An enormous part of my PhD research involves the VOC. Before I even started, I went to my Honours supervisor with a sad little 300 word research proposal. She said to me “Do you have a background in materials analysis? Maritime archaeology? Historical archaeology?” I had to answer no to everything. Then she told me I would have to research the history of the VOC. I nodded like I knew what that was, hoping she wouldn’t notice my thundering heart beat, shallow breathing and beading forehead.
Here for your enjoyment and interest is the story of the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (United Dutch East India Company) taken from a Western Australian Maritime Museum Information sheet.
East India House, Amsterdam. The headquarters of the VOC in the 17th century and present day.
The land we now call Australia, was first made known to the European world in the 17th century by navigators from the United Dutch East India Company – Verenigde Oostindische Compgnie or VOC.
The VOC was the greatest trading concern in the world in the 17th and early 18th centuries, with Batavia (present-day Jakarta) as its trade centre in the East Indies.
High profits from earlier voyages to the East Indies by Dutch merchants led to fierce competition amongst themselves, and the purchase price of spices in Asia being driven up. In an attempt to maximise profits, the various competing parties were brought together by the central Government of the Dutch Republic. The result was the formation of the VOC on 20 March 1602, in a merger of six Dutch trading companies – Amsterdam, Zeeland (or Middleburg), Hoorn, Rotterdam, Delft and Enkhuizen. Aiming to present a strong, united Dutch front, the Company intended to enforce trade monopolies in the East Indies and drive out competition from other European powers, especially Portugal and Spain.
The VOC was administered from Holland by seventeen directors known as the Hereen Zeventien (Gentlemen Seventeen) appointed from each of the original companies, called Kamers (chambers). Ships owned by individual chambers, were built and repaired at VOC shipyards in The Netherlands. Packed with provisions, coinage and trade goods, they set out on the long voyage, nine months or more, to Batavia. Usually, the ship would stop briefly at the Cape of Good Hope, where the Company established a colony in 1652, to rest the crew and take on fresh supplies.
In the early days of the Company, ships rounding the Cape would head north along the African coast, through the Strait of Madagascar to reach the Indies. In 1610, however, one of the Company’s navigators, Hendrik Brouwer, found that a faster, cooler and therefore less arduous passage could be made by taking advantage of the westerly winds which prevail south of the Cape – the ‘Roaring Forties’. Ships would head east from the Cape for about 4,000 miles (6,400km) until they were in the meridian of the Straits of Sunda, where they turned north toward Java.
The Company’s adoption of this route in 1616 led to many ships sailing too far east, as the problem of determining the point to turn north was very difficult (due to the problem of calculating longitude) and navigators caught their first sight of the west coast of Australia.
A 1700 Dutch map of the Indian Ocean, note Australia slowly taking shape in the corner.
Competition from other trading powers en route to Batavia meant that all the Company’s ships carried ordnance (guns) and soldiers to protect the convoys and their cargoes; and to maintain Dutch power in the Indian Ocean, and protect Dutch interest on land. During the VOC’s golden years in the 17th and early 18th centuries, over one million people left Holland for Asia on board the Company’s fleet of East Indiamen. The Company returned enormous profits and exerted unprecedented power in the Far East. By 1740, however, the VOC was in a state of decline. Diminishing profits – largely due to corruption – led to the Company’s bankruptcy and final dissolution on 31 December 1799.
Organisation of the VOC
In many ways the VOC was organised in a similar way to national sporting bodies in Australia such as the Australian Football League (AFL).
An AFL player and a VOC soldier. Note the similarities in national organisation.
The AFL was established to control the national competition now represented by 18 teams from 5 States. Each team carries the AFL logo on their jumpers, as well as the logo of their particular club. With the VOC, each trading partner carried the main VOC logo as well as the identification of their particular chamber.
The AFL’s charter is to create a monopoly; a single strong national body that, through promotion and marketing, can survive the challenge from the other football codes such as rugby league. Similarly, the VOC’s charter was to create a monopoly; a single strong national body to control the spice trade and survive the challenge from other nations.