Book Review – ‘Journal, Memorials and Letters of Cornelis Matelieff de Jonge: Security, diplomacy and commerce in 17th-century Southeast Asia’ by Leo M. Akveld

By Leo M. Akveld, published November 2020


The countries of Southeast Asia which surround the historically important sea route of the Strait of Malacca – like Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore – can learn little about the history of their country until they have a thorough command of the languages of their former overseas rulers. Today’s inhabitants have to master Portuguese, Spanish or Dutch in order to understand the historical record of the colonists’ dealings with the indigenous men in power at that moment, such as the sultans of Malacca, Johor and Aceh. Of course, nowadays most students can read secondary historical studies in English telling them about the past of their country, but for unravelling the details of that history one has to go into the archival records, and most of the time these are not open to these students purely for linguistic reasons.

This unfortunate situation is one which scholars such Peter Borschberg have started to redress. For many years an assistant professor in the department of history at the National University of Singapore, he has a special interest and expertise of the history of the (coastal) areas around the Malay peninsula in the period 1500–1800. Apart from being a prolific author, he also has a good working knowledge of the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch languages. Borschberg’s aim has been to present, in English, the source material that his students will need to understand the history of their region, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when it was not customary to record the history in an accessible language.

For his new book he has turned to Cornelis Corneliszoon Matelieff, a Dutch merchant and seafarer, who, as the admiral of a fleet of the recently established Dutch East India Company (VOC), was active in Southeast Asian waters between April 1606 and February 1608. Probably of more importance was that he wrote a number of detailed notes for his (political) employers at home. In these discourses, alongside a few letters, written between late 1608 and 1610, he indicates, on the basis of his experiences on the spot, how to best handle the promotion of the Dutch economical, military and political position in Southeast Asia, and at the same time undermine the position of their Portuguese and Spanish rivals in Asia (and Europe).

In his book Borschberg has brought together a series of documents that tell us about the influential role that Cornelis Matelieff played in the first two decades of the Dutch VOC, translated into English. The documents are preceded by an introduction in which the editor explains Matelieff’s voyage and his writings their historical context. The book is profusely illustrated and there a number of very useful maps. At the end there are a ‘glossary of non-geographic terms, currencies, measures and commodities’ and a ‘list of place names and geographic terms’. Borschberg’s book is a substantially built account of an important phase in the history of the Dutch East India Company. Even for a Dutchman who can read the original source material and is familiar with the story and the period, the book offers a number of interesting vistas. Moreover, it is well produced and contains a useful number of supporting aids like a bibliography, an index and very useful glossaries …

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Filed under: Dutch Wars | Indian Ocean | East India Company
Subjects include: Strategy & Diplomacy

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