By Stanley Chia, a third year Undergraduate student studying International Relations, History and Contemporary Asian Studies at the University of Toronto. Originally submitted for CAS310.
There are some parallels to be drawn among the Dutch East India Company, also known as the Vereenigde Oost- Indische Companie (VOC) and the British East India Company (EIC) regarding how they created colonial space and used exile in order to exert control over indigenous populations. While the VOC’s and EIC’s (later the British Crown Government’s) strategy of moving indigenous people against their will resulted in the creation of colonial space that predominantly served the political and commercial interests of these trading companies, local resistance to these efforts was found in colonized territories such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Taking a comparative geographical and historical approach, this blog piece will also demonstrate how the concept of “indigenous” was important to these trading companies and the Crown Government.
Categorization of ethnicities were carried out by the British Crown Government as they exiled some Sri Lankans, including the Kandyan king to Southern India. Since Sri Lankans revolted against the EIC’s short rule under the Madras Presidency of 1796 to 1802, the British Crown sought to impose a colonial policy on Sri Lanka that differed from that of mainland India. This policy fostered a distinct island identity among the indigenous Sri Lankan population. Despite the Crown government’s efforts to separate the Malabar people from the Sinhala people, there were local resistance to such moves. For example, the exiled Kandyan King Sri Vickrama Rajasimha did not adjust to his new situation as he acted in a manner similar to that as if he was never exiled at all. The king assembled his court and expected an extravagance to be made for his daughter’s marriage. From this example, Sivasundaram writes that the British had failed to separate a Malabar’s identity from a Sinhala’s identity.
The British Crown’s exile of the last Kandyan king is similar to the efforts taken by the VOC with regards to their exile of people of Banda, Indonesia. Kaartinen notes that Sultan Hamzah of Ternate, for instance, was exiled in Spanish Manila for more than twenty years by the Dutch. Hamzah was later used as the VOC’s proxy, but it was largely a failure because his successors could not control Hoamoal when he died; this meant that the VOC had to conquer Hoamoal by force in 1648. The Dutch was keen on taking control of places such as Hoamoal because it intended to “limit indigenous spice cultivation and trade” to areas under its direct control. This Indonesian example coupled with the situation in Sri Lanka can be viewed to be part of a similar historical context, where these colonial powers imposed their will on others in their search for wealth in an age of empires.
Hugo Grotius’ legal arguments served as part of the basis for colonial practices performed in Indonesia by the VOC and in Sri Lanka by the British Crown Government that succeeded the EIC. Burbank and Cooper writes that Grotius’ 1609 “Freedom of the Seas” treatise which employed the concept of seeing the sea as an open highway was used by the trading companies to justify what they did to colonial subjects. Kaartinen echoes their sentiments as he writes that with “the VOC recognizing indigenous groups as “nations” rather than territories,” Dutch trade contracts with these groups were made with reference to “Municipal Laws” that allowed for the Dutch to constitute sovereignty. By bringing someone into exile, for example, the VOC (and British Crown Government) illustrated how they had sovereign control of territory in legal terms.
When the Dutch and British became part of the everyday lives of the local indigenous populace in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, they faced resistances on many fronts. In the Dutch and British attempts of securing a monopoly of spices and trade outposts, their means of breaking up entire communities did not make the system more effective. In 1817, the EIC sent “coast sepoys” to quell unrests against Crown rule in Sri Lanka only to face challenges by the troops themselves because they were paid as if they were on “field service” as opposed to “foreign service”. Governor Brownrigg looked into the matter, resulting in a win situation for the Indian soldiers as they were treated as if they were on “foreign service”. Across the Indian Ocean, the VOC subjected indigenous groups to contribute to the VOC’s war machine through the provision of war canoes so that the Dutch could raid outposts of local Muslim traders and monopolize the spice trade. The VOC did not just stop there, however, as they depopulated villages and islands before sending these villagers and islanders to the Banda islands as VOC slaves to work on nutmeg and clove estates. Unfortunately for the Dutch, strong oversea kinship ties among Eastern Indonesians were so prevalent that, contrary to the Dutch imagination where exile is “a figure of movement away from home and into the colonial space,” the locals saw “the space between islands as full of trajectories to other homes”. The Bandanese way of life is such that exile was not as humiliating as the Dutch thought it would have been because through kinship ties, the Bandanese could become part of a larger ethnic category.
