The Dutch East India Company

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By Wieze van Elderen

The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602 and remained active until 1799. The Dutch name was Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, what literally means the United East Indian Company. Formed as a combination of mercantile organizations from various cities in Holland and Zeeland, the Company was involved in commerce in Asia itself, as well as between Europe and Asia.1 The VOC is generally considered to be the first multinational and the company to issue stocks.2 It grew to become the largest trading and transport enterprise in the world.

In the sixteenth century trade with Asia was mostly controlled by Portugal. By the end of the century the English and Dutch also managed to get a hold on trade in Asia and broke the Portuguese supremacy. The first Dutch ships completed the return voyage from Asia in 1597. Soon after more expeditions to Asia were organized. To be able to compete with the English and the Portuguese, the government under the leadership of Raadspensionaris (Land's Advocate) Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, took the initiative to establish a cooperative venture out of the small trading companies and granted them a monopoly to trade with Asia.3

This new company, the VOC, was organized as a shareholder company. The so-called Kamers (chambers) of the company, where the local tradesmen had their interests, where placed in the cities Amsterdam, Middelburg, Rotterdam, Delft, Hoorn and Enkhuizen. Each city formed their own chamber. The board of executives was called the Heren XVII (the Lords Seventeen). Eight of the members were from Amsterdam, four from Middelburg and one from each other city. The seventeenth seat was filled either by the province Zeeland or the smaller cities.4 The head office of the VOC was at the East India House in Amsterdam.5 The chairmen of the board were all rich and important men. For instance the VOC chamber of Hoorn consisted entirely of mayors, bailiffs and aldermen.6

East India House in Amsterdam

East India House in Amsterdam

The competition for the trade with Asia was fierce. Where first the Portuguese had the hegemony, the VOC tried to take over their position in Asia. This resulted in confrontations. One of these occasions led Hugo Grotius to write his famous treatise on the freedom of the seas Mare Liberum, which was published in 1609. Het formulated the principle that the sea was international territory and all nations were free to use it for seafaring trade. By doing so, he made a case the VOC breaking up the position of the Portuguese and then establishing their own monopoly.7 The VOC drove away the Portuguese from Indonesia and protected their monopoly carefully. The Dutch States-general gave the VOC sovereign power to rule over Indonesia. The supreme VOC functionary in the Dutch East Indies was the governor-general. He was aided by five members of the Council of the East Indies. After the demise of the VOC the office of governor-general remained until 1945. The Rijksmuseum has a series of official portraits of the governors-general. 8

The VOC built up a network of hundreds of bases in Asia. These could range from simple offices and warehouses to large fortresses used to control the inlands. At first Bantam on the island of Java was the centre of the VOC activities, but the fourth governor-general, Jan Pierszoon Coen, settled himself in the recently conquered Jacarta in 1619. The city was renamed Batavia in honour of the legendary ancestors of the Dutch people. The Molukken and a part of Java were placed under direct control of the VOC. They also build forts and settlements in Malakka, Ceylon and India. The VOC traded in spices, tea, silk and porcelain from South-east Asia and cottons from India.9

VOC ship "De Batavia".

VOC ship "De Batavia".
Source: | Click on image to go to source.




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For further information please contact: Henk Rijkeboer | Horizon College

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