On March 20, 1602, the States-General (parliament) of the Dutch Republic granted the Dutch United East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC) a trade monopoly to the east of the Cape of Good Hope for a period of twenty-one years. Traders and burghers were given the opportunity to invest capital in this new trading company, and they thus become shareholders of what came to be the world’s first multinational company operating in Asia.

The VOC was the outcome of a development that started with Cornelis de Houtman’s (1565-1599) first Dutch voyage to Asia in 1595. His trip was followed by fifteen Dutch fleets with a total of sixty-five ships that set sail for Asia before the founding of the VOC. These fleets were financed by so-called Voor-Compangieen, or Early Companies, financed in turn by individual traders from the main Dutch ports of Holland and Zeeland.

VOC Insignia. The insignia of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) adorns a building in Amsterdam.

VOC Insignia. The insignia of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) adorns a building in Amsterdam.

During this first period, Dutch shipping surpassed the Portuguese, who were able to send a total of forty-six ships during the same years. The VOC was founded because the Early Companies began to engage in damaging mutual competition in the trade on Asian. In addition, a united company offered a more aggressive military power against the Iberian powers (Spain and Portugal), with whom the Dutch Republic was at war (the Eighty Years’ War, 1568-1648).


The port towns that were engaged in trade with the Early Companies were all represented in the new VOC. Its board of directors, called the Gentlemen XVII, was made up of the chambers of Amsterdam (eight directors); Zeeland (Middelburg, four directors); and Rotterdam, Delft, Hoorn, and Enkhuizen (one director each). Zeeland, or one of the other towns, sent a seventeenth director so that Amsterdam would never have a majority vote.

The Dutch States-General gave the VOC the authority to sign contracts with sovereign powers in Asia, conclude treaties, erect fortresses, appoint governors, and maintain garrisons wherever necessary. On February 23, 1605, the Portuguese town of Ambon in the Spice Islands (in present-day Indonesia) fell into the hands of Steven van der Haghen (1563-1624), commander of a VOC fleet, and four days later a governor was appointed. This marked the beginning of the VOC’s territorial expansion in Asia.

In 1609 the first governor-general (Pieter Both, 1550-1615) was appointed, and during the following years debates raged over the question of where a central overseas government could be permanently established. In 1619, with the conquest of Jaccatra (present day Jakarta), the VOC established its headquarters on Java. The new colonial city Batavia became the center of administration, trade, logistics, politics, and diplomacy. The castle of Batavia was the company’s nerve center, where the governor-general and his council met and where hundreds of traders, officials, accountants, and clerks took care of a massive amount of correspondence with numerous VOC governments and factory staff throughout Southeast Asia, Formosa, Japan, China, Siam (Thailand), Burma (Myanmar), India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Yemen, Persia (Iran), and the Cape of Good Hope.

All the information from incoming letters and reports from those Asian factories and governments was summarized in annual general letters (generale missiven) to the Gentlemen XVII in the Dutch Republic. Today, the archives of the VOC administration are kept in depositories in The Hague, Jakarta, Colombo, Cape Town, and Chennai.

In 1625 the VOC employed about 4,500 Europeans in Asia. By 1700 around 18,000 personnel worked for the VOC, and in 1750 there were around 24,500 VOC employees throughout Asia. Most of the company servants worked onboard ships and in the larger territories of Batavia and Ceylon, whereas smaller factories only needed a few dozen personnel. The VOC governments in the Malay-Indonesian archipelago (Makasser, Ternate, Ambon, Banda Semarang, Malacca, etc.) needed 500 to 1,000 company servants. Most of the personnel worked as craftsmen, for the military, and in administration, trade, and justice. Some 300 to 500 men were employed as surgeons, church ministers, ”visitors of the sick” (ziekentroosters), and schoolmasters.

The number of persons who traveled on VOC ships from Europe to Asia was much higher. From 1620 to 1630, the total number of persons on ships that left the Dutch Republic amounted to 23,700; from 1700 to 1710, the number was 49,600. The peak was reached from 1760 to 1770, when 85,500 persons were brought to Asia by the VOC. From 1602 to 1795, almost one million Europeans reached Asia via VOC ships. Most of them were soldiers and sailors; the number of immigrants was insignificant. Forty percent of the sailors and sixty percent of the soldiers did not come from the Dutch Republic but from other European countries, particularly the German states.

