Providing the supplies: soldiers, ships and armament

As has been described above, the decisions regarding the supply were all taken care of in the autumn meeting of the Gentlemen XVII under a single point on the agenda, concerning ‘the number of personnel, ships, cash, trade goods and provisions that shall be sent to Batavia by the respective Chambers.’ The resolution on this point typically started with stating the number of personnel to be sent, usually (but certainly not always) followed by the ratio of soldiers and sailors. For example, on August 22, 1658, the meeting resolved to send 3970 heads east, of which 3/5 would be sailors and 2/5 soldiers. This would be followed by a list of all the ships to be sent over in that year, and a specification of the amount of personnel each of them was to carry. With regard to the Generale Eis, the meeting usually limited itself to stating that the request ‘had been approved and would be fulfilled,’ although sometimes we find a remark on bringing down some of the requested amounts.

On the basis of this resolution, each of the Chambers would subsequently have recruiting sessions, which were held on fixed days several times a year.[1] After recruitment it could take up to several months before the new soldier or sailor would actually set sail, and in order to live through the intervening time, he could obtain a transportbrief, effectively an advance payment which would have to be paid off later. At departure the crew would subsequently be armed: according to a 1614 source, the soldiers would receive a musket, ‘forquetstok’ (a sort of bipod), helmet, sabre and bandoleer, and the sailors a musket and a sabre. [2]

Soldiers embarking
VOC soldiers embarking at the Montelbaanstoren in Amsterdam

Table 1 shows the numbers of sailors and soldiers upon which the directors resolved for the years 1656-1663, the number actually sent, and the number that actually arrived. For the period here under consideration, the VOC got off to a good start: in the years 1653-1655 the directors had sent out 3000 soldiers more than in the three years before. This combined with the fact that the Great Ambonese War, essentially a conflict over the clove-producing areas of the Archipelago with the Makassarese, was finally won by 1655 (although skirmishes would continue until 1658), gave the Company a free hand to swing the focus of its military activities fully towards the Portuguese presence on the Indian subcontinent. “Now there is a good force at hand in order to undertake something noteworthy,” wrote a thankful Governor-General Maatsuiker in the general letter to the Netherlands on the 12th of July 1655. He had every reason to be thankful at this particular moment, as nine months earlier the directors had resolved to send at least 5090 heads east in the coming year, preferably more, if room on the ships permitted. Of these, some 2000 would have been soldiers, several hundreds more than usual.[3]

If we look at table 1, we see that in this period the number of personnel sent over does not quite match up to the great numbers of e.g. 1654, although the numbers are significantly higher than in the period before 1652.[4] Although it is not possible no make adequate estimations of the total number of military personnel for this period, it seems clear nonetheless that the numbers of troops sent in the years 1653-1655 must have meant a significant military build-up, bringing the total amount of military resources that the Company had to a higher level. This level was not raised much further in the period here under study, but to sustain the increased volume of the armies, more soldiers than before were necessary. For this reason, the Gentlemen XVII structurally resolved upon sending around 4000 sailors and soldiers each year, and the various Chambers stuck to these numbers resolved upon strikingly accurately (although the soldier/sailor ratio does vary quite a bit). The years 1656-1657 and 1660-1661 are notable exceptions; with regard to the former it must be remarked that the directors resolved that should room on the ships permit, the Chambers had a free hand to embark more people. Apparently this advice was taken to heart.

The numbers of 1661-1662 are quite a story in themselves: in the autumn of 1661 the Gentlemen XVII resolved upon sending 3200 people eastward, on 15 ships. In the end, however, at least 4385 people embarked onto a total of 21 ships in the following year. This difference is to be explained by a fleet of 6 ships which set sail in April 1662. The mission of this fleet, under the command of Hubert de Lairesse, was to attack the Portuguese in Mozambique. We will look in vain for any reference to the equipment of this fleet in the resolutions of the XVII, either in the autumn meeting of ’61 or the spring meeting of ’62. [5] More on this fleet is to be found in the political section of this chapter.

