VOC Organization

The Organization of the VOC in Asia

F.S. Gaastra

lthough the charter of 1602 was clear-cut and detailed in the way in which it laid down the organization of the VOC in the Dutch Republic, it was conversely vague about the administrative structure in Asia. The octrooi (charter) allowed the Company far reaching rights in the octrooigebied (trade zone: the area east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan). The VOC could build forts in Asia; employ soldiers; conclude treaties with Asian rulers; and appoint judges. However, these rights were not elaborated on: possibly in 1602 it was as yet impossible to foresee in what way the authority of the VOC overseas would expand.

The first fleets sent out by the VOC after 1602 were much more heavily armed than the ships of the voorcompagnieën had been. The armaments were not so much intended to win territory in Asia, as to inflict as much damage as possible on the Portuguese. To begin with the Company adhered to the practices of pre-1602: the admiral of the outgoing fleet was given the supreme command in Asia and all the Company's employees were subject to him, whether they were in his immediate vicinity on ships or at some trading post or other. After a few years it became apparent that this way of going about things did not have much to recommend it and that the Portuguese example - a central authority in one fixed place - was worthy of imitation.

View of the castle and the city of Batavia in the Java Kingdom of Jacatra (modern-day Jakarta); 17th century (click image to enlarge)

In 1609 the directors decided to place the supreme command in Asia in the hands of a Governor-General, who was to be assisted by a Raad van Indië (Council of the Indies) (17). After a lot of fighting Batavia was founded in 1619 on the site of the Javanese harbour town of Jakatra. This became the seat of the Governor-General and Council or the Hoge Regering (Supreme Government) as the Governor-General and Council were soon designated, and it became the administrative centre and rendez-vous for the Company's shipping traffic.

The Governor-General was not all powerful; he was the first in council, but was not empowered to take any important decisions without the council. The directeur-generaal (director general) was second-in-command; he had supreme control over the entire Company trade in Asia. Initially a certain division of labour had been thought out in the distribution of the other posts, which gave rise to a great number of double functions. As visitateur-generaal (auditor-general) one of the council would supervise the accounts; one would assume the function of president of the Raad van Justitie (Court of Justice); another would be put in charge of military matters; and yet another would concern himself with shipping. In practice it proved difficult to maintain such an organization; there were frequent vacancies caused by departure or death. Eventually the aim was to have six councillors besides the Governor-General in office in Batavia, while there would also be a few extraordinary councillors, who would enjoy only an advisory capacity.

The correspondence between the Governor-General and Council and the many establishments of the VOC in Asia was apportioned out among the councilors. The generale missive, in which the Governor-General and Council reported to the Heren XVII about the state of Company business in Asia, was also composed according to this division of the beschrijvinge (reports) of the establishments. Each councillor assumed the responsibility for a certain section of this missive, after which, naturally, the whole report was laid before the entire Raad van Indië for approval and signing. It was also the job of the Governor-General and Council to compile the generale eis van Indië (general order from Asia), in which the amount of monies, goods, ships and crews considered necessary for the business overseas was summed up. In the sessions of the Heren XVII it served as a guideline for decision-making on this subject. The orders from the various establishments were included in the generale eis; the Governor-General and Council were empowered either to reduce or increase each order according to their own insights. For some years during the second half of the seventeenth century, only Ceylon was permitted to submit its own order to the Heren XVII. Conversely, the Governor-General and Council in Batavia acted as a serving hatch through which the orders from the directors at home could be passed on to the establishments.

There were great differences in size, economic importance and political status between the many establishments or factories of the VOC in Asia. In their generale instructie (general orders) for 1650, the directors distinguished three categories into which the different establishments could be divided, a division which also reproduces the difference in political position:(18)

  1. The trade that the Company had won by eigen conqueste (by their own conquest), for example the Banda Archipelago and Formosa (Taiwan).
  2. Trade carried on under the auspices of exclusive contracts which had been drawn up, for instance, with the ruler of Ternate, and in Amboina (Ambon and the area around it).
  3. Trade pursued under the auspices of treaties concluded with Asian rulers or nations, under which the VOC traded on a more or less equal footing with the Asian partner.

View of Taiwan; 17th century (click image to enlarge)

Earlier, in 1620, on his return from Asia, the Governor-General had made such a threefold division. The distinction was somewhat artificial. The exclusive contracts had for the most part been exacted by violence so that for example, in the islands in the Moluccas it would be more correct to speak of a conquest rather than trade on a contractual basis.

The importance and the status of the establishments was expressed in the forms of address and the salaries of the chief officials. The large establishments, where the VOC also exercised a territorial authority, were under the authority of a gouverneur (governor). About 1685 these were Ambon, Banda, the Moluccas (Ternate), Coromandel, Ceylon and Malacca; a century later the Cape of Good Hope, the north coast of Java and Makassar also had a governor. Other economically important establishments such as Bengal, Surat and Persia were headed by a directeur (director, a title which, in the Company parlance, was associated with trade). In Malabar and on the west coast of Sumatra (Padang) there was a commandeur (commander) in charge. Cheribon, Banjarmasin and Palembang had a resident, while in Japan and on Timor there was an opperhoofd (head of establishment). These authorities did not function on their own, just as the Governor-General in Batavia they were the first person in a council; they had to make important decisions in rade (in council). Also on these councils a certain degree of division of labour was apportioned to the members. The second-in-command, the secunde, was usually an opperkoopman (senior merchant) and was in charge of trade. Furthermore, the council should contain a military commander, the head of the book-keeping and the fiscaal (in charge of detecting fraud and other crimes). In practice the composition of the board was rather different.

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