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History of the arrangement of the VOC archives


3. Archival Management by the Ministry of Colonies (1814-1856)

J.C.M. Pennings

Removals and large-scale Destruction

n the summer of 1816, on the orders of the director-general of the Departement van Koophandel en Koloniën, J. Goldberg, the documents brought back from Paris along with other charters, books and papers pertaining to the department, were transferred to the charterkamer in the Binnenhof in The Hague. In 1815 the depository in Amsterdam handed over to the department eighteen chests containing archivalia, including resoluties of the Heren XVII and the Amsterdam Chamber. These documents were also stored in the charterkamer in the Binnenhof. An inventory was compiled of the documents to be found there, which shows that these were mainly documents from the last period of the eighteenth century(48). A few decades later it seemed that a large proportion of the documents had been returned to Amsterdam. It is not clear when exactly they were brought back.

In Amsterdam the VOC archives were kept at various locations. One of these places was still the Oostindisch Binnenhuis, where the books and papers from the pay office were housed. A considerable portion of the archivalia stored there was sold to the highest bidder by the ministry in the winter of 1821/1822. This was the fate which befell some 9,500 to 10,000 volumes, mainly dating from the seventeenth century(49).

In 1832 the Ministerie van Koloniën (Ministry of Colonies) was asked to vacate the Oostindisch Binnenhuis, as the building had been designated as premises for the administration of direct taxation and excise. Plans were made to house all the VOC papers in the Westindisch Slachthuis. This former warehouse of the West India Company was situated on the IJkant in Amsterdam. VOC archival records were already stored here. In view of the fact that the papers in the Westindisch Slachthuis were in a state of great disorder, the minister first had an inventory compiled by the clerk P.L. de Munnick before giving the signal for the removal of the remaining VOC archives from the Oostindisch Binnenhuis. From this inventory it seems that the papers were located in the first and second records lofts of the Westindisch Slachthuis(50).

From the very beginning it was obvious that the Westindisch Slachthuis could not contain the huge VOC archives. In 1830 an investigation was set in train by the commissioner for the colonies, J. van der Velden, to find out which books and papers could be destroyed or sold without any objections. De Munnick, who in the meantime had been promoted to head of the warehouses, continued this investigation in 1832. Both reached the same conclusion that two-thirds of the pay-ledgers could be missed without raising any problems. At first the plan was to clear out of the way only those books and papers dating from before 1750, but because this yielded so little, the landboeken from post-1750 had to follow suit(51). Finally it was laid down in a Royal Decree of 8th June 1832 that the following documents had to be sold by public subscription: those registers which were known in the pay office of the VOC under the designations landboeken and thuisreisboeken (see below), the letter files containing the documents paid up to the year 1750, minuut-notulen (draft minutes) and financial documents including amongst other material ledgers, bankbooks and commercial registers. The number of volumes to be disposed of amounted to 5,136, the number of letter files to 1,851. In total 3,160 volumes and 587 letter files from the pay office were to be preserved(52).

Thus what remained of the extensive holdings were the muster-rolls and ship's pay-ledgers, which were also known as uitreisboeken. Nothing has survived of the so-called landboeken and thuisreisboeken. It is therefore difficult to determine what these books contained(53). Even in earlier years these landboeken and thuisreisboeken must have fallen prey to tidying up frenzies of the Ministerie van Koloniën. Before the springclean of the year 1832 there were only a few such documents dating from before 1750 still extant in the pay office in Amsterdam. It is probable that these documents were among the great mass of VOC paper which was sold in the winter of 1821/1822.

The criteria which were observed in this clearance were for the most part pragmatic. In principle one preserved what was still important for outstanding business, for example the salary administration which was needed for the settlement of salary claims. Among the remaining documents which were destroyed were the whole of the secret archives of the Heren XVII and the Amsterdam Chamber and the large bulk of the documents referring to the administration of the Company in the Dutch Republic.

The Transference of the Archives of the Zeeland Chamber to Amsterdam in 1851

he bulk of the archives of the Zeeland Chamber was saved from destruction thanks to the stubborn refusal of the Zeelanders, Pous in particular, to hand the archives over to Amsterdam(54). Finally in 1851 Pous was simply forced to surrender his archives. After half a century of pleading people in Amsterdam realized that '... Mr Pous, an extremely elderly man, would be reluctant to part with the papers which he seems to have had in his care since the liquidation of the Company...'(55).

