Friday, 20 March 2015

The Dutch East India Company...Laura Libricz

The Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, the Dutch East India Company, was a trading company founded in 1602. Considered by some to be the first corporation in the world, the VOC was in any case the largest and most impressive trading company in Europe during the Early Modern Period. The Company ruled the trade zone between South Africa and Japan and was granted authority by the Dutch government to build forts, appoint a governing body and to form an army, as well as conducting trade and establishing colonies. 

Some statistics:  The Company operated from 1602 until 1795. In a span of 193 years, they employed over a million workers--soldiers, sailors, clerks and merchants, sailed  4,785 ships and moved more that 2,5 million tons of Asian goods. By 1650, 50% of the merchant ships in Europe were owned by the Dutch.

Surviving today are over 25 million pages of documents, housed in Jakarta, Colombo, Chennai, Cape Town and The Hague. The VOC archives are the largest source of early modern history found anywhere in the world.

The Company was at home in Amsterdam and Amsterdam in the early 17th Century generated some impressive statistics itself. In 1567, the population was 25,000. In 1610, the population had doubled; in 1620 the city had grown to 100,000 people. In 1660, 200,000. Because of the war with Spain, trading had moved from Antwerp to Amsterdam after 1585. People flocked then to the source of employment. This drastic rise in population reflected how many refugees were fleeing from Spanish troops and the fact that Amsterdam was known for religious tolerance. 


Willem van de Velde, The Cannon Shot (ca. 1670) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

But what made them sail half way around the world? Compared to bulk goods like timber, tar and salt there was more money to be made trading luxury goods like spice and sugar. And the only place to get spice and sugar was half way around the world. Spice was in great demand because the taste of less-than-fresh meats did not satisfy the discerning palate.

Up until the end of the 16th century, the Spanish and the Portuguese were in control of the seaways and the routes were unknown to the Dutch. The Dutch merchants sailed their first voyages after 1596 when extensive information regarding Asian ports and navigation were brought back from abroad by a man named Jan Huyghen van Linschoten. Early voyages were successful and in order to keep merchants from competing against each other, the VOC was formed and claimed a monopoly over trade in the East.

But these sea voyages were long, grueling, dangerous, tedious, lasting up to six months, even longer. What sort of person voluntarily boarded a sailing ship? On to waters uncharted? Riches were to be had in the spice trade, yes, but those who earned the money were rich merchants who stayed home and got richer. Merchants living in the Indies had a life expectancy there of about three years. For those who travelled with the Company, only one in three returned.

Those who travelled were those who more or less had nothing to lose. Cramped quarters, wormy water (if any fresh water at all), hard bread infested with weevils, disease, fleas, lice. A simple soldier had maybe a few square feet of space below deck. Was this life really so bad for these men? For many of them, the conditions on the ship, regular substantial meals and employment outweighed the disadvantageous life they were facing in Europe.

If you are interested in reading some more about the VOC... have a look at Alison Stuart's posts on the Wreck of the Batavia... http://hoydensandfirebrands.blogspot.com.au/2011/02/wreck-of-batavia-part-1.html and http://hoydensandfirebrands.blogspot.com.au/2011/03/wreck-of-batavia-part-2.html

Here is an excerpt from The Master and the Maid:
Sebald Tucher, Hamburg, April 1617
The morning light that shone through the shutters woke me early. I stood stiffly from my chair, walked outside and opened the shutters quietly, assuming Katarina slept still and peaceful. I stoked the fire, made a pot of tea and sat back at the desk. I wanted to finish my journal entry and record our arrival in Hamburg before she woke up. I had fallen asleep half way through my writing last night. I now sat in the parlor of my uncle’s house, staring out of the open window at the crooked row of houses, quill in hand, listening to the hooves on the road, the shouts of fishermen and laughter from women across the street.

As I read back through my journal I noticed that my impressions of my two favorite cities were similar, but for many reasons quite different. I compared them to two brothers, and relationships between brothers are anything but still and uneventful.

Where I imagine Amsterdam as the younger of the two siblings, I am of course left with only my unspoken impression because my Dutch comprehension and speaking skills are below average. There’s a willy-nilly speed in the comings and goings all along the canals. Bustling, energetic movements from the water, from the people, and the rats tick like time. Recklessness, friendly and fuelled by success, would propel the city to greatness, in my opinion.

But in Hamburg there was a discipline, like a strict older brother’s, that was not as apparent in Amsterdam. Rules were meant to be followed, but they were lovingly enforced. Of late, they seemed to be fortifying the lovely city. A wall was being built and soldiers were numerous in the streets. I read in the weekly newspaper that this endeavor was costing them dearly. But to summarize the citizens by the clothes they wore in one word, it would be “affluent.” The atmosphere was festive, the mood positive, the people unaffected by matters unknown. Politics seemed to be a policy of neutrality. Maybe because there was more air in the north, the feeling as if one could escape by way of the sea. The sea was freedom and the people were less inclined to close their minds.

About Me: Laura Libricz
I am a writer, a mother, a guitar factory worker. And I love to write. I was born and raised in Bethlehem, PA and moved to Upstate New York when I was 22. After working a few years building Steinberger guitars, I got a scholarship to go to college. I tried to ‘do the right thing’ and study something useful, but spent all my time reading German literature (ahem, struggling through originals and reading the English translations.) And the passion for writing brewed there in the background. But most of my writing from that time landed in the fire. What a shame, I think now. 

I earned a BA in German at The College of New Paltz, NY in 1991 and moved to Germany, where I reside today. My first novel, The Master and the Maid, is the first book of the Heaven's Ponds Trilogy and is now available at Smashwords and at Amazon. The second book, The Soldier's Return, is scheduled to be released in October 2015. Both are historical in nature, dealing with the Thirty Years War in Germany from 1618-1648.




1 comment:

Regan said...

Alison & Laura,
A fascinating post on a subject of interest to me...thanks so much for posting. I did want to suggest that the company operated beyond 1795, into the 19th century. I have that from more than one original source that I was looking at for an article I was writing on another subject. The book by John Keay, The Honourable Company, A History of the English East India Company, also describes operations after 1795. Wiki is wrong sometimes, I've found, and this case may be one.

Regan (many days buried in my own research!)