Muller's Asian Journey: Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Yunnan
author, Carool Kersten, talking about his new book
Ian Cragg, Thanaphum Inthasroi, Jacques Op de
Laak, Ken Kampe,
Hans Bänziger, Manus Brinkman, Annelie Hendriks, Bodil
Lorenz Ferrari, Micah Morton, John Butt, Martha Butt, Thomas Ohlson,
Michie, Michael Ball, Anna Schouten, Victoria Voureiter, Piyawee
Chris Bland, Hanna Braendli, Louis Gabaude, John Cadet, Kanokwan Cadet,
Sarah Wassall, Stephen Cottrell, Patrick McGowan, Joe Herr, Klaus
Berkmüller, Roxanne Oddie, Mathew Oddie, Jeff and Yang Petry,
Hohler, Lilli Saxer, Chris Carpenter, Tingting Huang, Anchalee
An audience of 37.
This talk introduces my latest
book, published with White Lotus Press in
Bangkok. It is based on a travelogue by one Hendrik Pieter Nicolaas
a kind of gentleman-traveler, relating his experiences during a
journey in Asia, between July 1907 and June 1909.
Dr. Muller's Asian Journey covers
sections of the first part of a
two-volume book entitled Azië Gespiegeld -- which could be
English as a Mirror on Asia -- and which was published in 1912. In this
first part, Muller describes his visits to the Philippines, the
Southeast Asia - that is the section which I have covered in Dr.
Asian Journey -- Korea, Manchuria, and the Tran Siberian Railway. In
second volume Muller tackles British Malaya and China. The First World
delayed the release of that book until 1918.
Unfortunately, Muller never got
around to writing about his travels through
British India and the Dutch East Indies - although he makes references
his experiences there in his many comparisons between Dutch colonial
policies and the practices of the French and British in Asia.
I came across Muller's writings
when I was researching my previous book
'Strange Events in the Kingdoms of Cambodia and Laos 1635-1644', which
deals with Dutch-Cambodian contacts in the seventeenth century. Muller
made a substantial amount of primary documents covering that period
available. It was then that I discovered he had also traveled in Asia
himself and written about it.
In this introduction I want to
talk a bit about the author's life; some of
his other writings, in particular those related to Asia, and give a
evaluation of some of the topics addressed in Dr. Muller's Asian
This is partly in attempt to answer the question of what the
is of a nearly one hundred-year old book for us contemporary residents
travelers in Asia, apart from being some historical curiosum of travel
During his lifetime (1859-1941)
Hendrik Muller pursued with reasonable
success three careers. That of a businessman, a diplomat, and a - one
say scholarly - writer.
As a member of a prominent trading
family from Rotterdam, with interests in
the West Indies, Africa, and the Dutch East Indies, Henk Muller -- as
was commonly referred to -- was destined to become a businessman
So for the first ten years of his working life -- from 1881 until 1891
Muller was involved in international trade, but soon also in diplomacy
eventually taking over from his father as the honorary consul of
Since most of his business
dealings were connected with Africa and because
of his experiences as a diplomat, Muller became recognized as some sort
Africa expert. A Dutch historian (Dr. Michel Doortmont of the
Groningen) whose research focuses on that part of Muller's career has
called him the Netherlands' first "Africanist".
During the decade he worked as an Africa trader, Muller made two long
to the Dark Continent. One trip took him to Mozambique and South Africa
(1881-83), the other to Ghana and Liberia (1890). In between there was
shorter visit to North Africa (1889).
After falling-out with his father
in the early 1890s Muller left the family
business and decided to continue his interest in things African from an
academic angle. The settlement he reached with his family was of such a
nature that Muller did not need to work for his money for the rest of
During his business trips to
Africa, Muller had also collected numerous
indigenous artifacts. These activities provided a basis for his studies
ethnography at a number of German universities (Heidelberg, Leipzig,
Giessen) after 1891. Three years later, in 1894, he obtained a
from the University at Giessen.
But there was to be no university
career for Muller. He never succeeded in
getting an appointment as a lecturer or professor (in spite of a formal
appeal to one no less than the queen-regent, Queen Emma). However, he
already established himself as a talented writer. His African
had resulted in four books. With his additional credentials as a doctor
ethnography, he also cut out a niche for himself as an independent
A few years later he was also able to extend his diplomatic activities
bit further. Because of his familiarity with African affairs, he first
became the acting consul for Orange Free State in the provinces of
and South Holland to assist the consul-general, Mr. Hamelberg, who had
fallen ill. When the consul-general eventually died, Muller was
as his successor and became the senior representative of Orange Free
in the Netherlands. In 1898 he traveled for the second time to South
Soon that job became much more high-profile then he could have imagined
because in that same year - 1898 -- the Boer War erupted in South
and Henk Muller found himself the official representative of a country
war. Muller executed his duties with great zeal: looking after stranded
South Africans in Europe, arranging supplies for the embattled country,
gaining diplomatic recognition (Postal Union, Red Cross Conventions).
