Dutch East India Company

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The flag of the Dutch East India Company, a model of the Halve Maen - the ship on which Henry Hudson first sailed into what is now New York harbor. Model at Museum of the City of New York, exhibition in honor of the 400th anniversary of Hudson's "discovery" of New York & the Hudson River.
  • Founded: 1602
  • Dissolved: 1800
  • Japanese: オランダ東インド会社 (Oranda higashi indo gaisha)

The Dutch East India Company, or Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC, "United East India Company"), was a joint-stock company formed in 1602 which held a monopoly on Dutch colonial and mercantile activities in the Far East. The VOC maintained major bases of operations in Batavia (today, Jakarta), Fort Zeelandia (on Taiwan), and on the man-made island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor. Following the imposition of maritime restrictions in the 1630s, the Dutch were the only Europeans with whom Japan traded or otherwise interacted, for the duration of the Edo period (until the 'opening' of the country in the 1850s).

The VOC is often cited as the first company in history to sell stocks and operate based on responsibilities to stockholders, and as, perhaps, the first multi-national corporation.[1] Importantly, however, unlike more modern corporations, the VOC enjoyed certain key powers normally reserved for states, and thus itself functioned as a state power in important respects. These included: the power to engage in diplomatic negotiations with foreign courts/governments on behalf of the States-General of the Netherlands; the power to build fortresses and to appoint governors and establish structures of government - in essence, the power to claim territory, and to defend and administer that territory as a colony; and the power to maintain and employ military force.[2]

At its peak, the Company boasted 257 ships and 12,000 employees.[3] Nevertheless, though overshadowing the Chinese merchants in Nagasaki in most Western treatments of the subject, in fact the volume of trade in which Chinese dealt dwarfed that of the entire VOC operation. This held true both in Nagasaki in particular, and throughout the region.[4]


The VOC was originally founded in 1602, as the result of the merger of a number of different firms which had previously been in competition with one another; these firms united under a board of directors known as the Seventeen Gentlemen (Heren Zeventien), forming the United East India Company.[5] Based at Amsterdam, a city with perhaps the most efficient money market and lowest interest rates in the world, the VOC raised ten times the capital of the English East India Company.[3] Like the English East India Company, the VOC was granted a monopoly on all trade “East of the Cape of Good Hope but also in and beyond the straits of Magellan,” and (so far as the Dutch authorities had power to say so) access to all “Islands, Ports, Havens, Cities, Creeks, Towns, and Places” in that vast region; though they faced competition from the English, Portuguese, and various groups of Asian merchants, the VOC were to have no competition from other Dutch organizations. The Company enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy, and even state-like powers, including engaging in diplomacy, deploying military forces, and claiming territory, even as it simultaneously enjoyed considerable support from the Dutch Republic.[6]

The Dutch originally established their presence in Japan with a factory in Hirado in 1609. Nicolaes Puyck and Abraham van den Broecke led a small mission to Sunpu, where they presented two cases of raw silk, some lead, and two gold goblets to Tokugawa Ieyasu as gifts, promising that later ships would have much more considerable cargoes. Ieyasu granted their request for trade, and presented them with a sword, a sign of the binding of a relationship.[7] Representatives of the Company continued to receive swords, suits of armor, and other gifts from the shogunate on numerous occasions over the course of the Edo period. However, it was Company policy that gifts given to VOC envoys (e.g. by the shogun) could not be kept, but had to be forwarded to their superiors. Much of the collections of the stadtholders (chief magistrates of the United Provinces of the Netherlands) was dispersed in conjunction with the French invasion of the Netherlands in the 1790s, and as a result the current whereabouts of these numerous Japanese swords, suits of armor, etc. are unknown.[8]

