The United East India Company

Indonesia Table of Contents

The United Provinces of the Netherlands was, in a sense, the world's first modern state. It was a republic dominated by middle class burghers rather than a dynastic monarchy. Winning independence from Spain in 1581, the Netherlands became a major seafaring power. During the seventeenth century, Amsterdam emerged as Europe's primary center for commerce and banking. Largely Protestant and Calvinist, the new state, unlike Portugal, did not reflect the crusading values of the European Middle Ages.

A four-ship Dutch fleet entered Indonesian waters in 1596, visiting Banten on the western tip of Java as well as north-coast Javanese ports and returning home with a profitable cargo of spices. There followed a few years of "wild" or unregulated voyages, when several Dutch trading concerns sent out ships to the islands. In 1602, however, these companies merged to form the United East India Company (VOC) under a charter issued by the Dutch parliament, the Staten-Generaal.

Although its directors, the Heeren Zeventien (Seventeen Gentlemen), were motivated solely by profit, the VOC was not simply a trading company in the modern sense of the word. It had authority to build fortresses, wage war, conclude treaties with indigenous rulers, and administer justice to subject populations. In the early years, the Heeren Zeventien attempted to direct their operations from Amsterdam, but this proved impossible and in 1610 the post of governor general of the VOC was established. Jan Pieterszoon Coen, governor general from 1619 to 1623 and again from 1627 to 1629, was the most dynamic VOC chief executive. He seized the port of Jayakarta (modern Jakarta, also known as Batavia during the colonial period) from the sultan of Banten in western Java and established the trading post at Sunda Kelapa. Since then, it has served as the capital of the VOC, of the Netherlands Indies after 1816, and of the independent Indonesian state after World War II.

Coen was determined to go to almost any lengths to establish and reserve a VOC monopoly of the spice trade. He accomplished his goal by both controlling output and keeping non-VOC traders out of the islands. Ambon had been seized from the Portuguese in 1605, and anti-Iberian alliances were made with several local rulers. However, the English East India Company, established in 1600, proved to be a tenacious competitor. When the people of the small Banda archipelago south of the Malukus continued to sell nutmeg and mace to English merchants, the Dutch killed or deported virtually the entire population and repopulated the islands with VOC indentured servants and slaves who worked in the nutmeg groves. Similar policies were used by Coen's successors against the inhabitants of the clove-rich Hoamoal Peninsula on the island of Ceram in 1656. The Spanish were forced out of Tidore and Ternate in 1663. The Makassarese sultan of Gowa in southern Sulawesi, a troublesome practitioner of free trade, was overthrown with the aid of a neighboring ruler in 1669. The Dutch built fortresses on the site of the Gowa capital of Makassar (modern Ujungpandang) and at Manado in northern Sulawesi and expelled all foreign merchants. In 1659 the Dutch burned the port city of Palembang on Sumatra, ancient site of the Srivijaya empire, in order to secure control of the pepper trade.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress