Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below
An international & interdisciplinary conference
Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
Event Dates: June 24-26th 2010
Dirk J. Tang – Koninklijke Bibliotheek, the National Library of the Netherlands, The Hague, The Netherlands
Writings from the Dutch empire
In 1602, the creation of the United Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) (VOC) started a colonizing process that formally ended in 1954. That process started in the East, where Dutch entrepreneurs began to expand their trade routes by adapting them to the existing ones. Dutch trading posts could be found in Indonesia, India, Malaysia, China and Japan. In 1621 the Dutch West-India Company (West-Indische Compagnie) (WIC) was established and, as a consequence, Dutch traders started to expand their businesses also in the Western hemisphere. Parts of Brazil, parts of West Africa, Surinam, the Antilles and, not to forget, the New Netherlands in North America were now all included in this global empire.
There is one thing however that all migrants shared. They would write back and forth to their relatives or their business associates in the motherland. Thousands of personal and business letters were written and shipped. Most of them were lost. Lost either as a result of negligence, burning, recycling, war or the autonomous decay of paper. Lost till the year 1980 when a Dutch researcher stumbled, by change, upon a huge number of Dutch letters and documents. They are the so-called Prize Papers and as such part of the High Court of Admiralty Archives kept in the British National Archives in Kew.
Over the years more than a million people (Dutch and other West-Europeans) traveled to the East, many of them never to come back. Dead or alive they became part of the Dutch cultural heritage. Although the number of ships that sailed between the motherland and the Western part of the empire was considerably higher that those that sailed East in the end less people were attracted to remain in those areas.
In this paper I want to explore the possibilities that this marvelous treasure trove has already yielded to (re)-write Dutch colonial history.
Dirk J. Tang, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, the National Library of the Netherlands, The Hague, The Netherlands, email
Dirk J. Tang is a historian and works as project manager of the project Sailing Letters an initiative of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek. This project aims to conserve and digitize Dutch letters and documents now in the National Archives in Kew and make them available to Dutch and other researchers. He has written publications on Dutch colonial history, the Dutch involvement in the slave trade and 18th century Surinam.