The VOC Story

Article | Updated 1 month ago

East India House - the Amsterdam headquarters of the VOC, 17th century.

East India House - the Amsterdam headquarters of the VOC, 17th century.
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The land we now call Australia was first made known to the European world in the 17th century by navigators from the Dutch East India Company – Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie 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 maximize 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 Heeren 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, of 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 4000 miles (6400 km) until they were in the meridian of the Straits of Sunda, where they turned north towards Java.

The Company’s adoption of this route in 1616 led many ships too far east, as the problem of determining the point to turn north was very difficult (due to the problem of calculating longitude). Because of this, navigators caught their first sight of the west coast of Australia.

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 power 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 the national sporting bodies in Australia such as the Australian Football League (AFL).

The AFL was established to control the national competition now represented by 16 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 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.

What they brought from Europe

  • Cash: Precious metals (ingots and coins)
  • Merchandise: European textiles, wine, beer, lead, red dyes (vermillion, cochineal), and mercury
  • Commodities: For Asian branches of the VOC, every conceivable item either unavailable there or extravagantly expensive
  • Paying Ballast: Bricks, building materials, rolls of lead, lead ingots

What the brought from the Indies

  • Goods traded by the VOC included pepper and other spices, and later textiles, tea, coffee, teak, ceramics and many other Asian products.

Learn more about the Age of Exploration here.

Come to the WA Maritime Museum to experience the exhibition: Travellers and Traders in the Indian Ocean World

References

Jacob, Trevor K. and Vellois, Jim, 1987, Southland. The maritime exploration of Australia. Ministry of Education, Western Australia.