Early Dutch Trade and Yemen

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 42 (2000):58-61

C. G. Brouwer, Dutch-Yemeni Encounters: Activities of the United East India Company (VOC) in South Arabian Waters since 1614. Amsterdam: D'Fluyte Rarob, 1998, 331 pp., index, bibliography, illustrations, maps, ISBN 90-800257-8-6

C. G. Brouwer and his wife welcomed by the mudîr of al-Mukhâ, Yahyâ al-Shâmî, 8 March 1998

The Dutch presence in Yemen has been well documented for more than two decades by C. G. (Kees) Brouwer, whose previously reviewed study on Mocha (See Yemen Update #40 (1998) was a gem. The present volume provides a broader view of the trade history between the United East India Company and Yemen during the 17th century and first half of the 18th century. In fact, this is a collection of seven previous studies published between 1978 and 1988. A couple of the article republished here have been translated into English, so much will be new to the majority of us who find it rather daunting to decipher Dutch articles. Once again, anyone who has an academic interest in this time period or the Red Sea/Indian Ocean trade network should have a copy of this book. To order the book, contact D'Fluyte Rarob, Ceintuurbaan 81, 1072EW Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

The primary value of the text is its rich documentation, especially bringing together in one volume a number of articles spread in sources that may be difficult to locate. There is a fair amount of repetition, as is to be expected from a collection of articles rather than a continuous narrative. As the table of contents indicates, much more than trade is covered in the articles. One learns about people, prominent Yemenis and a series of Dutch adventurers and merchants, as well as the trading context in its political dimension. The chapter (5) on Willem de Milde meeting the Turkish Beglerbegi is a fascinating historical reconstruction --using a variety of sources -- of a specific event.

Before all else, it is a pleasure to acknowledge the level of scholarship to be found in the articles collected in this volume. It is a tribute that articles written back over two decades have not lost their value. Brouwer uses a large number of primary and secondary sources in several languages. In addition, he has an excellent track record of stepping outside the academic ivory tower and communicating with the public. Chapter 7, an excerpt of which is reproduced here, was written to accompany an exhibit at the Tropen museum in 1988-1989 on the role of the United East India Company in Yemen. The book is quite user friendly with a number of indices, separated according to persons, places, ships, and subjects. There is also an extensive listing of the Dutch records referred to in the studies.

One of the laudable aspects of Brouwer's present text, also evident in the volume on Mocha, is how readable it is. If I may beg the author's indulgence for a moment, the subject of data about 17th century trade in the archives of a company could be as dry as the Tihama soil surrounding Mocha. I can only imagine the amount of really boring and useless information gathered in the business mode of the day and the endless tallies of what was bought and sold. But the author has a flair for making his material interesting to read about. In reading through the chapters I sometimes found myself thinking what a good mystery could be spun off of the Dutch experience. Think of poor soul Herman van Gill, who about six months after opening the first Dutch trading office in Mocha in 1621 suddenly died. Was he poisoned by a jealous Indian merchant? What secrets did he find out about the local Turkish officials? Did the qat not agree with him? What a novel novel could come of this stuff...

I am always drawn to authors who understand the value of humor and demonstrate wit as an aid to scholarship rather than a detriment. My favorite remark in the book is found in the preface, where Brouwer is thanking an Egyptologist, Julia van Dijk-Harvey, who helped him with the English. "She stripped all the English essays of their Dutch-isms, never once losing her good humour! Her name should be framed, really, in a pharaonic cartouche" (p. 9). Alright, any why not name a tulip after her as well.

Title Page of van der Broek's journal (c. 1663) [p. 244]

Log kept by van den Broeke on the Nassau (1614) [p. 25]





1. Dutch archival sources for the economic history of Yemen in the early seventeenth century

2. Under the watchful eye of Mimî ibn'Abd Allâh: The voyage of the Dutch merchant Pieter van den Broecke to the court of Dja'far Bâshâ in Sana'a, 1616

3. The expedition to Yemen in 1620 by Pieter van den Broecke (servant of the VOC), according to his book of resolutions

4. Rediscovered after more than three centuries: Pieter van den Broecke's original Resolutieboeck concerning Dutch trade in Northwest India, Persia and Southern Arabia, 1620-1625

5. Wilhelm de Milde, KânîShalabî and Fadlî Båashåa or, A servant of the Dutch East India Company received in audience by the Beglerbegi of Yemen, 1622-1624

6. A stockless anchor and an unsaddled horse: Ottoman letters addressed to the Dutch in Yemen, first quarter of the 17th century

