The trading Companies VOC & WIC

Sailing and fighting for trade

Seventeenth-century Europe sees a growing demand for luxury products from overseas: spices, sugar, coffee, tea, and china. Merchants jostle to meet this demand. For small businesses, however, long-distance journeys to Asia, Africa or the Americas are costly and dangerous. New corporations are established to organise this overseas trade.

Dutch East India Company
On 2 April 1595, three trade vessels – the Mauritius, Hollandia, and Amsterdam – and a small yacht – the Duyfken - set sail for Asia, departing from the island of Texel. It is a high-risk venture; only three of the four vessels and but 87 of the 249 crew return in August 1597. The proceeds are slim, but nonetheless this “first expedition” to Asia is an economic success. The Dutch have opened a new trade route, after Spain and Portugal had already discovered this sea route.

In 1602, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt establishes the Dutch East India Company (in Dutch: Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) in the purview of the trade with Asia. The British, French, and other European countries have similar corporations at that time, but the VOC becomes the largest by far. The VOC attains the Dutch monopoly on all the trade in the Asian waters east of the Cape of Good Hope. The Republic has authorised the VOC to sign treaties, wage war, and govern conquered areas on its behalf. From all over Europe, young men travel to the Republic to enlist with the VOC. A large proportion of them never see Europe again. They die of illnesses breaking out on board during the long voyages.

The VOC develops into a dreaded power and war machine. It builds fortresses in places such as the current South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, and Makassar. These outposts are used to conduct trade activities and to defend its trade areas. In certain countries, the VOC secures a special position. When Japan is closed off to all foreigners, the VOC is the only entity, in 1641, to get permission to trade, from the island of Deshima near Nagasaki. 

Jan Pieterszoon Coen
In 1619, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the fourth Governor-General of the VOC, conquers the city of Jayakarta, where he establishes Batavia. He has parts of Java occupied. Ambon and Ternate on the Molucca Islands are forced into subjection. The local population is forced to cultivate spices. When in 1621 the inhabitants of the Banda Islands revolt against the VOC, Coen has nearly the entire population massacred, enslaving any survivors. From the 15,000 Banda people, not even a thousand remain on one of the islands.

Dutch West India Company
In 1621, the Dutch West India Company (in Dutch: West-Indische Compagnie or WIC) is established. The States General awards the Company the exclusive rights to colonisation, trade, and privateering in the areas around the Atlantic Ocean. The WIC rules colonies such as New Netherlands in North America, Brazil, and slave colonies in the Caribbean. Its attempts to build an empire similar to that of the VOC fail. Because distances across the Atlantic Ocean are relatively short, competitors manage to break through the WIC’s monopoly position. Eventually, the WIC only retains the right to the slave trade and the rule over several smaller colonies, such as the trade hubs in the Caribbean and Africa.

For decades, the two Companies stock Dutch warehouses with colonial products, and fill residential homes with rare objects from an unknown world. By the end of the eighteenth century, the WIC and the VOC are disbanded as a result of such factors as declining profits, competition, corruption, and wars.

World Heritage
Currently, the archives of the two Companies feature on the World Heritage List. The letters to and from administrators, reports on negotiations with kings and rulers in Asia, the Americas, and Africa, and the extensive staff records constitute an important source for research into and discussion about colonial and trade histories.