Hugo Grotius, the Portuguese, and Free Trade in the East Indies


By Peter Borschberg

In 1603, Dutch Admiral Jakob van Heemskerk plundered a Portuguese merchantman, the Santa Catarina, travelling from Macao to Melaka. The sale of the cargo at a public auction made traders across Northern Europe aware of the riches to be reaped from Asian trade. However, the episode raised legal questions and the United Dutch East India Company (VOC) commissioned the young Hugo Grotius to defend Heemskerk's actions. Grotius produced two classic legal texts, The Law of Price and Booty and its spin-off, The Free Sea, among the greatest works in the history of international legal and political thought. His observations dealt with free trade in the East Indies, the Dutch Republic's military conflict with the Portuguese and Spanish in Asia, and the legal and moral grounds for attacking and plundering Portuguese and Spanish mercantile shipping.

This book considers the background to the treaties then content and significances, and what Grotius actually knew about Southeast Asian politics and Portuguese institutions of trade and diplomacy when he wrote them. Grotius' work on the freedom of the sea was a cornerstone in his enduring reputation as one of the founders of modern international law. The present book provides a valuable resource for historians of Southeast Asia and for students of international relations, political theory, maritime history and public law.

"...Borschberg has written for us an amazingly careful and well-documented book that belongs in the library of anyone interested in the Age of Exploration and its implications, in this case in one key individual whose ideas grew out of it and have influenced us ever since: Hugo Grotius." - Paul D. Buell

"An important study that sheds new light on the famous Dutch indispensable text for anyone working on European expansion into Asia. The author provides a remarkably succinct and valuable summary of differing expectations in Europe and Southeast Asia that should be required reading for any scholar who feels the temptation to apply the term state or sovereignty without regard for the particular structures of Southeast Asian politics." - Adam Clulow

Peter Borschberg is based in the Department of History at the National University of Singapore. He is also an Associate Fellow at the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) and a Guest Professor in Modern History at the University of Greifswald. He is also the author of The Singapore and Melaka Straits: Violence, Security and Diplomacy in the 17th CenturyThe Memoirs and Memorials of Jacques de Coutre: Security, Trade and Society in 16th- and 17th-century Southeast AsiaJacques de Coutre's Singapore and Johor 1594-c. 1625 and Journal, Memorials and Letters of Cornelis Matelieff de Jonge: Security, Diplomacy and Commerce in 17th-century Southeast Asia.

Publication Year: 2011
512 pages, 229mm x 153mm
ISBN: 978-9971-69-467-8, Paperback

NUS Press