VOC – United Dutch East India Company

Spices and the riches of Asia

In medieval Europe and as recently as the 16th and 17th centuries, spices we take for granted today—cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper and mace—were scarce and extremely valuable. Control of the spice trade made nations rich and sparked wars. Used in medicine to relieve the symptoms of rheumatism, gout and colic for example, spices helped to preserve cooked food, added flavour to meat and alcoholic drinks, and were believed to increase sexual activity. European demand for the products of Asia extended to metals, works of art, furniture, textiles and carpets. These goods made successful European traders very wealthy.

Secret spice islands

Spices had to be sourced from remote and distant places such as the islands of present-day eastern Indonesia. The Indonesian archipelago boasted two main spice centres—the Moluccas (the Maluku Islands) as well as Java and Sumatra. The Moluccas consist of more than 1,000 islands, only a few of which produced cloves and nutmeg, while Java and Sumatra were sources of pepper. By the time the Dutch arrived in the late 1500s, the region’s spice trade already had a history dating back to ancient times. The merchants, perhaps Persian or Arab traders, who introduced cloves to Europe around the 2nd century, did not know the original source of the spice, and this remained true until about the 12th century. The overland monopoly in the supply of spices to Europe via the eastern Mediterranean was broken in 1497 when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and sailed to India. Portugal developed and maintained a stranglehold on the spice trade during the 16th century.

The creation of the Republic of the United Netherlands and the VOC

The 1579 Union of Utrecht and Union off Arras were both attempts to unite the patchwork of the low country provinces in their struggle for independence or autonomy from Spanish/Hapsburg rule. The Union of Utrecht can be considered the beginning of the Republic of the United Netherlands which consisted of the seven northern provinces: Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel, Friesland and Groningen.

Their war of independence (the Eighty Years War) was not formally concluded until 1648. It was in some ways a commercial competition, as well as a military and naval war, against Spain and Portugal which were then combined under King Phillip II of Spain.

The mariners and merchants of the region that would become the Republic of the Netherlands, and the southern provinces which remained with the Hapsburg Empire, had long been the most efficient and successful in Europe, owning more shipping than any other region.

…wherever profit leads us, to every sea and shore; for love of gain the wide world’s harbours we explore …

Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel, 1639

In 1599 the eerste shipvaart—the first (Dutch) fleet to the Indies set sail, attempting to break the Portuguese monopoly in the spice trade, using information gained by espionage. It was not very successful financially, bringing back only a small cargo of spices, but it showed what might be done in the future. A second fleet was much more successful, and at the beginning of the 17th century many small squadrons and larger fleets were equipped for voyages to the Indies by newly-formed companies. In late December 1601 a fleet of five Dutch ships drove away from Bantam, Java, a fleet of thirty Portuguese ships. It was a turning point in history.

The VOC monopoly

In 1602, to put an end to fierce competition between proliferating Dutch companies that were breaking into the East Indies spice trade and had forced an increase in the purchase price of spices and a glut in Europe, the companies were amalgamated by government fiat as the United Dutch East India Company or Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC). The VOC was granted a monopoly in all sea-borne trade with Asia by way of the Cape of Good Hope and the Straits of Magellan.

By the mid-1600s, the VOC boasted some 150 merchant ships and 50,000 employees, a private army of 10,000 soldiers and trading posts from the Persian Gulf to Japan. It was, in effect, a ‘state outside the state’ with the power to wage war, make treaties with Asian rulers, punish and execute criminals, create new colonies and strike its own coins.

The VOC became a trading colossus, the world’s first multinational company. Its dominance was such that between 1602 and 1796 its ships made nearly 5,000 voyages from the Netherlands to Asia. During the 17th century the rest of Europe combined did not come close, sending out only a fraction of the number of ships and people. The English fleet of the Honourable East India Company was a distant second to the VOC, returning with just one-fifth the tonnage of goods though it was more successful in the 18th century.

