Mauritius, Hollandia and Amsterdam, these were the names of the three merchant ships that set sail from Texel for “the East”, together with the small ship the Duyfken, on 2 April 1595. It proved to be an exciting adventure. Only three of the four vessels returned in August 1597 and only 87 of the 249 man crew. The revenues were modest. But still, this first Dutch sailing expedition to Asia was a success because it opened a trade route to the East.
Other expeditions followed. With their strong and heavily armed trading vessels the merchant traders from Zeeland and Holland out-performed the Portuguese who had used the route for some time, and the English became jealous. The ships returned heavily laden with colonial goods like pepper and nutmeg. To limit internal competition, Johan van Oldenbarneveldt took the initiative of setting up the Dutch East India Company (VOC). On 20 March 1602 the company acquired the Dutch monopoly on all trade in Asian waters from the Cape of Good Hope onwards. The company was empowered to sign treaties in the name of the Republic, to wage war and administer conquered territories.
The VOC developed into a power to be feared. ‘This can lead to something big,’ wrote Jan Pieterszoon Coen to the Heren XVII, the board of the VOC in the distant fatherland. In 1619, he conquered the town of Jayakarta and founded Batavia there. Coen wrote that ‘Jacatra’ would become ‘the most important place in all the Indies’ and that the reputation of the Dutch had increased through their conquests. ‘Everyone will now seek to become our friend’. Parts of Java were occupied, Ambon and Ternate in the Mulluccas were subjugated and the population was forced to cultivate spices. Elsewhere in Asia too the VOC gained ground with either persuasion or violence. Forts were built in South Africa, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Makassar in Indonesia. China was visited and when in 1641 the Shogun of Japan closed his country’s borders to foreigners, the VOC alone received his permission to continue to trade from the island of Decima near Nagasaki.
In this way, the VOC not only stocked Dutch warehouses with colonial goods and filled the houses of the bourgeois with curiosa from foreign lands, but they also played an important trading role within Asia. Textiles, spices, coffee, tea, tobacco, opium, tropical wood, iron, copper, silver, gold, porcelain, dyes, shells – an endless array of goods was transported by the Dutch East India fleet.
In 1799, in the time of the French, the VOC was dissolved. Today, the archives of the VOC are regarded as world heritage, a memory of the world. The daily reports of the merchants who organised trade from the forts, the reports of the travels of VOC officials to royal courts of rulers with whom they traded, ships’ bills of lading … together the documents are an important source of information about two centuries of Asian-European history.