Communication, administration and secrecy

As has been described earlier, one cannot pinpoint where in the organisation the responsibility with regard to warfare and politics lay. Technically, the Gentlemen XVII had the final responsibility, and all decisions of the Governor-General and Council were subject to their scrutiny. Then again, the Governor-General and Council had been called into existence for a good reason; it was impracticable to rule the VOC’s possessions all the way from the Dutch Republic. In the end, therefore, policy did not come from any particular source, but developed in the interaction between Batavia and the Netherlands. Where the centre of gravity in this interaction lay, entirely depended on the political situation in Asia as well as the character of the person actually taking up the seat of the Governor-General.

The Governor-General of our period, Johan Maatsuiker, was later described by Pieter van Dam as “having fulfilled his task to the greatest contentment of his overlords and masters.”[1] It is easy to see why the Gentlemen XVII were so content with him: under his Governor-Generalship, which lasted from 1652 to 1678 and was the longest period any Governor-General spent in office, the VOC did consistently well. Maatsuiker was both willing and able to use violence to protect the Company’s interests, but did not have the hawkish and self-righteous characteristics of some of his predecessors and successors. He was no Coen or Van Goens: it is striking how often he left decisions at the discretion of the Gentlemen XVII. The smaller decisions that he left to patria, regarding, for one, the reduction in size of fortresses or the administrative redivision of the Coromandel Coast,[2] were not actually discussed in the meeting of the XVII: the Haags Besogne already resolved on these kinds of issues and formulated the answer in its draft general letter, which then only had to be approved by the spring meeting and was usually included in the final letter virtually unchanged. Also striking about the general letters under Maatsuiker is his apparent insistence on giving patria as much insight into Asian politics as possible. In spite of several promises to the directors to keep the letters short, the general letters of this period often contain page-long passages on the dynastic wars in the Moghul Empire or political developments in and around Makassar, even where these had only second-hand relevance to the interests of the Company. Thus, even patria had access to a great amount of up-to-date information on the political developments in Asia. To what degree either the Haags Besogne or the directors actually appreciated this wealth of information is unclear, as there is little evidence of this kind of news actually being discussed in the meetings of either.

The Generale Missiven from the Governor General and Council Batavia to the directors and vice versa, were the most important means of communication between patria and Batavia. This communication was asymmetrical in the same way that the fleets were; as ships left from the Netherlands to Batavia practically all year round, the Gentlemen XVII were also capable of sending off letters throughout the year. Usually one or two letters were sent during each meeting. As the return fleets from Batavia, on the other hand, only sailed between late November and February, this also limited the possibility of sending letters to the Netherlands to this period. A general letter was usually sent somewhere in December, followed by another one a good month later. In effect, therefore, news was saved up over an entire year, and the Gentlemen XVII were informed of all this in two long letters. In cases of very important news, the VOC sometimes sent off letters with English ships that left from the region throughout the year, with the sensitive news in coding. This was done, for example, to inform the XVII of the conquest of Colombo in 1656, and Coxinga’s attack in 1661.[3] In a single instance in the period here under study, Batavia sent off a fluteship outside the normal shipping season to bring news to patria: on the 22nd of April 1662, the Spreeuw set sail from Batavia to inform the XVII that fort Zeelandia on Formosa had fallen.[4]

Reading through the resolutions of the Gentlemen XVII, one gets the impression that the directors were indeed a bunch of clerks rather than a political body. The bulk of the resolutions concerned balances, inter-Chamber business, relations with the Estates-General, costs, prices and alike. The various military campaigns or the political situation in Asia were hardly ever a topic of debate at all. If Asia was mentioned, this often concerned candidacies for vacant functions or the competence of the employees there, rather than the military campaigns or the threats posed by local rulers. A point on the agenda of the spring meeting of 1656 concerning the campaigns on Ceylon was a notable exception, and the actual goal of this point is telling indeed: in the previous meeting it had been brought forward that the garrisons and field armies on Ceylon were much too expensive, and apparently some of the Chambers were of the opinion that for this reason the campaign should be abandoned. The resolutions of the 1662 autumn meeting ramble on for pages on the pros and cons of open trade on Ceylon and the South Indian Coast, completely disregarding the war going on there; one of the most intensive campaigns the VOC ever fought. If we go by these resolutions, it has every appearance that the Gentlemen XVII perceived their task to be limited to the wellbeing of the European side of the Company and the fiscal policy, leaving political matters in the capable hands of the personnel in Asia.[5]

However: appearances can deceive. The events in the period here under study strongly suggest that during the meetings of the XVII, a host of things was decided that did not make it to the resolutions as we can read them today. Above it was already mentioned how war fleets were sent out in 1661 and 1662, which simply did not show up in the resolutions. The 1661 fleet to Ceylon, which left on the 11th of April, had already been announced to Batavia in a letter from the XVII, dated January 7, which was subsequently brought to Batavia by the Nieuwenhove, arriving in Batavia on the 10th of August. This letter informed Batavia that peace talks between the Republic and Portugal were making headway, and that it was therefore imperative that all possible damage should be inflicted on the Portuguese before this would be made impossible by the peace. For this purpose, six ships manned with 1500 heads would be sent directly to Ceylon, to definitively decide the war in the Company’s favour there.[6] If we are to believe the resolutions, however, the Gentlemen XVII were not even convened on the 7th of January, when the letter was signed. Neither is this letter included in the book of outgoing letters of the XVII.[7] The letter that was apparently never sent if we go by the Dutch Company administration, did however arrive in Batavia on the 10th of August, and the fleet that it promised was in fact bought, manned and sent by April, before the Gentlemen XVII reconvened for their spring meeting on the unusually late date of the 2nd of May.[8]

