The extensive reliance on artillery and firearms made gunpowder the lifeblood of the Company’s defences. Each Company ship leaving from the Dutch Republic was equipped with up to 10.000 pounds of it.[1] This was not just meant for the defence of the ship: the demand for gunpowder in Asia was also supplied from the reserves that the fleets took with them: when the ship arrived in Batavia, the authorities there simply redistributed the gunpowder in the way they saw fit.

This practice explains why gunpowder is so notably lacking from the Generale Eis,[2] the ‘shopping list’ of goods that were needed in Asia, sent along with the fleets returning to Europe. Whereas in these requests from Asia, page after page is filled with weapons and ammunition (pistols, balls of various sizes, sword blades), gunpowder is nowhere to be found. While undoubtedly a much simpler system for the Company, it is a pity for the researcher nowadays, as it makes it very hard to reconstruct how much gunpowder was actually ‘consumed.’

Another thing, however, is quite clear: as soon as the Company got a foothold in Asia, it did not feel like being wholly dependent on the supply lines from Europe. As early as October 1615, Governor General Reynst requested “a good quantity of gunpowder for the fortresses, and people who can make powder themselves.”[3] Only a few years later, Coen urged the Gentlemen XVII to do the same: “Please don’t fail to also send some powder makers, as we hope to obtain plenty of saltpetre from the [Coromandel] coast; neither fail to send us powder until Your Honours are certain that we will be able to get by out here.”[4] At the time that Coen wrote these words to the Gentlemen XVII, two powder mills were already active on Ambon, and Coen was already building a third one in Batavia. It would seem that these powder mills, however, fell into disuse in the following decades. For the time being, the VOC remained dependent on the supply of gunpowder from Europe.

Renewed attempts to start up serious gunpowder production in Asia only took place from 1655 onwards. The first mill, opened in that year and powered by buffaloes, was apparently meant as a way to have prisoners of war do something useful. Only one year later, the mill was upgraded to be water-powered. The resulting mill was capable of producing 12.000 pounds of powder per month. It was structurally enlarged and enhanced, until a series of accidents led to the decision of splitting the mill into two smaller mills. In the end, the gunpowder making efforts led to a monthly production capacity of 30.000 pounds per month in Batavia alone by 1662. Added up to the mills in Pulicat, Colombo and on the Coromandel Coast (the latter of which was good for 10.000 pounds per month), this made the VOC self-sufficient in its demand for gunpowder.[5]

The decision to make gunpowder locally instead of shipping all of it over from the Dutch Republic was so logical that it is surprising that large-scale production only got going in the 1650s. The three ingredients of gunpowder, which consists of 10% charcoal , 75% saltpetre and 15% sulphur, were not exactly hard to come by in Asia. Charcoal, obviously, was not a problem anywhere. Sulphur was found in some amounts in the Archipelago, for one in the Banda Islands.[6] Saltpetre, a crystalline substance which is the product of fermentation processes (in a nutshell, it was made from leaving manure or bird’s excrement ferment for a while), could be made pretty much anywhere; warmer climates actually made saltpetre production easier, and led to a product of higher quality than the saltpetre produced in Europe.[7]

This latter fact led to one interesting development: whereas in almost all respects, the Company in Asia was heavily dependent on military supplies from the Republic, for the case of gunpowder the tables were reversed in the course of the 17th century. In the first decades of the century, the Dutch demand for saltpetre was almost wholly supplied from the Baltic States. When, however, these regions were hit by the onslaught of the Thirty Years war from 1627 onwards, this source of saltpetre dried up. At the same time, the Company was building up its contacts along the East Coast of India: first it invested in the Coromandel Coast, and then it opened its first permanent factory in Bengal in 1634.[8] This was the region where the English eic bought its saltpetre, and the VOC also started buying impressive amounts there, not only for its own gunpowder production, but mainly for export to the Dutch Republic. In the years 1658-1660, for example, a total of four fleets brought 2.2 million pounds of saltpetre to the Dutch Republic: amounts of the same order of magnitude as the imports from the Baltic some fifty years earlier.[9] As in the same years, the Company was slowly becoming self-reliant with respect to gunpowder, it was in this case the Dutch Republic which was militarily dependent on the Company instead of the other way around.

