The Dutch Early Modern empire comprised workers of European, Asian, African, American and mestizo descent who were also subdivided along occupational lines (sailors, soldiers, artisans) and labour relations (contract, enslavement, corvée, convict). Although vertical and horizontal relations influencing the stratification of these workforces were broadly similar across the empire, local dynamics of origin, culture, religion and status differed greatly and changed over time. The question of how workers related to each other has been crucial to debates on the history of class, race and intercultural relations in the past decades. For the Atlantic world, it has been argued that the moment of early modern overseas expansion gave rise to a ‘proto-proletariat’, while it has simultaneously been argued to have functioned as the birth ground of racialisation. The Indian Ocean World has on the one hand been characterized as marked by diversity and segmentation, lacking outspoken contacts or solidarities between different groups of workers. This has been opposed in literature stressing the Indian Ocean World’s openness and fluidity.
The study of the highly diverse working populations of the Dutch overseas empire provides a crucial test for assessing these conflicting perspectives on the historical dynamics of diversity and the development of patterns of differentiation. Labour relations have mainly been analysed from the perspective of vertical relations (the relations between workers and employers or authorities), but increasingly it is recognized that the dynamics of horizontal relations (between workers) are no less important. Lower supervising functions were pivotal part of the day-to-day management of such highly diverse workforces, and therefore played a crucial role in the formation of both horizontal and vertical relations. The function of slave-overseer or mandoor, for example, could be fulfilled by enslaved, free and contract workers. Furthermore, the origin of mandoors could vary from Europeans, Eurasians to Asians and Africans.