The total number of ships that the VOC had in use reached one hundred around 1650. In 1725 ship numbers reached their peak of 161, with about 108 remaining by 1794. Before 1725, approximately two-thirds of the VOC’s ships were traveling in Asian waters; during the rest of the eighteenth century, only one third were in Asia. However, older dilapidated ships remained in Asia, and almost a third of the Dutch ships in Asia were barely seaworthy. In Batavia, old ships were used to transport coral from the coast to the city, where it was burnt for limestone to be used in construction.

All shipbuilding occurred in the Dutch Republic, although Batavia had a large repair facility on the island of Onrust just off the coast. The VOC ordered an average of seventy to ninety ships every decade; the total number of VOC ships built from 1602 to 1795 was approximately 750.


The relatively low number of ships and men in the enormous space of the Indian Ocean and the China Sea demanded an effective strategy to monopolize certain products, dominate some forms of long-distance trade, and make profits where the Asian and other European competitors could not. The VOC’s first aim was to establish a foothold in the Moluccas.

After the conquest of Portuguese Ambon (1605), a contract was concluded with the sultan of Ternate (1607). Control of the ancient clove-producing islands of Ternate and Tidore was contested until 1663, when the Spanish withdrew to Manila. Ternate finally submitted in 1683, when the sultan was forced to sign a new contract and recognize the overlordship of the VOC. In 1621 the VOC conquered the center of nutmeg production, the small group of Banda Islands. The Dutch hastily established a Moluccan spice monopoly to prevent the English from becoming established as well. After several fleet blockades, Portuguese Malacca fell to the Dutch in 1641, but only with the support of the king of Johor. Although Aceh was invited to take part in the conquest, this Muslim kingdom rejected the proposal from Batavia.

Governor-General Jan Pietersz Coen (1587-1629) was an architect of quick colonization schemes, and securing the spice monopoly and Batavia was not enough. His broader plans included control of the China trade with Spanish Manila and Japan. After a failed attempt to settle on Chinese territory (the Pescadore Islands), the VOC built a stronghold (Fort Zeelandia) on Formosa (Taiwan) in 1624. Dutch expansion on tribal Formosa, with its numerous languages and ethnic groups, can be considered a laboratory of early European colonialism in Asia. After experiments with military action, mission posts, tax collection, sugar plantations, and a Chinese labor force, Formosa was finally taken by Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong, 1624-1662), the leader of the South Fuchien trading dynasty and defender of China’s Southern Ming court, in 1662.

In South Asia, the VOC successfully undermined Portuguese positions. After settling a bargain with the king of Kandy in the interior of Ceylon in 1638, the Ceylonese (Portuguese) coastal settlements fell one by one: Batticaloa (1638), Trincomalee (1639), Negombo (1640), Galle (temporarily in 1640, finally in 1644), Colombo (1656), and Jaffna and Mannar (1658).

On India’s Coromandel Coast the Dutch gained a foothold in Pulicat (Paliacatta) in 1610. From 1690 to 1781, the center of the VOC possession on the Coromandel Coast was Nagapattinam, taken from the Portuguese in 1659. Another Portuguese possession in India that was occupied by the VOC was Cochin (1663) on the Malabar Coast, plus its adjacent towns. The VOC established trading posts in the two main emporia of the Mogul Empire: Surat in the Arabian Sea and Hugli in the Bay of Bengal. One year after the closure of its factory in Aceh in 1615, the VOC opened one in Surat to buy Indian cottons from the Gujarat region. The Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan (1592-1666), forced an end to the Portuguese presence in Hugli, an important export port for silks and opium, in 1632. Four years later, the Dutch received an official firman (decree) from the ”Great Mughal” for free passage and trade in Bengal.

In the Arabian Sea region, VOC traders (among other Europeans) were welcomed in the Persian port of Gamron and in Esfahan, Persia’s center of silk trade. The most important Arabian hub was Al-Mucha (Mocha), a traditional port town with well-established connections over all of the Asian-Arabian trading network, including numerous ports across the Arabian Sea and trading centers along the shores of East Africa, including the slave entrepot Mombasa in present-day Kenya.

