Portuguese American Journal

Book:The Memoirs and Memorials of Jacques de Coutre – Review

Review by Juan José Morales (*)

The Memoirs and Memorials of Jacques de Coutre: Security, Trade and Society in 16th- and 17th-century Southeast Asia
by Peter Borschberg (editor)
and Roopanjali Roy (translator)

Jacobus van de Koutere, or Jacques de Coutre, born in Bruges around 1572, left war-torn Flanders for the Portuguese colonies in the Far East, becoming along the way a merchant in gemstones, traveling extensively throughout Southeast Asia and living in Malacca, Manila and Goa. He was later deported to Lisbon and transferred to Madrid to be tried for treason. He was in the end exonerated and made a Knight of the Order of Santiago, the highest possible honor. He died in Zaragoza in 1640.

De Coutre wrote his memoirs and “memorials”[1] while in Spain from around 1623 to 1628; the manuscript is kept at the Biblioteca Nacional de España. These have now been released in an English translation for the first time. The Memoirs and Memorials of Jacques de Coutre is extraordinary for numerous reasons and should be of interest to audiences beyond academic circles. This exemplary scholarly volume, edited by Prof. Peter Borschberg of the National University of Singapore, throws new light on early relations between Asia and the West and hints at far-reaching implications.

The period covered by the book, from 1592 through the first two decades of the 17th century, was a momentous time in Southeast Asia, when the Asia trade flourished and peaked. But European powers wrestling for dominance extended their own conflicts to Asia; the resulting disruption will mean the beginning of a reversal in the fortunes of the region and its decline. And it is against this background that the intellectual debates on free trade first started.

The kingdoms of Portugal and Spain were then united under a single crown, while maintaining separate administrations, a principle that applied to their respective territories overseas. At the same time, the Northern provinces in the Low Countries had stepped up their revolt against Spanish rule and had erupted into Asian waters looking for commercial opportunities ― which included military aggression and plunder of cargo ships ― competition that the Portuguese in particular would resent.

Jacques de Coutre’s memoir starts, however, aboard a fishing ship in the North Sea; and in a sign of the times, he encounters four ships, “two of them were English ships and the other two were prizes they had captured”, one German and one Portuguese. After a brief stint fishing, he sails to Lisbon and thence, via the Cape of Good Hope to Goa, Malacca.

Jacques de Coutre appeals to our sympathy from the start, “having been brought up with so much pampering and indulgence”, he suffers much deprivation, makes his fortune and loses it all several times; he triumphs over adversity in good nature and with good intentions. There is plenty of adventure and drama, as he faces storms, shipwrecks and all manner of perils. From humble beginnings, he rises in social status, makes the acquaintance of men of authority and becomes their trustworthy envoy, sometimes a privileged witness, even an actor in the events themselves: he is in Manila at the time of the naval battle between the Spanish and the Dutch commanded by Olivier van Noort, and he translates for the Dutch prisoners at their court-martial.

De Coutre’s memoirs share many features with similar compilations of expat and traveller experiences from centuries closer to our own. For while de Coutre is surely the first European to have entered and written about Ayutthaya in Siam and among the first to have anchored at the port of Brunei, and while he writes about the powerful sultanates of Johor and Aceh, Patani, the small kingdom of Pahang and other polities, his descriptions are relatively superficial. Instead, personal anecdote prevails. The narrative is dotted with intrigues, imbroglios and a colorful array of personages, with the familiar view of a Westerner limited to his own constricted and fragmented experience, focusing on the exotic and picturesque, the pomp of parades, parasols and palanquins.

CoutreIt could be argued that the amount of new or relevant information uncovered by the memoirs is somewhat limited, but there is more to Jacques de Coutre’s memoirs than an engaging read. They help to complete or confirm other accounts, such as Antonio de Morga’s more substantial contemporary account Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas (the edition by J. S. Cummins is a timeless classic but long out of print) or that by Ralph Fitch on the bizarre Siamese custom of the bungkals. Likewise, de Coutre’s version of the Iberian ventures in Cambodia complement those, such as that of Diogo do Couto and Gabriel Quiroga de San Antonio, that appear in the work of Antoine Cabaton and Bernard Groslier, French Orientalists that made use of little-known primary and secondary sources. De Coutre also illuminates the role played by the personal ambitions of the protagonists, something often left out of official accounts. He reveals much of their true personalities, lending flesh-and-blood to the historical facts.

