Introduction: the decision-making process and the rhythm of the return fleet

The life-line between the VOC’s possessions in the East and the Netherlands was constituted by the return fleets which sailed to and fro between the various Dutch VOC ports and Batavia all year round. In the first few decades of the VOC’s existence, the ships usually left the Netherlands in two large clusters: one around December/January and one in April/May, known as the Christmas and Easter fleets. Later on, as the VOC’s trading network in Asia grew to include India, China and Japan, it became increasingly important for the Christmas fleet to arrive in Asia in time to profit from the winds caused by the summer monsoon, which started in June and died down in the course of September. In these months, these winds facilitated an easy sailing trip for the connecting trade routes from Batavia to the East (India) and the North (China and Japan). The VOC Christmas fleet could in theory make it to Batavia before the end of the summer monsoon, but would miss it in case of any delay, which occurred as often as not. This risk prompted the introduction of an additional fleet in the course of the ‘30s: the Fair Fleet, named after the traditional September fair. This fleet would leave in the course of September or in early October, and would therefore be more than in time for the connection with the Asian trade network.

It must here be remarked that the division into three separate fleets, made by the VOC at the time, should not necessarily be interpreted as three large fleets of, say, seven ships each, sailing to Asia in convoy. Each of the ‘fleets’ would leave from several ports, and would often leave in the course of a few weeks instead of at one moment. The arrival dates of the ships in Batavia in the period here considered also indicate that the ships would hardly ever sail in convoys: ships from a single fleet would often arrive in the course of more than one month. We might state the Easter fleet of 1663 as an example: the fourteen ships of this fleet left between the 1st of April and the 24th of May. On the 1st of April two ships left together, on the 16th of April three ships, on the 11th of May two more ships left simultaneously: all the remaining ships set sail all by themselves. The fastest of the ships arrived in Batavia as early as the 16th of September 1663; most of the ships arrived in the course of November and December; the last ship would finally arrive in February ’64.[1]

In the first two decades of the existence of the VOC, vessels in the East would simply sail back as soon as their cargo holds were full. The resumption of the war between Spain and the Netherlands, however, prompted the Gentlemen XVII to resolve that the return fleets should always sail in convoy. The fact that these return fleets were loaded with valuable goods made them a far more interesting target for privateers and pirates than the outgoing ships, which made sailing in convoy all the more necessary. The entire infrastructure which existed in order to have the return ships arrive home safely (cruising Admiralty ships on the North Sea, secret orders being sent to the Cape for all incoming fleets, a system of secret signals) goes to illustrate the importance and vulnerability of these return vessels.[2]

The return vessels from Batavia to the Netherlands very soon developed into an annual fleet. On the one hand, the Gentlemen XVII wanted all the return vessels to arrive between April and October with an eye on having the auction before winter. On the other hand, the vessels in Batavia had to await the arrival of ships from the outer posts, as well as the entire hustle of the loading of the fleet, before returning to the Netherlands. This very soon led to a system in which the ships would set out from Batavia somewhere between late November and late January. This was slightly too late to the tastes of the directors, as ships departing later than halfway into December might well arrive after the winter auction, which would necessitate another auction and drive down prices at the first one. Repeated resolutions by the Gentlemen XVII to have the bulk of the return fleet depart before the 15th of December (allowing for a few late ships, naschepen, in the following month) came to nothing: as several governors-general felt their duty to point out, with varying degrees of subtlety, this was simply unfeasible, and a forced attempt to achieve it would do the Company more harm than good.[3]

As to the outgoing vessels: the fact that these left from the Republic virtually all year round, does not at all render meaningless the division into three separate fleets made by the directors at the time. In fact, early on in the existence of the VOC a very clear rhythm to the functioning of the outgoing and returning fleets developed. This rhythm was determined by the prevailing winds over the Indian Ocean caused by the monsoon, the functioning of the Company’s administrative and decision-making system in the Netherlands, and the specific trade conditions on either side of the globe.

Ideally, the return fleet from Batavia would have largely arrived in the Dutch ports by October. This would prompt the autumn meeting of the directors, the main purpose of which was organising the autumn auction of goods. Before the departure of the Christmas fleet two months later, however, the directors took care of various other matters, such as the Eisen van Retouren, setting the amount of trade goods to be sent from Batavia for the auction of the following year. In addition, the directors also took care of the Generale Eis in the autumn meeting. This Generale Eis was basically the ‘shopping list’ of the government in Batavia, and contained requests for weapons, trade goods and provisions, ranging from bacon to rooftiles, from currency to cannonballs. As the various VOCchambers, each of which was responsible for fulfilling part of the Generale Eis, kept stockpiles of the goods usually requested, taking care of the Generale Eis did not take too much time and could be largely settled before the departure of the Christmas fleet, allowing for the remaining materials and currency to be sent over with the Easter fleet.[4]

