The Dutch East India Company was during the seventeenth century the most powerful company in the world. It was one of the few companies in Europe that traded with the East. It was certainly the largest trading company on the planet until things went awry.
New sea lanes
Portugal first discovered the way to Asia, Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa, and it was them which brought back the spices Europeans yearned for. Like there’s nothing like a bit of salt and pepper on your steak. The sea lanes were kept secret; nowadays, we would say that they are a matter of “national security.” A Dutchman called Jan Huygen of Linschoten, who had worked on one of the Portuguese ships, knew the way; a merchant named Houtman went to Portugal to spy on what the Asians would trade herring, and Dutch liquor seemed inappropriate. The forerunners of the Dutch East Asia Company send several expeditions to the East to draw up the sea lanes.
Things went well; the first expedition under Houtman returned loaded with spices, they had lost one ship and quite a few sailors, but a small profit had been made despite that. So to town, our merchants went, soon they were competing with each other to the point that profits suffered and then to make matters worse, the British got themselves organized and started the East India Company The nations top lawyer and counsellor to the country’s ruler Maurits of Oranje became concerned and suggested the government should intervene. And they did. They forced the competing cities to unite into one company, The Dutch East India Company.
History is made!
In 1602, in Middelburg, the main town in the province of Zeeland, The Dutch East India Company was created. Amsterdam and Middelburg were the dominant cities; another four towns also took part, Rotterdam was one of them. Each city had a chamber of counsellors and merchants. The old owners of the companies that had united into the East India company each were given a “share,” the same size as they had originally provided. Here we have a history in the making; The Dutch East India Company was the first company in the world to issue shares. The Amsterdam Chamber of The Dutch East India Company is where it all began, Shareholding, trading stock breaking etc. The Bourse of Amsterdam was the first bourse in the world. Equipping the expeditions was immensely expensive, and more and more money was needed; soon, everyone could buy a share, from the mayor to his kitchen maid.
Amsterdam had put in 57% of the capital when the company was formed instead of Rotterdam, which only put in 3% and Zeeland 20%. So Amsterdam held a majority, and they insisted on what they called “aggressive trading.” That called for protection, a military force that could protect the trading ships and the colonies we had “established” A complete army was sent to the East, mostly just inexperienced adventurers.
They were no match for the seasoned British and the clever French. Costs skyrocketed, and it became the downfall of the company. Wars with the British kept many ships at sea, and besides this, the French decided to invade Holland. The company was nationalized at the end of the eighteenth century, and that was it.
The Dutch East India Company undertook almost 5.000 voyages. It’s best known captains were of Warwijck and Jan Pietrszoon Coen. Famous ships they sailed on were the Amsterdam, the Concordia, the Voetboog and the Batavia.
In 2002 AD, we celebrated the company’s 400 birthday; the Dutch East India Company information centre was founded on this memorable occasion. (click on the image below, Dutch only)