Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie

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Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie

Full-scale replica of a Dutch sailing ship – a
VOC-ship in the Golden Century of Holland.

The “Prins Willem”, built in 1651 at
Middelburg, Zeeland (the Netherlands) was one of the largest of East Indiamen
to be constructed during the 17th Century.

Built to withstand long and often hazardous sea
voyages, the East Indiaman enabled the Dutch East Indie Company to participate
in the highly profitable trade with Asia and contributed to the Netherlands’
dominance of world trade during the 17th Century.

The “Prins Willem” was seconded to the Dutch
Navy during the First Anglo-Dutch War. The ship was the flagship of Witte de
With in the Battle of the Kentish Knock during the First Anglo-Dutch War..
After returning to the merchant navy, the “Prins Willem” made five
journeys to South East Asia along the lucrative spice route, before being
wrecked off the island of Brandon on the return voyage to the Netherlands in February

A full-scale replica was recently built in Holland and
shipped to Japan to be a major attraction in Nagasaki Holland Village, in Omura
(Japan), a Dutch-themed amusement center.

To maximize their competitive advantage, the government
persuaded the many competing trading companies to pool their financial assets
to create the United Netherlands Chartered East India Company (Verenigde
Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC) in 1602. Under the charter granted by the States
General to the VOC, the company was granted monopoly rights to trade and
navigation for 21 years over the vast reaches east of the Cape of Good Hope and
west of the Straits of Magellan. The company consisted of chambers (kamers) in
six port cities-Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Delft, Enkhuizen, Middelburg, and
Hoorn-made up of individuals chosen from the community of wealthy merchants and
bankers. The chambers assigned from their members delegates to sit on the
central board of 17 directors (Heeren XVII), the number allotted each chamber
based on the regional representation of capital in shares contributed.
Amsterdam held the largest number of seats at eight. The company was given the
power to conclude treaties of alliance and peace, to wage defensive war, and to
build forts and trading posts.

Backed by the government’s blessing, the VOC constituted the
world’s first trading company based on permanent shares of capital. Fitted out
with gunpowder and cannonballs, fleets were dispatched to the East Indies-more
than a year’s journey away-to take Portuguese military/trading posts by force.
In 1605 armed merchantmen captured the Portuguese fort at Amboina, in the
Moluccan Islands, which the VOC then established as its first secure base in
the Indies. In the midst of declaring dazzling dividends that jumped from 50
percent in 1606 to 329 percent in 1609, the company soon emerged as master of
the spice trade. The Dutch seized Jakarta in 1619, renaming it Batavia and
making it the administrative center of the Netherlands East Indies. Interloping
English traders on Amboina were massacred in 1623. By the mid-17th century, the
company operated as a virtual state within a state, the distance from the
homeland and the wealth its ships brought home compelling the States General to
leave the fi rm alone and give it virtually a free hand in the East Indies. The
richest private company in the world, in 1670 the VOC counted 150 merchant
ships, 40 warships, a private army, and 50,000 employees.

Employing ruthless methods to push their competitors aside,
the company moved beyond the Indies to drive the Portuguese systematically from
the trading posts they had held for a century in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and on the
South Asian subcontinent. By 1658 they held all of coastal Ceylon and, a decade
later, they occupied isolated trading stations on the southern coasts of India.
Moving farther afield, they founded Fort Zeelandia on Formosa (now Taiwan) in
1624, drove the Portuguese out of southern bases on the island and, in 1641,
pushed the Spanish from northern holdings, before the Dutch in turn were
expelled by Chinese arriving from the mainland in 1662. Regular trading
relations were also established with Japan. From 1641 to 1854 the Dutch were
the only Europeans permitted to trade there, exchanging European goods for
Japanese gold, silver, and lacquerware from their isolated island post of
Deshima in Nagasaki Bay.

Within only a few short decades, East Indiamen ships had won
fame for the seemingly irrepressible daring of their captains and crews. South
and east of Batavia they pressed on to within sight of western Australia’s
barren shore and Abel Tasman (1603-59) sailed beyond the continent’s east coast
to discover Tasmania, Fiji, and New Zealand. Jacob Le Maire (c. 1585-1616) and
Willem Schouten (c. 1567-1625) sailed two vessels from Texel in 1615 west
across the Atlantic, discovering a new route to the East Indies through Cape
Horn, rounded for the first time on January 29, 1616, and which Schouten named
for his birthplace. They sailed in search of gold, but they found none, leaving
instead a legacy in new island discoveries, including the Admiralty Islands and
the Schouten Islands in the southwest Pacific.

