because the Dutch were so successfully fenced in in Japan and of course evicted from Taiwan by Zheng forces.  But if you talk to scholars who work on the Dutch in Southeast Asia, they will present a very different picture of an organization that systematically undermined or defeated the most powerful local states.  All of this means that if there is a divergence in this period it is simply how powerful East Asian states were when compared to European overseas enterprises or in fact European states themselves.  We don’t have to look far to appreciate this.  Dutch observers arriving in Japan were stunned by the power of the Japanese state and the resources it could wield.  They compared states like Tokugawa Japan favorably to the most powerful states in Europe and found it difficult to understand why the shogun hadn’t for example initiated a process of massive colonial expansion.

RÜEGG: Indeed, it was not the Japanese but the Zheng Clan, a group of surviving Ming loyalists, that ousted the Dutch from Taiwan in 1662, dramatically weakening their military presence in East Asia.

CLULOW: Tonio Andrade’s brilliant book, The Lost Colony, makes clear how formidable the Zheng maritime network truly was.  The Dutch prospered in Taiwan initially because there was a vacuum of authority there. The Ming were not particularly interested in the territory, and the Tokugawa state, although they occasionally authorized an expedition, were ultimately unwilling to invest significant resources in bringing Taiwan into the shogun’s orbit.  When the Zheng turned their attention to Taiwan, I think it was only a matter of time before the Dutch were expelled.  The ground-breaking recent work of two scholars, Xing Hang and Cheng Wei-Chung, who together paint a picture of a Zheng organization that could and did successfully challenge the VOC in all aspects of its Asian strategy, confirms this picture.  Xing and I are now working on a series of articles that look at how the Zheng/VOC war rippled out across Southeast Asia as it was carried into trade routes, coastal waters and ports across the region.  Both were regional actors and the clash between them was, we argue, one of the most important show-downs in seventeenth century Asia.  The Dutch lost Taiwan because they encountered a formidable organization that not only stripped the VOC of its East Asian colonial outpost. This adversary then proceeded to mount a regional challenge that stretched out to ports in East and Southeast Asia.

RÜEGG: It sounds as though the Tokugawa state had “outsourced” geopolitical interests to the VOC and the Zheng clan, which held each other in check, issuing privileges to the Dutch and the Zheng clan, while keeping its own forces at home. Were the Tokugawa a weak government that needed to save money this way?

CLULOW: I certainly don’t think of the Tokugawa as a weak regime.  In fact, if you spend any time with Dutch sources, you get a very different perception of the Tokugawa state as the Dutch were in awe of the resources it could wield.  Rather, when I try to explain the nature of the Tokugawa state to students (a task no one should attempt in a one-hour lecture), I tell them that it was fundamentally conservative in the way it approached the world and its concern was always to expend the minimal resources possible to maintain balance and hence stability.  The Tokugawa state emerged out of the chaos of the Sengoku period (1467-1603) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s failed invasion of Korea (1592–98).  On the most basic level, it was designed to retain political stability even in the presence of 250 plus semi-autonomous domains which, if combined, could overthrow the Tokugawa.  So, as I explain it to my students, the whole Tokugawa system was designed to create a balance that locked the system in place and prevented it from collapsing.  The overarching goal was thus political stability.  Any external influence that might disrupt this had to be ruthlessly suppressed.  This is the reason why, for example, the Bakufu reigned in the capacity of domains to conduct foreign trade or dispatch large trading vessels. Allowing more flexibility threatened to disrupt the equation and hence inject volatility into the system.  Putting this all together, I don’t see the Tokugawa as weak.  Rather, this was a regime that concentrated its activities on a clear set of concerns, at least when it came to foreign policy.  Tokugawa officials identified several potential sources of instability and they worked hard to restrain these while avoiding foreign adventures that might disrupt the order.  The Tokugawa had the capacity, for example, to conquer Taiwan, or to build up a navy, or to conduct a very different kind of foreign relations, but this would have disrupted the delicate balance that underpinned the Tokugawa system and hence unsettled a precarious order.  I have to constantly remind myself that the primary concern of the Tokugawa was domestic – to reign in the most powerful domains that might challenge the regime’s hold over the archipelago. To return then to your point about outsourcing, the VOC or the Zheng Clan were useful tools that could be deployed to, for example, gather intelligence about the Portuguese or bring in goods from overseas without upsetting this crucial domestic balance.

RÜEGG: The VOC, in contrast, seems to have belonged to a hybrid form of state-like agent. If we think of pirate states like the Zheng, or the maritime domains of the Japanese middle age, the context of maritime environments seems to blur the boundary between state and non-state agents. Was the VOC a company or a state?

CLULOW: The VOC may have behaved as a state in Asia but it had a dual identity that makes it notoriously difficult to label precisely.  Most of my work has focused on the Company in Asia where it functioned like a state but things look very different in the Dutch Republic where the VOC operated within much clearer constraints.  I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few months reading the work of a group of incredible Dutch business historians, such as Oscar Gelderblom, Abe de Jong and Joost Jonker. Their view of the VOC, which focuses on the organization of the Company in Europe and its struggles with insurance and shareholder returns, looks very different from my work, which highlights the role of violence and diplomacy.  If you ask what sort of institution the VOC was, the most accurate answer is that it depends on where you look. If you look at Indonesia, where local observers referred to the Governor-general as the king of Batavia, the VOC was unquestionably a state. But in Japan, by contrast, the VOC struggled because Tokugawa authorities refused to grant it state privileges, including the right to dispatch ambassadors from Batavia, forcing the Dutch ultimately to reinvent themselves as loyal vassals of the Tokugawa shogunate.