Not everyone stepping on board of a VOC-vessel in the Netherlands would make it to Batavia. In the period here under study, 91% of the people embarking would actually make it to Batavia; the remaining 9% disappeared somewhere along the way. Of this 9%, the great majority died. The cramped and unhygienic circumstances on board, as well as the lack of fresh food, took their toll on both the physical and mental state of the crew. Scurvy and dysentery were usually rampant, as were illnesses related with heat and lack of water. Typhoid fever sometimes broke out. Desperation and insanity also frequently took hold of new soldiers and sailors, in some cases ending in suicide. All in all the outgoing trip was no picnic: for many of the soldiers who eventually arrived in Batavia, the first stop was not the barracks but the hospital.[6]

About 20% of the people who never arrived in Batavia, however, had taken their leave somewhere along the way. Most of these disembarked at the Cape, where in this period virtually all ships made a stopover to take in supplies and make repairs. In the entire period under study here, 1325 people left their ship at the Cape colony. Many of these were too ill to continue the trip, and would be admitted to the Cape Town hospital to recover or to die there. However, included in the numbers of those disembarking were also deserters, and one gets the impression that all kinds of ‘deliberate’ shuffling around with personnel also occurred at the Cape. In any case the death rate of those disembarking at the Cape cannot have been that high, as 1325 people disembarked at the Cape, but 974 actually came on board there in the period here under study, leaving only a very small ‘net loss.’ The bulk of those embarking at the Cape, then, had either recovered from a disease and were now re-embarking on another ship to go to Batavia after all, or were deliberately transferred from one ship to another.

Another risk of people taking an early leave of their ship was constituted by unplanned stopovers in places that were not VOC-property. Although the directors had taken resolution after resolution in attempts to limit these unplanned stopovers to an absolute minimum, storms or other unforeseen circumstances often forced ships to call in, for example, England or the Capeverdian Islands. For some employees, who had come to realise that by signing up they had gotten a little more than they had bargained for, this was their chance to take off; when calling at an English port, there was the additional risk of personnel on shore leave being pressganged into the crew of another ship. D.A.S. lists some episodes from VOC-history in which so many men deserted on unplanned stopovers that ships ran into trouble, but the problem seems to have been quite limited in our period. Over the entire seven year period, there are only 19 documented deserters in either England or the Capeverdian islands. As the death rate on the outbound voyages was also pretty much the lowest in VOC-history in these years, and only one outbound ship was wrecked,[7] these were indeed very untroublesome times with regard to personnel for the Company.

As soldiers arrived in Batavia fully armed, the High Government did not have to separately order weapons for them. The weapons and parts we find listed in the Generale Eis would therefore only have been used to repair and replace weapons, as well as arm the Asian legion and the Batavia civil militia. (Members of the latter, unlike their Dutch counterparts, did not have to buy their own armament but could borrow it from the Batavia armoury when the need arose.) The lists also contained a considerable amount of particularly finely made and richly decorated weapons. These were not meant for the actual defence of the VOC’s possessions: their mentioning in the lists is sometimes followed by “for the officers”, but much more often by: “tot schenkagie”, meaning that the weapons were intended to make diplomatic gifts of.

The Generale Eis was subdivided into several categories: currency, trade goods, provisions etcetera. Batavia’s master artisans also filed requests for goods that they needed. Thus we find paragraphs such as “for the bookbinders” or “for the masons.” Many of these categories have some relevance to warfare, and categories shifted or changed names quite easily (among others “for the swordmakers”, which in some years was one category together with “for the armoury”) I have therefore chosen to rigidly limit my analysis to the two categories most directly connected with warfare: the category “for the armoury” and “for the constable-major.” The most significant goods in either category are listed in table 2 (melee weapons), table 3 (firearms) and table 4 (artillery).

