On February 19, Associate Professor Nancy Um will take part in the seminar Pre-modern Diplomacy and the Arts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, delivering a paper titled “Aromatic Diplomacy in the Indian Ocean: The Efficacy of VOC Gifts in the Late 17th and Early 18th Centuries.” See the seminar program for more information.
Early modern cross-cultural diplomacy hinged upon gifts as a mode of exemplifying the envoy’s credentials, seriousness of mission, and political clout, in addition to the sincerity of the dispatcher’s intentions. Yet, the terrain of diplomatic gifts could be particularly tricky. Standard accounts convey the impression that even the most valuable bestowals could be summarily rejected, dismissed, or even returned by their recipients. This paper situates the gifts that the Dutch East India Company officials based in Batavia bestowed across their Indian Ocean trading network in the late 17th and early 18th C within this pervasive atmosphere of gifts gone wrong. The focus will be on a class of objects, wooden boxes, filled with aromatic oils sometimes encased in porcelain vials, which were given to varied recipients that stretched from Abyssinia to the islands of Southeast Asia. It is proposed that this item, which was particularly complex in its manufacture and assemblage, may be considered a successful gift within the context of Dutch diplomatic exchange, thus exemplifying the relatively subtle understanding that VOC officials had acquired about the grammar of Indian Ocean gift practices by the end of the seventeenth century. At stake in this inquiry is also a consideration of the significant divide between the ways that textual and material evidence render and convey the early modern diplomatic encounter.