However, due to his personality he
rubbed a number of people the wrong way.
His character flaws would haunt him also later in his career. During
First World War he lost his position as a commissioner for refugees
of the way he treated his subordinates. Biographers have characterized
Muller with words like self-confident; emotional; dominating - even
overbearing - and not very suited for teamwork; vain; very active, but
As the Consul for Orange Free
State, Muller behaved indeed somewhat as a
loose canon. Without authorization he traveled to the United States in
order to canvass support for the Boer cause. Arriving in New York on
Year's Eve 1901, he soon discovered, however, that without official
he would have to limit himself to a lecture tour. Five months later --
that time he had reached San Francisco -- he received news that the war
Muller did not return home
immediately but traveled onward to Central
America. Upon returning to the Netherlands he closed down the consulate
The Hague and settled down to write two more books; one on his American
travels, and the other an edited volume on South Africa based on the
of his predecessor, consul-general Hamelberg.
When that work was done, the restless Henk Muller embarked on his
journey: the one to Asia.
When you take Muller's book on his
travels in Asia, it is not possible
establish the exact itinerary he followed. Also the family archive is
of much help. The contents of that archive revolve mainly around the
activities of his father, a prominent businessman and politician.
Apart from transcripts of some of his letters written during the trip,
there are no diaries or other documents. It is a bit of a mystery where
these have gone. There is a chance they may have ended up in
South-Africa, because that is were his personals papers pertaining to
work as a consul for Orange Free State have been deposited. But based
the surviving letters in the family archive and piecing together
sections of his travel book, we are able to plot part of the route he
We know that in August 1907 he traveled by boat from Port Said to
because we have a letter written on board a ship called the 'Goentoer'.
Later that year he was in East Java. From there he must have gone to
because for January and March 1908 we have letters from Calcutta and
Bombay. After that he most likely backtracked again to the Dutch East
Indies. British Malaya was either visited on the way back from India or
route to the Southeast Asian mainland.
During the last few months of 1908
he was in Thailand - that is were the
book begins. He then travels to neighboring French Indochina, with
to Cambodia, current-day Vietnam and the excursion into Yunnan.
Although the next letter in the archive is postdated Seoul, April 13,
we know from his book that he first traveled by ship from Haiphong to
Kong. From there he most likely traveled via Macao, to Shanghai and
and then to Tientsin. From there he took a boat to Dairen, where he
transferred to a Japanese vessel bound for Korea.
>From Seoul the journey continued to Mukden and Harbin in Manchuria.
there he went into the Russian Far East, where he boarded the Tran
Railway. The last archived letters we have are from Moscow and Dresden.
July 1909, Muller was back in The Hague.
Other writings by Muller
and later life
Muller's oeuvre consists mainly of
books on Africa and Asia. The first two
he published in Dutch in 1887 and 1889: Een Bezoek aan de Delgoa Baai
Lijdenburgse Gouldvelden; Zuid-Africa: Reisherinneringen [A Visit to
Bay and the Lydenburg Gold Fields; South Africa: Travel Memoirs]. Both
based on his travels in East and South Africa. These took place during
very interesting period: namely the great scramble for Africa. By the
in 1884 Muller had attended the Congress of Berlin where Africa was
up between the Great Powers.
As part of his preparations to
become an Africa-scholar, Muller also
compiled a very detailed museum catalogue in French of his collection
artifacts, which became part for the Colonial Exhibition in Amsterdam.
Muller's fourth book was a commercial issue of his dissertation on the
tribes of Southeast Africa, published as Land und Leute zwischen
und Limpopo [Land and People between Zambezi and Limpopo] (1896).
His last book on Africa, dealing with the early history of Orange Free
State, appeared in 1907. But before that he had already written his one
book on his travels in the Americas. This appeared again in Dutch was
entitled: Door het Land van Columbus. [Through the Land of Columbus]
In his travel books Muller used a recipe that went down well with the
readers of his time: a mixture of information on geography, ethnology,
history, economy and trade. He used it in his travel memoirs on
Africa, America, and in Mirror on Asia.
The ten years after his return
from the Far East, Muller dedicated to the
further study of that part of the world, in particular its relations
the Dutch East India Company or VOC.
His third book on Asia was based on that research and is -- from a
scholarly point of view -- perhaps also his most valuable. It is called
Oost-Indische Compagnie in Cambodja en Laos: Verzameling van Bescheiden
1636 tot 1670 [The East India Company in Cambodia and Laos: Collection
Documents from 1636 to 1670]. After surveying the National Archives for
materials on Cambodia and Laos, Muller collated a number of journals,
reports, letters, and summarized letters by VOC officials and had them
printed and published in 1917 through the Van Linschooten Vereniging -
its objectives comparable to the Hakluyt Society.
With that book Muller has provided historians of Southeast Asia with a
handy compendium. That does not mean that the book is exhaustive but it
definitely a very useful resource.