Looking at the tables, one will note how much of the Generale Eis does not consist of actual weapons, but of parts. In the actual Generale Eis, this becomes even clearer. The goods that I have chosen to highlight here, obscure the fact that in the actual Eis one is hard-pressed to find complete weapons at all: the list is dominated by all kinds of nails, rivets and screws, as well as metal thread of different kinds, tools, glue; even gold to guild weapons with. Most obvious is the example of drums, so essential in modern 17th-century warfare: each year, between 20 and 50 entire drums were ordered, alongside several hundreds of snares, drum-skins, lines and other parts: enough material to repair or assemble about ten times as many. In the course of the first thirty years of Batavia as ‘capital’ of the Company, an artisan’s quarter had been set up in the city, and a list by Pieter van Dam made at the end of the century informs us that by then a considerable number of people was actually engaged in the refitting, repair, assembly and production of weapons. The constable- major had 73 people permanently in his service, among whom 4 smiths and one draaier, all with their own servants, as well as professional bus-firers. The head of the armoury also had several dozens of people working for him, among whom 27 sword-makers, a silversmith (presumably to decorate gift weapons), several bandoleer-makers and gunstock-makers, all with their own servants. Furthermore there was a master-powdermaker with 15 employees (a trade which developed in Batavia in the period 1656-1663, as described in the previous chapter), and 30 smiths. With regard to the latter, Van Dam remarks: ‘In the past there was a head of the gunfoundry, but as for many a year there has neither been a gunfoundry, nor has any gun been made, this function now resorts under the head of the smiths and copper-smiths.’[8] This past that Van Dam referred to was in fact the period here under study: in 1654 the gunfoundry, which had been in existence for quite some time, was moved to a new location, somewhere more out of sight, to keep the local non-European population from getting too much insight into the art of gunmaking. Included in the Generale Eis of 1656, we also find the request for ‘two gun-founding apprentices, young lads who know their trade,’ and in 1657, another ‘three or four’ were ordered. (In our eyes perhaps slightly awkwardly, the Generale Eis ordered people and books right alongside barrels of nails.)[9]

By the end of the period here under study, the Governor-General and Council also informed patria that they were experimenting with having plate iron, cannonballs, ‘long ammunition’ and nails being produced and sent over from the Coromandel Coast, “so as to lower the pressure on the fatherland.” The samples being sent over were all excellent and cheap, the letter informs patria, so more will be ordered.[10]

Over the years 1656-1663, all kinds of new categories sprang up in the Generale Eis, suggesting an increasing attention to and organisation of the defences. From 1657 onwards, the categories ‘for the gunfounders’ and ‘for the powdermakers’ are structurally to be found in the lists, in which dozens of drills, kettles, scales, sieves and other tools are to be found. In 1656, the constable-major ordered the ‘artillerybooks’ by Joseph Furttenbach, referring to Architectura Martialis, published in 1630, and the works on fortification by Mathias Dögen, which will refer to the book L’architecture militaire moderne, ou Fortification, published in 1648. In addition, measuring instruments were ordered for the building of fortresses. From 1661 onwards, we also find a category “For the building and upkeep of the fortifications and strongholds”, which contains hundreds of tools, mostly shovels and mason tools, yearly from then onwards.

The fulfilment of the Generale Eis was often problematic, as requested goods were not sent and goods that were not needed were in fact sent over. In spite of an increasing number of measures to monitor and streamline the fulfilment of the Eis, irregularities kept on occurring and particularly the smaller chambers seem to have been hard-pressed to fulfil their part of the demands. Armament and ammunition were no exceptions: throughout the period here under study, we find requests repeated, often with added commentary such as “did not come in, very urgent”, “already demanded last year”, or “under no circumstances to be forgotten.” In 1650 an irritated constablemajor simply limited his request to “everything that was ordered last year but has not come in,” in 1656 we find a two-page list of weapons under the somewhat unusual heading: “demands from the fatherland already made in 1654.” In a series of lists which compare the Eis with the goods actually loaded in the Netherlands and unloaded in Batavia (as all kind of stuff also disappeared along the way), we find entire pages of armament and ammunition of which too much, or too little, was sent. However, it is striking that for the armoury, the list of surpluses is usually longer than the list of shortages, suggesting that when it came to armament, the Chambers rather rounded their numbers upwards than downwards.[11]

