A bygone power: Dutch East India Company [2 May 1936]

[Editor: An article about the East India Company, of the Netherlands (whose ships had explored the waters of Australia’s northern and western coasts in the 1600s). Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 1936.]

A bygone power.

Dutch East India Company.

(By Flinders Barr.)

Thus to the Eastern wealth thro’ storms we go,
But now, the Cape once doubled, fear no more;
A constant trade-wind will securely blow,
And gently lay us on the spicy shore.
— Dryden.

The year 1602, which saw the death of Queen Elizabeth, witnessed also the birth of that powerful syndicate the Dutch East India Company, which had for its avowed object the entire monopoly of the trade of the Far East. Its board consisted of sixty directors, from amongst whom an executive committee of 17 was elected, called “The Assembly,” and an enormous sum for those days, 6,600,000 livres or francs, was subscribed as the capital of the company.

A scheme so well organised was bound to meet with success, and having in a comparatively short time driven away all its rivals, the company’s headquarters in Batavia became the centre of an enormous sphere of influence extending from Japan to Madagascar, and from the north-west Pacific to the Red Sea. Finally, China was to be dominated, for as Coen, the first Dutch Governor-General, said, “It is our fixed intention not to allow any Chinese in future to sail to any other port than Batavia on pain of being declared our enemies and treated as such.” Also, amongst the instructions to that first Governor-General from headquarters in Holland were “the commerce of the Moluccas, Amboyna, and Banda, should belong to the company, and that no other nation in the world shall have the least part.” Being amongst those thus excluded from Far Eastern waters, the British East India Company withdrew to India and ultimately built up the British India Empire, but for over 150 years, till the French Revolution destroyed it, the Dutch company remained in complete possession of what we now call the East Indies and Ceylon.

Fortunately for a British Australia, the Dutch were not prepossessed with what they had seen of its coast during their early voyages of exploration, and confined themselves to the prolific islands amongst which they were established, and the trade with Europe in nutmegs, cloves, pepper, and spice. From the beginning, the Hollanders were fine seamen, and built stout ships, so bluff in the bows that their strength made them slow sailers, but this was not much of a disqualification in the days when one voyage a year was considered good work. The first fleet sent by the company from Holland to Java sailed in June, 1602, and consisted of fourteen vessels very well found and manned: the crews were supposed to be entirely Dutch, no strangers or foreigners were to be employed in the company’s service. Though nominally merchantmen, the ships were as powerful as men-of-war, but were, of course, entirely distinct from the Netherlands Navy.


An official called a commissary was upon every ship, who was the direct representative of the company, and had a great deal to say on every question. He formed one of the council of five established on each vessel for the administration of justice, etc. Besides himself, the council consisted of the captain, the under-commissary, the chief pilot or sailing master, and the boatswain; officers from other vessels of the fleet were not allowed to attend any council but their own, except by special permission of the admiral. During the night, two or three times in each watch, an officer went the rounds to see that everything was quite correct, and was particularly to take note of any mutinous conduct, swearing, profane conversation, or blasphemy amongst the crew. No one on board was allowed to handle an axe but the carpenter without the captain’s permission, and the regulations concerning wasting the ship’s provisions were very stringent. Anyone caught damaging the instruments of the surgeon, the carpenter, or the cooks was to be beaten with cords at the foot of the mainmast. Gaming and card-playing was prohibited under penalty of eight days in irons, and anyone losing money at cards was not compelled to pay. One regulation was “The extravagant custom of baptism (when crossing the line) is forbidden,” but as compensation each mess was allowed a free bowl of wine. Finally, there was a grand council of the fleet, consisting of the commissaries, captains, under-commissaries, and chief pilots; at this, the admiral presided, and had a casting vote; this grand council had extensive powers, and could decide the movements of the fleet.

The chaplains and consolers of the sick were to be treated with the respect due to them, but when exhorting the ship’s companies to piety and virtue they were not to touch on controversial subjects. On every ship public prayers were to be held every day at which all hands were to be present.

The punishments in use at sea in those days were very brutal, and were modelled after those of the Laws of Oleron, said to have been framed by Richard Coeur de Lion, before he set sail for the Crusades.


As far as food went in those days, when so little was known of the art of preserving, the Dutch East India crews seem to have fared tolerably well, much better anyway than did the seamen in the British Navy in Nelson’s time. When they left Holland the fleet was victualled for twelve months; for every hundred men each ship carried 2100 pounds of biscuit, each man receiving four pounds per week. Twenty large barrels of beef were taken, each one weighing 550 pounds, the ration being three-quarters of a pound twice a week, and also a ration of one pound of salt pork was issued weekly. Three thousand pounds of “Stocfisse” or salt cod was amongst the stores, of this each man received a quarter of a pound four times a week, whilst during the 12 months each seaman was entitled to five cheeses or six or seven pounds each. Thirty tons of water was the allowance for 100 men, supplied to each man in measures called “flip-kannen.” Each man had also a barrel of beer during a voyage, and received every day while it lasted “undemisetier” of French or Spanish wine. Amongst the stores might be found two barrels of brandy, 12 large ditto of butter, four of vinegar, 24 jars of oil, 256 pints of lemon-juice, prunes, husked barley, grey and white peas, dried horse-radish, and mustard. For the 40 officers there were carried, in addition, 40 smoked hams, 50 pieces of smoked beef, and eight smoked tongues.

When these old “sea-waggons,” as they were called, arrived after much travail at Batavia, where they were to take on board their precious homeward freight, the troubles of the officers in charge of the stowage of the cargo commenced, and their instructions were very strict. They were to fill up every possible service and corner with seed or grain in bulk, and were strictly forbidden to stow pepper, nutmeg, or cloves with other merchandise, because they would get heated and ferment. Each one of these three articles was to be stored away from the others in a different part of the ship; oil was to be placed where it was easy to get at, so that its preservation might be attended to. Finally these directions say, and this was a matter of very great importance in those days of leaky ships, “Above all, the greatest care must be taken that the pepper does not choke up the pumps.”

As has been said, this enormously valuable trade continued the monopoly of Holland and enriched the country for over 150 years; then came the French Revolution and the world-wide establishment of British colonies, amongst which was Singapore. With the foundation of this latter settlement by Sir Stamford Raffles, the dreams of Dutch supremacy were at an end, the trade routes to China were opened to the world.

The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), 2 May 1936, p. 13

[Editor: Corrected “enttiled” to “entitled”; “dections” to “directions”; “Raffes” to “Raffles”.]

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