East Indies – A Story of Spices, Gunpowder and Opium

News Update. East Indies is now out in a paperback edition and available on order from your favorite bookstore or your favorite online retailer for A$29.95.


Malacca after its capture by the United Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1642

In 1497 Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, his small Portuguese fleet reached India and they became the first Europeans to sail the Eastern Seas.  Over the next 100 years the Portuguese spread their trading network in search of spices, sandalwood, silks, gold, silver, porcelains and other oriental goods. This trading network extended from Goa in India as far east as the Moluccas and Timor in Indonesia, and as far north as China and Japan.

Madre de Dios

The Portuguese Galleon Madre de Deus contained 425 tonnes of pepper, 45 tonnes of cloves, 35 tonnes of cinnamon, 3 tonnes of mace and 3 tonnes of nutmeg when captured by English pirates in 1592 and valued at half the English Treasury.

In 1595 and 1601 respectively, the first Dutch and English trading expeditions rounded the Cape of Good Hope and the trading monopoly of the Portuguese Crown was being challenged by the United Dutch East India Company (VOC) and then the English East India Company, the world’s first joint stock and multinational trading companies.


VOC East Indiamen loading spices and other goods off Batavia before returning in convoy to Holland, 1649

In the chapters on Banda, Rhun and Ambon, East Indies documents the events leading up to the Dutch and English signing the 1667 Treaty of Breda and 2017 marks the 350th anniversary of this Treaty. Named after the Dutch city where it was signed on 31 July 1667, it ended the Second Anglo-Dutch war (1665–1667) during which England and the Netherlands had fought over maritime hegemony and world trade. Through the signing of the Treaty of Breda, the Dutch accepted English rule over what is now New York (New Amsterdam), while the English accepted Dutch rule over the valuable nutmeg island of Rhun, in what turned out to be the real estate deal of the millenium.

Treaty of Breda

The final page of the Treaty of Breda signed on July 31, 1667

The struggle for trade supremacy between the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the English ranged across the Eastern Seas and in the settlements of Goa, Malacca, Ambon, Macao, Canton, Nagasaki, Batavia, Macassar and Johor. Until by the end of the 19th century the Portuguese had almost vanished from the Eastern Seas, and the Dutch and the English East India Companies had been transformed from trading companies into colonial powers ruling over millions of people and vast territories in Indonesia, India and Malaya.

51_Robert Clive meeting Mir Jaffar after the Battle of Plassey

After the British East India Company defeated the Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, they gave themselves a monopoly over the production of opium and saltpetre (the prime ingredient for gunpowder).

East Indies follows the trade winds, the trade routes and the port cities across the East Indies and the Orient. Beginning in Malacca which was one of the world’s largest trading ports in the 16th century, it describes the founding of Batavia (Jakarta) in the 17th century and concludes with the founding of Singapore and Hong Kong which became some of the world’s largest trading ports in the 19th century.

70_British Opium vessels anchored of Lintin Island

The British East India company controlled the production and packaging of opium in India for shipment to China. Here Chinese smugglers are collecting British opium off vessels anchored near Hong Kong in 1824


Singapore, founded in 1819, became the key port for the transhipment of Asian trade goods as shown in this painting of Keppel Harbour

Here is one of the book reviews for East Indies:

When you read ‘East Indies’ by Ian Burnet you can almost smell exotic spices over salt spray and the wet wood of the ships that transported the goods back to Europe.
Following from his previous book, ‘Spice Islands’ in which Ian documented the the history of the spice trade in the Maluku and Banda Islands in Indonesia, where two very important and highly sought spices – cloves and nutmeg – originated, ‘East Indies’ looks at the impact of the European explorers and traders.
Ian has once again researched his topic thoroughly, and ‘East Indies’ is beautifully illustrated, filled with gorgeous maps and pictures evoking the age of sail.
Highly recommended

— Melanie Ryan — Limelight Book Reviews

East Indies has been listed in the top ten books on Asian History by the History Club:

  1. Visible Cities: Canton, Nagasaki, Batavia and the Coming of the Americans by Leonard Blusse
  2. Regionalism and Globalization in East Asia: Politics, Security and Economic Development by Mark Beeson
  3. China and Maritime Europe 1500–1800: Trade, Settlement, Diplomacy and Missions by John E. Wills Jnr
  4. In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia by Ronald Spector
  5. The Company and the Shogun: The Dutch Encounter with Tokugawa Japan by Adam Clulow
  6. East Indies: The 200 year struggle between the Portuguese Crown, The Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company for supremacy in the Eastern Seas by Ian Burnet
  7. Being ‘Dutch’ in the Indies: A History of Creolization and Empire, 1500–1920 by Ulbe Bosma and Remco Raben
  8. South East Asia in the Age of Commerce (2 volumes) by Anthony Reid
  9. Pacific Histories: Ocean, Land, People by David Armitage (editor) and Alison Bashford (editor)
  10. Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty 1405-1433 by Edward L Dreyer.

To read the complete synopsis of East Indies and all the book reviews please follow this link




About ianburnet

Author of the book, Spice Islands. Which tells the History, Romance and Adventure of the spice trade from the Moluccas in Eastern Indonesia over a period of 2000 years. Author of the book, East Indies.Which tells the history of the struggle between the Portuguese Crown, the Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company for supremacy in the Eastern Seas. Author of the book 'Archipelago - A Journey Across Indonesia'. Author of the book 'Where Australia Collides with Asia' Author of the book 'The Tasman Map'. Author of the book 'Eastern Voyages'.
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2 Responses to East Indies – A Story of Spices, Gunpowder and Opium

  1. East Indies vs East India. this page uses ‘East Indies’ an amazing a lot. You will have no doubt consulted about a difference between the two notions, if any, to sort that out once and for all. You translate VOC to Un’td East India Company, which clearly is not a reference to the east coast/eastern part of what we now call India. You also did not call it the Un’td East Indies’ Company or the Un’td East Indian Company. How does that hang together? (never mind what others have done).

  2. Pingback: The forgotten Indonesian island that was swapped for Manhattan – Stevani's Playground

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