Throughout the years, whenever Amsterdam intimated that it would like to receive the Middelburg archives, Pous had continually produced impediments to the transference. For instance, in 1830, Pous wrote that he was too preoccupied to send the papers at a time '... in which I even on our island can yet see the flag of rebellion and ingratitude flying on the other side...'. In this he was referring to the feelings of the man in the street: 'For to load up everything en masse, I at least would be most reluctant to lend my hand to this in these times; the common man, and this class it is, who here as elsewhere can cause the most disturbance, is still much too much attached to the ancient name of the East India Company, not to observe with sorrow that people were taking away the Company's books and papers, for which, as it were, a sacred respect is nurtured...'(56). In 1851 he made one final attempt to obstruct a complete removal. On this occasion he suggested finding out which documents were available both in Middelburg and Amsterdam, and then to send thither only those Zeeland documents which were not available in duplicate form in Amsterdam(57). Amsterdam, however, wanted the complete archives and got them. In September 1851 a total of 6250 kilos of archives from Middelburg arrived in the Westindisch Slachthuis(58).

Beginning of the Historical Interest in the VOC Archives

n those days the general public was completely ignorant of the content and probably even of the existence of the VOC archives. This is not surprising as the old habit of secrecy which insisted that the archives were only there for internal information was still maintained in the department. Visitors were hardly ever permitted into the depositories. This was in contrast to the practice in the State Archives, where there had been limited access to government documents since 1829. However, in those days historical interest for the VOC archives was not very great.

This changed in the 1840s, when academic interest in Dutch-Asian relations disseminated back from the Indies. People began to discover the historical value of the VOC archives and asked permission from the department to be able to conduct research in the archives. The huge clearances in the Company's archives and the way in which the documents were looked after became general knowledge at this time and caused a storm of public indignation(59). The American historian J. Romeyn Brodhead, who visited the Westindisch Slachthuis in 1841, wrote this about it: 'In applying in Amsterdam at West India House, I was to my infinite surprise and mortification informed by Mr. de Munnick, the keeper, that all the books, documents and papers of every kind belonging to the Old East and West India Comp. of a date prior to 1700 had been sold at public auction in 1821 by order of the Government of the Netherlands'(60).

The famous antiquarian Frederik Muller, a regular visitor to the Westindisch Slachthuis, was also incensed by the way in which the VOC archives were being kept. During one of his visits he came across the first shareholders' register of the VOC in a most unlikely place: 'This book was being used as a doorstop in order to prop closed a door that was otherwise constantly opening!(61). In 1853 J.J.F. Noordziek wrote a survey of archives in the Netherlands. The picture he paints of the condition of the VOC archives is not very rosy. 'From the point of view of light, cleanliness, dryness and security [the lofts of the Westindisch Slachthuis] leave a lot to be desired'. The best rooms in the building were let to the Nederlandse Handelmaatschappij (Dutch Trading Company) to store bales of grocery articles from the colonies. The documents comprising the archives were spread over four lofts, in the best of which the archives of the Zeeland Chamber had found a home(62).

The fact that Noordziek was even able to compile a survey of the contents of the colonial archives was entirely due to one man, the lawyer L.C.D. van Dijk. He was the first Dutch academic to choose a topic from Dutch colonial history for his thesis and for this he conducted research into original source material(63). During his research he ran into a lot of resistance on the part of the department. However, Van Dijk was not to be deterred. Absolutely fascinated by the material he discovered in the archives lofts in Amsterdam, he even offered his services to the department free of charge to put the sources in order. In 1852 the Minister of Colonies appointed him scientific archivist, specially concerned with the arrangement and ordering of the archives of the Zeeland Chamber which had been transferred from Middelburg. Investigations of an administrative nature continued to be the responsibility of the agent of the Departement van Koloniën (Department of Colonies), De Munnick(64). Nonetheless, this new development did not mean that visitors to the Westindisch Slachthuis were helped in any more satisfactory manner. According to Frederik Muller supervision was improved but one had now jumped from the frying pan into the fire: 'Two officials of high birth were appointed one after the other, who mistrusted the many visitors in the most demeaning manner and made all research difficult(65).


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