Huge Profits

During the set-up of the Dutch East India Company it looked like it was ahead of its time with shares being bought by all the social classes. Patrons, teachers, servants, midwives and carpenters took all their savings and invested them in the Dutch East India Company. Soon it turned out that it was just about the money. The Dutch East India Company didn’t pay out a dividend for the first few years, but invested it in new enterprises. This caused the enthusiasm to reduce quickly. The shares were bought up by regents and soon the company was in possession of a small group of set families who had the financial control in their hands. They made huge profits, especially during the first few years of the Dutch East India Company. That money had to be invested. This was done partially in new shares, but for a great part in other businesses.

Foreestenhuis in Hoorn
There were shareholders who used their money for the large scale reclaiming projects from the 17th century, like the draining of the Schermer and the Beemster. According to the plans of Leeghwater, the huge lakes were drained. Then roads were built as straight as a line and canals were dug. Farms were being built everywhere. The farmers focussed on things including the lucrative grazing of cattle. The Dutch East India Company was a significant customer especially in supplying their ships. The investors drew up leases, shared the profits and allowed parts of the farm to be reserved for them to spend the summer there. There are still farms in the Beemster with a so-called men’s room. Others wanted more comfort during their stay in the countryside and built beautiful country houses between the farms, not only in the Beemster, but also in and around Velsen, just behind the game-rich dunes, or along the Vecht and the Amstel. Outside areas like Trompenburg in ‘s Graveland, Oostrust in Nieuwer Amstel or the Foreestenhuis in Hoorn were largely established by the Dutch East India Company.

The governors and merchants that resided in Asia were usually part of the “nouveau riche,” the corruption in the Dutch East India Company regions was rampant. The directors saw chances to make themselves richer in a shameful way. Many facades on their houses had elaborate features painted on them in water colour.

Not only by setting up many personal businesses like buying and trading pepper, ivory and gemstones, but also by skimping the rations of the sailors in favour of their own profit and by paying the locals that worked for the Dutch East India Company even less than they had the right to, so they could pocket the difference. Those that had take part in this kind of practice, returned from Asia extremely rich and wanted to show that off with gaudy houses, a procession of servants and beautiful carriages. To earn even more authority, the rich people bought titles from impoverished landlords.

One example is Willem Decker who was born in Malacca, who earned the lordship Ursem in North Holland. He didn’t gain much income from doing so, but he did have a title and a family crest. But the lord who had been governor of Malacca for a few years and had driven out the rebellious Raj from Johor couldn’t compete against the headstrong church of Ursem, which according to old tradition appointed a parson and a teacher. The Lord of Ursem felt ignored and travelled snorting with rage to his property. The case went to the High Council, but Decker had to climb down because not everything could be bought with money.

A gentleman had to show his interest and concern and that’s why they collected rare objects or so-called rarities. Those could be paintings and prints, maps and globes, but especially strange objects, preferably from countries, which were far away like the Dutch East India Company regions. The sailors took all kinds of objects with them: shells, weapons, feathers, statues and even living animals. A governor from India took a young rhinoceros to the Netherlands. For years, he dragged the animal, which had matured in the meanwhile through the whole of Europe and earned a lot of money with it. Along the Amstel in Amsterdam there were several shops where rarities from Asia, Africa and America were sold. Rembrandt was a much appreciated customer because he eagerly bought items to add to his collection without even trying to bargain and bring down the price. He used many of these objects for his paintings and etchings.

Others like Doctor Paludanus in Enkhuizen, collected objects purely for scientific interest and especially for looking for new medicines. Pepper, cloves, ginger and many more herbs and spices were used by people overseas for a range of different ailments and often these were easy-to-use medicines, like cloves for toothache. However, most collectors just wanted to be part of the fashion. Many stately homes and public areas had a collection of curiosities where the master took his guests to show off his possessions and to tell the most wonderful stories about their origin. If the Calvinist pastors started lecturing about all the luxury and extravagance one could often use the excuse that people usually spent time collecting out of admiration for the greatness of God’s creation.

text: Ruud Spruit
translation: Mandy Boon, RSG Enkhuizen, tto-junior