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Archives of the Dutch East India Company

Documentary heritage submitted by Netherlands and recommended for inclusion in the Memory of the World Register in 2003.

The Dutch East India Company (VOC, Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie), founded in 1602 and liquidated in 1795, was the largest and most impressive of the early modern European trading companies operating in Asia. About twenty-five million pages of VOC records have survived in repositories in Jakarta, Colombo, Chennai, Cape Town, and The Hague. The VOC archives make up the most complete and extensive source on early modern world history anywhere with data relevant to the history of hundreds of Asia’s and Africa’s former local political and trade regions. 

The Dutch East India Company called the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) was a colonial agency set up by the Dutch government in 1602. It soon became one of the first successful multinational corporations in the world. It did so by securing a monopoly over the much-coveted Indian Ocean Spice trade. The novel agency was a stock company, two types of shareholders the non-managing partners (participanten) and the managing partners (bewindhebbers) invested in the company, dividing the large risks of over-sea operations and distributing its mammoth profits.

By the 16th century, the Portuguese had an upper hand in the spice trade in Europe. However, they faced difficulties in supplying spices as the demand grew. This led to an increase in the price of the spices, an opportunity which the Dutch saw ripe to enter the spice trade. The Dutch then decided to start their own fleet in order to overthrow the Portuguese. The Dutch fleet grew over time and led to the formation of the Dutch East India Company. The company flourished and build forts across South-East Asia. In 1603, it established its first headquarter in Banten, Batavia (today is known as Indonesia). Eventually, the Dutch were trading throughout Asia including Sri Lankan coast as well. For the next fifty years, the company traded aggressively creating an Intra-Asian trade system to purchase and sell commodities at low rates. They continued to expand and established their posts in Persia, Siam, Bengal and Formosa (Taiwan). 

The Dutch faced continuous clashes from the English East India Company from 1611 to 1617. Post 1670s the Dutch East India Company began to decline as they lost their control over the silk trade to China and Japan. The British defeated the Dutch and by 1799 the Dutch East India Company was dissolved. 

The inclusion of the VoC records in the memory of the world highlights its value as to how it stands as one of the first successful MNCs. It only traded in spices, tea , silk , coffee but also produced a large number of documents. The records not only cover its trading posts and colonies but also the social and political aspects of the establishments. The Dutch East India Company from a historian’s point of view is one of the most researched enterprises. The company had a complex business model, for example, the Dutch East India Company was too organised for the time and opened new areas to trade. The VOC existed for almost two hundred years during which it enjoyed huge profits from its spice monopoly and became the richest company with over 150 merchant ships, 40 warships, and 50000 employees.