The Cape of Good Hope served as a refreshing station until 1652, when Jan van Riebeeck (16191677) established a permanent station to arrange provisions for passing ships. Agrarian production around this station was insufficient, and during the 1670s the VOC allowed immigrants to open the immediate hinterland. The rural expansion took off at a rapid pace under Governor Simon van der Stel (1639-1712) and lasted until around 1730.

The indigenous hunter-gatherers, the Khoikhoi and the San, where not considered to be subjects of the VOC. The VOC depended on their delivery of cattle, but the expansion of VOC territories severely affected the Khoikhoi and San living space. Immigrant communities settled in Drakensteyn and Stellenbosch, where wineries produced fine wines that could be sold in VOC settlements in Asia. Numerous slaves from Asia and the East African coast made VOC society at the Cape a slave society as well.


The VOC was an organization that depended on the long-distance trade between Asia and Europe and the intra-Asian trade. The VOC’s strong points were its logistics, cargo capacity, shipping technology, military power, and modern arsenal, combined with its ability to adapt to local circumstances. VOC commanders realized from the beginning that they would not be able to compete in local and regional trading networks; local trade was simply too competitive. Furthermore, trade items that could be sold over long distances could only be profitable when a monopoly was achieved.

The VOC’s first monopolies were its exclusive monopolies on spices in the Moluccas and on pepper in Banten (West Java) and Sumatra (Jambi and Palembang). These spices could be sold for very high prices in Europe, and could be purchased in return for much-needed Indian textiles from Bengal and the Coromandel Coast. Textiles could be bought with precious metals from Europe (imported American silver), Japan, Persia, and Sumatra (Padang). Copper from Japan was also an essential product much in demand in India, in particular for coining. In return, raw silk from China, Bengal, or Persia was sold in Japan, along with spices from the Moluccas. The coastal control of Ceylon provided the VOC with large cinnamon growing areas. Elephants, which were transported with special ships to India, were also an important export item from Ceylon.

During the eighteenth century, in particular under growing pressure from English (country) traders and the English East India Company, the VOC gradually lost its position of preeminence. New products like coffee, Chinese tea (from Canton), and Indian textiles became popular in Europe. Maintaining the profitable spice trade, which had long been fundamental to the VOC, was not enough.

Other reasons—besides growing competition—for the decline of the VOC was a lack of good management within the Dutch Republic and the corruption of many higher officials stationed in Asia. When the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780-1784) broke out, it took the directors two months to hold a meeting and discuss measures. Failing entrepreneurship and the loss of ships and capital transformed the VOC into a major debtor of the states of Holland. The enterprise did not recover during the 1780s and 1790s, and when French troops entered the Dutch Republic in 1795, the British sent naval squadrons to take over the Dutch possessions in Asia.


Apart from its numerous trading factories, fortresses, and outposts, the VOC also controlled extensive hinterland territories and some islands, mainly for the production of fine spices, sugar, coffee, and cinnamon. After their conquest in 1621, the five Banda Islands were transformed into a plantation economy run by slaves. More than sixty plantations were kept by private owners (perkeniers) who were obliged to deliver a certain amount of nutmeg and mace to the VOC at fixed prices. The government of Banda, residing in the fortress of Belgica on Banda-Neira, was responsible for the shipment of great quantities of nutmeg and mace. By 1750 most of the planters were nearly bankrupt. Low, fixed prices offered by the VOC, volcanic eruptions, bad harvests, and runaway slaves had brought them into debt.

The governor of Ambon controlled the planting and management of clove trees. As such, he acted more as a landlord than as an official of a maritime enterprise. The entire clove production of about one million pounds around 1700 was concentrated on the islands of Ambon Lease. Detailed records were kept of the number of productive and young trees in the gardens of the villagers across the islands. The original clove production areas in the north Moluccas—Ternate, Tidore, and Bacan—were subject to an eradication policy led by the governors of Ternate. The sultans of these islands were often in conflict with each other, which explains why the VOC could exercise a policy of divide-and-rule, forcing in particular the sultan of Ternate to cooperate in the campaigns to cut down clove trees in the region.