By the period here under consideration, the amount of paperwork sent over from the Indies for the attention of the Dutch branch of the Company had become so vast that it could no longer all be taken care of by the meeting of the directors. For this reason, a specific commission had been called into life in 1649, the purpose of which was to examine the papers in detail: the Haags Besogne. This commission took the general letter from the Indies as its starting point, and on the basis of this would read all the paperwork related to each of the regions where the VOC was active. As a part of this work, it would also examine all the resolutions made by the Governor-General and his council. On the basis of this in-depth study of the papers, the commission could subsequently make suggestions to the directors.

After the autumn meeting of the directors, which could last for up to two months, the Haags Besogne usually came together in early spring, as soon as weather conditions allowed. Its tasks or working routine were not in any way fixed: it would make ad hoc suggestions on the basis of the information in the papers from Asia, or take over some of the work which the meeting of the directors simply hadn’t gotten around to. A thing that in practice did become part of their routine was the examination of the overview of the Company’s naval power in the Indies, which was sent over from Batavia annually. On the basis of this, it would make a suggestion to the directors pertaining to the number of ships to be built on the Company’s shipyards.[5]

Once the Haags Besogne had finished its deliberations in the course of spring, the directors would once again meet. In these spring meetings, the second point on the agenda - the most important one, as the first point would invariably concern the credentials of the directors that came to the meeting - would be to read and discuss the report of the Haags Besogne, and make decisions on the basis of it. These decisions would range from resolutions about trade, warfare and politics in Asia to the number of ships to be built. The spring meeting would also be the moment to resolve upon the number of cruising vessels that the Gentlemen XVII would request the Admiralty sent out to the North Sea to meet and protect the return fleets. In addition, this meeting would usually be the scene of a great lot of accounting. In the period here under consideration, the meeting of the Gentlemen XVII attempted to strengthen its grip on the various Chambers, and made resolution after resolution obliging the Chambers to account for the amount of artillery they had in stock, the number of people and material that had been sent off in the past year, and more such things, thus giving the general meeting insight into the functioning of each of the separate chambers. It also increasingly specified the way in which ships had to be built, the things that the various Chambers were or were not allowed to do, and all in all shortened the leash on which it kept the various Chambers significantly.

Thus the directors would ideally meet twice a year. In a long autumn meeting they would organise the auction, decide upon the number of ships, soldiers and armament to be sent off in the next year, and respond to any news that required immediate action; then, in a shorter spring meeting, they would discuss the Asian situation in more detail, do a lot of reckoning and accounting, decide upon the protection measures for the return fleets, and usually also resolve upon the number of ships to be built.

In the period here under consideration, this rhythm was followed almost perfectly in practice. This stands in stark contrast to the preceding years; from July 1652 to July 1656, the directors had met a total of fifteen times, almost twice as much as would have been usual. In many cases these were ‘half meetings,’ with only 8 representatives present instead of the full 17.[6] This construction was often resorted to when a decision couldn’t await the full meeting. The emergencies that prompted the directors to come together outside their usual schedule in this period were virtually all connected with the First Anglo-Dutch War going on at the time, which not only required all kinds of protective measures for the return fleets, but in which the VOC was also an active party, as it had leased several ships to the Estates-General for the war effort. Although the period from 1655 onwards was of course no less warlike for the Company, the various wars which it waged in Asia were beyond the direct control of the directors. Only once in the entire period under study here did an event in Asia prompt the directors to officially meet outside their usual schedule: the news of the ‘shameful fall’ of fort Zeelandia on Taiwan was cause for an emergency meeting in December 1662, and occupied the directors for two weeks.[7]

List footnotes

D.A.S., II, 142-144.
Van Dam, 1.II, 12-45.
Maatsuiker, quite tactfully, in 1661: Generale Missiven, III, 314. Van Goens, less tactfully, in 1681: Van Dam, 3, 496-499.
Gaastra, Bewind en beleid bij de VOC: de financiële en commerciële politiek bij de bewindhebbers, 1672-1702 (Zutphen 1989), 49pp; Van Dam, Beschrijvinge, 1.I, 260pp; VOC-Archives, 103, 104, 105.
Van Dam, 1.I, 309pp.
For the principle of a meeting of the ‘halve XVII’, see Van Dam, 1.I, 268-269. As in these half meetings the Zeeland and Amsterdam Chambers were usually dominant, the smaller chambers did not agree with this practice and it was officially abandoned in 1660.
VOC Archive, Resolutions of the Gentlemen XVII, 11-23 December 1663, nr. 105, 313pp.