Indeed, the directors might have been careful on their spending, but this caution certainly did not extend itself to the purchase of armament, either in amount or quality. As Van Dam informs us, with regard to the purchase of weapons, not the price, nor even the best buy, but the highest quality was paramount. The Chambers were required to keep sample weapons of the material they sent east, newly available models were examined by a delegate of the directors and discussed in the meeting of the XVII, and the Chambers were not allowed to buy guns that deviated from the standards set by the XVII. All in all little expense seems to have been spared to ensure both high quality and uniformity of the weapons, and in this matter the meeting of the directors seems to have kept the Chambers on an even tighter leash than in other matters.[12] Even where large deviations from the Eis do occur, this doesn’t seem to be the result of economy measures, but rather of compensation for the slow communication between patria and Batavia. As it had become practice in Batavia to simply request again any goods that had not arrived in time, the directors, in their deliberations concerning the Eis, would substract from the Eis all the goods that were presumably still underway.[13] Although no reference to the content of these deliberations is to be found in resolutions, it stands to reason that this was afoot in e.g. ’59, when the amounts listed in the constable- major’s request for ammunition were nearly cut in half by the directors. Just the year before, Batavia had ordered a staggering 173.000 cannonballs and grenades, several times more than usual. The directors did not cut down on this request and at least tried to fulfil it. How successful they were is hard to tell, as the lists comparing the various administrations are missing for 1658, but at any rate they were apparently not fast enough to the tastes of the government in Batavia. When the next year another large amount was requested, it was presumably decided that the amount still underway would probably do, and the amounts were lowered. Batavia’s hunger for ammunition was indeed appeased by the amount that arrived in the end, as the next year’s request for ammunition was once again quite modest.

The constable-major might order any number of cannonballs he wanted, but the two things he needed to actually fire these, i.e. gunpowder and guns, are notably absent from the Eis in the period here under study. Not a single cannon was ordered from Batavia in the entire period.

Although a seven-year stretch without any guns being ordered was admittedly unusual (browsing through the Eis of earlier years, one does occasionally come across a few), it is not as absurd as it seems in the first instance. As described in the previous chapter, gunpowder was treated as a bulk good, which the government in the East simply took from the ships, and which did not need to be accounted for. Surprisingly enough, it was the same story with guns. These were not ordered; Batavia simply took what it needed. The only guns that were ordered were models that were not used on board ships.[14]

This way of dealing with the most expensive and most important type of weapon the VOC had, will strike the contemporary observer as implausibly easy-going of the otherwise so bureaucratic and precise Company administration. Whereas every bandoleer and every barrel of nails was assigned to a Chamber, noted down when loaded, and accounted for in the general meeting, there was no such administrative system for artillery. In 1653, the directors had resolved that from then on, each of the Chambers should include the amount of artillery they had in stock in their reports, but this accountability went no further than the Dutch warehouses: as soon as a VOC-ship cleared the harbour, the cannon on board also cleared the Company’s administration. Batavia did not have to report on the number of cannon it had taken from the ships or their current employment, and counts of the Company’s artillery were held rarely and irregularly.[15]

The slightly unusual position that artillery and gunpowder took in the Company’s supply system, may be assumed to be a legacy of the early days of the Company, when the first fortresses the VOC conquered were indeed supplied with ship’s cannon and gunpowder. As the Company’s possessions grew, this system continued working in a satisfactory way, and turned from practice into policy. In the course of the 17th century, the meeting of the XVII adapted the standard number of cannon with which outbound ships were equipped to the political situation in both Europe and Asia, and included in the considerations was the number of cannon that the servants in the East would probably lift off the ships. In some instances, such as the year 1672 when the outbound ships had to fear both French and English vessels, requests were sent along to only lift off the ships what was absolutely necessary. In the course of the 17th century, the standard amount of cannon for the heaviest category of ships varied from 28 to 38 guns, the guns on average also being of a much heavier calibre in times of war.[16]

With some 16 ships departing for the East yearly, each carrying several dozens of guns, artillery was not in short supply in the East. In fact, the counts that were held every few years, usually listed a surplus.[17] A count held in 1656 (see table 5), in addition to listing 318 metal and 820 iron guns on the various VOC fortifications, also mentions 437 guns in Batavia that are not in active use, and are put up on squares, stocked away in warehouses etcetera. These 437 guns include broken pieces and guns of an outlandish design for which the Company did not have the appropriate ammunition and which were probably not meant for defence purposes anyway (the list mentions some Cambodian guns, for instance), but also mortars and regular artillery which was perfectly useable, but for which there was apparently no direct need at the time.

