Early Modern History:
The VOC

The Verenigde Oost-Indisch Compagnie (VOC), or Dutch East India Company, had a great impact on the fortunes and development of Asia during the early modern period (15th - 19th centuries). In Indonesia what came to be known as the colonial empire of the Netherlands East Indies rose out of the ashes of the VOCs former possessions in the Indonesian Archipelago. The period of VOC rule is so imprinted in Indonesian memory, that in colloquial speech the period may still be referred to as jaman kompeni, the age of the Company.

Although the VOC was primarily a business conglomerate that sought to exploit the riches of Asia, by the mid 17th century it had also become the dominant commercial and naval power in Southeast Asia. As a naval power the Company's ships were equipped with guns and ammunition to attack the Spanish and Portuguese strongholds in Asia and force them from their key positions.

The VOC began building strategic strongholds overlooking the emporia along the shipping routes so that they could police and tax the traffic passing by, and by gaining the monopoly on the purchase and sale of specific local crops. Their main interest in the Indonesian Archipelago was to gain the monopoly of the highly profitable spice trade from Maluku. The monopoly of nutmeg was more or less achieved with the conquest of Banda in 1621, and of cloves with the Ambon wars of the 1650s.

Japanese porcelain with images of Dutch trading ships

When the key Portuguese position in Southeast Asia -- Melaka -- fell to the Dutch in 1641, the VOC went on to establish a string of forts and factories stretching from Colombo in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), along the Malabar coast of India, at various stages throughout Southeast Asia, to China and Japan.

By 1690 when the VOC was at the peak of its power in Asia, some 80- 90 Company ships served the huge intra-Asian trading network that connected factories from Persia in the west to Japan in the east. Between 1720-30 over 319 ships carrying 251,662 tons of merchandise returned to Holland. In 1690, some 11,500 employees were on the Company payroll, rising to 24,879 in 1753. These included soldiers and sailors, over half of whom were drawn from nations other than Holland.

By the 18th century, however, corruption and lax management were to virtually bankrupt the VOC. Their downfall may also have been due to the fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780-1784), as most of the home-bound shipping was seized by the English navy, and the VOC Board of Directors -- the so-called Gentlemen Seventeen -- were unable to repay the costs of fitting out the outward bound fleets.



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