Enticed east by spices, the Dutch traveled west in search of
salt, their sources in Portugal closed by Spain in 1621. The Dutch West India
Company (Geoctroyeerde West-Indische Compagnie, WIC) was chartered that year,
under a central governing board of 19 members (Heeren XIX), to finance
incursions into the Spanish and Portuguese Americas, where the Venezuelan
coastal pans in particular furnished a fine natural salt with which to preserve
the fishing fleets’ catch. Caribbean waters offered added benefits in goods
from contraband trading with Spanish settlements and in booty seized from
preying on Spanish ships. The capture by Piet Heyn (1577-1629) of the Spanish
silver fleet in 1628 assumed mythic status in the Dutch historical memory.

Anxious to secure trading depots on Caribbean islands, the
WIC occupied Curaçao, the largest of the Leeward Islands and one that had long
been abandoned by the Spanish, in 1634. Aruba was seized in 1636 and the Dutch,
together with the French, drove the Spanish from Sint Maarten, which they
divided between them in 1648. Sint Eustatius (Statia) was colonized by the
company in 1636 with settlers from Zeeland, and Saba with those from Sint
Eustatius in about 1640. Colonies were founded in Guyana (1625-1803), Brazil
(1630-54), Suriname (1667-1975), and Demarara (1667-1814). The WIC under its
governor-general John Maurits of Nassau-Siegen (1604-79) made an especially
vigorous effort to occupy northeastern coastal areas of Brazil. The Dutch
transformed the region into a profitable colony, largely through sugar
production, and Jewish merchants arrived to set up operations at Recife before
Dutch colonizers were ousted by the Portuguese, the discoverers of the country,
who returned in force in 1654.

Colonists on Sint Eustatius first planted tobacco but soon
switched to sugar, and sugar plantations established throughout the Dutch
Caribbean islands furnished the bulk of Europe’s supply in the 17th century. On
Sint Eustatius as well as on Curaçao, the largest of the Leeward Islands, the
WIC established slave depots for trade with the continental Americas.

A fashion fad in Europe for furs drew the Dutch north. In
Dutch service, Englishman Henry Hudson (1565-1611) in 1609 sailed his De Halve
Maan (The Half Moon), a brand-new ship with a crew of eight Englishmen and
eight Dutchmen, up the river later named for him and, in doing so, laid claim
to one of the most strategically significant slices of the North American mainland.
The first permanent settlement of Fort Orange (just south of present-day
Albany, New York) was founded in 1614 to trade directly with Native Americans
for beaver pelts even before the settlement of New Amsterdam was made in 1626
on Manhattan island, famously purchased by Governor Peter Minuit (1580-1638)
for 60 guilders ($24) worth of goods. Unlike elsewhere in their empire where
the Dutch preferred not to plant settlements but rather to set up military
trading posts at strategic spots to which the native inhabitants would come to
trade, their North American territory became a real colony. Not only soldiers
and WIC employees came but also ordinary settlers, who arrived intending to
stay. Its history short (1614-64) and tempestuous, marked by wars with Native
American tribes, threats from intruding Swedes and English, and, above all,
neglect by a ruling company-wholly engrossed in the struggle against Spain-more
intent on privateering and profitmaking than attracting emigrants, New
Netherland managed, nevertheless, to bequeath a scattering of settlements from
western Long Island up the Hudson and Mohawk rivers as far as present-day
Schenectady, New York, that has left an enduring legacy in place-names,
folklore, and English-language loanwords.

Under the auspices of the VOC, Jan van Riebeeck (1619-77)
founded Cape Town, southern Africa’s oldest settlement, in 1652. At first a
watering place for ships bound to and from the Far East, the Cape Colony saw
settlers start to arrive by the end of the 17th century. By then a series of
forts and trading posts dotted the West African coast, first serving as
watering stations but soon also operating as slave markets to meet the constant
need of Dutch New World plantations for such labor. Curaçao, in particular,
grew wealthy on the trade. In 1637 the Dutch wrested Elmina from the
Portuguese, their strongest fortification on the Guinea coast. They also sold
captive labor to other nations, bringing the first 19 slaves, captured from a
Spanish slave ship, to Virginia in 1619, and, from 1663 to 1701, Dutch traders
held the state contract (asiento) for transport of African slaves to Spain’s
American colonies. Global trading ties gave a cosmopolitan character to the
major cities, especially those in Holland, that was probably unmatched in
Europe. The Dutch acquired a fl air for foreign languages that they have
retained ever since. A traveler remarked: “There is no Part of Europe so
haunted with all sorts of foreigners as the Netherlands, which makes the
Inhabitants as well Women as Men, so well versed in all sorts of Languages, so
that, in Exchange-time, one may hear 7 or 8 sorts of Tongues spoken. . .
.” (Howell 1753, 103).

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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