The Dutch East India Company didn’t only earn in terms of what they brought home, but also with the trade with Asian cities. Throughout Asia the Dutch acted as freighters who wanted to trade any potential goods from one country with any other in the Far East. Whether it was a Sultan, who needed a white Elephant; the Chinese who needed counterfeit money (made of tinfoil) to burn at cremations or Hindus, who wanted incense for their temples, the Dutch East India Company could deliver it. Batavia was like a spider in a web and the goods kept flooding in from all sides. There were a lot of Chinese, Indian and Sulawesi ships in the harbour alongside the majestic boats from the Dutch East India Company. The directors far away in the Netherlands often looked at the yield of the shares. Jan Pieterszoon Coen wrote an endless series of letters to the Heren XVII asking for more money, resources and people to help with the affairs.
Coen had already thought about a colonial empire just like that which was accomplished under King Willem I. The aim of the directors was that they could make a lot of money in Asia to pay for the merchandise purchased there, so that there was not need to transfer money overseas from the Netherlands. That’s why the Dutch East India Company sold and traded everything that you can think of: cloves at Formosa for silk; silk at Deshima for silver; nutmeg in India for fabric. The aim was to set up a monopoly in the trade of the most profitable products. An almost impossible task, because then they needed to protect their trading posts from smugglers and intruders. It worked for a while with the nutmeg. The group of Banda-islands in the 17th century was the only place on earth where nutmeg trees grew. Here the Dutch could control it fully through building a series of well-built forts.
With the cloves on the Moluccan islands, this was already more difficult because one could plant clove trees easier further away from the Ambon islands and could carry out illegal trade. The locals were furious with this. Regularly the inhabitants of the Moluccans islands were forced to sail the Cora-Cora’s company employees along the islands with their large rowing boats. Clove trees from the designated area were cut down and if the inhabitants dared to plant new trees, the villages were burned down and the population was expelled or killed.
As for the cinnamon and elephants, the Dutch managed to keep a monopoly for a long time, however, pepper that grew on many places along the Indian coast was exceedingly awkward to protect. One problem as well was to keep the prices of the spices under control, not too high or else the trade would collapse, but definitely not too low. In the 17th century, plans were already developed to lower the prices by keeping the process in their own hands and directly from the source.
Miners nor planters
The Dutch East India Company tried to develop diamond mines in India. On Sumatra people started to exploit gold veins. They attempted to construct sugar plantations several times. That was unsuccessful. The Dutchmen were by far neither miners nor planters. They were merchants, who at most forced their products to be cultivated by local labour, by Javanese farmers for example who, by way of taxes, had to relinquish a part of their rice harvest for the purpose of the domestic staff who were employed by the Dutch East India Company and to trade it in Asia.
In the Netherlands, nobody ate rice at that time and the Dutchmen, who were employed by the Dutch East India Company, ate preferably peas and beans. Bacon and cheese were supplied by ship. One of the causes of the fact that the Dutch East India Company in the end perished was because of their greed. On the one side, people imagined conquering the whole of Asia – Coen made serious attempts to even get powerful China to its knees – on the other side, the Dutch wanted to invest as little as possible: with no regard to trading capital, nor in the buildings and nor in the salaries. The Dutch were most certainly not the most well-loved trading partners in Asia, whilst the minimal salaries from high up the ladder to low down, smuggling and corruption worked hand-in-hand and rife.
text: Ruud Spruit
translation: Emma Mlinar, RSG Enkhuizen, tto-junior