Similar curiosities surround the fleet to Mozambique which departed in the third week of April 1662. Nothing regarding the equipment of this fleet is to be found in the resolutions of the spring meeting, which had lasted from the 27th to the 31st of March, or the previous meeting, being the autumn meeting of 1661. In fact in the latter meeting all kinds of preparations for the peace were already decided upon, such as designing new instructions for the outgoing fleets, striking all the clauses about inflicting as much damage as possible on the Portuguese. However, the XVII would obviously have been the organ to commission this fleet, and indeed, in the Overgekomen brieven en papieren, we find various letters that Huibert de Lairesse, the commander of the fleet, sent to inform the XVII of the progress of the mission, in which he expresses his hope that “our design, God willing, shall be attained.” The letters make abundantly clear that the Gentlemen XVII had indeed commissioned this expedition.[9]

All in all, these years seem to show a pattern of decisions on warfare structurally being kept out of the Company’s Dutch paperwork. We only find these decisions and letters in the archives in the second instance, when the news of their results is starting to come back to the Netherlands through the general letter and the Overgekomen Brieven en Papieren. Why this was done will not be found in the archives, but the first thing that obviously comes to mind is fear of espionage by other European nations, particularly the Portuguese. The resolutions of the Gentlemen XVII as well as the letter books were kept in several copies (each of the Chambers had a copy of both), and many VOC employees must have had access to them. Fear of espionage would not have been wholly unjustified, as in this period the Republic was visited by Portuguese embassy after Portuguese embassy, in attempts to restore the peace between the two nations. The arrest of two citizens of The Hague in March 1651 on the accusation of spying for the Portuguese goes to illustrate that these embassies were cultivating more activities than just negotiating with the Estates-General.[10] As retaining the Asian empire was one of the first concerns of the Portuguese in their negotiations with the Estates-General, we must also assume that they would have had a keen interest in finding out the plans that the VOC had for those regions. It would seem that the VOC took every precaution not to let them find out.

All in all, only recurring issues such as the number of soldiers to be sent to Batavia made it to the resolutions; decisions regarding military campaigns and grand strategies were kept out of the paperwork. To what degree these things were entrusted to the paper at all remains unclear: we know that the Gentlemen XVII also had secret resolutions which were kept in separate books, but these have only survived for the late 18th century. The content and extent of the secret resolutions for our period can therefore only be guessed. In the end one can only conclude that the resolutions hardly tell us anything about the level of involvement of the Gentlemen XVII in matters of war.

List footnotes

Van Dam, book III, 20.
For examples of Maatsuiker leaving decisions to the XVII: see Generale Missiven, III, 93pp, 225pp.
Letters of July 31 1656 and July 29 1661, in: Generale Missiven, III, 82pp, 372pp.
Generale Missiven, III, 393.
Curiously enough, the same goes for the various papers of the Haags Besogne, i.e. the Haags Verbaal and concepts for the general letter to Batavia. Whereas this commission had the explicit function of examining the situation in Asia, the war against the Portuguese is hardly treated here at all, and a same care with words is used when things like the building of fortifications are discussed. Haags verbaal, VOC 4455, for the years 1661 and 1662.
Willem Martin Ottow, Rijckloff Volkert van Goens: krijgsman, commissaris en regent in dienst der VOC, 1657-1662 (unpublished 1995), C12.
VOC-Archives, outgoing letterbooks of the Gentlemen XVII and the Chamber of Amsterdam, 318.
The general letter to Batavia which was sent by this meeting on the 7th of May 1661 does not make any mention of the fleet either. The sections on Ceylon and Coromandel once again completely ignore the war going on there, and talk about the future profitability of these regions and Van Goens’ fortification plan, where the letter tactfully talks about defending the island against ‘a possible European enemy.’ The actual word ‘Portuguese’ is completely avoided, and only used once with reference to religion, as there are ‘Popish Portuguese priests’ active in the area. One day earlier, the meeting had sent a letter overland to the Western Quarters, expressing its hope for news from the Western Quarters. This letter does in fact state that all possible damage should be inflicted upon the Portuguese, as peace is approaching. The letter states that the directors are careful with the pen here, as the overland route is not very secure. “Other letters”, however, will have informed the various governors of more details. These admirably vague statements are of course not elaborated anywhere in the letter book, and it stands to reason that these ‘other letters’ refer to the one sent to Batavia with the Nieuwenhove, and the letters and orders sent with the expedition fleet to Ceylon. Letters in VOC-archives 318, 280pp, 299pp.
VOC-Archives, Overgekomen brieven en papieren, 1239, 1365pp.
Cornelis van de Haar, De diplomatieke betrekkingen tussen de Republiek en Portugal 1640-1661 (Groningen 1961), 129.