Dutch East India Company (VOC)
It was the aggressive commercial drive of the Dutch East India Company – also known as the VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) – that led Europeans to first encounter Australia 400 years ago and to map nearly three quarters of Australia’s coastline.
The Duyfken and the first European ships to map Australian coastline in the 1600s were all owned by the VOC, which had commercial bases in Indonesia to take advantage of the lucrative spice trade.
Thanks to its trade in Asian goods, the company became the world’s richest privately-owned organisation and owned one of Europe’s most powerful navies.
The company’s enormous commercial success created a period of great economic, technological and cultural growth in the Netherlands – now referred now as the ‘Dutch Golden Age’ – and resulted in the country’s rise to become a major power in Europe.
The VOC was also the world’s first multi-national corporation and its institutional innovations and business practices are said to have laid the foundations of global corporations in subsequent centuries.
The VOC and Australian history
After the company began dominating the spice trade in Indonesia in the early 1600s, the VOC sent the Duyfken on a voyage of discovery in 1606 to investigate the possibility of commercial opportunities east and south of New Guinea. The Duyfken reached Cape York Peninsula and recorded the first European contact ever made with Australia (then known as the Terra Australis or Unknown South Land).
Up until 1628, a number of other VOC ships also made accidental contact with the south land – this time on the west coast. A new, faster trade route to Indonesia had been discovered by the VOC that ran parallel to the west coast. Due to either unfavourable weather or limited navigational tools, some ships sailed further east than expected and made contact with the south land.
The growing amount of coastline that was mapped south of New Guinea as a result of these accidental encounters lead the company to commission more voyages of discovery. The VOC was still eager to further investigate whether this was the Land of Beach and if any commercial opportunities existed in the region.
These planned voyages resulted in the mapping of more than 4000 kilometres of coastline and the emergence of a land on the VOC map named by one its employees – Abel Tasman – as New Holland. The overall result of the VOC’s navigators efforts was astounding – a map that revealed nearly three quarters of Australia’s coastline by the year 1644.
The company was formed in 1602 by the Dutch Government after the Netherlands won a strategic naval battle in Indonesian waters against Portugal, which at the time dominated the spice trade.
The VOC, which united rival Dutch trading companies, was granted powers similar to the government, together with monopoly rights on all Dutch trade with Asia.
These powers – which included waging war, negotiating treaties, striking its own coins and setting up Dutch colonies – were used to dominate and fiercely expand throughout Indonesia and other countries, such as India and Sri Lanka.
In 1603, the company set up its first permanent trading post in Banten, west Java. Another was established in 1611 at present-day Jakarta, which the Dutch named Batavia. A governor general post was established in 1610 to control the company’s affairs in Asia.
Between 1602 and 1795, almost a million people, including ships’ crews, were sent by the company to work in the trade of Asian goods. The company built its own ships and warehouses, made its own sea charts and created navigation instruments.
It generated enormous profits on the 2.5 million tonnes of Asian goods shipped to Europe over the company’s lifetime. So massive were these profits that it could afford to pay an average dividend of 18%.
However, weighed down by declining trade and internal corruption, the company went bankrupt and was formally dissolved in 1800. Its possessions, territories and debt were taken over by the Dutch Government.