The art of making gunpowder, like the art of making guns, was hardly a secret in Asia. Neither could it have been: after all, gunpowder was originally a Chinese invention. However, as in the case of guns, this didn’t mean it was easy, and some mastered it better than others. The basic recipe for gunpowder is simple enough: grind 5 cups of saltpetre, 1 cup of sulphur and 2/3s of a cup of charcoal into powder, put in a big bowl and stir for a long time. Nonetheless, there was a lot of room for improvement within this rather simple basic principle. The importance of the quality of the saltpetre has been briefly discussed above, and even the higher quality saltpetre obtained in Asia needed to be purified for the best result.[10] In addition, the grain of the powder made a lot of difference. In the 16th century, the development of the practice of making the powder wet and then having it dry in corns had meant a vast improvement: the resulting ‘corned powder’ burned more regularly, predictably and fiercely, and was significantly less hygroscopic than the original uncorned variety which, being a powder as fine as flower, had a much larger surface area. Lumps of charcoal in gunpowder could make it highly unpredictable, suddenly burning much faster or slower, which made aiming almost impossible and brought with it the risk of the gun blowing up. Having regularly ground basic ingredients and grains of a particular size was therefore of great importance for having good gunpowder.[11] It was for a good reason that Coen and Reynst asked for specialists to be sent over.

Although it is impossible to reconstruct what virtues and flaws the various kinds of gunpowder produced by local societies had (whereas metal guns survive the centuries and might be subjected to research nowadays, gunpowder does not), the sources do tell us that European gunpowder was considered to be of a particularly high quality, and, although gunpowder had been around for the entire 16th century, various local societies sought to copy the European ways of producing it. In 1662, the Hooge Regeering informed the directors back home of the fact that, only two years after their water-powered mill had been completed, a mill built along exactly the same lines had been erected in Makassar. Someone had apparently been paying close attention to the VOC’s gunpowder making efforts.[12] The Mataram state had learned the art of making gunpowder from the Malakka Portuguese in 1624.[13] However, they were evidently unhappy with the product of their efforts, as until the beginning of the 18th century, Batavia kept on getting requests from the court for some professional advice on gunpowder production. The Hoge Regering, of course, knew better than to honour these requests.[14]

List footnotes

C.O. van der Meij, ‘De VOC onder de wapenen’ in: J.P. Puype and Marco van der Hoeven, Het arsenaal van de wereld: Nederlandse wapenhandel in de Gouden Eeuw (Amsterdam 1993), 50. According to Pieter van Dam, I, 643, it was, as of 1656, procedure to equip the large galleons with 7.000 pounds, and smaller vessels with 3.000.
VOC-Archives, 13427 and further.
W.Ph. Coolhaas ed., Generale Missiven van Gouverneurs-Generaal en raden aan Heren XVII der VOC, I (Den Haag 1960), 56. This is a quote from what is considered to be a forerunner of the Generale Eis, and is, as far as I have been able to determine, the only time that it contained a request for powder.
Quoted from Kuypers, Geschiedenis der artillerie, III, 207pp.
Kuypers, Geschiedenis der artillerie, III, 207; Generale Missiven, I, 139pp, 358pp, 471.
VOC-Archives, 1246, fol 904-905.
In the process of making saltpetre, all kinds of nitrates form in the substance. Some of these are highly hygroscopic, which would cause the eventual gunpowder to go damp much easier. (One percent of water is enough to make gunpowder utterly useless.) Calcium nitrate is the most hygroscopic and therefore most undesirable of these; saltpeterers would rather see potassium nitrate in their saltpetre, and in the course of the 16th century various purifying methods were developed. Saltpetre produced in warm regions was much richer in potassium nitrate and contained less calcium nitrate. Bert S. Hall, Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe: Gunpowder, technology and tactics (Baltimore, MA, 1997), 77-79.
For the ins and outs of the saltpetre trade in Bengal: see Pieter Van Dam, book 2, vol. II, 13.
N.A. 1.04.02, 1221, fol 84; 1225, fol. 136; 1229, fol. 136; 1230, fol. 65, being the ‘summaries of loaded goods’ of each of the fleets. Respective amounts of saltpeter: 625.275 pounds, 388.688 pounds, 908.973 pounds and 257.850 pounds. In many cases the amount of saltpeter being shipped comes second only to the amount of pepper. In one case it is even larger. As saltpetre does not seem to play a very large role in current discourse on the VOC, this might be one of the most underexposed goods the VOC shipped to Europe. Information and statistics on the saltpetre from the Baltic states comes from: Michiel de Jong, Staat van Oorlog: wapenbedrijf en militaire hervorming in de republiek der verenigde nederlanden, 1585-1621 (Hilversum 2005), 206pp. Amounts of saltpetre shipped to Europe from the Baltic states varied between nothing and some 1.5 million pounds per year, with the notable exception of 1620-1621, when the war with Spain was about to resume and the Republic imported a good 9 million pounds within two years.
Van der Meij, ‘De VOC onder de wapenen’, 50.
Hall, Weapons and Warfare, C3; Jack Kelly, Gunpowder: a history of the explosive that changed the world (London 2004), C4. Although the latter book is popular history, it is good fun, well-researched and actually the most insightful book on the subject I’ve read.
Generale Missiven, I, 397.
Crucq, ‘Soerakarta’, 95.
Charney, South East Asian warfare, 58-60.