(The English East India Company established their Hirado factory in 1613, and closed it in 1623, leaving the Japan trade at that time.) The Dutch presence in Japan was quite precarious for its first few decades, encountering numerous difficulties, and engaging in much negotiation, demands, concessions, and conflict. A very elaborate and expensive 1627 mission to Edo led by Pieter Nuyts was refused an audience with the shogun, and its gifts rejected; Nuyts and his men ended up fleeing Edo in the middle of the night. Nuyts became head of the Company's operations in Taiwan the following year, but his conflicts with the Japanese continued, leading to a Japanese raid on Fort Zeelandia. Nuyts was captured (at that time, in 1628) and Japanese trade with the VOC was terminated; four years later, the shogunate agreed to resume trade in exchange for Nuyts' imprisonment in Edo - he was held for three and a half years.[9] In 1635, the VOC presented the shogunate with an elaborate candelabra, along with several other gifts, as a show of gratitude for the shogunate's forgiveness and re-opening of trade relations; reportedly, the shogun was so pleased with the gifts that he agreed to release Nuyts.[10] The Company gave another brass candelabra to the shogunate as a gift in 1640, which can still be seen on display at Nikkô Tôshôgû today.[11] While many historical narratives of Japanese history, or of Dutch-Japanese relations, by necessity skim over these details to present a more general overview, historian Adam Clulow emphasizes that neither the Dutch position in Japan, nor the Dutch relationship to the shogun, were obvious or automatic (or peaceful) from the beginning, but rather that these things only settled down into a standard form as the end result of considerable negotiation and conflict. Over the course of their time in Japan, the Dutch were forced to adapt, considerably, to the circumstances circumscribed by the shogunate: though the Company engaged in considerable maritime violence against its rivals in the early decades of the 17th century, this was forced to be reduced dramatically; the VOC also had to convince the shogunate of its legal and rightful ability to engage in diplomatic negotiations, and had to defend its possession, administration, and exploitation of colonial territories against shogunal suspicions and concerns.[12]

Fort Zeelandia was established on Taiwan in 1624, and served as a powerful entrepot (intermediary trading port) for trade with both China and Japan. In 1639, the Dutch exported 1.85 million taels of silver (527,250 florins) from Japan via Taiwan. One of the fort's chief individual trading partners was the smuggler/pirate/trader Zheng Zhilong, who traded gold, silks, and other goods to the Dutch in exchange for Japanese silver, but also competed against them. His son, Zheng Chenggong (aka Coxinga), later drove the Dutch out of Taiwan entirely, seizing Fort Zeelandia in 1662.[13] It was only after this that Batavia came to eclipse Taiwan as the VOC's chief trading post in the region.[14]

The Company was headquartered at Batavia (Jakarta), on the island of Java. It built its first trading post (factory) on the island in 1610, after concluding an agreement with the local ruler, Prince Jayakarta, paying him 1,200 rijksdaalder for a plot of land to build upon. The English made a similar arrangement and built their own trading post five years later, in 1615. After the English captured a Dutch ship in 1618, the VOC burned down the English trading post. The following year, forces from the neighboring province of Banten helped eliminate the English from the area, and under the leadership of Jan Pieterzoon Coen, who has been quoted as saying that trade cannot be conducted without war, nor war without trade, the VOC took Jakarta in 1619, burning down much of the town, driving out the local population, and building a fortress from which it would base its operations in Southeast Asia. Two years later, they took the Banda Islands, known for their nutmeg, similarly driving out, enslaving, and/or murdering the local inhabitants. After securing a monopoly on nutmeg, the VOC pushed on to seize control of the trade in cloves, and destroyed every last cloves tree on a number of islands, leaving only a few islands as the only sources of cloves in the region, thus driving prices up dramatically, to the benefit of the Company, which controlled the islands. Soon afterwards, they turned their attentions to pepper, taking control of the Javanese port of Bantam (Banten), the chief pepper-exporting port in the region. By 1670, the Company had taken the Maluku Islands as well, and dominated the spice trade in the Dutch East Indies. Though focusing on monopolizing the spice trade, and on extracting as much volume of spices as possible from these islands, the Dutch found they also needed to engage in trade in a variety of other goods, including textiles, tea, and coffee, in order to have goods to trade in China other than precious metals, since the Chinese were generally disinterested in European manufactures.[3] The Company went from having about fifty ships active on its trading routes circa 1615, to about 150 by the end of the 17th century.[15]

Despite its dominance of the spice trade, however, the VOC still had to contend with Chinese, English, and other merchants as competitors. The Dutch and English East India Companies in particular often clashed as they competed for control of the spice trade, but sometimes reached agreements; in 1667, in the Treaty of Breda, the English traded the tiny nutmeg-rich island of Run to the Dutch, in exchange for an island on the other side of the world, Manhattan.[16] Tensions between the VOC and the English East India Company (EIC) sometimes escalated into actual violence, however. One of the more major incidents was the Amboyna massacre, which took place in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) in 1623. Agents of the Dutch East India Company executed a number of men in the service of the EIC, accusing them of being involved in corporate espionage. Though the English maintained no presence in Japan from 1623 until the 1850s, tensions, and violence, between the VOC and EIC continued. In 1808, in the so-called Phaeton Incident, several British ships entered Nagasaki harbor looking for Dutch ships to harass; none were in port at the time.