On Java, the VOC closely monitored Batavia’s sugar industry, which entered a sudden boom in the 1680s. With the pacification of the neighboring sultanate of Banten, and contracts with the regencies of Cirebon on the other side of Batavia territory (1681 and 1705), a large hinterland was opened up. Sugar was mainly used as ballast in returning ships, and was sold in Surat, Persia, and Europe. A second boom occurred with coffee, which


Jan (Anthoniszoon) van Riebeeck (1619-1677) is credited with opening South Africa to white settlement. The son of a Dutch surgeon, he grew up in Schiedam, and married Maria de la Quellerie in 1649. Van Riebeeck joined the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC) as an assistant surgeon and served in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) in 1639, then in Japan. In 1645 he managed a company trading-station in Indochina (in what is now Vietnam), but was dismissed for disobeying the company’s strict rule against private trading.

In 1647 a VOC ship ran aground in Table Bay, a rocky area a few miles south of what is now Cape Town. Stranded on the Cape peninsula for a year, the Dutch crew built shelters, grew food, and established trade with the indigenous Khoikhoi, or Hottentots. Following this incident, the VOC voted to establish a provisioning station on the Cape to service ships undertaking the arduous voyage to the East Indies.

Van Riebeeck became commander of the Cape in June of 1651. Aboard his flagship Drommedaris and accompanied by four other ships, he reached Table Bay on April 6, 1652. Surviving the voyage were 90 adults, including van Riebeeck’s wife; 130 persons had perished at sea.

Along with establishing a settlement, Van Riebeeck was charged with erecting a flagpole to signal ships; providing escort ships; and constructing a fort to protect settlers and warehouse food, water, and other provisions.

In addition to relying on stored foodstuffs, the group grew grain, vegetables, and fruits, and obtained cattle by trading with the Khoikhoi.

Although work on the Fort of Good Hope (Fort de Goede Hoop) began slowly, increasing numbers of ships were soon setting anchor at Cape Town (Kaapstad or De Kaap), as the settlement was called. A pier was built on the bay, and businesses and a hospital were established. Beginning in 1655 Van Riebeeck petitioned the VOC to allow Dutch citizens to farm, trade, and aid in the defense of the Cape settlement. In early 1657 the first permits were issued to allow private farms in the Cape area.

Growth brought problems, however, as the demand for laborers increased. In 1657 Van Riebeeck began importing slaves from Sumatra and Madagascar. He also encouraged exploration of the South African interior. As the Dutch settlement expanded northward, the Khoikhoi resisted forced evictions from their lands; after a failed uprising in 1659, however, they were pushed northward. When Van Riebeeck left the Cape in 1662 the settlement was home to 134 company officials, 35 “free burghers,” 15 women, 22 children, and 180 slaves. Four years later the VOC decided to establish a permanent colony on the Cape.

From the Cape, Van Riebeeck moved to Malacca, in Malaysia, where his wife died in 1664. Appointed secretary to the Council of India the following year, he died in Batavia in 1677. His journal was published posthumously, appearing in both Dutch and English. was introduced in the mountainous Cirebon-Priangan lands of West Java in the first decades of the eighteenth century.

Ceylon became a third major production area for the VOC. Ceylon’s jungle hinterlands (later turned into gardens) of Colombo, Galle, and Negombo were exploited for cinnamon collection. The harvesting and the peeling of the bark of the cinnamon tree were done by low-caste Chalia (or Salagama) laborers. Many other castes were used for the transportation of the product to the coast.

The extensive use of certain castes and subcastes in cinnamon production resulted in changes to the social stratification of coastal Sri Lankan society during the 158 years of Dutch presence. These changes are still reflected in the so-called tombos, traditional land rolls that had been used by the Portuguese and were carefully kept and revised under VOC administration in Ceylon. The kingdom of Kandy kept possession of only one port, Puttalam, although access to that port was controlled by the VOC fortress at Kalpitiya. Combined with the strict prohibitions on the export of cinnamon, VOC exploitation of coastal Ceylon also had a negative effect on society, as the monopolization of cinnamon production curtailed the activity of the rural people.


The VOC’s presence in Asia was more than a commercial, political, and military encounter. The VOC also had a cultural, religious, and scientific impact on the region. Europeans who settled in Asia, in particular in large towns like Batavia, Colombo, and Malacca, quickly adapted to Asian lifestyles, habits, and material culture. Asian dress, the use of many servants, the consumption of betel, and the purchase of large quantities of Asian furniture, porcelain, and other household goods characterized the lives of Europeans and mestizos in VOC settlements. Thousands of testaments and household inventories kept in the national archives in Jakarta bare witness to Asian influences on European lifestyles and culture.