Heeren Seventien

Consisting of six companies called chambers (kamer), the VOC operated from the cities of Amsterdam, Middelburg, Enkhuizen, Hoorn, Delft and Rotterdam. This organisation was administered by a board of seventeen directors called Heeren Seventien (The Lordship Seventeen) who had their head office in Amsterdam. After the monopoly was granted by patent, only the VOC could send ships from the Netherlands to conduct trade in the octrooi gebied (the trade zone under the patent) of Asia. In March 1602 the newly-formed VOC took over the fleets of the amalgamated companies that were at sea and in the Indies, and the Heeren Seventien wasted no time in sending new fleets to the East Indies and India.

As directors their income was fixed at 1% of the expenditure and outfitting, and 1% of the profits from the sale of the retourgoederen (the return wares), but in 1622 the 1% of outfitting expenditure was rescinded and in 1647 they accepted a fixed salary. High profits were possible but there were risks: not only the dangers of war with other European nations, piracy, disease and shipwreck, but also swings in demand and supply and maladministration.

The VOC in Indonesia

Merchants of one of the pre-VOC Dutch East Indies companies first attempted in 1602 to impose a monopoly agreement on the people of the Banda Islands where virtually all nutmeg was grown. In 1605 the Portuguese at Amboina (now Ambon) surrendered their castle to the VOC fleet of Steven van der Haghen. Ambon was the VOC’s headquarters until in 1619, the VOC Governor-General, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, returned from Ambon with a fleet and soldiers to relieve the VOC post at Sunda Kelapa, Java, which was besieged by Jayakerta (and had been renamed Batavia by the defending soldiers). Coen sacked and destroyed Jayakerta (now Jakarta) and established new headquarters at Batavia.

Under Coen's administration, increasingly harsh trade restrictions were imposed on the Banda islands, and in 1622 breaches of the nutmeg and mace trade monopoly were used as the excuse to massacre and evict most of the population. They were replaced by slaves and indentured labour. In the mid-1600s, the VOC began importing slaves from West Africa to meet its labour needs.

The centres of clove production were the neighbouring volcanic islands of Ternate and Tidore, and Ambon. With the support of South Sulawesi kingdoms, Ternate and Tidore tried to resist the Dutch imposition of monopoly. During the 1650s a series of brutal VOC campaigns defeated Ternate and its allies, though Ternate did not formally accept VOC control until 1667. By the end of the century the demand for the spices of the Moluccas was in decline and all the VOC trade centres in the region were running at a loss.

The VOC were not interested in conquering large areas of land. Where an Indonesian kingdom opposed VOC trade monopoly, the VOC always tried to ally with that kingdom's enemies hoping to replace the hostile regime with a more compliant ruler. In Java the VOC tried to avoid conflict with the Mataram Empire which controlled much of the island, despite capricious and despotic by Mataram’s rajas. When the Empire seemed to collapse into civil war, the VOC supported the crown-prince, and from then on remained involved in propping up Mataram by military intervention, at considerable expense.

The first international corporation

The VOC issued shares which sometimes paid as much as 40% dividends. VOC shareholders could sell their shares, giving rise to ‘share trading’.

In Asia, the VOC managed settlements including fortifications, harbours, offices and warehouses, as well as accommodation. The operations in Asia were run by a VOC Governor-General and Council, which reported directly to the Heeren Seventien in Amsterdam.

The VOC was dominant in the lucrative trade between Europe and the East Indies.

The decline of the VOC

Between about 1635 and 1690 the VOC returned profits which fuelled the Dutch economy during its 'golden age'. However, the organisation of the VOC as six separate chambers made for complicated book-keeping and administration.

After 1602 the VOC never issued new shares although the scale of its operations increased enormously. It relied on short-term loans when more capital was required. Warfare sometimes constrained and delayed voyaging and trade, while costs such as running Batavia continued to deplete funds. During the 18th century European competitors were increasingly successful.

Becoming inextricably enmeshed in the Javanese wars of succession proved very costly and almost bankrupted the company in the mid-18th century.

In the fourth Anglo-Dutch war (1780 to 1784) the British Royal Navy undertook a series of operations against VOC settlements and trade in Asia, but fought only one battle against the Dutch navy in European waters. With trade almost completely halted the VOC fell into crippling debt and required much government support to stagger on after the war.

In 1795 the French invaded the Dutch Republic and set up a puppet government.

