The VOC limited itself to ship-based weapons for only a very short while. The third VOC fleet, which left in 1605 under Cornelis Matelieff, brought with it 200 soldiers. As the ships’ cannon were operated by sailors, these soldiers were sent along purely for land warfare, i.e. the conquest and occupation of Portuguese forts. In august 1606, the Gentlemen XVII made sending soldiers along the normal policy, by resolving that every large VOC ship should have 50 soldiers on board, and the smaller yachts 10. These troops it used mainly to man the various fortifications it was by now conquering or building in the Moluccas: by 1609, it had a total of 590 soldiers garrisoning a total of 7 fortified positions.[1]

It was directly after the conquest of Jakatra and the founding of the rendezvous that Jan Pieterszoon Coen also took the initiative of founding a land army. He requested that 700 soldiers and 300 sailors be sent to Batavia “not just to preserve this place, but to keep safe a good portion of the surrounding land and to keep the neighbouring kingdoms in check.”[2] Coen was apparently taking to heart that Bantam feared “no Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutchmen or Englishmen, but only Mataram. From the latter […] no-one can flee, but for the others we have the whole mountain range at our disposal: they cannot pursue us there with their ships.”[3]

From this time onwards, the number of soldiers the VOC sent east steadily increased. In the years after 1642, when Antonio van Diemen had just made a great number of conquests on the Portuguese which all needed to be guarded, about 1000 soldiers were sent eastwards each year. The total number of soldiers would increase up to what must have approached 10.000 by the end of the 17th century.[4] Pieter van Dam wrote at the end of the 17th century that 8200 soldiers should suffice for the Company’s aims in Asia, in what appears to be a suggestion for cutting back on costs.[5]

Whereas the Gentlemen XVII thought these 10.000 soldiers to be a financial burden already, to the modern observer it will seem incredible that the VOC reached its military achievements with such a small number of soldiers, particularly if we take into account that the VOC’s military activities were spread out across pretty much half the globe. If the sources tell us that the Susuhunan of the Mataram state brought tens of thousands of people under the walls of Batavia in his 1629 attack on the city, or that the total number of nayars, people from the warrior caste on the Malabar coast, was at the time estimated to be one and a half million,[6] it seems improbable that the VOC, with so limited a number of soldiers, spread out over so enormous an area, would have made any difference at all in Asian warfare. How is this possible? Was the VOC soldier so much better than his Asian counterpart?

Of course, the VOC, in addition to its European soldiers, had its mercenaries, its locally recruited soldiers and its allies, which will be discussed below. There has, however, certainly been some discussion about the quality and training of the VOC soldier. Various scholars have indeed brought forward that the military tradition from which the VOC ‘soldier’ sprang, as well as his training, made him into something qualitatively different from the ‘warriors’ he would be encountering on the field of battle.[7] The VOC soldier was a drilled and disciplined product of the Military Revolution, and the tactics he was taught to use, a product of military innovations made back in Europe, gave him a decisive edge over his Asian counterpart, so the argument goes.

Other authors, however, give a wholly different view of the VOC soldier, and suggest he was of abominable quality. For one, they point to their backgrounds. A decision to go and join the VOC as a soldier was usually a measure of last resort.[8] Wages in the armies of the VOC and those of the Dutch Republic were comparable.[9] As boarding a VOC-vessel as a soldier usually meant that one would not be coming back (only one in three VOC employees made it back to Europe, and for soldiers the chances were even slighter)[10], we can only conclude that the army of the Republic was the more attractive of the two, and to actually sign up as a VOC soldier one really had to be a desperate soul. Van Gelder wishes to nuance this, by pointing out that in early modern times being a desperado was not at all equivalent with being a good-for-nothing bum. The various wars that raged through Europe (and particularly Germany, where three out of four VOC soldiers came from) in early modern times, as well as various other social and economic developments, made life harsh and unpredictable, and the chance of someone ‘dropping out’ was simply very real in the early modern world. In other words: the people signing up for VOC service might have been a bunch of outcasts and beggars, but this did not mean they were criminals and bums. There is, in his eyes, no reason to assume that these people would have made bad soldiers.[11]

Regardless of the quality of the soldiers, all kinds of tropical diseases, as well as the different climate in general, took their toll on the Europeans arriving in Batavia. Van Dam remarks how in 1684, out of the 1500 soldiers residing in Batavia, only one quarter was fit for any kind of combat duty: all the others were laid low by diseases or fatigue due to the climate.[12]

As to discipline and training, very little research has as yet been done, and we still mainly rely on De Iongh’s 1950 booklet, as well as some brief passages in Kuyper’s study on artillery.[13] If we have to take De Iongh’s word for it, the training of the VOC soldier did not amount to much. Training was limited to a parade that occurred every two weeks. There was no training in jungle warfare whatsoever. As the salary was low, and the VOC managed to make it even lower by all kinds of rules (for one, the soldiers had to buy their clothes and equipment from the VOC), most of the soldiers sustained themselves with all kinds of side-jobs; many soldiers went ahead and worked full time in some non-military function, paid one of their comrades to do their guard duty, and bribed their superiors to look the other way. Guard duty, we get the impression from De Iongh, seems to have been the only work the soldiers really had, anyway.[14] Nicolauss de Graaff, however, in his Oost- Indische Spiegel, tells us that soldiers were already drilled on board the ships every now and again, if circumstances permitted.[15] On arrival in Batavia, the soldiers would be assigned to one of the four bastions, where they would receive training for two months before being assigned to another post.[16] What this training looked like seems to be unknown. We may at any rate assume that the soldiers were trained in the use of muskets and arquebuses, as well as the use of the pike, which still had an important role in the battlefield operations of the 17th century. They were also certainly trained in the firing of volleys.

