VOC History


VOC stands for "Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie" (United East India Company). In the 17th and 18th centuries the VOC was the largest commercial enterprise in the world, with a fleet of more than a hundred ships, thousands of employees, dozens of offices in Asia, and six establishments in the Netherlands. These were the "VOC chambers" in Amsterdam, Enkhuizen, Hoorn, Rotterdam, Delft and Middelburg.

When Dutch merchants were excluded from the lucrative trade in Asia by the Portuguese around 1590, several Amsterdam merchants decided to break that monopoly. To that effect they organised the so-called "First Shipping" to Asia in 1595. This voyage was inspired by the "Reysbeschrift" bij Jan Huygen van Linschoten. A year later his complete "Itinerario" was published: a very interesting travel report.

Other merchants soon followed suit. In the next five years 15 fleets comprising 65 ships sailed to the Far East, resulting in extensive competition amongst the Dutch themselves. The "Staten Generaal" (the equivalent of the parliament) decided to act, and try persuade the merchants to join forces and co-operate with each other. The councillor for the government, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, undertook most of the important preparatory work. When he finally did succeed to convince the various competing East India companies to co-operate and form a union, it resulted in the establishment of the United East India Company (VOC). The successful alliance was expressed in the letter V for "Vereenigd"(United). Then on March 20, 1602 the Staten Generaal gave the VOC exclusive licence, effectively granting them a Dutch monopoly for the trade in the Far East. It marked the start of a period of intense economic and cultural growth in the Netherlands.

The battle of Bantam

The VOC was governed by the "Heeren Seventien" (Lords XVII). These were representatives from the six VOC chambers of Amsterdam, Delft, Enkhuizen, Hoorn, Middelburg and Rotterdam. They decreed general policy and divided the tasks among their chambers, which carried out the work. They built their own ships and warehouses, and traded their goods.

In the period between 1595 and 1795 almost 4800 voyages to the Far East were made. Though the risks were great, less than 4 % of the vessels were lost. The Lords XVII provided the captains with elaborate information on sea routes, prevailing winds, sea currents, shallows and orientation points. The VOC made its own sea charts, and created various navigation instruments in their own workshops.

Both trade goods and utilities were taken along on the voyages to the Far East, including textiles, wines, paints, food, water, tools, spare parts and ammunition. However, the most important part of the cargo was gold and silver, which were to be used for purchases. On average a voyage would take eight months.

Batavia, now known as Jakarta, was the main settlement of the VOC in the Far East, and the centre of an large trade network. The VOC undertook extensive local and regional trade. For instance, silk was bought in China and traded in Japan for copper and gold. This went to India and was exchanged for textiles that were in turn traded for spices in the Moluccas. Later, coffee, tea and sugar became important trade goods. From Batavia goods were shipped back to the Netherlands. On the way, cinnamon was bought in Ceylon.

This enormous commercial enterprise lasted two centuries. Toward the end of the 1800s trade was declining. Tough competition and the war with England were the main reasons for this deterioration. In 1795 the VOC was disbanded.

NB: Please note that the information given above is limited and not meant to represent the definitive account on the history of the VOC in the Far East. The Foundation Celebration 400 Year VOC has established a VOC Reference Center at the Royal Institute of Linguistics and Athropology (KITLV)at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, to open access to extensive archival material on the topic of the VOC. Information is expected to be online by August/September 2001 and a direct link will be created from this page to the centre website.