The VOC employed some 300 Japanese mercenaries in their various campaigns. Japanese are known to have fought for the VOC in the Tidore expedition of 1613, the siege of Jakarta in 1619, and the 1621 conquest of the Banda Islands, as well as the 1623 Amboyna Massacre. Soon after that, however, the Tokugawa shogunate banned Japanese from leaving Japan, thus putting an end to the VOC's source of mercenaries.[17]

The Dutch entered the Vietnam trade at Hoi An in 1633, where a community of Japanese traders was already established. For the first few years after this, the Japanese are said to have dominated commercial activity in the port, particularly in the trade of silks, despite the Japanese population being only a tiny fraction of the Chinese presence. After 1635, though, Japanese were no longer allowed to leave Japan and to return; Japanese involvement in overseas trade declined dramatically, but Japanese traders remained for some time hesitant to deal with the Dutch. They dealt chiefly with Chinese merchants, leaving very little supply for the Dutch to purchase, thus driving up the prices dramatically for the Dutch. Eventually, however, Japanese influence in the port died out, and the Dutch were able to fill the niche thus vacated. The Dutch remained active in central-southern Vietnam afterwards, but closed their factory in Hanoi (northern Vietnam) in 1700.

A VOC base in Ayutthaya (Siam) was of particular significance as well. Until 1715, ships traveling from Batavia to Nagasaki more often than not stopped in Ayutthaya to purchase Siamese goods to then sell in Japan. These included deer skins, ray skins, and aromatic woods, among others, and were typically purchased either with Japanese silver, or textiles obtained in India. In 1715, the Shôtoku shinrei ("New Edicts of the Shôtoku Era") were put into place by the Tokugawa shogunate, altering the terms of trade at Nagasaki, and impelling VOC ships to now travel directly between Batavia and Nagasaki, without stopping over to pick up Siamese cargoes.[18] Yet, VOC ships based in Ayutthaya continued to ply the waters, and after 1715 in fact came to hold a near monopoly on the Ayutthaya-Nagasaki route, pushing the Chinese aside for a time.[19]

The Company also established a base at Cape Town in South Africa in 1653, retaining it for less than 15 years before losing its dominant position in South Africa to the English in 1667.[15]

The Dutch factory was moved to Dejima, a small manmade island in Nagasaki Harbor, in 1641. The Dutch presence in Nagasaki was of great importance for Tokugawa Japan not only economically (in terms of the importation of goods), but also in terms of the inflow of information. Rangaku, or "Dutch studies", was a major development in the Edo period, with a number of scholars eagerly studying Dutch books and other materials (and, on very rare occasions, meeting with Dutchmen personally) and introducing to Japan new technologies, scientific information (especially in the fields of medicine and botany), world maps, and painting techniques. It was through the Dutch that Japan obtained telescopes and microscopes, among other technologies, and it was through the Dutch that Japan was kept up to date on world events.

Nagasaki was also of great significance to the Company. In 1649, profits from business in Japan reached almost 710,000 guilders, one-and-a-half times as much as the VOC factory in Taiwan, and more than double the profits in Persia that year. Fully one third of these Nagasaki profits were from the sale of silks purchased in Tonkin.[20]

Representatives of the Company journeyed to Edo to pay their respects to the Shogun once every few years. Originally, from 1633 until 1789, they made this journey every year; from 1790 onwards, the journey was made only once every five years. This change in the frequency of the missions coincided with similar efforts to reduce the costs of receiving Korean embassies to Edo; from 1790 onwards, the VOC was to send three men, not four, and to bring only half as much gifts for the shogun and for other officials.[21] According to the 1826 diary of Philipp Franz von Siebold, they first traveled overland from Nagasaki to Kokura, where they stayed at a specially designated lodging known as the Nagasaki-ya. They then spent a week at the home of the local elder (toshiyori) at Shimonoseki, before traveling through the Inland Sea by ship, to the port of Murotsu. From Murotsu, they journeyed overland, passing through Himeji and Hyôgo-no-tsu on the way to Osaka. After three days at the Osaka Nagasaki-ya, they then spent six days at a lodging known as the Ebi-ya in Kyoto, before setting out on the Tôkaidô highway for Edo. Once they arrived in the shogunal capital, they remained in Edo for two to three weeks, at a lodging specifically set aside for them, again known as the Nagasaki-ya.[22] On the return journey, they set sail from Hyôgo, rather than Murotsu.[23]