Accordingly, the purpose of Batavia’s gun foundry was not to provide for more firepower, but rather to provide the Company’s armies with specific kinds of artillery. The VOC vessels were equipped with heavy yet unwieldy naval guns which could also do excellent service for the defence of fortresses, but were less suitable as field artillery. The guns that we actually find ordered in the Generale Eis in an earlier period were usually guns of a very light calibre, or mortars. The gun foundry in Batavia was also specifically set up to cast smaller pieces; the heavier ones were amply provided by the ships.[18]

Finally, the ships that continually went back and forth between the Republic and Batavia merit some attention here. As described above, the decisions regarding the building of new ships were usually taken in the spring meeting, on the basis of the report of the Haags Besogne. We accordingly hardly ever find the number of ships to be built as a separate point on the agenda: in most cases resolutions on this matter are to be found among the deliberations of the report of the Haags Besogne in spring; in other cases they were simply ad hoc decisions, taken either in spring or autumn. In the period here under consideration, the number of ships to be built varied enormously from year to year; in 1659, for instance, the resolutions of neither meeting give evidence of the building of any ships being commissioned; then, in 1660, it was decided in the spring meeting to build four large East-Indiamen, and in the autumn meeting four more fluteships. In addition, the Amsterdam chamber had announced in spring that it had bought two fluteships, bringing the total of acquired or commissioned ships to ten.

Most of the ships being commissioned in this period were either square sterned East-Indiamen or fluteships. On their outward voyage, the former were mainly “passenger ships”, transporting the Company’s personnel to the East. Not only were the holds full of soldiers; the ships also took many more sailors than were really necessary to operate the ship. Many of these would stay in the East and serve aboard vessels active in the intra-Asian trade. The return ship could subsequently make it back to the Netherlands with a greatly reduced crew and its hold full of trade goods instead of people. The cargo holds of the smaller fluteships, then, would mainly be filled with goods on the outward voyage: the cannonballs, tools, and weapons, but also bricks, shipbuilding wood and trade goods, requested in the Generale Eis. These fluteships, being smaller but more durable and requiring relatively little personnel to operate, were also deemed very suitable for the intra-Asian trade by the government in Batavia, and were therefore often simply kept when they came in from the Netherlands. However, as the directors in the Netherlands were not pleased to have to build new fluteships for every outward bound fleet, they very soon started requesting that fluteships be included in the return fleets as well.[19]

Decisions on the building of ships meant planning ahead, as it took more than a year from the day of the resolution to get a ship seaworthy. If, for example, the decision to build an East-Indiaman was taken in the spring of 1659, wood was bought straight away; this would then have to leach for six months. Only by November or December could the keel be laid down, and from then it took another three months in the yards to complete the vessel. The completed ships, then, would usually set sail with the next Fair Fleet, almost 1 ½ years after their construction had been decided upon. This timing was convenient, as the ships coming in from Batavia with the return fleet would arrive roughly at that time, but were often late and in any case needed to be unloaded, repaired and loaded again, often only being ready for another round by winter or spring. The new ships, therefore, came right on time to sail with the Fair Fleet, for which no or few ships would have been available otherwise.[20]

It was with good reason that this resolution was part of the task of the Haags Besogne, which included in its considerations not only the list of naval power, but the entire situation in the East. The system seems to have worked very well. In D.A.S., it is remarked that this planning ahead was certainly in good hands with Gentlemen XVII, and the shipbuilding business is described as a “well-oiled machine.”[21] However, there were always eventualities which could not be planned for. One of these was obviously shipwreck. In the resolutions of the XVII we often find ships which have not arrived back yet already scheduled for the equipage of the following year. It was of course possible that these ships would not arrive back at all, which would ruin the entire planning for the year. If overdue ships were therefore included in the equipage, this was usually done with the aside that “should any kind of calamity have befallen this ship, which God forbid”, one of the Chambers (usually Amsterdam) would be allowed to buy replacing ships. Indeed, every once in a while we find the Amsterdam Chamber informing the spring meeting of the XVII that they have bought ships, so as to be able to complete the equipage.

