Starting my PhD during the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the continuities between contemporary health concerns and the topic of my own research, which looks at how agents of the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) navigated their way through tropical environments in the period 1600s-1800s. The fear of unknown diseases, the rush to find remedies, the clash of multiple modes of thinking and the impetus to establish authority through medical knowledge – these are still key concerns today as it was centuries ago.
My PhD research focusses on the VOC’s use of medical knowledge and goods in negotiations with Asian courts as well as competing European powers in South and Southeast Asia. The VOC's cosmopolitan settlements such as Batavia (present-day Jakarta) in Indonesia and Colombo in Sri Lanka were key sites of medical pluralism.
By analysing how courts and trading ports functioned as spaces of circulation, I aim to demonstrate how medical knowledge was still in flux during this time. I suggest that 1600s-1800s is a significant period underpinning the establishment of Western medicine as a dominant mode of thinking, during a time of increasing European interventions in these two regions. My research aims to re-orient the Asian engagement with European systems of knowledge and consider how incoming new knowledge interacted with pre-existing understandings of health and medicine in these two regions. I particularly wish to highlight the agency of Asian intellectual elites during this time - they, too, engaged
and appropriated European knowledge and goods for their own intellectual ends. I also contextualise how the term ‘Western’ medicine developed, drawing upon recent scholarship in the fields of intellectual history and the history of medicine.
Melinda Susanto is currently a PhD candidate at the Institute for History, Leiden University. Her research investigates how botanical and medical knowledge played a role in interactions between Asian courts and the Dutch East India Company between 1600s and 1800s. Before going to Leiden, she worked at the National Gallery Singapore, where she worked on the Singapore as well as Southeast Asia long-term exhibitions, and on the special exhibition Artist and Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies in 2016.