7. The United East India Company (VOC) in Yemen, 1614-1759: exhibition at the Tropen museum, Amsterdam, 14 Dec.1988 - 3 Sept. 1989

Dynastic Tables

Dutch Records




Model of a flute (ca. 1700) [p. 278]


7. The United East India Company (VOC) in Yemen, 1614-1759: exhibition at the Tropen museum, Amsterdam, 14 Dec. 1988 - 3 Sept. 1989

INTRODUCTION [pp.223-228]

When in 1498 Vasco da Gama ventured the crossing from Africa to India he relied on an Arab pilot. this is not surprising as the Arabs had sailed the Indian Ocean for ages. They transported spices from the Indonesian Archipelago, textiles from India, and ivory from Africa to Aden. After transshipment, such commodities found their way to Egypt, Syria and, finally, Venice. The Portuguese penetrated by force of arms into this commercial network and established a maritime empire with Goa as its centre. In order to transfer the spice route, via the Cape, to Lisbon, they wanted to block the Red Sea. From 1513 onwards they launched attacks on Aden, Jedda, and Suez. In 1538, therefore, the Ottoman Sultan SüleymanI ('the Magnificent') dispatched a war fleet to India to protect Muslim trade and the Holy Cities (Mecca and Medina). This naval force suffered a defeat off Diu, but conquered Aden. Thus the Red Sea became a Turkish inland sea, and Yemen an Ottoman province for a hundred years.

In 1609 the first ship of the English East India Company appeared before Aden, some years later followed by ajacht ('yacht') of the Dutch Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC),i.e., 'United East India company'). Far into the eighteenth century,both trading companies would continue sailing to Yemen. although there was fierce competition between them, they ousted, in fraternal cooperation, the Portuguese from a great number of their Asian bases.

Establishment of the South Arabian office(1614-1638)

On 30 August 1614, after a tiring journey along coasts for the greater part unknown, the Nassau reached Aden as the first Dutch ship ever. The Turkish Governor of the city, however,'Alî Âghâ, considering the highly-laden but heavily armed vessel to be a war craft, expelled it. The opperkoopman ('senior merchant') did not have at his disposal a fermân issued by the Sultan, that is, an official document in which the sovereign instructed his subordinates to allow Dutch merchants to go ashore and trade in Yemen.

On 25 January 1616, the Nassau, again commanded by Van den Broecke, dropped anchor before Mocha(al-Mukhâ), the port city which in a short space of time had completely eclipsed Aden. But again no permission was granted to found a factory. Hereupon Van den Broecke resolved to set out on a journey to the court in Sana'a, the capital. The company, which was escorted by a platoon of Turkish soldiers under the command of the interpreter and captain of the galleys, Mimî, reached that city on 4 May. Although the reception in the Castle by Dja'far Bâshâ, the province's Governor General, was magnificent,during an audience on 12 May the latter turned down the merchant's request for approval of the establishment of an office. He feared an expansion of Dutch power in the Red Sea. Christians, moreover, were not allowed to live ion the neighborhood of the Holy cities without the consent of the Sultan. Subsequently, the Nassau's Commander left Southwest Arabia empty-handed.

In 1618, the Sultan in Istanbul granted the Company the desired fermân. This decree warranted full freedom of movement, establishment and trade in the Yemeni province, for as long as the servants of the VOC relinquished unfriendly acts. In 1620Van den Broecke, passing through on his way to Surat in India, again made the harbour of Aden. There he left Herman van Gill behind. This senior merchant travelled to al-Mukhâ, where he hoisted the flag over the first Dutch trading office in Yemen in early 1621.After his sudden death, barely six months later, Willem de Milde was appointed head of the comptoir or factory.

Regular voyages to al-Mukhâ(1638-1655)

After the Turks has been expelled from Yemen in 1635, the flute the Rarob under Van den Broecke went on are connoitering expedition to al-Mukhâ. From there Cornelis vande Graeff travelled in December to Dawrân, the residence of the self-styled Imâm Husayn. With the consent of the latter, Dutch trade got under way again.

Year after year Company ships called atal-Mukhâ, under the command of competent merchants such as Johan Sigismund Wurffbain (in 1640, with the 't Vliegende Hart) and Willem Aleman (in 1645, with the Overschie). The office was semi-permanently manned. Strong fluctuations in the market and cutthroat competition by Indian traders, however, prevented the Company's Arabian factory from blossoming. Some of the commodities it supplied from the East, such as pepper and textiles, were even making a loss. The building up of their own distribution system in the Yemeni hinterland was not permitted as this would have sidelined the Arab middlemen. Only in the coffee trade some profit was realized.

