Country trade on the Coromandel Coast by an employee of the VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie) with a high function: Lubbert Jan van Eck. An in dept research of his private correspondence written between 1754 and 1765
In most works published on the decline of the VOC, one of the main reasons for this decline is usually said to be, nowadays as in the time of the glory days of the VOC, the illegal country trade conducted by its employees at the time. Because of their desire for money, these employees became rivals of their own employer; being on the one hand a private trader, and on the other hand a VOC merchant in the same trade.
Though assumptions of this kind concerning the role of private trade are generally accepted to be true, we do not know much about this trade, nor how the VOC-employees who conducted it, looked upon their private trade activities. The problem, when doing research of this private trade, is that it is hard to trace documents on the subject since there is a lack of information in the VOC archives. Only when the VOC discovered an infraction, this was documented. Sources of this kind offer us a glimpse of this secret world of private trade. Any other information about this trade is hard to find, making research in this field difficult because sources are too scattered and incoherent.
Yet there is one V.O.C. employee of whom the letters written during his career in the service of the VOC in India (on the Coromandel Coast to be exact) and Ceylon have been conserved for the period 1754 to 1765, though a lot of letters are missing especially for the period 1754-1757. His name is Lubbert Jan van Eck (1719-1765).Van Eck was born a nobleman and by the time the documents here examined were written, he had worked his way up in the service of the V.O.C. to 'secunde' or second in charge of the Coromandel Coast. During the period under investigation, he was promoted to Governor of the Coromandel Coast, and received further promotion to the post of governor of Ceylon. In Ceylon he died of a tropical disease after having returned from a militarily campaign against the indigenous king of Candy in 1765. He can therefore be considered as one of the highest ranking officials in the VOC hierarchy.
After having lived in Asia for nearly twenty years, Van Eck had made his fortune. Well before he was appointed the function of governor of Ceylon, he had written to the 'Hooghe regeering' at Batavia to be released from VOC- service and allowed to return to Europe to enjoy his fortune together with his family. His well-preserved private correspondence will provide the opportunity to look into how he was able to earn such riches. Also, light will be shed on how Van Eck conducted this trade; how successful he was, the different levels of trade, and the way he transferred his money back to Holland; how he got away with his trade without being caught, the influence his position and his geographical location had on his trade, et cetera. Also an interesting question is with whom Van Eck traded and to what extent.
One of the things easily overlooked when doing research of private trade is, that to be able to conduct such illegal trade, it was necessary to have political protection. The socio-political network which Van Eck created to safeguard his private trading interests will receive much attention, as well as his prospects of a good career within the VOC service. The purpose of this research is to do an in-dept research into this private trade, which will help gain a new perspective, and understand the mindset of VOC-employees involved in this private trade.
At the same time it must be remembered that during this period the Indian trading world was rapidly changing. Events like Plassey (1757) the VOC expedition against Bengal (1759), the capture of Pondichery by the English (1761) and the revolt against the VOC on Ceylon (1761-1765) reshaped the political and economical landscape of India for a century to come. During this time Van Eck was always close to the place of military action. His view on these events and the importance he attributed to them can be traced throughout his letters sent on behalf of both the VOC and his own trade.
In short, I hope to describe the private trading world of a VOC official with a high position in the company, which will attribute to a better understanding of this private trade.
Prof. Dr. Femme S. Gaastra
Prof. Dr. J. Leonard Blussé