In 1796, the board of VOC directors were forced to resign and the management was handed over to a Comité tot de zaken van de Oost-Indische handel en bezittingen (Committee for Affairs relating to East India Trade and Possessions). The VOC charter, the legal foundation of the enterprise, was revoked on New Year’s Day 1800—ending two centuries of what had been the worlds largest corporation.

Master shipbuilders

Two or three fleets a year sailed from the Dutch republic during most years of the VOC's operations. Sailing at an average of four to five knots (7 to 9 km/h) large East Indiamen carried hundreds of passengers and livestock as well as crew. These capacious ships were the ‘workhorses’ of a vast seafaring empire. Until the mid-18th century Dutch ships were built according to detailed contracts, but plans drawn on paper were not used. Master shipwrights created cargo-ships which were not fast, but they were efficient cargo carriers. Merchants all over Europe preferred Dutch ships but were prohibited from buying them by laws such as the English Navigation Act.

The Dutch being the biggest traders of Norwegian, German, Baltic and Russian timber could negotiate low prices. It is said they were able to buy Norwegian masts and timber for less than shipwrights in Norway. Dutch shipbuilding was well organised and highly efficient. Each of the six chambers of the VOC had its own shipyard. The Amsterdam chamber's yard launched three large ships per year for most of the 18th century. Other shipbuilding centres included Middleburg, Harlingen and Hoorn.

Life on board

Life on a Dutch East Indiaman was not pleasant, but this was true of life at sea in general. Samuel Johnson remarked that no man would go to sea if he had wit enough to have himself thrown in jail. Conditions were cramped, even for officers and passengers. The lower decks in particular were badly ventilated.

A ship’s crew was divided into two or three watches which were subdivided into messes. Each was responsible for looking after their sick and injured, cleaning the ship, and standing watch. Officers, senior merchants and passengers dined at the captain’s table, which was furnished with pewter plates, spoons, linen and tablecloths. The crew ate in messes of seven to nine people. Ordinary sailors and soldiers were required to act as orderlies for their own messes on a weekly roster, fetching food from the galley and washing up.

The cook and messmate ate when others had finished. Wooden spoons and plates were generally used on board. After a week or two at sea almost the only fresh food was fish. Ship’s stores included salted meat, ‘sea biscuits’ made of flour and water, rice, oats, beans, dried peas, cheese, lard and mustard.

Each person received about one and a half litres of water or beer a day. Beer was preferred because after a month or two at sea, stored water would be black and foul smelling. Water was usually mixed with wine or arak.

Many sailors died of diseases such as dysentery, scurvy, typhus or ship fever, pleurisy and pneumonia. In 1762, for example, ten VOC ships left the Netherlands with 2,653 people, of whom 1,095 or 45%, died on the way to the Cape of Good Hope. Accidents on board also contributed to the high death rate on VOC ships—some sailors returning home missing a limb, wearing peg-legs or hook-hands.

The VOC did not pay high wages and found it difficult to recruit crew. In general their crews were not the finest of seamen.

Maintaining discipline

Punishment was brutal. Deserters were flogged and murderers were tied to their victim and thrown overboard. Sailors could bring their own casks of beer, but drunkenness and blasphemy was punished with a fine of two months wages.

Mutinies occurred in such harsh conditions (the VOC reported a total of 45 mutinies).

The VOC and Australia

Looking for new trading opportunities, the VOC sponsored several explorations of the South Land. Increasing knowledge of the location, size and shape of the South Land can be seen in Dutch maps drawn and engraved during the 17th century. By 1628, about 4,000km of Australia’s western, southern and northern coastlines had been surveyed and delineated on charts which were issued to VOC skippers.

Tasman's voyages of 1642 and 1644, while important in establishing the extent of the Australasian continent, brought no rewards in trade.

Willem de Vlamingh’s surveying and exploratory voyage of 1696–1697 did not deliver glowing reports about trade opportunities, although he described the Perth and Swan River areas as a ‘paradise on earth’.

Dutch explorers described the flora and fauna they saw. In 1644, Tasman noted crocodiles off northern Australia, and in 1696 de Vlamingh made reference to the black swans he had seen. While de Vlamingh's exploration added greatly to the detail of the mapping of the western coastline, his findings did not prompt the VOC to invest further in surveying the seemingly barren and inhospitable southern continent.

