Indonesia, a country that consists of 17,508 islands (of which 6,000 are inhabited), was for a big part under Dutch reign from about 1610 until 1949 with the capital being Jakarta (which was called Batavia during that time).
The map showed above shows the region that was under the Dutch reign, the appropriation of this area was to a great extent due to the Dutch East India Company.
Another historically important place that the Dutch officially claimed was Cape of Good Hope, a cape near what is now called Cape Town in a country that is nowadays called South Africa. There was a Dutch colonization from 1652 until 1814 when the British took over the Cape Colonies. The Dutch East India Company also led this occupation.
Dutch history of the VOC
If you grow up as a Dutch kid, one of the first things you learn about the history of the Netherlands is the greatness of the (United) Dutch East India Company, or as we in Holland call it: the VOC (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie). The VOC was founded on the 20th of March in 1602 and ended on 31st of December in 1799. It was established as a Dutch trading company, with a monopoly on the overseas trading between the Republic of Holland, the area east of the Cape of Good Hope and the area west of the Strait of Magellan. They were the first limited company in the world and also the first company to give out shares. They were so big that they even had their own currency, their own army and their own battleships.
You are now probably wondering how big the VOC was, consider this: the value of the VOC was estimated at 78 million Dutch Guilders in 1637, if you adjust this amount of money to the value it would have in 2012 dollars it would be $7,4 trillion. To give you an idea of how much money this is: Google, a company that is seen as one of the biggest companies in today’s world, had an estimated worth of $527 billion in 2015.
This means that the VOC was 14.04 times bigger than Google is nowadays (this might seem a bit farfetched but it is still pretty impressive).
There is a reason why the 17th century, when the VOC was the most prosperous is called “the golden age” back in the Netherlands
From a Dutch point of view, the thing we hear in school is that the VOC did their trade with local people from the different kingdoms in the area we now call Indonesia, trading products like cinnamon, coffee, nutmeg, sugar, tea and other tropical products that couldn’t grow back in the Netherlands.
The picture above shows the route that the VOC used to ship their products. From Holland, they sailed to Cape of Good Hope where they would re-supply their ship with food and liquor (since this is longer preservable than water). After this they would go to Indonesia, where they would get their spices and re-supply again. When finishing their trade in Indonesia, they would set sail to India to trade the spices they just acquired for more luxury products like cotton and silk.
The VOC is generally seen as a good example of the Dutch entrepreneur mentality, this can be seen by looking at an example from 2006, the then Dutch prime minister Jan-Peter Balkenende said that the Netherlands need to get back their “VOC-mentality”. Of course this sparked a lot of controversy in the country, but it still shows that the reign of the VOC in general is seen as a story that only has a bright side.
The dark side of the VOC
This makes you wonder, why is the Dutch government so reluctant on being honest about the history about the VOC?
One of the first islands the VOC claimed around 1610 and used, as a retail establishment, was located as what we now call the Moluccas and was then called Amboina. The VOC used this area to grow nutmeg, in order to retain the monopolistic position they had in this area they would rein with firm hands. An important event that rarely gets mentioned is the “Amboyna Massacre” where 20 men (10 English, 9 Japanese and 1 Portuguese) whom were in service of the English East India Company were tortured and murdered without an honest trial, this event is later seen as one of the triggers for the First Anglo-Dutch war 4
The local people in Amboina were forced agree on nutmeg contracts that would say how many nutmeg trees they were allowed to grow and that they would only be allowed to sell this to the Dutch.
Once every while, the VOC would do military inspections called “the hongi-tours” where they would go from island to island to see if the people were living up the contracts, if this was not the case, “illegal” nutmeg trees were taken down usually along with the whole plantation and the village. These tours and the suppression of the VOC eventually led to the big Amboina war (1651 – 1659), which would cost a lot of lives especially on the side of the local people, after this war the VOC had an even stronger monopolistic position in this area.
Another important event that happened during that time but where anyone rarely talks about nowadays is the role the Dutch played in the transatlantic slave trade during that time. Because of the “success” the VOC had from the start on with inhabiting different areas in the Indonesian region, they were in need of people who would be able to do the hard labour on the plantations in Indonesia and from 1652 on as well in Cape of Good Hope.
The slaves the VOC used were mostly from Bengal but also from Sumatra, Java, the Celebes, Ternate and Timor. Unfortunately there are no numbers on the amount of slaves that worked in the Asian region, but it is estimated that from 1652 until the end of the 18th century the slave population on the Cape of Good Hope consisted of about 16,839 people.
Although the VOC its main trade were not slaves, there was another Dutch company from that time, the Dutch West India Company (WIC), which specifically focussed on the trade of slaves. Although the Netherlands are nowadays seen as one of the most progressive countries in the world, they were ne of the last countries to abolish slavery in 1863 (probably because of their economic interests)[5.http://old.antislavery.org/breakingthesilence/slave_routes/slave_routes_netherlands.shtml]
There is no denial that the VOC brought great prosperity to the Netherlands during the 17th and the 18th century. Being one of the biggest and most influential company’s of all time is quite an accomplishment.
In this modern world, there are a lot of countries that have histories of which they are extremely proud, without looking at the dark side of these historical events.
I don’t believe that anyone who is alive nowadays is to blame for the things that happened in the past, but I do believe that by being open and transparent about what happened during these historical events, can help to make people understand (and in the future, prevent) mistakes that have been made in the past.
Not being honest about events that happened is not only disrespectful to the people that suffered, but it is also lying to yourself since what happened in the past defines what you are right now.
Who knows what would have happened if the Dutch government decided not to give the VOC a monopoly over the East Indies in 1602, maybe the Netherlands might not have been as prosperous as they are nowadays, maybe the Dutch culture as a whole was different from how it is now.
The only thing we do know is that what happened can’t be changed, and instead of hiding from it, we should rather face it and learn from it.