Friday, October 30, 2009

Silk for Silver: Dutch-Vietnamese Relations, 1637-1700

A Review of Hoang Anh Tuan's Silk for Silver: Dutch-Vietnamese Relations, 1637-1700 (Leiden: Brill, 2007. xxix + 296 pp. ISBN: 978-90-04-15601-2. $115)
Reviewed by Dr. Eric Tagliacozzo, professor of History, Cornell University, author of Secret Trades, Porous Borders: Smuggling and States Along a Southeast Asian Frontier, 1865-1915 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005, 437 pages) which won the Harry J. Benda Prize from the Association of Asian Studies, 2007.

In Silk for Silver: Dutch-Vietnamese Relations, 1637-1700, Hoang Anh Tuan has given us a fascinating window into the workings of the internationalisation of Northern Vietnamese society in the latter two-thirds of the seventeenth century. This epoch of Vietnamese history is actually quite well-chronicled; established scholars such as Alexander Woodside, Keith Taylor, Esta Ungar, and John Whitmore have all written about the crucial changes that engulfed the expanding Vietnamese polity in this period. Yet where these scholars for the most part examine Vietnamese society primarily on its own terms, or at best in relation to the colossus of China to the north (John Whitmore’s work on precious metals being a partial exception to this), Hoang Anh Tuan has gone in the opposite direction and has made Dutch sources and records the central evidentiary spine of his story. This is a sea-change in vantage; examining this time period from the locus of the coasts changes many suppositions. The result is an increasingly internationalised story where the cosmopolitanism of the maritime trade routes comes to the fore. Vietnam appears to be one part—but now an increasingly important part—of a burgeoning trans-regional system that was both highly political and irrepressibly commercial in nature at the same time.
Hoang’s command of the Dutch sources is impressive. Documents from this period are notoriously hard to read, yet they are well-preserved and conveniently centralised in the National Archives of the Netherlands in The Hague. Very few historians of Vietnam have used Dutch sources in any kind of systematic way prior to Hoang, and he had almost complete terra incognita to map out in his study. At the same time this meant that a very large amount of data that he reported is seeing light for the first time. The Dutch were nothing if not admirable record-keepers. They chronicled political relationships (which pre-conditioned their trade), commercial relationships (which actualised the day-to-day interactions of trying to make a profit), and even social relationships (which oiled the wheels of their business empire in a number of important ways). Hoang echoes these Dutch archival concerns with the structure of his own book, turning to each of these subjects in turn to try to explain how the relationship between the Dutch and Vietnamese evolved over the course of more than sixty years.
The results are slightly mixed. Hoang’s reportage on political relationships between the Trinh and the VOC is certainly competent, and it lays out the backbone of these interactions in interesting ways. Yet some of the flesh, sinew, and blood of these day-to-day dealings seems to be missing; the story of the ongoing political dance between two sets of regimes of a very different character does not get told here. There is an arc to the story and we see tentative beginnings, done deals, misunderstandings and eventual failures, but we don’t feel the everyday quality of the relationship as each side tried to figure out the other and extract maximum advantage from this same understanding. It may be slightly unfair to critique this section as Hoang can only be as good as the sources at his disposal for this information. The Dutch records do appear to be rather limited and stale in this respect, with the Vietnamese sources even less forthcoming on exciting details.
Hoang is stronger on part 3 of his book, which deals with the actual economics of this evolving commercial relationship through a number of interesting products. Cash and precious metals form one of these subjects; Hoang is not the first to write on these trades, and one can see how he builds nicely on previous literature to open up his discussion here. The arms trade (important), musk, gold (for southeast India) and trade ceramics (for the rest of Southeast Asia, particularly the island world to the south) are all explored with fascinating results. Yet it was the sale of Vietnamese silk—largely to Japan, carried by VOC ships—that makes up the lion’s share of his discussion here. Hoang shows how important this sub-trade was not only to the Dutch, who transported the fabric, and to the Japanese and Vietnamese, who bought and sold it respectively, but also to the entirety of this regional Asian system. Dutch ships calling for Vietnamese silk traded at many ports, and linked many economies and societies through their passage. Hoang understands this and takes pains to show how Vietnam became an increasingly important coast for merchants on their oceanic travels through the region.
Part 4 of Hoang’s book, which deals with the social and cultural implications of this deepening contact as the seventeenth-century progressed, is considerably shorter and less developed than his discussion of either politics or commerce in earlier sections. Here again, one surmises that the author is at the mercy of his sources in this respect, and that the Dutch had less to say on these matters in general than they did on the hurly-burly of statecraft and business on a seasonal (or even weekly) basis. Yet some of Hoang’s story here is fascinating, and equally rare—discussion for example on whether the seeds of capitalism first appeared in Vietnam at this time, or on the romantic (and sexual) relationships between Dutch men and Vietnamese women, are eye-opening and instructive in their own right. Cultural awareness of the “other” was a matter of daily interaction at this point on the Vietnamese littoral, with “others” comprising not only the Dutch but also Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and English merchants as well. All of this was happening before the French became the most important foreigners on the scene later in the nineteenth century.
Silk for Silver is an important book; it is one of those volumes that quietly passes into the academic canon, but which will leave a larger and larger impression with time. It is written in a sober and understated tone, and its use of data-accumulation and difficult sources will make it valuable well into the future. More than this, however, its emphasis on using truly underutilised materials to try to re-orient the story of the Vietnamese coasts in the later seventeenth century succeeds in traversing new ground where older orthodoxies have long held sway. This is not a book to set the world on fire. Yet it is one that will repay careful reading with that most precious of commodities, more valuable even than the silk or silver of Hoang’s title: the opening of new vistas and new possibilities on a long-vanished past.
Hoang Anh Tuan is teaching history at Vietnam National University, Hanoi. He obtained his doctorate from Department of History, Leiden University in 2006. His research focuses on Vietnamese-European interactions in the early modern period.

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