The Governor-General Meets the VOC Council in Batavia. This early eighteenth-century engraving depicts a meeting in Batavia (now Jakarta) between the governor-general of the Dutch East India Company and members of his council.

The Governor-General Meets the VOC Council in Batavia. This early eighteenth-century engraving depicts a meeting in Batavia (now Jakarta) between the governor-general of the Dutch East India Company and members of his council.

From the beginning, the VOC attended to the religious needs of its servants by sending Dutch Reformed ministers and ”visitors of the sick,” who comforted sick people and acted as catechists. In its port towns and territories, the VOC actively promoted Protestantism among the non-Muslim population. Between 1602 and 1799 the VOC employed some 650 ministers, 2,000 visitors of the sick, and even more Asian schoolmasters for the overseas churches of Ceylon, the Moluccas, the Cape of Good Hope settlements, Malacca, Batavia, Semarang, Formosa, and India.

A network of consistories (church councils) corresponded with the central church council in Batavia, which corresponded with the synods and regional classes in the Dutch Republic. Protestant mission work often required the study of several Asian languages, such as Malay, local Moluccan languages, Formosan-Sinkiang, Sinhalese, and Tamil. Noteworthy is the vocabulary, or Dutch-Malay dictionary, prepared by Caspar Wiltens and Sebastianus Danckaerts (1623); George Hendrik Werndly’s Malay grammar and the first bibliography of Malay books by Europeans and indigenous authors (1736); and the translations of the Bible into Malay by Melchior Leydekker and Petrus van der Vorm (the New Testament in 1731, the Old Testament in 1733). Johan Maurits Mohr and Herman Petrus van de Werth published this Malay Bible in Arabic script in 1758.

Natural sciences and the making of cabinets of curiosities proliferated throughout Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to emphasize the exceptional, the rare, and the marvelous, attempting to encompass the results both of God’s creation (nature) and of man’s (art). These fields also received serious attention from the VOC. Already in the early seventeenth century, samples of plants and animals were sent to the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

One of the great tropical naturalists of the seventeenth century was Georgius Everhardus Rumphius (Georg Eberhard Rumpf, 1627-1702), who is considered the founder of Indonesian botanical exploration. Rumphius was a VOC merchant who spent almost fifty years on Ambon collecting plants, precious stones, shells, sea animals, and all sorts of natural curiosities. Also known as the ”Indian Pliny,” after the Roman natural historian, Rumphius faced severe difficulties during his life. In 1670 he became blind; in 1674 he lost his wife and youngest daughter during an earthquake; in 1687 many of his manuscripts and drawings on natural history were lost in a fire in Ambon; and in 1692 the manuscript of his Het Amboinse Kruid-boek (The Ambonese Herbal) sank to the bottom of the Indian Ocean with the returning ship the Waterland. Thanks to the devoted support of governors-general, assistants, and his own strong will, the six volumes of his Herbarium Amboinense, a natural history of Ambon, were printed in Dutch and Latin in Amsterdam between 1741 and 1755.

Although Rumphius began collecting curiosities after collecting plants for his herbaria, his D’Amboinsche Rariteitkamer was already published in 1705. Almost three hundred years after Rumphius’s death, this work was published in English by E. M. Beekman as The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet (1999). Rumphius’s earliest work, De Generael Lant-Beschrijvinge van het Ambonse Gouvernement (A General Geographical Description of the Government of Ambon), was not published until 2001. Francois Valentyn (1656-1727), in his Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indien (1724-1726), or the Ancient and New East Indies, made extensive use of Rumphius’s discoveries on flora and tropical marine life. Another important work on exotic flora in Asia is Hendrik A. van Reede tot Drakenstein’s (1636/7-1691) Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, or Garden of India of Malabar, written between 1678 and 1693.

On April 24, 1778, a group of senior VOC officials, lay scholars, reverends, and burghers founded the Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen (Batavian Society for Arts and Sciences). Evangelization, geographical sketches, the study of medicine and tropical illnesses, languages, natural history, agriculture, botany, and astronomy were among the many topics discussed by its members, who published their findings in the society’s Verhandelingen (Treatise). The society’s enormous collection of books and drawings are kept in the national library in Jakarta.

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