As their visit was considered one strongly associated with trade purposes, and indeed as the shogunate extending the courtesy or privilege of allowing them to visit Edo, the VOC representatives were not received as "guests" in the same sort of formal ceremonial receptions (chisô) that Korean and Ryukyuan envoys were.[24]; the Dutch, for their part, are said to have seen the affair as simply a matter of protocol which they needed to perform in order to be permitted to maintain their special relationship and trade access.[25] When they did receive an audience with the shogun, they were permitted to approach no further than the outer veranda outside the Ôhiroma, rather than being formally received within the audience hall. On at least one occasion, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi arranged a series of informal audiences with the VOC representatives, assigning officials to lead the Dutch deeper into the palace, where their exotic appearances could be witnessed by the women of the palace, and others (all hidden behind blinds or screens), as a source of humor. The Dutch were also recieved in an unofficial audience at that time at the mansion of the Yanagisawa clan, where Tsunayoshi himself observed from behind a blind, completely unseen himself.[26] Englebert Kaempfer recorded that when he served as a member of this VOC delegation in the 1690s, the Dutch were treated less like respected envoys, and more like bizarre aliens, as a spectacle and a source of amusement. The Dutchmen were made to stand, walk, talk, and even kiss one another, simply for the entertainment of the samurai onlookers, who found everything the Dutchmen did fascinating or absurd. By the 1790s, however, C.R. Boxer writes there had been a shift, and the opperhoofd began to be treated more akin to daimyô, or foreign envoys.[27] On occasion, the VOC representatives presented the Shogun with exotic animals, such as elephants or camels, which stirred up great popular interest, but these animals rarely lasted very long.

The Company fought numerous wars with the British East India Company, beginning with the First Anglo-Dutch War in 1652-1654. The Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1665-1667 ended with the Dutch losing control of Cape Colony (South Africa) to the English. Several years later, beginning in 1672, the English began challenging the Dutch monopoly on pepper, sparking a Third Anglo-Dutch War, which ended the following year. In the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, which ran from 1780 to 1784, the English made efforts to block VOC ships from returning to the Netherlands; by 1783, the VOC had lost all of its ships.[28]

As a result of these wars with the British in the East Indies, and with the French in Europe, the Company continued to struggle in the 1790s through the 1810s. The Dutch homeland was conquered by France in 1794, becoming a client-state known as the Republic of Batavia, and losing much of its overseas holdings to Britain. The governor of the Dutch East Indies sided with France against the British at first, but the islands later fell to the British, from 1811 to 1816. In the meantime, the Company went bankrupt in 1795, but was taken over by the Dutch state, which continued the Company's operations.[29] As a result of these developments, there were quite a few years in the 1780s-1810s that no Dutch ships appeared at Nagasaki, leading to a serious decline in Japanese intelligence regarding events in Europe and elsewhere in the world. For example, the Japanese did not learn of the French Revolution until five years after it occurred, and were kept in the dark for a time as to the fate of the Dutch East Indies.[30] In attempts to maintain its position, the VOC began hiring foreign ships to carry its goods, for example hiring the American ship Franklin, which arrived in Nagasaki in place of a Dutch ship in 1799.[31][32] That same year, however, the Company went bankrupt, and was dissolved the following year, becoming nationalized. Dutch activities in the Far East after 1800 were more directly driven by the Dutch national government, and continued to heavily employ American and Western European chartered ships until 1816, when the Kingdom of the Netherlands regained Java from the British and otherwise regained some general stability.[33]

In 1844, H.H.F. Coops, acting as a special ambassador from the Netherlands, arrived in Nagasaki and delivered a letter from King Willem II, addressed to the "King of Japan." It discussed the Opium War, and advised the shogunate, in order to avoid a similar fate, to open up diplomatic and trade relations with other European powers. The following year, the VOC factor received a reply not from the shogun, but from the rôjû, stating that in accordance with "ancestral laws" or "ancient precedent," Japan maintained only trade relations (tsûhô) with the Netherlands and China, and diplomatic relations (tsûshin) with only Korea and Ryûkyû; as a result, the reply explained, not only was opening diplomatic relations with other nations out of the question, but further the Dutch should avoid any further attempts to engage in formal diplomatic communications with the shogunate themselves. This may have been the first time that an official shogunate document noted a distinction between tsûshin and tsûhô, and in the nature of relations with these four named polities.[34]

