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The Santa Catarina incident 25th Feb 1603

The Santa Catarina incident refers to the seizure of the Portuguese merchant vessel, the Santa Catarina, by the Dutch off the coast of Singapore on 25 February 1603. The ship, fully laden with goods from the ports of Macau and China, was en route to Malacca. It was taken under the laws of war by Dutch Admiral Jacob van Heemskerk with the assistance of the Johoreans.

The ship and its cargo ended up as booty of war and were taken back to Europe. The proceeds from the sale of the cargo yielded a staggering sum of money amounting to three million Dutch guilders, which was equivalent to double the paid-in capital of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie; VOC) at the time of its creation in 1602, and more than five times that of the English East India Company (EIC) at its founding in London in 1600.

The seizure of the Santa Catarina off the coast of Singapore is historically important from three different angles. First, as the seizure of the Santa Catarina involved close cooperation between the Dutch and the Johoreans, this incident has entered the annals of history as the opening of formal diplomatic relations between Johor and the Dutch East India Company. It is important also to bear in mind that Johor dispatched to Europe, together with the fleet of Admiral Heemskerk, a diplomatic mission on behalf of the King of Johor. The mission was headed by a nobleman, Megat Mansur. Although the chief ambassador and some of his men did not survive the voyage to Europe, the surviving members of his embassy returned to Johor with the fleet of Admiral Cornelis Matelieff de Jonge, arriving at the shores of the Malay Peninsula in April 1606. The diplomatic relations initially forged between Van Heemskerk and Johor set in place generally cordial relations between the Dutch East India Company and the kingdom of Johor that would endure well into the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Second, the auction of the cargo goods from the Santa Catarina in Europe was an eye opener for many European merchants. Until that point in time, the Portuguese had been able to keep their trading activities within Asia a fairly well-kept secret. The sale of the Santa Catarina’s cargo, however, emerged as a very important event in commercial terms as it opened the eyes of merchants in Europe to the profits that could be reaped from the trade within Asia, and especially in the trade with China.

Third, the incident surrounding the seizure of the Santa Catarina was most certainly not uncontroversial from a legal point of view. Van Heemskerk attacked the ship without a so-called privateering commission from the Dutch Republic, and his action could be considered an act of piracy. For this reason the directors of the Dutch East India Company commissioned the young and talented lawyer and humanist Hugo de Groot, better known today by his Latinised name Hugo Grotius, to write a formal justification of the incident. It is assumed that what the directors had in mind was a sharp, pointed pamphlet that would attack the Iberian powers for the policies of obstruction in Asia, and would justify Admiral van Heemskerk’s act of privateering as a legitimate deed under the laws of war.

What Grotius produced was not a short, pointed pamphlet, but an expansive treatise on the law of nations that systematised then prevailing ideas about the laws of war and implicitly also acts of privateering under such laws. It is generally accepted today that this treatise penned by Grotius forms one of the most important cornerstones in the origin of the moral law of nations.

Grotius, H. (2006). De Jure Praedae Commentarius: Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty. Ittersum, M. J. van (Ed.). Indianapolis: Liberty Fund. Retrieved November 15, 2013, from The Online Library of Liberty website: http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1718&chapter=77214&layout=html&Itemid=27

Tiele, P.A. (1883). Documenten voor de Geschiedenis der Nederlanders in het Oosten. BMH, 6, 228-42.


The information in this article is valid as at 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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