There are most certainly parallels which can be drawn between the past and present, which reflect on the demise of the VOC. In the course of the 18th century, business was booming with Asia. It is true that this was at a time, when the high profits on spices and unbreakable monopolies were over. That is why the company now placed its focus on products such as textiles and managed to attain much of the intra-Asian trade. However, the war against England which arose in 1780 eventually dealt a death-blow to this. This was the 4th time within one century where conflicts with the old rival caused an overt war.
The VOC leaders got in trouble because the English captured the fully-loaded ships returning to port and claimed the cargo. The Dutch then had hardly any goods to auction. This caused even more problems as the VOC was in the habit of building up huge debts on ships and paying those debts off with the money raised at auction. The debts quickly rose into millions and the government stepped in. The national government and even some city councils, for example Amsterdam, created deferred payments and provided benefits. This, however, didn’t work. The debts skyrocketed.
When the Fourth English War was over, a new set of trouble was brewing. In France, revolution was taking hold. The time of kings and regents was passing by. In the Netherlands, things weren’t peaceful either. They wanted to keep the VOC alive by putting the directors under surveillance. It was all to no avail.
The French stormed into the Netherlands under the motto: ‘’Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood!’’ and replaced the laws. The regent-directors of the VOC were replaced and new directors were hired. However, it soon transpired that these new managers had no knowledge and experience in that field. Businessmen tried to get a more cargo from Batavia via hired shipmen from foreign lands. Nevertheless the English quickly smelled a rat and found a new way to interfere with the VOC since their enemy the French had now settled in the Netherlands. So they started again capturing the ships and seizing the cargo. The debts of the company rose to 219 million gulden.
On New Year’s Day 1799, it all came to an inglorious end. The company was disbanded. The Dutch men in Asia now found themselves in a difficult situation. When the French invaded in 1795, the prince of Orange fled to England. In exchange for the offered hospitality, the English got permission to rule the colonies for a certain amount of time. The Prince sent one of his famous ‘’Kew-Letters’’ (from Kew in London) in which he assigned the leaders of the VOC to pass on the leadership to the English. The new leaders in Amsterdam weren’t pleased at all with it. The French didn’t seem at all interested.
Their fleet was destroyed by Nelson, a fate that was suffered by the Dutch war fleet at Kamperduin in 1797. The English eagerly devoted themselves to their task of managing the VOC areas. A remarkable exception to this was created in Java. There, the Frenchman, Herman Daendels, held sway. He was a forward thinker who founded the famous Postweg or Postal route. This was of particular strategic significance in Java. He obviously showed little regard in the motto of “Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood’’ as the labourers worked in such miserable conditions on the Postal Route and other projects. Thousands of Javanese people died because of the hard labour.
When the Netherlands was incorporated into the mighty empire of Napoleon, the English attacked and Thomas Raffles took over the governance of the VOC areas, including Java. Raffles was an enlightened man, with a wide interest and progressive ideas. When the Netherlands conquered again what had been theirs originally after the downfall of Napoleon, a lot of Asians were saddened by the departure of the English. On the Moluccas islands that even led to heavy rebellions. Raffles was then able to take over the governance of the independent peninsula of Singapore. The Netherlands mainly focused on Indonesia. The time of the VOC had defiantly passed. Within the Dutch Trading Company, the time of Colonialism started in the true definition of the word.
text: Ruud Spruit
translation: Martijn Brehm, RSG Enkhuizen, tto-junior