The Dutch colonizers misunderstood the indigenous populace they were ruling over in a manner that allowed for the indigenous populace to make use of the gaps within European myopia. A short-term Dutch ruler of Indonesia said that the indigenous people were “strongly affected by a sense of shame, and banishment from their families is one of the most mortifying punishments”. Yet Kaartinen notes with Dutch attempts of putting the Bandanese in their place, such as with the example of Iman Budiman’s exile, the Bandanese simply became entwined with other families in a distant site because of a strong interisland identity.
From the discussion of the relationship between the ruled and the rulers, it is demonstrative that the colonizers during this colonial period were so caught up in first finding out who was indigenous before exiling them for political interests that they ignored the geographical contexts of the local population. Under Crown rule, because Sri Lanka had to be ordered and stabilized in political terms through tracking indigeneity while isolating the foreign that the Crown did not see how Kandy, a highland Buddhist kingdom, was cosmopolitan in nature. The fact that Malays, sepoys from India, Muslims, and a British artilleryman named Benson were part of Kandy’s defence, and that Moors were used for commercial and high religious purposes just goes to show the cosmopolitan nature of the kingdom. Thus it is evident that Kandy had a diversity of people living within its land. This diversity complicated matters for the British in their search for indigeneity among a Sinhala- Tamil divide in Sri Lanka. This is because the population in Kandy, as diverse and cosmopolitan as it was, had a shared common understanding of their roots to belong to the kingdom of Kandy.
In Banda, the VOC was perhaps so happy to have acquired independent trading rights after co-opting and forcing the movement of some indigenous people that they were blinded to the idea that the Bandanese could fit in almost anywhere the VOC exiled them to. Kaartinen writes that while “the colonial state was always able to send people away, its subjects created new, socially meaningful identities for those arriving in a new place”. It is thought-provoking because it sheds a new light onto Dutch colonialism: while there is no doubt that VOC rule brought negative impacts on Indonesia, it also led to the Bandanese improving upon an indigenous mentality of opposition to VOC rule and an already existing interisland identity founded on kinship.
This piece has explored the relationship between exile and the creation of colonial space by the VOC and British Crown Government in Indonesia and Sri Lanka respectively, which was met with resistance by the indigenous populace. The agency that the locals in Indonesia and Sri Lanka demonstrated reveals that there are layers to imperial subjects’ experience under colonial rule. The search for indigeneity by the Dutch and British caused both colonial powers to oversimplify the colonial situations and means of ruling over indigenous people.
 Sujit Sivasundaram, “Ethnicity, Indigeneity, and Migration in the Advent of British Rule to Sri Lanka,” The American Historical Review 115, no. 2 (2010), 429.
 Ibid, 444.
 Timo Kaartinen, “Exile, Colonial Space and Deterritorialized People in Eastern Indonesian History,” in Ronnit Ricci, ed,, Exile in Colonial Asia : Kings, Convicts, Commemoration (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2016), 145.
 Ibid, 140.
 Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History : Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 183.
 Kaartinen, “Exile, Colonial Space and Deterritorialized People in Eastern Indonesian History”, 144.
 Kaartinen, “Exile, Colonial Space and Deterritorialized People in Eastern Indonesian History”, 143.
 Burbank and Cooper, Empires in World History, 171.
 Sivasundaram, “Ethnicity, Indigeneity, and Migration in the Advent of British Rule to Sri Lanka”, 448.
 Kaartinen, “Exile, Colonial Space and Deterritorialized People in Eastern Indonesian History”, 140.
 Ibid, 142.
 Ibid, 150.
 Ibid, 143.
 Ibid, 157.
 Sivasundaram, “Ethnicity, Indigeneity, and Migration in the Advent of British Rule to Sri Lanka,” 451.
 Ibid, 439-440.
 Kaartinen, “Exile, Colonial Space and Deterritorialized People in Eastern Indonesian History”, 157.