Another instance in which the directors couldn’t wait for their ships for 1 ½ years, was a military campaign. The fleet of six ships that sailed for Mozambique in the spring of 1662 is a case in point. As the directors could not simply conjure up eight ships on top of the usual equipage, there was nothing for it but to buy them. Indeed, four of the six ships which constituted this war fleet had been bought just before; the other two ships were fresh off the Company’s shipyards.[22] Another example is the first large direct fleet to Ceylon, which had set sail a year earlier, on the 11th of April 1661. All five yachts of this fleet had been bought just before.[23]

List footnotes

As these sessions were only held several times a year, but new recruits arrived in the various VOC towns from a large part of north-western Europe, particularly Germany, throughout the year, an entire unofficial system of crimps and brokers developed. For details regarding the mustering of soldiers see Van Gelder, Het Oostindisch avontuur, 129pp; D.A.S., I, 149pp.
J.R. Bruijn en J. Lucassen eds, Op de schepen der oost-Indische Compagnie: vijf artikelen van J. de Hullu (Groningen 1980), 57n.
VOC-archives, Resolutions of the Gentlemen XVII, 2 October 1654, 103, p. 503-504. As for the following months D.A.S. hardly ever lists the size of crews, I was unable to determine how many were actually sent, and how many of these were soldiers. The resolution of the directors does not specify the ratio of soldiers and sailors, but we might assume the 2/5 against 3/5 ratio that seems to have been most common in this period.
Comp. with tables in D.A.S., I, 144, 156.
VOC-Archives, Overgekomen brieven en papieren, 1239, 1365pp.
Bruin en Lucassen eds., Op de schepen der Oost-Indische Compagnie, 81-98; Gelder, Oost-Indisch Avontuur, 173.
The Sloterdijk was wrecked at Cape Verde in June 1662, while trying to catch up with the expedition to Mozambique in which it was supposed to participate.
Van Dam, Beschryvinge, book 3, 172-208, quote on the smiths 200-201.
Kuypers, geschiedenis der artillerie, III, 209.
General letter of 26 dec. 1662, in: Generale Missiven, III, 431.
Van Dam, 1.II, 104; VOC-Archive, 13476-13481. The latter compare the requests with the specifications of the goods loaded onto the ships for the period here. 1658 and 1661 are missing. The deviations from the requests on the basis of the decisions made by the XVII were also noted in the margins of 13473, used for the tables here.
Van Dam, 1.II, 639pp. For an example of the setting of standards, influence of the directors and examination of arms, see the resolutions of the meeting of the XVII of April 28 1659.
Van Dam, 1.II, 104pp.
In fact, in 1655, the Eis requests a total of 16 mortars, varying in calibre from 6 to 21 duim, and 1500-4000 shells of each calibre, as well as 50 light princestuckgens firing 3 or 4 pounds ( perhaps “tot schenckagie?”) and 50 steenstukken.
VOC-archive, 103, Resolutions of the XVII, May 24 1653.
Van Dam, 1.I, 505-511.
Van Dam, 1.I, 511, citing 1686 as his example; Kuypers, Geschiedenis der artillerie, III, 253, citing 1699 as his example.
Van der Meij, ‘De VOC onder de wapenen’, 50.
D.A.S., I, 23-25, 40.
Ibid., 24-25.
Ibid., 27.
Their commissioning, however, is nowhere to be found in the resolutions, suggesting that perhaps they had expressly been built for war-purposes and had therefore been kept out of the resolutions. In that case the directors had indeed reckoned with some naval action against the Portuguese earlier on.
This is another instance of an impressive fleet, with a clear military purpose if the soldier/sailor ratio of the one ships of which this has been preserved is representative for the other ships (The Wassende Maan had 107 sailors against 139 soldiers), which is completely invisible in the resolutions of the XVII. The fleet had a total of 1325 on board. More on this in the section on politics below.