The state of the Dutch colonial
archives in the 19th, and early 20th
century was rather messy. First of all, records were kept in two
The Hague and Batavia - current day Jakarta. For centuries VOC ships
carried documents and reports of company representatives to the
Netherlands. At a certain point the available material became so bulky
it was kept in warehouses and occasionally auctioned.
So we do not have a picture of how much has actually ended up in
hands - where it probably still is. Unknown quantities have also been
off as scrap paper. This gives you a bit of an impression of what
may also have been lost over the years! Most of the material still kept
the Arsip National in Jakarta is still waiting to be catalogued, so we
have a very fragmentary picture of what is available
Anyway, after the release of the second volume of Mirror on Asia,
wrote no more books.
Soon afterwards Muller took up his
diplomatic career again, but this time
not as the representative of a foreign country in the Netherlands, but
an ambassador of the Netherlands abroad. Muller would spend the
of his professional life in Eastern Europe, first as envoy to Romania,
finally eight years as ambassador in Prague. When he retired in 1932 he
the oldest member of the Dutch diplomatic corps.
during the voyage
As a former businessman and a
diplomat (he would remain the honorary consul
of Liberia until 1913), Muller's writings betray a keen interest in
commercial issues and economic affairs, as well as international
In fact, most of the letters in the family archive are addressed to the
trade department at the Ministry of Agriculture, Trade and Industry in
Hague. They are full of cantankerous observations on such things as the
marketing of Brazilian Santos coffee as Java coffee; the sale of a
liquor of unknown origin as Dutch gin; the lack of competitive edge of
Dutch shipping lines in Asia in comparison to their rivals from the UK,
Germany, Denmark, etc.
Another thing that was often on
Muller's mind was the lack of bravado on
the part of the Dutch Foreign Service. Muller usually took the glory
of the Dutch East India Company as his benchmark. In comparison with
period, he considered the Dutch presence overseas during his own time
age as rather pathetic.
For example, he was very upset
over the fact that the Dutch had not been
able to secure a proper legation in Bangkok. While the Dutch rented a
house, the British consul resided in very impressive quarters and even
Portuguese -- whom the Dutch by the middle of the 17th century had
out of their dominance in Asia -- had been able to negotiate the free
of a villa.
Another hot issue at the time was
the matter of extraterritoriality.
Colonial powers like the British, French, and also the Dutch claimed
jurisdiction over subjects from their colonies residing in other Asian
countries on the grounds that they were subjects of their governments.
the final years of his reign, King Chulalongkorn was challenging these
Muller was not unsympathetic to
the king's argument that
extraterritoriality was an affront to his sovereignty, but he
that the Dutch had not tried to secure sufficient concessions (on
duties etc.) in return for withdrawing their jurisdiction over
overseas Chinese, and other people originating from the Dutch East
Muller's dissatisfaction also extended to the relations between the
East Indies and British and French Colonies. Changes in Dutch law
withdrawing the protective consular hand over their Asian subjects were
met by similar concessions of the British and French regarding their
subjects in the Dutch East Indies.
Muller had also an axe to grind
with the French, and more even with the
British, over the recruitment of Africans for the Dutch colonial army.
Muller had a personal interest. The recruitment of African "soldiers"
the Gold Coast (Ghana) had been an important source of income for the
Muller family business. With the transfer of the Gold Coast to the UK
1877, the British put a stop to what is in fact a form of slave trade.
During his journey to West Africa, Muller had tried in vain to get
permission to resume that trade.
In the early 20th-century both the
British and the French were very
interested in the recruitment of contract workers from Java for their
plantations. Muller considered this a golden opportunity to demand
permission for the recruitment of Africans for the East Indies in
He was clearly frustrated that the Dutch government was not playing
hardball on this.
Muller addressed these issues not only in his book, but they were also
recurring subjects in his writings in the Dutch press.
value of the book
It is the frank discussion of
issues such as these that make a book like
Dr. Muller's Asian Journey worthwhile reading. It tells us a lot about
international relations on a more detailed level. Muller illustrates
accounts with ample quotations from contemporaneous publications,
government reports, statistics, etc.
Such data give us valuable
information on trade volume, population figures,
price levels, etc. in the early part of the 20th century. Although
anecdotal, they can be significant to historians with an interest in
As a blatant chauvinist, Muller
also included extensive digressions into
the earlier relations of the Dutch, in particular the Dutch East India
Company or VOC, with the countries he visited. These digressions show
only that the VOC was active far beyond the colonies that where under
immediate control but, in many instances, the reports of these
and eighteenth century traders are often the only source we have on
modern Asian history. Only a fragment of these sources have been
and many are hard the come by. So for many readers, narratives like the
ones by Muller are the only way to catch a glimpse of these parts of
in earlier centuries.
The meeting concluded with an
informative question and answer session,
after which Carool sold a significant number of autographed copies of
book at a considerably discounted price.
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