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The Dutch Golden Age: a short history of The Dutch East India Company (or VOC)

Updated on August 31, 2011
The VOC logo embedded in a picture of two VOC ships
The VOC logo embedded in a picture of two VOC ships
A drawing of the ship: The Weapon of Hoorn ("Het Wapen van Hoorn" in Dutch)
A drawing of the ship: The Weapon of Hoorn ("Het Wapen van Hoorn" in Dutch)
The Nightwatch by Rembrandt from the Dutch Golden Age
The Nightwatch by Rembrandt from the Dutch Golden Age

Sometimes it is not the big and strong that thrive but rather the small and intelligent. This can be the case in many different forms including countries. Sometimes the smaller countries can excel in certain fields like technology or sports. Sometimes even small countries can excel at a lot of fields and dominate the world. This was once the case for Holland, were the 17th century is called the Golden Age (of "Gouden Eeuw" in Dutch). In this Golden Age the Dutch were extremely competent in the fields of military, art, science and trade. The Golden Age started when in the 1560's the Union of Utrecht was signed by the United Provinces (what we know as the Netherlands today) to fight against Philip II of Spain which occupied them at that time. After the United Provinces recaptured the port of Antwerp the way was free for the Southern Netherlands (now known as Belgium) and the United Provinces to send out more ships for trade and military purposes. So in 1602 the Dutch East India Company (in Dutch: "Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie" or "VOC") was founded by the States General of the Netherlands and it was granted a 20 year monopoly on trading in Asia.

Statue of Jan Pieterszoon-Coen in Hoorn
Statue of Jan Pieterszoon-Coen in Hoorn

The Dutch East India Company

The Dutch East India Company was the second multinational corporation that ever existed and the first company ever to use stock. The Dutch East India Company also had the power to establish colonies, arrest and execute people, sign treaties and start wars. Nothing like big corporations today. Because the Portuguese dominated the spice trade from Asia in the 16th century and they choose the German city of Hamburg as their main Northern port, the Dutch merchants couldn't make any profit of Asian spices. But as the demand for these spices grew and the Portuguese weren't able to suply everyone, the Dutch saw the chance to get into the market. Next to that the Portuguese ships had to sail around the Netherlands to get to Hamburg and the trading ships were an easy prey for the military ships from the Dutch harbors. So in the 17th century the Dutch East India Company grew to a fleet of 4780 ships and had almost one million people working for them. That was more then all the rest of Europe combined. Taking away the monopoly that Portugal had and with the growing demand the Dutch made huge profits from the Asian spices. To assure that the Dutch East India Company could be of importance in the Asian politics (which were very important for their trade) they needed a headquarters in Asia as well as in the Netherlands (which was in Amsterdam). So in 1619 the Governor-General of the Dutch East India Company, Jan Pieterszoon-Coen (which now has a statue in Hoorn, see photo) took 19 ships and attacked Jayakarta and drove out the native forces. They then named the city Batavia and made it their Asian headquarters by driving out all the people or starving them.

The Dutch East India Company used a lot of violence to break monopolies others had to ensure they could make more profit, for example they attacked Portuguese ports to stop the Portuguese monopoly on cinnamon. So the economy of the Netherlands got a huge boost thanks to the Dutch East India Company (and is still good because of it), but at the cost of a lot of innocent lives.

In the latter part of the 17th century the Dutch East India Company started losing trades due to different circumstances. This could be natives recapturing settlements from the company or changing goverments in countries which stopped trading with the company. Also other European companies like the French East India Company and the Danish East India Company started to grow and get into the Dutch trading.

After a lot of wars with the Spanish and Portuguese the Dutch East India Company was starting to lose money, next to that the brutal attacks in Asia to try to get new colonies made sure the company was losing face as well. After some bad years the Dutch East India Company went bankrupt. It has been tried to start it again several times, but none of those attempts succeeded.

The Flying Dutchman
The Flying Dutchman
A replica of the Batavia now lays in Lelystad in the Netherlands
A replica of the Batavia now lays in Lelystad in the Netherlands
Drawning of the surviving crew of the Batavia, which became a group of murderers.
Drawning of the surviving crew of the Batavia, which became a group of murderers.

Famous Dutch East India Company ships:

1. The Flying Dutchman: The famous ship from many stories and legends was originally a ship from the fleet of the Dutch East India Company. In the 17th century after the Flying Dutchman ("Vliegende Hollander") had sunkthere were tales that the ship had become a ghostship which couldn't make port andhad to sail the seas forever. Some tales exist of other ships meeting the FlyingDutchman after it had sunk and the crew hailing to deliver messages to beloved ones thathad long since passed away.

2. Batavia: The Batavia is known because it sunk on its maiden voyage and the massacre that followed with the mutiny of the surviving crew. The band of crewmen that remained became a murderous bunch that seized ships and had gain control of their own island.

3. Guilded Dragon: The Guilded Dragon ("Vergulde Draeck") was the ship that had to replace the Batavia. But like its predecessor it sunk. It left a big treasure on the ocean floor and that's where it gets its is fame.

Important Dutch East India Company Cities:

In these cities a faction existed called a Chamber ("Kamer") from which the members of the board came from. There were seventeen members of the board and thus they were called the Lords Seventeen ("Heeren XVII"). The List gives the six cities which held a Chamber and goes from biggest to smallest in importance.

1. Amsterdam

2. Middelburg

3. Enkhuizen

4. Delft

5. Hoorn

6. Rotterdam

These were all port cities and the bigger the port the more important the city was to the Dutch east India Company.


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    • profile image

      Vrijdag Pages 

      6 years ago

      Great hub. I love Dutch history. In fact, I love mostly everything about the Dutch - apart from their love of cheese - and this hub is a great piece. Can you recommend any books on the subject?


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