Towards a new coherent picture of VOC warfare

In 1979, Michael Howard published a small booklet called War in European History. However humble in volume, this book did something very interesting: it simply made an inventory of the different kinds of warfare that had existed in the course of the history of Europe, from medieval times all the way up to the Cold War, and described them in their relation to the society that 'made' these kinds of war, in terms of economy, culture, politics and technology. While never explicitly stating so, Howard attempted to show how all these forms of warfare were actually a product or an inalienable part of the society from which they came. By implication, the form of a society led to its own specific kind of warfare.

Howard himself dedicates one chapter to what he calls the 'Wars of the Traders'[1], working from the perspective of the European states in early modern times. In this chapter, he describes the early European trade colonialism as being part of a set of developments which also includes piracy in the Atlantic and the European seas, and the often violent mercantilist attempts to get a "bigger part of the pie" in Europe itself. Trade leads to wealth, wealth leads to military strength, and military strength leads to state power, so the various European states reasoned according to Howard. Whether this wealth came from Baltic grain, fine spices from the Indies or silver from South America was of secondary importance.

Looking from the perspective of the Dutch Republic, this interpretation certainly seems to hold for with regard to the colonial venture. Our VOC, after all, was originally a state initiative: although various smaller Dutch companies had already sailed to the Indies, it was on the initiative of landsadvocaat Oldenbarneveldt that these smaller companies were united into the Dutch East India Company. It was on his initiative that this united Company was given a monopoly in all trade east of the Cape, in order to create masse de manoeuvre against other European parties, hopefully getting hold of part of the pie, particularly at the cost of the Spanish and Portuguese with whom the Dutch Republic was at war. If this damage against the Iberian powers happened to become military as well as economical, this was of course all the better in the eyes of the rulers of the United Provinces. Furthermore, in the first twenty-five years of the VOC's existence, piracy and trade were really part of the same continuum for it in quite a direct manner: the tremendous investments it made in the East were largely covered by privateering against other European powers, and its military actions were sponsored by the state, in the form of money, cannon and even a number of ships.[2]

Written from the perspective of the European states, Howard's interpretation therefore makes perfect sense. However, there is also another side to the story. For, whereas the VOC was a state initiative, it was certainly not a state institution, and Oldenbarneveldt's motives for the founding of the VOC did not necessarily correspond with the commercial aims of the people calling the shots within this new organisation. The VOC, after all, was a trading company, ruled by a board of directors, and owned by stockholders. Its primary aim, therefore, was profit, not military conquest or power, and it needs no further argumentation that war is usually a very expensive undertaking. With this in mind, the VOC and the smaller companies that were its predecessors (the voorcompagnieën) first sought a state of coexistence with the Portuguese in the Indies. The voorcompagnieën had tried out all kinds of alternate routes to the Indies so as not to cross the monopoly that the Portuguese claimed for themselves all too openly. The VOC continued this policy, for one by sending out Henry Hudson to find a northwest passage to the Indies in 1609. The Dutch had actually not expected the Portuguese to adopt so aggressive a stance towards them. They had come to the Indies looking for spices to buy, not for Portuguese to smoke out.[3]

In the course of the first decades of its existence, however, we see the nature of the VOC change quite rapidly. As the Portuguese greeted the intruders upon their self-proclaimed monopoly with an evident lack of enthusiasm, it soon came to armed conflict between the two. Whereas the first VOC fleet and the earlier pre-VOC fleets had been lightly armed, various incidents made the Company change its attitude rapidly. When the news of a serious incident between a Dutch fleet under Van Heemskerck and the Portuguese reached the Netherlands, the Gentlemen XVII apparently decided to let go of their evasive strategy. The second fleet left the Netherlands heavily armed and with orders to attack the Portuguese wherever they could.[4] Apparently, the incident with Van Heemskerck fleet had been the last straw. Although an explicitly aggressive strategy had certainly not been the initial idea, the VOC saw no option but to resort to it, only 1½ years after its founding.

This shift of strategy can be seen as being the first of a whole range of changes in the nature of the Company that occurred over the first few decades of its existence. The war against the Portuguese led to the conquest of territory, which subsequently had to be defended, if only to keep the Portuguese from moving back in. As the company and its possessions grew rapidly, its orchestration from Amsterdam grew more and more problematic, until in 1609 it was deemed expedient to send a Governor-General to Asia. In 1619, the plan to create a permanent rendezvous in Asia was carried out with the founding of Batavia. Initially no more than a couple of warehouses, Batavia soon grew into a veritable capital in the East, a centre of power ruled by a Governor-General and his Council.[5]

The development of this new political centre in the East obviously had its repercussions on how the Company was run. Whereas the Gentlemen XVII, the board of directors back in the Netherlands, were still nominally in charge of the whole venture (surprisingly enough, the renewed Charter of 1623 was not updated to reflect any of the changes in the structure and situation of the Company at all), in practice we see more of a negotiation model between the Governor-General and Council (de Hooge Regering) and the directors. In many cases the tail ended up wagging the dog: strong Governors-General like Jan Pieterszoon Coen or Antonio van Diemen were typically able to largely impose their vision on the Directors, and were therefore far more determining in plotting the Company's policies in Asia than they were. In addition, the goals and policies of the Hooge Regering did not necessarily coincide with those of the Dutch Republic. A particularly clear example of the latter is the period 1640-1644, when the VOC attempted to continue its war against the Portuguese at all costs, in spite of a peace treaty between Portugal (now no longer part of the Spanish Empire) and the Dutch Republic. Whereas the Dutch Republic badly needed an ally against the Spanish, the VOC was concerned that peace with the Portuguese would ruin its market strategy, and continued its wars with the Portuguese empire for another four years, in spite of repeated attempts by the Republic to make it stop.

In this manner, the VOC had become a very strange organisation: whereas back in the Netherlands it was a trading company, on the Asian side it increasingly had the nature of an autonomous political entity. It had its own government in Batavia, its own body of diplomats, its own allies, its own military means: a state of sorts. It was, however, a political entity which looked nothing like any other state form.

List footnotes

Michael Howard, War in European History (Oxford 1979), C3.
Victor Enthoven, 'Van steunpilaar tot blok aan het been: De VOC en de Unie' in: Knaap en Teitler eds., Tussen oorlog en diplomatie, 35-58.
Leonard Blussé and George Winius, 'The origin and rhythm of Dutch agression against the Estado da India, 1601-1661' in: T.R. de Souza ed., Indo-Portuguese History: old issues, new questions (Delhi 1984), 73-83.
J.A. Somers, De VOC als volkenrechtelijke actor (Rotterdam 2001), 54pp.
Somers, De VOC als volkenrechtelijke actor; Femme Gaastra, The Dutch East India Company: expansion and decline (Zutphen 2003), C2.