The Dutch East India Company: Trade in the Dutch Golden Age

Creating an Empire

The Golden Age of the Dutch Republic witnessed an immense increase in global exploration and foreign trade. The Dutch trading empire covered huge distances, importing exotic objects from Asia for trade in the Europe markets (Kehoe 275). The Dutch East India Company, known in Dutch as Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), was founded in 1602 by the Dutch in an attempt to protect their trade in the Indian Ocean. The company flourished and the Dutch harbors soon become the center of the Dutch commercial empire (Encyclopedia Britannica).

The Dutch trading empire covered huge distances, importing exotic objects from Asia for trade in the Europe markets (Kehoe 275).

The Dutch trading empire covered huge distances, importing exotic objects from Asia for trade in the Europe markets (Kehoe 275).

The VOC was granted a trade monopoly by the Dutch government that covered the territory between the Cape of Good Hope and the Straits of Magellan (Britannica). With this monopoly, the VOC was also granted “the right to conclude treaties with native princes, to build forts and maintain armed forces, and to carry on administrative functions through officials who were required to take an oath of loyalty to the Dutch government” (Britannica). The Dutch were eager to gain a monopoly on the spice trade, and were willing to use “force to exclude European and Asian rivals from the market” (Parthesius 113). This proved to be true, and in the early 17th century, “under the administration of forceful governors-general” the VOC defeated the British fleet and supplanted British and Portuguese trade in the East Indies (Britannica). In his book European commercial enterprise in pre-colonial India, Om Prakash notes how “in its trade with Asia the Dutch East India Company took extensive steps to obtain exclusive rights in particular products and markets and to minimize competition by indigenous merchants, making a judicious use of violence in the process” (Prakash 82). The company obtained exclusivity contracts with the local princes that states the princes would only sell spices to the VOC. These contracts were often made under the threat of violence (Chaudhuri 87). The Dutch East India Company therefore used a certain amount of violence for the sake of their ambitious business plan to obtain a monopoly of the Spice Islands in the East Indies archipelago. The company succeeded in gaining this monopoly of most foreign goods in this area, and secured its market control by building several strong territorial bases (Prakash 146).

Once the Dutch gained a monopoly on the spice trade, the Spice Islands became the focal point of the company (Parthesius 113). The Spice Islands were a viable source for exotic spices such as nutmeg, mace, cloves, and pepper (Kehoe 281).

The Dutch dealt very pragmatically with the native peoples of the territories in which they were trading. Oostindie and Paastman note that unlike Catholic nations, “there was no serious attempt to convert the subjected peoples to Christianity, much less to socialize them into Dutch culture” (Oostindie, Paastman). The island cities and colonial trade centers “remained separate entities for all but economic purposes” (Oostindie, Paastman). The native population was generally allowed to maintain their native religions, languages, and cultures (Oostindi, Paastman). Despite this, it is important to remember that the VOC’s pragmatic and businesslike approach to colonization was not above using violence as a practical means to an end. Although the VOC did not have a religious agenda or a desire to assimilate native people into Dutch culture, the Dutch were perfectly willing to use violence to ensure their economic success (Chaudhuri 87).

Nautilus Shells in Dutch East Indian Trade

Although spices were the main export of the Dutch East India Company, other exotic objects from the Indies were also shipped back to the Dutch Republic to be traded in European markets (Kehoe 282). One of these exotic objects was the nautilus shell. In the late 16th century nautilus shells began to be regularly imported into Europe (Schmidt). The shells were admired for their exotic origins as well as for their scientific and mathematical properties (Kehoe 282). Kehoe describes how a cross-section of the shell allows the viewer to see the geometrically spiraling chambers, which illustrated the mathematical principle of logarithms and was seen as visual evidence of the mathematical properties of nature (Kehoe 282).

Ole Worm’s cabinet of curiosities, from Museum Wormianum, 1655. Collectors would strive to collect the most exotic, wondrous, and rare objects to add to their Wunderkammern (Schmidt). You can see Ole Worm’s shell collection, under the labels “conchilia” and “conchiliata.”

The exotic nautilus shells were also commonly purchased by European collectors hoping to add the shell to their “curiosity cabinets,” also known as Kunst-und Wunderkammern (Schmidt). Curiosity cabinets were exhibitions of private collections of wealthy European merchants and princes, and are often considered the predecessors of modern museums (Schmidt). Collectors would strive to collect the most exotic, wondrous, and rare objects to add to their Wunderkammern (Schmidt).

Most of the shells would be mounted on silver to create unique drinking vessels, or nautilus cups (Schmidt). The nautilus cup was especially prized as a collector’s item because it combined the natural and scientific properties of the shell with the man-made artistic silver mount (Kehoe 283). When the VOC monopolized Spice Island trade, they essentially monopolized the trade of nautilus shells as well. Consequently almost all the nautilus shells that came into Europe after the VOC’s rise to power passed through the Dutch ports and were sold in Dutch markets (Kehoe 281). Similarly, the silver that was used to create the mounts for the nautilus shells was also acquired and traded by the VOC, often from the Americas. Although the mounts were usually crafted by native Dutch silversmiths, the material was yet another foreign import (Kehoe 281).


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