RÜEGG: In other words, the VOC failed to perform as an integral diplomatic partner towards Japan and became a petty retainer of the Tokugawa state instead. The Opperhoofd of Dejima acted as a daimyo with a duty of alternate attendance in Edo. What can the history of the VOC tell us about the structure of the Tokugawa state and its boundaries?

CLULOW: One of the big questions in Japanese history is how to think about the nature of the Tokugawa state. Where did the power really lie?  Some historians like Ronald Toby argue for the centrality of the Tokugawa Bakufu as the key political actor, while others like Mark Ravina or Luke Roberts point to the domains as the key actors in a fragmented political system.  One scholar I admire a great deal is Robert Hellyer who argues against the older view of the Tokugawa regime as the sole actor of any consequence and foreign policy as an essentially centralized endeavour directed from Edo.  In his work, two maritime domains, Tsushima and Satsuma, emerge as central players in foreign relations.  Looking at the Dutch pushes you towards a more positive appraisal of the power of the Tokugawa state, that is, closer to Toby’s position.  This is for two reasons.  First, Tokugawa officials were the key actors both in Edo and Nagasaki.  They were the ones who reined the Company in when it attempted to attack Zheng ships travelling to Japan, for example, and they were the ones that effectively managed the VOC’s shifting diplomatic strategy.  Second, the Dutch had to deal with the Tokugawa directly because their former partner, the previously semi-autonomous maritime domain of Hirado, had lost its power over foreign relations.  Satsuma and Tsushima domains held on to their foreign connections, but Hirado lost out when the VOC was moved to Nagasaki.  Instead of maintaining a cooperative relationship with Hirado domain, which had functioned in the same way as Satsuma or Tsushima for the first decades of the seventeenth century, the Bakufu proceeded to take direct control over relations with the Dutch, albeit through officials on the water’s edge in Nagasaki. While I agree in many ways with Hellyer or Roberts or Ravina’s view of Japan as a patchwork of political power, the story of the Dutch in Japan is one that ultimately emphasizes the power and influence of the Tokugawa state.

Japanese folding screen, Genkei School, Nagasaki, ca. 1759. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Acc. No.: NG-696.

RÜEGG: Was the Tokugawa world order a Japan-centric tributary order emulating the Chinese model, or did the Tokugawa state create a genuinely new form of diplomacy? If a foreign organization could become a part of the Tokugawa system, then is a distinction between inside and outside still possible at all? Can we speak of ‘diplomacy’ at all in the East Asian context, or were all political relations an extension of a feudal lord-retainer connection that extended virtually to the end of the realm?

CLULOW: I certainly don’t think in terms of one static order and I think the drift in scholarship has tended away from this.  In the Chinese context, one need to think only of Peter Perdue’s work which has challenged notions of a monolithic tributary system.  Equally for the period I study, I think it is problematic to box Tokugawa foreign relations into a single unified theory.  What strikes me in my study of Tokugawa diplomacy is just how improvisational it was in the early years.  I recently translated a series of letters sent by Tokugawa Ieyasu to a wide array of states across Southeast Asia.  Those sources make clear that in the early seventeenth century, the Tokugawa were feeling their way.  This is what makes the diplomatic interaction between the VOC and the Tokugawa so interesting: they were both  such new organizations. When they first encountered each other, they were both less than a decade old and lacked established procedures or protocols. It is only under the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, that the system starts to settle down.

I observe improvisation, a lack of consistency and a general feeling around in the dark.  But I think we also need to be careful of assuming an absolute chasm between European and Asian systems. Rather, I think there were certain ideas or concepts that can be found across very different political systems and which tended to reappear again and again in cross-cultural encounters. In my recent work, which has moved away from Japan, Lauren Benton and I have focused on a suite of legal rubrics – what we call ‘interpolity law’ – which structured a broad array of political relations in East Asia, Europe, the Americas and other parts of the world.  What we see and argue for are certain ideas that recur across very different political systems that structure a wide range of encounters. This didn’t remove the potential for conflict, and numerous points of friction remained. But it does mean that often there were rubrics that different parties broadly shared, even as they clashed over the details.

RÜEGG: What is the great take-away of the Tokugawa-Dutch encounter for a global history of diplomacy and sovereignty?

CLULOW: I guess, I would highlight three points by way of a partial answer.  First, the VOC was an organization with a difficult problem, a corporate enterprise trying to push into a world of diplomacy that is generally monopolized by states.  It was thus an outsider both in terms of Asian but also European diplomac,y and this created a range of problems as it veered between different diplomatic strategies.  Second, the VOC struggled hard in Japan, arguably more so than in any other part of Asia.  In Southeast Asia, the VOC was a diplomatic and military power that maintained a sprawling set of relations, but in Japan, it hit barrier after barrier.  This comparison with Southeast Asia is really critical, I think.  If you just focus on Japan, it seems as though the Company’s interaction there were standard and hence unexceptional.  But if you look at the VOC experience in other parts of Asia, you quickly realize that there was a very significant divergence.  All of this highlights the third point that this divergence makes Japan and the Tokugawa/VOC interaction an important case study and one that needs to be included in wider considerations of how Europeans fared in early modern Asia.

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