The V.O.C., 1602-1798 Dutch Discoverors

Colonial Expansion : the W.I.C. ((Dutch United) West India Company) 1621-1798

HERRING fishery was an important branch of the economy of the cities of Holland and Zeeland. The supply of quality SALT, from saltpans located on Spain's northwestern coast, was vital to this trade. In 1598, during the DUTCH REVOLT, Spain closed access to Spanish salt to the Hollanders and Zeelanders.
The Hollanders were thus forced to look for other sources; Dutch fleets of merchant ships ventured as far as the Caribbean, where they found saltpans where excellent salt could be found at Araya peninsula, Venezuela (1599). The Dutch also engaged in piracy, attacking Spanish ships throughout the Caribbean. The Spanish retaliated by taking the Dutch ships at Araya. The Dutch now took their salt from the island of ST. MAARTEN (lesser Antilles).
In 1621 the WIC (West Indische Compagnie, (Dutch United) West India Company) was chartered, given a monopoly on the trade with the West Indies. The Dutch now sailed to the Americas in large fleets (of up to 300 ships), establishing control over NORTHEASTERN BRAZIL 1624/1630 (lost by 1654), establishing fortified trade posts along the west coast of Africa (ELMINA/Gold Coast 1637). In 1628, a Dutch fleet under Captain PIET HEYN was able to take the Spanish Silver Fleet.
In 1633, the Spanish took control of St. Maarten, depriving the Dutch again of their vital salt supply. The V.W.C. now occupied CURACAO (1634, salt supply), ST. EUSTASIUS (1635, tobacco), SABA. The islands were settled and fortified to prevent a takeover by a hostile fleet when W.I.C. ships were unavailable.
Meanwhile, the W.I.C., in 1624, had established another colony, NEW NETHERLANDS, with it's headquarters at FORT ORANJE (Albany, N.Y.). In 1625, the island of Manhattan was bought from native Americans and the city of NEW AMSTERDAM (present day New York) was founded. New Amsterdam and Curacao, together with Pernambuco, were to be the centers of the W.I..C. Empire.

It turned out that the pursuit of an aggressive colonial policy was very costly and investments were risky. While it was relatively easy to establish Dutch domination in the early years - most places had no defensive installations - by now, fortresses were built everywhere. Expeditions equipped and sent out in order to conquer riches came back empty-handed. So the W.I.C. changed it's policy to holding on to what they had.

Brazil was lost in 1654 and no serious effort was undertaken to recover the loss. When the English Civil War and Cromwell's rule had British settlers on Barbados and British ships failed to arrive at the 'renegade islands', the Dutch took over that trade. W.I.C. trade thus was not just with their own colonies.
The Dutch, as decent Calvinists, believed in honest trade. If a colony was not taken by force from the Spanish, it had to be properly bought from the owners (thus the purchase of Manhattan; when news was brought of the purchase to Amsterdam, the men from New Netherlands were arrested and interrogated until it became evident that the island had properly been bought). Regarding the fur trade with the native Americans, the Dutch offered to pay in silver (as opposed to the French and English, who offered alcohol or cheap glass beads).
When the Dutch Republic was at war with Sweden, the governor of New Netherlands, PIETER STUYVESANT with a small fleet took the neighbouring colony of NEW SWEDEN (1657). Only a few years later, during the second ANGLO-DUTCH WAR, a fleet sailing for the Duke of York, took New Netherlands; the city of New Amsterdam, with a population of about 5.000, was renamed New York. In the same war, the Dutch conquered (English) ESSEQUIBO, DEMARARA (both Guyana) and SURINAME. During the peace negotiations (Breda 1667) the English offered to return New Netherlands for Guyana and Suriname. The Duch said 'no, thanks' - the sugar plantations in Suriname were more profitable than that piece of real estate around Waal Straat (Wall Street).
When the Dutch Republic, in yet another war, had to face a coalition of the English, French and Swedes (1672), a large Dutch fleet, for the last time, took command of the seas in the Caribbean and along the shores of North America. Although victorious, the news of the sweeping Dutch victory was intercepted by the English who negotiated a quick peace treaty, depriving the W.I..C. of any gain.

After 1672, the Dutch held on to their possessions, focussing on peaceful trade. The V.W.C. gradually gave up it's monopoly for trading with the (few) Dutch colonies. It went bankrupt in 1674, was reorganized under the name Geoctroyeerde West Indische Compagnie (G.W.I.C.). It did not pursue any policy of territorial acquisition. Dutch merchant vessels profited from the mercantilist policy of Britain, which made smuggling trade with the Dutch much more attractive to British colonists in the Caribbean; equally Dutch vessels smuggled with Spanish and other colonies. St. Eustasius (STATIA) in the late 18th century became a hub for smuggle trade; it was called the GOLDEN ROCK. When it was taken by a Britis fleet in 1781 during the 4th Anglo-Dutch War 1780-1784, this lucrative contraband trade ended. The W.I.C. soon went bankrupt. In 1799 it's debts and assets were taken over by the Batavian Republic.
The six Dutch Caribbean islands - Curaçao, Bonaire, Aruba, St. Eustasius, the Dutch half of St. Maarten and Saba - are still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, having refused the option of independence. Suriname gained it's independence in 1975.

West-Indische Compagnie, from VOC, in Dutch, focusses on the prehistory and early history (until 1621)
West-Indische Compagnie, from Tonia's Wereldgeschiedenis, in Dutch, -1621
DOCUMENTS Coats of Arms, posted by Filip van Laenen, scroll down (several items)
Charter of the W.I.C., 1621, from the Avalon Project at Yale
Baptisms at the Reformed Dutch Church of New Amsterdam (1639-1730) posted by Theodore Brassard
New Netherland Project - Documents
Plakkaat tot aanmoediging van de slavenhandel in de West-Indische kolonien 1789, from, in Dutch
REFERENCE H.P.H. Jansen, Kalendarium. Geschiedenis van de Lage Landen in Jaartallen (History of the Low Countries by Years), Utrecht : Prisma (1971) 4th edition 1979

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2000, last revised on November 11th 2004

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