Posted in Kafevend Blog

Following on from the Age of Discovery extravaganza a couple of weeks ago, today we are taking a look at the monolithic Dutch trading empires that dominated sections of the globe, alongside the glut of other huge European companies that sprang up in the wake of the continent's exploration efforts. The most renowned (or infamous) of the two was the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) which operated in Asia. The second, though no less influential, was the Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie (WIC) which moved in on America.

The VOC was the first and largest of the two companies. It was established in 1602 partly in response to the the formation of the English East India Company (EIC) that had formed two years earlier, though it had its roots in voyages that had occurred during the dying years of the 16th century as Dutch merchants sought to muscle in on the Portuguese monopoly in the east. The VOC lasted almost two centuries until it was finally dissolved in 1800. It dominated areas of Asian trade, particularly the spices found on the Bandas Islands in the Moluccas. Like the EIC which used private armies to secure rule in large parts of India, the VOC wasn't averse to using its own armies to get rid of competitors, though that was just one of the dirty tactics they utilised over the years.

When the Portuguese visited the Bandas Islands in 1512, they traded goods for the incredibly valuable spices grown there. In an attempt to gain a foothold in the area, they decided to build a fort- the natives weren't keen on the idea however, and forced the Portuguese to abandon the idea. The resistance they encountered led them to steer clear of the area for the most part, making only occasional visits and opting to buy the imported spices in Malacca. Independent Dutch traders and later the VOC who arrived about a century later weren't so easily deterred.

From the start, Dutch merchants and the native Bandanese were distrustful and resentful of each other, but the value of the spices kept the Dutch coming back. They managed to get the native leaders, the Orang Kaya, to sign a treaty which would give them sole rights on buying the spices. It must have taken a certain amount of deception and wrangling to get it in under their noses! When the Dutch did what the Portuguese failed to do and built a fort on Bandaneira Island in 1609, the natives who were already fed up with the Dutch took action and ambushed a number of high ranking officers during a meeting.

Over the next few years, the VOC bloodily took control of the area. In 1611, they built a new fort above the old one in response to the English presence on the islands of Ai and Run, which had been undermining the Dutch monopoly by paying higher prices to the Bandanese. In 1616, the VOC attacked the English fort on Ai and killed its defenders after a month long siege. Five years later, they forced the Orang Kaya to sign a new treaty at gunpoint. The conditions were purposely impossible for the natives to keep, and in response to the inevitable violations they slaughtered the Bandanese in one of the grimmest episodes of European colonialism. The VOC proceeded to import slaves to work alongside the few surviving natives to work on parcels of land given to Dutch immigrants, growing the valuable spices.

In the same year as the VOC attacked the fort on Ai, a VOC trader named Pieter vand der Broecke managed to take coffee bushes from Mocha in Yemen back to Amsterdam where they were placed in the botanical gardens. By 1658, some of these bushes were taken back eastwards to their colonies in Ceylon and southern India to start growing their own coffee. Decades later again in 1696, the governor of Malabar in India sent coffee seedlings on to Batavia (now known as Jakarta). Another set were sent due to flooding in 1699 and then the bushes were successfully grown and the first shipment of coffee sent to Holland from there in 1711. Alongside their monopoly on the spice trade, the combined efforts of the VOC and the WIC meant the Dutch were the biggest importers of coffee to Europe for a time.

The WIC was formed in 1621, and like the east/west split between the Spanish and Portuguese empires years earlier, it took on the mantle of spreading Dutch trade across the west in Africa and the Americas, alongside the VOC's domination in the east. Managing this would require taking on the Spanish and Portuguese, and one of the main activities in the early years of the company was widespread privateering (government sanctioned piracy) against their trading rivals' vessels. During the same period they also established many trading posts and colonies.

One of the WIC's main areas of colonisation was the area of North America they named New Netherland. This land extended from Delaware in the south west up to Cape Cod in the north east, and was settled with the intention of dominating the North American fur trade. One of the most important settlements in the area was New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan, now known as New York. The city exchanged hands between the Dutch and the English a few times during the middle of the 17th century as they fought in the Anglo-Dutch wars, but was formally given over to the English in 1667 at the end of the second war partly in exchange for the island of Run, which finally gave the VOC total control of the spice islands. The city was renamed in honour of the Duke of York, King James II. Amusingly, a few decades later the Dutch William of Orange usurped James, rendering the honour moot.

The WIC also maintained colonies in South America around Suriname and Guyana, as well as on many Caribbean islands. One of their main exports from Guyana was sugar, often grown by the many African slaves that were brought to the Americas during the period. Many sugar plantations lay along the Demerara river, which lent its name to the sugar coming out of the region and its name is still applied to a variety of sugar today.

Whilst the WIC made a lot of money, it ultimately paled in comparison to the vast wealth created by the VOC. At the height of its power, and adjusted for inflation, the VOC was worth a staggering $7.4 trillion in today's money. To put that into context, Apple became the first company worth around $700 billion at the end of last year- less than a tenth of the VOC!

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