Dutch Factors at Nagasaki

Governors-General at Batavia


  1. Matt Matsuda, Pacific Worlds, Cambridge University Press (2012), 73.
  2. Adam Clulow, The Company and the Shogun: The Dutch Encounter with Tokugawa Japan, Columbia University Press (2014), 12-13.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Robert Tignor, Benjamin Elman, et al, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, vol B, Fourth Edition, W.W. Norton & Co (2014), 495.
  4. Marius Jansen, China in the Tokugawa World, Harvard University Press (1992), 23-24.
  5. Matsuda, 77.
  6. Adam Clulow, “Like Lambs in Japan and Devils outside Their Land: Diplomacy, Violence, and Japanese Merchants in Southeast Asia,” Journal of World History 24:2 (2013), 352.
  7. Cynthia Viallé, "In Aid of Trade: Dutch Gift-Giving in Tokugawa Japan," Tokyo daigaku shiryôhensanjo kenkyû kiyô 16 (2006), 58.
  8. Viallé, 59.
  9. Clulow, The Company and the Shogun, 1-2.; Gary Leupp, Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900, A&C Black (2003), 8, 61-63.
  10. Viallé, 57-58.
  11. Incidentally, the Company also gave a brass candelabra to Shah Jahan, ruler of India, that same year; the Shah is said to have been terribly unimpressed with the gift, expecting lavish gifts to be in silver or gold, and not brass. Viallé 60-61.
  12. Clulow, The Company and the Shogun, 16-17.
  13. Jansen, 26-27.
  14. Shimada, Ryuto. “Economic Links with Ayutthaya: Changes in Networks between Japan, China, and Siam in the Early Modern Period.” Itinerario 37, no. 03 (December 2013): 94.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Plaques at Jakarta History Museum.
  16. Giles Milton, Nathaniel's Nutmeg, Macmillan (1999), 363.
  17. Geoffrey Gunn, History Without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000-1800, Hong Kong University Press (2011), 232.
  18. Shimada, 93-94.
  19. Shimada, 102.
  20. William Wray, “The Seventeenth-century Japanese Diaspora: Questions of Boundary and Policy,” in Ina Baghdiantz McCabe et al (eds.), Diaspora Entrepreneurial Networks, Oxford: Berg (2005), 84.
  21. Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 106.
  22. Miyamoto Tsuneichi, Daimyô no tabi, Tokyo: Shakai shisôsha (1968), 54-55.; Timon Screech. "An Iconography of Nihon-bashi." in Theories and Methods in Japanese Studies: Current State and Future Developments. Bonn University Press, 2008. pp331-333.
  23. Miyamoto, Daimyô no tabi, 55.
  24. Kurushima Hiroshi, presentation at "Interpreting Parades and Processions of Edo Japan" symposium, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 11 Feb 2013.
  25. Hellyer, 45.
  26. Anne Walthall, "Hiding the shoguns: Secrecy and the nature of political authority in Tokugawa Japan," in Bernard Scheid and Mark Teeuwen (eds.) The Culture of Secrecy in Japanese Religion, Routledge (2006), 341-342.
  27. Gary Leupp, Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900, A&C Black (2003), 88-89.
  28. Plaques on display at Jakarta History Museum.[1]
  29. Viallé, 72.
  30. Mitani Hiroshi, David Noble (trans.), Escape from Impasse, International House of Japan (2006), 25-26.
  31. Hellyer, 108.
  32. The VOC hired American ships in 1797, 1798, 1799, 1806, and 1807, a ship from Bremen in 1806, one from Denmark in 1807, and one from Bengal in 1813. They sent no ships at all in 1782, 1796, 1808, 1810-1812, or 1815-1816. Mitani, 25-26.
  33. Hellyer, 133.
  34. Mitani, 52-53.
  35. Viallé, 74n17.
  36. Mitani, 34.
  37. Grant Goodman, Japan and the Dutch 1600-1853, Routledge (2013), 22.
  38. Mitani, 223.