Principals and Agents, Colonialists and Company Men: The Decay of Colonial Control in the Dutch East Indies

Publication Date: 
February 1996
American Sociological Review, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Feb., 1996), pp. 12-28


Patrimonial states and their chartered East India companies propelled the first wave of European colonialism in Asia during the seventeenth and eigh-teenth centuries. The metropolitan principals of these organizations faced special problems in monitoring and controlling their own colonial agents. Focusing primarily on the Dutch United East Indies Company and second-arily on its English counterpart, I argue that the network structure of each organization affected the degree to which relationships between patrimonial principals and their agents could serve as a disciplinary device. Dutch de-cline was imminent when alternative opportunities for private gain, avail-able via the ascending English East India Company, allowed Dutch colonial servants to evade their own patrimonial chain and encouraged its organiza-tional breakdown. Features of network structure determined whether colo-nial agents saw better alternatives to the official patrimonial hierarchy, when they could act on them, and whether principals could respond.