Direct historic accounts of this period are so few ― and modern editions and studies of those sources are already old ― that every single piece of information here should be treated as precious, whether de Coutre’s fond memories of Manila:

I sought to establish myself in that city because of the good fortune that I had encountered there and since the land was very prosperous and at the same time efficiently governed.

With regard to the city, its streets are well laid out and it is walled similarly to the best cities in Europe, with beautiful buildings and palaces.

or insights of greater consequence, such as his surprise at the lack of written legal systems in Siam and Pahang, unlike those in Europe which were already many centuries old.

Editor Peter Borschberg, wisely and subtly brings to the reader’s attention the coincidences and linkages between the people and events of the time. In a strange parallel to the beginning of de Coutre’s story, toward the end of his memoirs he mentions — in passing — the Dutch seizure off Singapore of the Portuguese carrack Santa Catarina in 1603. The Dutch East India Company, a stock company-cum-army, commissioned jurist and humanist Hugo Grotius to produce a justification of the plunder. Grotius produced a large work, of which only a fragment was published in his own time, the influential Mare Liberum, in defence of the freedom of the seas and tree trade. Beyond this footnote, there is a greater irony: Grotius’s arguments in defense of free trade were heavily based on the work of Spanish scholastics ― whom Grotius quotes repeatedly, sometimes copying paragraphs literally. Now collectively known to economic historians as School of Salamanca, they included Fernando Vázquez de Menchaca, Francisco de Vitoria, Diego de Covarrubias and Baltasar de Ayala, among others. They were the earliest advocates of free trade, at the time contrary to the Spanish crown’s policies.[2] Interestingly, Grotius’s defense of free trade would be challenged by Scottish jurist William Welwod, the British emerging as the Dutch’s new rivals.

* * *

The “Memorials” are a set of documents entirely different to the memoirs or autobiography. More formal in style and outlook, in these de Coutre sets out to describe the decline of the Portuguese commercial and political power in Asia as a consequence of Dutch competition and he provides a full set of recommendations as to how to reverse the situation. De Coutre reveals himself as considerably knowledgeable regarding the trading patterns in the region. Indeed, the wealth of information and detail on Asian trade provided here is truly remarkable, something that invites serious study and makes this book stand out.

Among his proposals, a reform of the Portuguese overseas administration — including the military — to stamp out corruption and to crack down on smuggling, while, as example to follow, he refers to the apparently more efficient organization of the Spanish administration and military. He also promotes a policy of aggression, conquest and plunder, and reinforcing the existing fortifications or creating new ones―emphasizing the need of a fortress in where Singapore is now located, as a key to control trade.

Some of his most interesting insights are his strong advocacy for free trade and free enterprise. De Coutre criticizes the old forms of patronage ― in particular the concession system, common to Spain and Portugal for so long, whereby the Crown authorizes and then shares profits or imposes a tax in the venture ― for being unreliable, inefficient and unpredictable. Instead, he proposes easing restrictions to trade, lowering duties and leaving commerce in the hands of private merchants who would undercut the Dutch by virtue of the mechanism of competition.

De Coutre’s memorials belong to a Spanish venerable tradition which began early in the 16th century. Their authors were called Arbitristas (normally translated as “projectors”) and these essays basically consisted of the economic analysis of a particular problem with a “project” or recommendation for recovery. These were mainly pragmatic, but could also be foolish, and were satirized by the writer Quevedo. By the early 17th century, prompted by the worsening economic situation, these reports had proliferated in the extreme (the abundance could be the reason why this manuscript was never published).

But memorials such as these were not a mere intellectual exercise; the author could be rewarded financially or otherwise. And this is surely the motivation of de Coutre’s combination of self-justifying memoirs and astute memorials, written no doubt to support his defense against accusations of connivance with the Dutch; hence also his flattering remarks on everything Spanish throughout his writings. It is in retrospect questionable whether many of de Coutre’s recommendations could be implemented, for both the Spanish and Portuguese empires were by then overstretched and exhausted.

