Merchant-Kings and Lords of the World: Diplomatic Gift-Exchange between the Dutch East India Company and the Safavid and Mughal Empires in the Seventeenth Century

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    In 1652 the VOC ambassador Joan Cunaeus presented the Safavid Shah Abbas II with a set of diplomatic gifts including goods of Asian and European origin during an audience ceremony in the Ali Qapu palace in Isfahan. A decade later, VOC director Dircq van Adrichem offered the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb a comparable array of presents in the Red Fort in Shahjahanabad. Cunaeus and Van Adrichem were two of many VOC representatives who established or maintained trade relations with Asian rulers in the early modern period. During such encounters these VOC officials offered and received various gifts in elaborate ceremonies which greatly resembled early modern diplomatic practices.

    Historians have tended to characterize the VOC as a trade organization engaged in purely commercial practices, neglecting the political and diplomatic history of the Company, and especially its employment of gifts in establishing trade agreements. Complementing van Meersbergen’s argument that the VOC operated as a diplomatic actor in Mughal India, this essay will engage in the ongoing debate concerning the boundaries of the VOC as a diplomatic agent. Various Dutch historians have shown that, as an adaption to the political cultures of Asian states, the Dutch Republic authorized the Company to act as a state, allowing it not only to wage wars, build settlements and administer justice, but also to conduct diplomatic negotiations with Asian rulers. The diplomatic aspects of the Company’s policy becomes clear in Cunaeus and Van Adrichem’s missions, which have both been described in detail in travel reports. Both are interesting examples of cross-cultural diplomatic exchanges in which cultural signifiers, in the form of gifts, were employed as tools to articulate political messages. Through studying these two travel reports alongside other archival sources, this paper explores the function of ceremonial gift-exchange in the representation of political legitimacy and sovereignty in diplomatic relations between the VOC and the Safavid and Mughal Empires in the seventeenth century. It does so by applying social-anthropological and historical theories of gift-exchange, concepts of political legitimacy and notions of universal sovereignty to these instances of diplomatic gift-giving and discussing the political connotations and geopolitical nature of the gifts.

    This essay shows that the Safavid Shahs and Mughal emperors utilized gift-giving practices as an acknowledgement of their claims to universal sovereignty. They expected foreign representatives to present themselves as being of lower rank by offering gifts in exchange for trade agreements. At the same time, VOC envoys used gifts to represent the Company as a strong state with a widespread commercial network to persuade these rulers to trade with them. Therefore, diplomatic gift-giving had an indispensable role in the establishment of trade relations between the VOC and the Safavid and Mughal empires.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationPractices of Diplomacy in the Early Modern World c.1410-1800
    EditorsTracey A. Sowerby, Jan Hennings
    Place of PublicationLondon
    Number of pages18
    ISBN (Print)9781138650633
    Publication statusPublished - 16-May-2017

    Publication series

    NameRoutledge Research in Early Modern History


    • History
    • Diplomatic history
    • Early Modern History
    • Political History
    • Dutch East India Company
    • Diplomatic Gift-Exchange

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