Letter from the King of Tonkin concerning the termination of the trading relation with the VOC, 10 February 1700

Introduced Hoang Anh Tuan

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From the early seventeenth century, the northern Vietnamese kingdom of Tonkin (or Đàng Ngoài) was well-known for a number of export products, especially raw silk, silk piece-goods and coarse ceramics. The Japanese, Chinese and Portuguese often visited Tonkin to buy silk for the Japanese market and it was this silk trade which attracted the Dutch East India Company (VOC). In 1637, the Dutch successfully established commercial and diplomatic relations with Tonkin and maintained their trading station in the capital of Thăng Long (present-day Hanoi) until 1700. The lucrative Dutch ‘Vietnamese-silk-for-Japanese-silver trade‘ later also attracted the English and the French to Tonkin in 1672 and early 1682 respectively.  

However, by the last quarter of the 1600s, Tonkin was no longer a profitable trading place. Vietnamese silk no longer reaped a handsome profit in Japan and Vietnamese ceramics proved unmarketable in the insular Southeast Asian markets. In Tonkin, trading conditions also deteriorated rapidly. Subsequently, natural disasters ravaged the economy of the country and a wave of successive famines discouraged local craftsmen from producing goods for export. Worse still, after the protracted civil war with the southern Vietnamese kingdom of Quinam (or Đàng Trong) ended in 1672, the Tonkinese rulers seemed to be more indifferent towards foreign trade as they were no longer in urgent need of a supply of weapons from the Westerners. Bearing in mind their long-term strategy, especially the prospect of opening up trading relations with China, the Dutch still wanted to maintain their Tonkin trade despite its current unprofitable state, perceiving that it would be extremely difficult to re-establish the relationship with Tonkin once they left the country.

Despite the Dutch persistence, the relationship between the VOC and Tonkin deteriorated rapidly during the last two decades of the seventeenth century, especially after Chúa (Lord) Trịnh Căn (r. 1682–1709) succeeded to the throne. Because the Tonkin trade now yielded such meagre returns, Batavia reduced the value of the presents sent to the Chúa, a measure which displeased him. In 1682, the Chúa informed the Dutch factors that, were the presents to continue to be of such a low value, the Company would have to leave his country if it wished to avoid becoming embroiled in a dispute. In 1688 and 1689, the Chúa stopped sending letters to the Governor-General as Batavia had failed to send him the objects he demanded. In 1691, he threatened to deport the Dutch factors from the capital because Batavia had failed to send the crystal which he had ordered in the past few years. His discontent with the Company probably reached its nadir in 1693 when he had the chief factor, Jacob van Loo and the captain of the Westbroek imprisoned because Batavia had failed to send him amber. The Dutchmen were not released until the factory had signed an agreement to guarantee the delivery of amber and other objects which the Chúa had ordered on the next ship. In the next few years, the Chúa’s mistreatment of the Company servants continued. In 1694, for instance, when the Dutch factor excused himself from delivering 200 silver taels, the Chúa again had merchant Gerrit van Nes and the interpreter of the factory detained for ten days. In the following year, he imprisoned the factory interpreter and confiscated a portion of the factory silver to compensate himself for,  what he considered, the insignificant gifts Batavia had offered him that year.

In Batavia, mightily displeased with the detention and imprisonment of Company servants, the Supreme Government began to consider the possibility of ending its unprofitable trade with Tonkin. In their missive to the Gentlemen XVII in 1695, the Governor-General and the Councillors of the Indies suggested terminating the trading relations with Tonkin. During their meeting in the summer 1697, the Governor-General and the Councillors of Asia once again considered abandoning the Tonkin trade. It was argued that, since the Tonkin trade had yielded no profit in recent years and the factors had often been deliberately humiliated, there was no point in maintaining such a fraught trading relationship. However, since no official reply from Holland had arrived, the Supreme Government did not want to assume the responsibility for such an important decision.

In the meantime, the tense relationship between the Dutch factors and the Vietnamese rulers continued. In the summer of 1696, once again dissatisfied with the modest presents Batavia offered the Chúa still seized another portion of the factory silver. He also had the interpreters detained for twenty days and the factory ransacked by his soldiers. In the next two years, the relationship between the Company and Tonkin deteriorated further. Despite the Governor-General’s reconciliatory letters to him, the Chúa continued to make extravagant demands on the factory and even neglected to reply to the Governor-General.

Under such circumstances, during their meeting in January 1698 the Governor-General and the Council of Asia again agreed that the Company should withdraw from Tonkin. Surprisingly, the Gentlemen XVII still wanted to maintain the Tonkin trade. In their reply to Batavia, the VOC Board of Directors argued that if the Company abandoned its trade with Tonkin, where else could it buy such silk piece-goods as pelings, hockiens and chiourongs for the Dutch market? Unswayed by these arguments, the Governor-General and the Council of Asia continued to defend their opinion that the Tonkin factory should be closed. They argued that, if the Company could not purchase pelings and other such textiles from Tonkin, it could expediently spend that investment capital on the other products at the other trading-places including Bengal and Batavia, with the prospect of making a much more promising profit.

When the Supreme Government became aware that the Trịnh rulers had neglected to reply to the Governor-General in the winter 1698-1699 they concluded that the Company had no reason whatsoever to delay its abandonment of the Tonkin trade. In June 1699, the decision to give up the Tonkin trade was finalized. One last ship was sent to Tonkin to fetch the Company servants and property back to Batavia. In letters to the Chúa and the Crown Prince explaining the Company’s decision, the Governor-General confirmed that the Company might consider returning to Tonkin if the Chúa thought that such a move would be advantageous. In contrast to expectations in Batavia, Chúa Trịnh Căn was not at all discomposed by the withdrawal of the Company. In the winter of 1699-1700, after removing all Company property, Chief Factor Van Loo handed the factory keys over to the local eunuch, and without any formal farewell or indeed any form of ceremony at all, the Dutch quietly left Tonkin, taking with them all the Dutch factors, the Company assets, and a small cargo. Before the departure of the Dutch in the spring of 1700, Chúa Trịnh Căn sent this letter to the Governor-General. It seems that the Chúa was in two minds about the Dutch decision to leave his country when he wrote that, ‘after Your Excellency has perused this letter thoroughly, the Governor-General and Councillors might change their minds‘. However, as Batavia could see no sign of concession from the Chúa, it decided to terminate the sixty-three-year relationship with the northern Vietnamese kingdom of Tonkin.

Further reading: Hoang Anh Tuan, Silk for Silver: Dutch-Vietnamese Relations, 1637-1700. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Hoang Anh Tuan, “Letter from the King of Tonkin concerning the termination of the trading relation with the VOC, 10 February 1700”. In: Harta Karun: Hidden Treasures on Indonesian and Asian-European History from the VOC Archives in Jakarta, document 3. Jakarta: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, 2013.