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The Dutch East India Company (VOC), founded in 1602, consisted of sixty companies aimed at monopolizing the spice trade, expanding Dutch colonial influence, and reducing competition from other commercial powers. The VOC did not merely monopolize world trade; it acted as the sole representative of Dutch political power in the East Indies for nearly two hundred years.
Historians have identified the Dutch Republic as the first modern economy, while the Dutch East India Company (or VOC, the acronym for Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) has, deservedly or not, been styled the first modern corporation. In the context of the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648), the general expansion of trade and shipping, and, to a lesser extent, the missionary impulse of Calvinism, Dutch overseas expansion was spurred by a powerful combination of politico-economic, commercial, and religious motivations. The first shipping to Asia in 1595 was followed by the creation of “pre-companies” in various cities of the northern Netherlands trading to the East. To curb internal competition and forge a military-diplomatic tool against the Spanish and Portuguese colonial possessions, these pre-companies were merged into a United East India Company. On 20 March 1602, the States General issued a charter, which would be continuously renewed until 31 December 1799, when the possessions of the VOC were taken over by the Dutch government.
In the “age of mercantilism,” the VOC was given a monopoly on all shipping from Africa’s Cape of Good Hope through the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America, effectively covering the entire Indian Ocean basin. The board of directors, or Gentlemen Seventeen, consisted of eight representatives from Amsterdam, four from Zeeland (Middelburg), one from each of the four smaller chambers (Rotterdam, Delft, Hoorn, and Enkhuizen), and a final member selected by Zeeland or one of the smaller chambers. The charter also granted the company delegated sovereign powers, including the right to appoint governors, build forts, maintain armies and fleets, and conclude treaties with or wage war against indigenous rulers.
A central Asian rendezvous and trade emporium was established at Jakarta, renamed Batavia, on the island of Java in 1619. Batavia was the seat of the High Government, the Governor General, and the Council of the Indies, coordinating activities of the company settlements in the East. The VOC divided its trading operations in Asia into three categories, with their relative significance indicated by their respective designation. The core consisted of spice-producing areas or trade emporia, such as the “governments” of Ambon, Banda, Cape of Good Hope, Coromandel, Makassar, Northeast Coast of Java, Taiwan, and Ternate, where the company enjoyed trade as an outcome of its own conquest. A second category contained those regions, such as the “commandments” of Malabar and the West Coast of Sumatra, where the company conducted trade through exclusive contracts. The third category consisted of economically important establishments under a director, including Bengal, Surat, and Persia, parts of powerful indigenous realms such as Mughal India (1526–1857) or Safavid Persia (1501–1722/1736), and peripheral establishments under a resident, head, or chief, such as Banjarmasin, Ligor, or Tonkin, where trade was conducted alongside other merchants.
Before the Industrial Revolution, trade between Europe and Asia was characterized by a structural trade imbalance, following a “bullion for goods” model. Precious metals served as the lubricant of the early-modern world economy with important political, socioeconomic, demographic, and cultural ramifications, interacting with regional and local processes of state formation, social stratification, economic development, population movements, and intellectual-religious changes.
The economic history of the VOC can be divided into three distinct periods: a monopolistic phase (1600–1680), determined by the acquisition of monopolistic or monopsonistic (market situation in which the product or service of several sellers is sought by only one buyer) positions in various commodities (pepper and fine spices) and markets (Japan); a competitive phase (1680–1740), dominated by less profitable, nontraditional products, such as textiles, coffee, and tea, available on the relatively open markets of India, Arabia, and China; and disengagement and decline (1740–1800), marked by the commencement of the era of Franco-British global wars and a distinct decline in terms of the volume of Dutch trade and shipping.
Historians have pointed to a number of factors contributing to the eventual demise of the company. Previous scholarship criticized nontransparent bookkeeping practices, the narrow financial basis of the VOC and the resulting dependency on outside capital, failing entrepreneurship and lesser quality of company servants, lack of coordination between the various levels of administration, and increasing corruption among VOC officials in Asia. More recently, however, scholars have stressed changing consumption patterns for Asian products in Europe, declining profits from inter-Asiatic trade partly related to the decline of the Mughals (after 1707), the fall of the Safavids (1722), the increasingly restrictive policies of Tokugawa Japan after 1685, and the disruptions caused by the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780–1784). Similar to the English East India Company some fifty years later, the VOC fell victim to the ongoing processes of territorialization, especially on Ceylon and Java, and subsequent rising administrative overhead costs, along with the growing competition of British country traders. In the nineteenth century merchant capitalism and chartered companies were superseded by the overseas projection of industrial capitalism and the nation-state.
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