The Politics of Corruption beyond Europe and Asia in the Indian Ocean: local-Dutch power dynamics in 17th-century Bengal

Byapti Sur

Conventional historiography has highlighted the Indian Ocean as a space of interactions, exchange and entangled histories involving different social actors with nuanced relations. At the same time, socio-economic researches on the Indian Ocean have reduced this nebulous co-existence to a binary story of Europe-Asian relations. How can we overcome such contradictions? What is the approach to be adopted for deciphering power relations in this diverse setting? My paper tries to answer these questions by using corruption accusations as a political tool for portraying the mosaic of activities and power relations in the Indian Ocean. By studying two cases of corruption allegations reported within the Dutch East India Company (acronym: VOC) in Bengal, I try to sketch in the first part of this paper the practical aspects of daily interactions. It shows how factionalism on both the Dutch and the local sides led to issues of distrust and conflict. However it was not just confined to relations between Europe and Asia, but could also be within the groups themselves like that of Dutch-Dutch and local-local rival factions. These conflicts often led to merging of factions from both sides forming Dutch-local friendly networks. These alliances stimulated by common interests and common enemies, hardly followed any strict ethnic distinctions. In the process, the power of individual agency also became apparent proving how personal interests could override and contradict larger institutional objectives.

However, there is another question still that remains unclear. If all was well, why had there been so much tension in the official reports of the Europeans (in my case, the Dutch) against the locals? I have tried to answer this question in the second part of the paper by using Lauren Benton’s theory of using geography in the politics of corruption as a medium of establishing legitimacy over a certain region. By focusing on Bengal from where my corruption cases come and which gained the notoriety of being most corrupt, I argue that the strategic location of Bengal in the Indian Ocean came to be used and abused in forming a stereotypical narrative. The exaggerated reports on Bengal being a difficult region by the Company officials, produced an archive of distorted information that helped them to reinforce their allegiance to the metropole (in this case the Dutch Republic). It was the politics of corruption wherein stereotyping the other as corrupt, served to the advantage of the self in being portrayed as more trustworthy and non-corrupt. By building up therefore on this argument of studying individual dynamics beyond institutional frameworks and ethnic distinctions through the politics of corruption; my paper contributes to the Indian Ocean studies as a space reflecting huge discrepancies between theoretical impressions and their practical implications.