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Corvée Capitalism: The Dutch East India Company, Colonial Expansion, and Labor Regimes in Early Modern Asia

Matthias van Rossum,

Abstract: This article revisits our understanding of corvée labor regimes and their role and impact in the early expansion of colonialism and capitalism. Rather than remnants of feudal pasts, or in-kind taxation or revenue instruments of weak colonial powers, corvée regimes should be viewed as refined methods of colonial exploitation that provided colonial actors with more direct access to and control over the production of commercially interesting global commodities. This article explores and compares the corvée labor regimes employed and shaped by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the Moluccas, Sri Lanka, and Java. The article first addresses how to understand corvée and tributary relations as labor, production, and (political-)social regimes. Second, it explores and compares the organization and development of corvée labor relations in the context of the VOC in South and Southeast Asia. These corvée labor regimes reappear as crucial instruments in the expansion of (early) modern colonialism and capitalism, which could explain their widespread recurrence across the globe in the last few centuries.
Keywords: corvée labor / Dutch East India Company (VOC) / feudalism / Java / merchant capitalism / Moluccas / Sri Lanka / tribute

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