The coast of New Holland, as it became known after Tasman’s 1644 voyage, offered the Dutch very little in the way of trade or resources. There were no markets or spices, not even a convenient harbour to establish a staging post for East Indiamen sailing to Java.

After an inconclusive expedition in 1705, the VOC showed decreasing interest in exploration of Australia. The last VOC expedition to Australia sent two small ships, Rijder and Buis, to the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1756.

Timeline of the VOC

The Brouwer route

While latitude was measured quite accurately, longitude could seldom be calculated by 17th century navigators, including Hartog. There was no reliable method which could be regularly used to measure the distance travelled east or west from a starting point. Mariners relied on ‘dead reckoning’ to estimate distance sailed when out of sight of land. Dead reckoning was an accumulated account of the distance a ship had travelled through the water over a particular period of time, usually 24 hours. Error could be disastrous.

From the Cape of Good Hope, the first Dutch fleets had sailed north past Madagascar and Mauritius, then east to Java. In 1611, VOC skipper Hendrik Brouwer experimented with a new route, sailing eastwards with the fresh westerly winds south of latitude 35 degrees, and then turning north to carry the south-east trade winds to Sunda Strait at the western end of Java.

The Brouwer route, as it has been called, was formally adopted by the VOC in August 1616. The VOC issued a directive called a Seynbrief or Seylaesorder (sailing instructions), which required that ships cross the Indian Ocean using the route. According to Article 12 of the Seynbrief, captains were to seek, '...latitudes of 35, 36, 40 to 44 degrees south, depending on where the seamen can find the best west winds'.

Article 13 follows:

Now after the west winds have been found the ships should sail eastwards for at least 1,000 mijlen (about 7,000km) before turning and laying their course for the north.

The Brouwer route shortened the voyage to Java by months, providing the VOC with a significant advantage over its European rivals and ensuring its crews suffered less hardship and ill-health becalmed on hot tropical seas.

Dirk Hartog used the Brouwer route before it was formally adopted. Because he was sailing to Macassar rather than Java, he was far enough east to encounter the South Land.

Disaster follows...

Using the Brouwer route ships approached the west coast of Australia after weeks of dead reckoning navigation. Occasionally the result was disasterous. The Vergulde Draeck, for example, ran out of ocean on 28 April 1656, when it struck a reef off Ledge Point near Cape Leschenault, about 130km north of Perth. Other European navigators also used the Brouwer route including John Brookes, English captain of the Tryall, which wrecked on rocks, now called the Trial Rocks, off Western Australia’s north-west coast in 1622.

Four VOC ships are known to have been wrecked on the west coast and off-lying reefs:

Batavia (1629), Zuytdorp (1712), Zeewijk (1727) and Vergulde Draeck (1656). There are another three VOC ships that were never heard of after leaving the Cape of Good Hope: Ridderschap van Holland (1694), Aagtekerke (1726) and Fortuyn (1723).

Their whereabouts remain unknown.

Click here for more information on problems relating to longitude in the discovery of Australia.

Marooned on South Land's shores

Several hundred crew and passengers from at least four VOC ships were wrecked in Western Australian waters between 1629 and 1727. Some survived and reached the safety of Batavia (Jakarta), while others perished and disappeared. Not all of the crew on these ships were Dutch as the VOC recruited crew members from other countries. According to some Aboriginal oral histories, survivors lived with local people and even fathered children. No clear evidence of this has been found.

The Batavia

The most famous VOC shipwreck, the Batavia, struck a reef near Beacon Island in the Abrolhos on its maiden voyage. Commander Pelsaert, all the senior officers (except Jeronimus Cornelisz, who was still on the wreck), some crew and passengers, 48 in all, went in search of water. Quickly abandoning this fruitless search on the mainland coast, they made their way to Batavia to obtain help. They took 33 days to get there. Meanwhile, about 125 of the marooned men, women and children were murdered by a group led by the senior officer, Jeronimus Cornelisz.

