Freeburghers, South and Southeast Asia

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Freeburghers, South and Southeast Asia

Alongside official crown or company servants, unbound European males called freeburghers shaped the character of Europe's early modern expansion to South and Southeast Asia. Generally, they settled in the European centers of the Asian trading world, made their living from interport trade or the supply of services, and were married to indigenous women. Portuguese casados and Dutch vrijburghers were the most important groups among the freeburghers.

For the numerous members of the Portuguese lower classes who reached Asia without contract onboard Portuguese ships, an existence as soldado—unmarried and only recruited in case of need by the Estado da India (the governmental organisation of Portuguese presence and commerce in Asia)—did not offer a sufficient income. Alternatively, a considerable number strove as private merchants and settled down with an indigenous wife, which was the only way for Europeans to establish a family in early modern Asia.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, casados lived in all Portuguese settlements as a constitutive part of the colonial society. In 1635 approximately 4,900 casados settled under the Estado's authority (which included 12,000 Portuguese overall), with their greatest communities in Macau in southern China (850) and Goa in western India (800).

The casados were generally divided into three major hierarchical categories. Those born of white parents were known as reinois (in Portugal) and castiços (in Asia). Mestiços, as descendants of a Portuguese father and his Asian or Eurasian wife, were less prestigious. Casados pretos (black casados), converted and acculturated native Asians, were not regarded as at all integrated into the casado community.

As free traders, the majority of the casados guaranteed close commercial ties between the different Portuguese settlements from East Africa to China, even when Dutch competition, as well as corruption and inefficiency, induced the decline of the Estado da India. Whereas the latter primarily controlled the main sea routes, the former used the offered advantages to fill trading gaps and to gain from their transcultural commercial networks, as well as from land ownership (especially in Goa). Thus, they were an indispensable pillar of the shrinking Portuguese presence in South and Southeast Asia.

From the beginning, the position of the Dutch vrijburghers was much more difficult. After primary plans to establish a colonial society by immigration of male and female Europeans failed early in the seventeenth century, the Dutch East India Company placed emphasis on cooperation with Asians and allowed their time-expired employees to settle down and to marry indigenous women. But the company's restrictive policy limited the attractiveness of this option. Individual settlement and marriage required a permit, and profitable trade with Indian and Moluccan spices, high-quality textiles from India and China, and raw materials like indigo or copper were strictly prohibited to private merchants. Furthermore, the strong indigenous and Chinese competition in crafts and services interfered with the economic efforts of the vrijburghers, who, therefore, preferred economic niches. Tavern-keeping became the most popular occupation, and private merchants concentrated on supply functions for Dutch communities, trading foodstuff and European luxury goods. In the course of the eighteenth century, they penetrated increasingly typical Asian trades, including slaves and maritime products.

At the beginning of this century, endeavors to improve the Dutch East India Company and liberalize Asian trade achieved only slight success. Private capital and know-how proved to be insufficient, and the company's insistence on monopolies anticipated the expansion of a mercantile community. Thus, the number of vrijburghers was always low. In 1673 the largest community of vrijburghers (340 persons) lived in Batavia (presentday Jakarta). Smaller groups concentrated on the main Dutch port cities, such as Colombo, Cochin, Malacca, or Makassar. This colonial society remained small and, beyond Indonesia, disappeared during the early nineteenth century.

Nevertheless, in the core regions casados (Macau, Goa, Malacca) as well as vrijburghers (Indonesia, Ceylon) became the nucleus of new transcultural colonial societies. Their mestizo descendents perpetuated the families, which combined elements of both cultures. Luso-Asiatic communities have prevailed until the present, and the "Indische Culture" (Milone 1966/1967) offered recruitment potential for economic and administrative elites in colonial Indonesia.

see also Empire, Dutch; Empire, Portuguese.


Boxer, Charles R. The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600–1800. London: Hutchinson, 1965.

Boxer, Charles R. The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415–1825. London: Hutchinson, 1969.

Milone, Pauline D. "Indische Culture and its Relationship to Urban Life." In Comparative Studies in Society and History 9 (1966/1967): 407-426.

Russell-Wood, A. J. R. The Portuguese Empire, 1415–1808: A World of the Move. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1992.

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, and Luís Felipe F. R. Thomaz. "Evolution of Empire: The Portuguese in the Indian Ocean During the Sixteenth Century." In The Political Economy of Merchant Empires, edited by James D. Tracy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Taylor, Jean Gelman. The Social World of Batavia: European and Eurasian in Dutch Asia. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

Veen, Ernst van. Decay or Defeat? An Inquiry into the Portuguese Decline in Asia, 1580–1645. Leiden, Netherlands: Research School CNWS, 2000.