In 1655 the branch office of the VOC in al-Mukhâ was shut down, after the Company had entertained for half a century the hope, literally, to cash in on its Arabian trade. The VOC, after all, did not dispatch its flutes to al-Mukhâ for return goods, but for comptanten or 'cash', i.e. golden Hungarian or Turkish ducats and silver Spanish reals. The cash was required for the purchase, elsewhere in Asia, of those commodities which the Company sought to sell in Europe.

However, there was almost no demand for the merchandise the VOC supplied to al-Mukhâ: pepper, cloves,nutmeg, mace, benzoin, sandalwood, camphor, lead, sugar, china wear,etc. Only spices and porcelain paid a reasonable profit. Pepper from Sumatra and cloth from India, on the other hand, proved to be nothing less than a disastrous trade item. The VOC was no match for the numerous, cheaply operating, Arab, Persian, and above all, Indian merchants Sometimes small lots of myrrh, frankincense, and opium were purchased. In fact, cauwa or 'coffee' was the sole product which was shipped more systematically and in larger quantities; sold in Basra and Gamron (Bandar 'Abbâs), this product yielded some additional cash.

Incidental voyages(1655-1696)

After 1655, for no less than four decades,only incidental voyages to al-Mukhâ were organized by the VOC in 1658, 1661, 1669, 1670, 1677, 1679, and 1684. Even when, towards the end of the century the call for coffee beans in Europe rose, the Company could initially confine itself to buying it in Surat and Malabar from the hands of Indian traders. Actually, the VOC was not sorry at all about the predatory raids by the so-called 'French' privateer Hubert Hugo in the Red Sea, in the early 1660's.

Prosperity and decline of the Dutch trade(1696-1759)

For coffee, in particular, regular trade with al-Mukhâ was resumed in 1696. A decade later, in 1706, areal boom set in with the arrival of Johan Ketelaer. Coffee beans,then exclusively destined for the European market, were purchased inal-Mukhâ and Bayt al-Fakîh as well. To this end huge sums of money from the Netherlands were required. Their own sailing route,via Ceylon and the Cape, was prescribed for the special coffee vessels

In 1718 the coffee price in Yemen reached a record level as a result of both the fierce competition amongst the Turkish, English, French, Belgian, and Dutch buying agents, and the supply running short. At the same time, auction prices in the Netherlands were dropping. The VOC reacted by extending its own coffee cultivation on Java. In 1724 the Javanese production surpassed the Yemeni purchases. Thus, a permanent factory in al-Mukhâbe came superfluous.

Nonetheless, the Company initially continued dispatching ships to Southwest Arabia. Not only did some consumers prefer the Yemeni flavour to the Javanese, but the presence of a Dutch vessel in al-Mukhâ's harbour also boosted the price at the expense of competing companies. This, of course, was highly favourable to the Javanese beans. After 1739 only incidental voyages to Yemen were realized. In about 1759 al-Mukhâ disappeared entirely from the books of the VOC.

During the early decades of the seventeenth century, Yemen, an eyâlet of the Ottoman Empire, passed through a bloody war of liberation under the leadership of the Imâm Kâsim al-Mansûr bi-'llâh and his sons which in 1635resulted in the expulsion of the Turkish occupying armies. Halfway through this final stage of foreign rule, in the autumn of 1614, the Dutch 'yacht' the Nassau cast anchor in the roads of Aden. The audience granted by the Sandjakbegi, 'Alî Âghâ, to the 'senior merchant' Pieter van den Broecke, proved to be the first of a long series of encounters between merchants of the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie ('United East India Company'), VOC) and Turkish or Yemeni authorities that would not come to an end before c.1760. Throughout this lengthy period of time, the Dutch Republic ranked as a maritime and economic superpower and the VOC, whose sphere of influence stretched from Yemen to Japan, as the world's leading trade company.

In the course of the century and a half that the Company maintained a factory in the main port of Southwest Arabia, al-Mukhâ, its servants produced, apart from charts and drawings, a vast flow of documents dealing with the climate, country,population, government, trade, shipping, and military political developments A considerable part thereof has come down to us in the archives of the VOC, a small number in private collections. On the basis of this material, crammed with valuable data about shipping movements, sailing routes, commodities, prices, duties, coinage etc.,the historian, if sufficiently equipped with knowledge about Yemen and the VOC, language and script, is able to reconstruct not only Dutch-Yemeni trade in particular, but also Southwest Arabia's maritime economic past in general.

Page from al-Siddiqî,Istifâ' (ca. 1600) [p. 256]

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