This volley fire in itself is also a point of debate. This European innovation in the use of infantry consisted of having the infantry stand in rows, usually three: the first row would fire a volley, while the other rows would be busy reloading their muskets. After firing, the front row would move to the back, and the other rows would make a step forward. This mechanical ballet of soldiers revolutionized field warfare in Europe, and is seen as one of the spearheads of the innovations of the Military Revolution. Various authors, however, wonder whether this really gave European troops a tactical advantage outside Europe. Standing in lines and firing volleys might work very well in the open field, but VOC warfare also consisted of penal expeditions in jungles, where volley fire would be wholly useless.[17]

Be that as it may: the Javanese, for one, were at least somewhat impressed, as they started copying this tactic. All these European innovations were not so ‘essentially different’ that they could not be copied. Ricklefs shows this for the wars on Java. Here the prajurit also came in possession of more and more firearms, both by local production and by way of the lively trade in firearms that had developed throughout Asia. (After all, the Dutch were not the only people with firearms.) They also started training in the firing of volleys, and became increasingly successful by the end of the 17th century.[18]

In the end, the current knowledge about the quality, equipments and tactics of VOC infantry, as well as the value of these tactics within the circumstances, and against the kind of adversaries that the VOC soldiers had to fight, does not warrant any comprehensive conclusions on the matter. Perhaps the Europeans did manage to keep an advantage over many of their Asian adversaries in terms of discipline, training and equipment. It seems unlikely, however, that this technological and tactical gap, in this pre-Industrial Revolution world, and with such a numerical disadvantage, would ever have been so great as to hold great explanatory value with regard to the VOC’s military success in general.

List footnotes

« Previous: Ships
Next: Local troops »
D. de Iongh, Het Krijgswezen onder de Oostindische Compagnie (The Hague 1950), 31-37.
The 300 sailors, Coen goes on to explain, would be used for forming a small fleet with which to trade locally (the earliest beginnings of the intra-Asian trade network?) and with which to frustrate the trade to Portuguese Malacca. Colenbrander, Jan Pieterszoon Coen: bescheiden omtrent zijn verblijf in Indie, I (Den Haag 1919), 580.
Colenbrander, Coen, I, 119.
Van Dam goes on to state that making an accurate calculation is almost impossible, as is actually doing something useful with it, since soldiers are always under way, dying, deserting etc., and information takes such a long time to go to and fro between the various settlements, Batavia and patria. Thus, Van Dam claims, the Directors in the Netherlands can never accurately anticipate the number of soldiers they need to recruit. Pieter Van Dam, F.W. Stapel ed. Beschryvinge van de Oostindische Compagnie, III (The Hague 1927-1954), 309-319.
Ibid., 320.
This according to Van Rheede, in his Memorie van Overgave. Meilink-Roelofsz, Vestiging Malabar, 14.
E.g. Willem Remmelink, ‘De worsteling om Java’, in: Gerrit Knaap en Ger Teitler, De Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie: Tussen oorlog en diplomatie, verhandelingen KITLV, 197 (Leiden 2002),337-354, there 338-341.
Remco Raben, ‘Het Aziatisch legioen: huurlingen, bondgenoten en reservisten in het geweer voor de VOC’ in: De VOC: tussen oorlog en diplomatie, 181-208, there 183.
J.R. Bruijn, F. Gaastra and I Schöffer, Dutch Asiatic Shipping in the 17th and 18th centuries, I (Den Haag 1987) 149- 151.
Gaastra, Dutch East India Company, 77. However, not all of the people who did not come back were dead. Some decided to stay in the East as freeburghers, or went for a VOC career in the East.
Roelof van Gelder, Het Oost-Indisch avontuur: Duitsers in dienst van de VOC 1600-1800 (Nijmegen 1997), 57pp.
Van Dam, Beschrijvinge, III, 312.
De Iongh, Krijgswezen; F.W.H. Kuypers, Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche Artillerie, vanaf de vroegste tijden tot op heden (Nijmegen 1870-1874), vol. III, 238pp.
De Iongh, Krijgswezen, 79-87.
Nicolaus De Graaff, Oost-Indische Spiegel,behelsende eene beschrijving vande stad Batavia (Den Haag 1930), 30.
Van Gelder, Oost-Indisch Avontuur, 179.
E.g. De Iongh, Krijgswezen onder VOC, 114pp.
Ricklefs, War Culture and the economy, 222pp.