When Pelsaert returned three months later in the rescue ship Sardam, a few of the 'mutineers' were executed, and more were executed in Batavia. Two of the youngest mutineers, Wouter Loos and Jan Pelgrom de Bye, were left castaway, possibly at Broken Anchor Bay at the mouth of the Hutt River, 450km north of Perth. Pelsaert gave the two culprits tokens of friendship to exchange with the local people:

… some Nurenbergen [wooden toys and trifles], as well as knives, beads, bells and small mirrors, of which you shall give to the Blacks only a few until they have grown familiar with them…Having become known to them, if they take you into their Villages to their chief men, have courage to go with them willingly. Man’s luck is found in strange places; if God guards you will not suffer any damage from them, but on the contrary, because they have never seen any white men, they will offer all friendship.

What became of Loos and De Bye?

Some interesting references

Extracts from George Grey’s expeditions from 1837 to 1839 state in respect of the Aborigines: 'A remarkable circumstance is the presence amongst them of a race, to appearance, totally different, and almost white, who seem to exercise no small influence over the rest. I am forced to believe that the distrust evinced towards strangers arose from these persons, as in both instances, when we were attacked, the hostile party was led by one of these light-coloured men'.

George Fletcher Moore wrote:

On this day we saw (near Mount Anne, 150km east of Perth) a native and his cardo [wife] a young woman of a very pleasing countenance, and something of European features and long wavy, almost flaxen-coloured hair.

Perth Gazette 18 June 1836

In the late 1840s, the bishop at New Norcia mission recounted a story told by by two Aborigines from the north:

They told me through one of the mission natives that near the coast, four days journey north of New Norcia there were other white men…After looking into this matter I came to the conclusion that these could well be the descendants of the mutineers Captain Pelsaert (Batavia) left behind.

Bishop Salvado

Pelsaert’s Sardam also lost five sailors on the day Loos and De Bye were abandoned. Sent to retrieve a cask of vinegar floating in the water, the sailors were never seen again.

Surviving in the South Land?

Survivors from the Goede HoopVergulde Draeck and Zuytdorp may have lived out the rest of their lives with indigenous Australians; no one can know, but clear evidence has not been found.

The Vergulde Draeck was wrecked in 1656 near Lancelin, a coast occupied by the Nyoongar (Yuat, Wadjuk and Belardang) people. The Zuytdorp ran onto the coast in 1712 near the mouth of the Murchison River, land occupied by the Nanda, Malgana and Wadjarri peoples.

When the Vergulde Draeck was wrecked, 75 people made it to shore. Seven of the crew sailed with the schuit (one of the ship's boats) to Batavia and raised the alarm. In 1658, a rescue mission led by the Waeckende Boei reported finding a beach littered with wreckage, but no sign of the remaining 68 survivors. The Vergulde Draeck tragedy claimed 79 lives in total, with rescuers forced to sail away because of bad weather.

The Zuytdorp carried about 200 passengers and crew, none of whom reached Batavia after leaving the Cape of Good Hope on 22 April 1712.

The Zeewijk was wrecked in the Abrolhos Islands on 9 June 1727, with 137 people on board. Fourteen drowned during initial attempts to get off the ship but all others eventually reached nearby Gun Island. A month later, a contingent of twelve men were sent in the longboat to Batavia for help, but were never heard of again. Using materials from the wreck and local mangrove timbers, the survivors built a 16.4m long by 4.8m wide vessel—the first European vessel built in Australia. It carried the remaining 88 survivors, water, victuals and silver coinage worth 315,834 guilders in ten chests to Batavia. Six people died on the voyage to Batavia.

Three other VOC ships disappeared without a trace, their whereabouts still unknown. The Ridderschap Van Holland went missing after leaving the Cape of Good Hope on 5 February 1694. It vanished with 325 passengers and crew, prompting the VOC to send Willem de Vlamingh to search for them in 1696. Nothing was found. The Fortuyn went missing on its maiden voyage to Batavia after departing the Cape of Good Hope on 18 January 1724. No wreckage or survivors were found. The Aagtekerke also became lost after leaving Cape Town on 29 January 1726.

In the case of the 1875 Stefano wreck, local Aboriginal people cared for two survivors marooned on the north-west coast. They were rescued after five months of living with the Aborigines.