* * *

In reading de Coutre almost four centuries on, a vast and richly complex world of maritime trade emerges — not only within Asia, but also along the East African coast, Persia and the Middle East where so many ports were still held at the time physically or at least nominally by the Portuguese. The wide range of commodities traded, especially textiles and dyes ― some already coming from Central America ― has only started to be acknowledged recently. There were spices, of course, plus exotica like ambergris, musk, benzoin or bezoar, to be used as perfumes or in medicine; then ceramics, hardwoods but also slaves… This trade together with the large variety of vessels mentioned throughout the book is evidence of an enterprising and dynamic world that supported it, for trade cannot exist alone.

Even more striking, to support his recommendations, de Coutre reminds his audience several times that the locals, from Java to the Coromandel Coast, do not want to deal with the Dutch due to their price-fixing, unlike the Portuguese with whom they trade as equals.

In all these places, the Javanese, who are the natives of [that] land, do not get along well with the Dutch owing to the tyrannical manner in which the [latter] trades with them… The heathens are forced to comply and are unable to sell their wares as they used to with the Portuguese, where each individual sold for the best price they could get and as they wished. They [the Dutch] have their factors in all the villages and places throughout the Coromandel Coast in order to buy textiles. All the factors buy at the same price, and they all buy each kind of textile for a [single fixed] price. The infelicitous heathens have no choice but to give them the textiles for the price they [the Dutch] want. If they are unable to sell they would not be able to pay their tributes to their king nor would they have anything to eat.

De Coutre is warning of the effects of the Dutch monopolistic practices and signaling a dramatic shift for Southeast Asia. Indeed the Dutch achieved first a monopoly over spices from the Moluccas that — added to their extractive policies and institutions — would soon affect the entire region. As a consequence, those economies contracted sharply and severely, starting to fall behind in economic and social development, prey to the worst forms of colonialism.

Much of the book’s achievement rests on Roopanjali Roy’s accomplished and fluent translation, which retains a certain flavor of the age. The book contains a glossary of general terms, currencies, measures and commodities and a most needed updated list of toponyms, both glossaries important contributions in their own right. It also contains illustrations of maps and prints of the period. Peter Borschberg’s brilliant introduction summarizes earlier scholarly work on Jacques de Coutre’s life and manuscripts, including previous modern editions in Spanish and Flemish-Dutch, and explains the historical context.

De Coutre’s memoirs and memorials form part of a a handful of first-hand accounts in which adventurers, soldiers, merchants or missionaries came armed not just with the tools of their nominal trade but also with pen and paper to record the minutiae of what they experienced. Often self-important, usually ethnocentric, they nevertheless provided a wealth of observations, even the smallest and most inconsequential now fascinate us. Sometimes, they are also the harbinger of epoch-changing events in world history.


[1] As will be discussed below, “memorials” were a sort of practical essay on matters of the day.

[2] These issues have been highlighted by Prof. León Gómez Rivas, a leading specialist in the School of Salamanca and its influence on economic history.

The book:
The Memoirs and Memorials of Jacques de Coutre: Security, Trade and Society in 16th- and 17th-century Southeast Asia, Peter Borschberg (editor), Roopanjali Roy (trans.) (Singapore University Press, July 2012)

borschbergThe authors:
Peter Borschberg
is associate professor in the Department of History at the National University of Singapore. He has published several books and articles on topics relating to early colonial expansion and the origins of international law in Southeast Asia during the 16th and 17th centuries. These include The Singapore and Melaka Straits. Violence, Security and Diplomacy in the 17th Century (2010) and Hugo Grotius, the Portuguese and Free Trade in the East Indies (2011).
Roopanjali Roy has been a Portuguese translator and interpreter for more than twenty years, translating more than seventeen books of literature and history. Since 2004 she has been a lecturer in Hindi and Indian culture at the Universidade Católica in Lisbon.

JuanJMoralesThe reviewer:
Juan José Morales
is a Spanish lawyer and management consultant who writes for the Spanish magazine Compromiso Empresarial. A former President of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, he has a Master of International and Public Affairs from Hong Kong University and has also studied international relations at Peking University (Beida).

© 2013 The Asian Review of Books. Reprinted with permission.