With a crowbar.
I recently attended a workshop with Professor Charles Jeurgens of Leiden University about the Dutch East India Company Archives.
If you’re interested in the Dutch East India Company (VOC), you can’t go past the opportunity to investigate their archives. However, these archives are numerous, hand written, locked away somewhere, sometimes inaccurate and poorly organised. So you think “Maybe I’ll just have a look in the literature, see if someone else has found the thing I want to know and written it in a more easily accessible format” i.e. googleable. But if they haven’t, here are some preliminary ways you can get into the VOC archives.
Firstly, you need to understand the nature of archives. They’re a bit different to other historical sources because of the intention that created them. Archives are intended to create and keep a certain record, within the context of the organisation which created them. It is so important to understand how the organisation worked in order to understand how they would keep their records, so that you know where to look for your information.
The VOC archives are all over the world, Indonesia, Amsterdam, Sri Lanka, South Africa, India and the UK all have VOC archives, with volumes of archives in descending order. (Amsterdam has fewer archives because many have been destroyed to make space, and of those destroyed, a lot would have been copies of things accessible elsewhere). At the time, information was being transferred between the tradeposts to Batavia (Jakarta) and Amsterdam. These included
- General missives (annual reports)
- letters/papers (and copies)
- decisions (and copies)
- diaries (and copies)
So firstly you will need to know which of these categories you are interested in.
Even then, it will be tough to find, for example the verbaal archiving system was introduced in 1823. Before that, each day’s worth of decisions were filed together, so it would be impossible to find something if you didn’t know what day it happened. Even more difficult if it involved more than one letter back and forth over several different days. The verbaal system indexed the decisions by topic to make them easier to find. Each decision and related letters is in its own file, with an index of the topics and relevant days. Then there is an index for the index in keywords, and an alphabetical index (klapper) for the chronological index.
Researching the archives online
Go to www.sejarah-nusantara.anri.go.id for Indonesian scanned archives. Note, these are scanned, can be difficult to read, and are in Dutch.
Go to resources.huygens.knaw.nl for Dutch transcribed general missives. They are again in Dutch, but they’re transcribed, so you can search for keywords or try to use google translate on them.