VOC Organization

The Central Management; Tasks and Procedures of the Heren XVII

F.S. Gaastra

uite soonafter 1602 the Heren XVII established a set working procedure. During the seventeenth century this board usually came together three times a year for meetings which lasted for one or more weeks. Occasionally there were only two meetings and this became the rule after 1751. Between these sessions there were meetings of committees of directors, which prepared policy planning for the Heren XVII or inspected the management of the chambers. Like the meetings of the Heren XVII these committees, which were not mentioned in the charter and which evolved during the first half of the seventeenth century, were composed of delegates from the boards of directors of the chambers(11).

The following committees were active:

  1. A committee for drawing up the annual balance sheet.
  2. A committee for attending and supervising on the auctions of the chambers.
  3. A committee for inspecting the books of the chambers.
  4. A committee which read through the correspondence and documents received from Asia and then composed a draft letter for the administration in Asia. This committee, which was composed of four directors from Amsterdam, two from Zeeland and one from each of the smaller chambers, met in The Hague and was known as the Haags Besogne.
  5. In wartime, the fleet was issued with secret routes and signals. These were compiled by a secrete commissie.

The time of the meetings of the Heren XVII and the subjects dealt with at them were largely dictated by the trading and sailing seasons. The autumn session can be considered to be the first in the annual cycle of meetings. This was summoned after the return of the return fleet from Asia, about the end of August. At this meeting decisions were taken on the following matters:

  • The dates of the auctions of the six chambers, the quantity of goods offered for sale and the conditions under which these would be sold. This point had to be dealt with quickly, at the beginning of the meeting so that there was time to send notification of the auctions to the large commercial centres of Europe. Moreover, the auctions themselves could not be delayed too late into the autumn, in order to make sure that the merchants would not be prevented from dispatching the goods to the purchasers both at home and abroad because of the onset of the winter. It often happened that the autumn sessions went into recess for a time so that the auctions could be held and to allow the auction committee to do its work. When this happened, the second half of the autumn session fell very late in the year; sometimes the Heren XVII even met until Christmas or New Year.
  • The number of ships and crew to be sent to Asia. This concerned the ships which from September - therefore while the meeting was still in session- until the summer of the following year were to sail from patria (home). Because, of course, the chambers had to have the first ships of this equipage shipshape long before September, a provisional decision had been taken on this point earlier. In the autumn the definitive list of ships was settled.
  • The quantity of goods to be sent to Asia. This decision was an answer to the eis der behoeften (order for supplies) sent by the Governor-General and Council in Batavia.
  • The quantity of gold and silver, minted and bullion, and the amount of copper coinage to be sent to Asia. This was in answer to the eis der contanten (order for ready money) received from Batavia. The decision about the precious metal and copper coin was provisioneel (provisional). In the spring there was a review to see if this needed to be supplemented.
  • The compilation of what was known as the eis van retouren, a list of the products that the directors wished to receive with the next return fleet from Asia. Usually a provisional list was drawn up first; the definitieve eis (definitive order) was only decided upon after the autumn

    Generale carga; list of goods in 1687 delivered in the Netherlands by six ships.
    (click image to enlarge)
    auctions had been held. The directors took account not only of the sales figures from their own auctions, but of from those in London as well. When the autumn session was interrupted by the holding of auctions, a definitive decision could be taken in the second half of this session. Sometimes, however, it was left to the directors who attended the auctions to make up the definitive order in collaboration with the directors of the Amsterdam Chamber. In a few instances the sale of spices in the spring also led to supplements to this definitive list.
  • The composition of the Governor-General and Council or the Raad van Indië (Council of the Indies) in Batavia and the promotion of high-ranking officials to the overseas establishments. The right to appoint somebody a member of the Raad van Indië and commander of a Company establishment was the prerogative of the Heren XVII. Often decisions taken on this point were no more than a ratification of an appointment which had already been made in Asia. Furthermore, this item on the agenda gave the directors of the various chambers the opportunity to put forward some protégé for promotion.
  • In all the sessions of the Heren XVII, therefore also in the autumn, surveys were made on the financial situation of the chambers: the cash in hand, the credit balance in the exchange bank, the outstanding debts and claims. Moreover, in the autumn, and occasionally in the spring, an inventory of the stocks of cannon was drawn up.
  • At various times during the autumn session extracts were read from the generale missive (general dispatch) from the Governor-General and Council of the Indies, which gave a survey of the commercial, financial and political situation of the VOC in Asia. Matters which required urgent attention or which the Heren XVII considered could be dealt with immediately were summarized in a letter to Batavia. Other matters were referred to the Haags Besogne with the rest of the voluminous collection of documents from Asia.

The next meeting of the Heren XVII took place in the early spring, often as early as February, or else in March. During this session decisions were made about the spring auctions, at which the VOC usually offered only spices for sale. Besides this, the gathering gave the directors the opportunity to check work in progress on the outfitting of the ships. This was when the definitive consignment of the amount of ready money was decided. Furthermore, in spring it was time for the liquidatie en egalisatie van de retouren en van de timmeringhe van schepen (for the liquidation and settling up of the imports and of the building of the ships). On the basis of information supplied by the chambers, the directors checked to what extent the distribution system, which had been laid down in the charter, had been observed. As far as the imports were concerned this could mean that one chamber had to supply another chamber with a certain product or that a financial adjustment had to be made to set the proportions to rights. This was not possible with regard to the building of ships. However, later in the year, when the new programme was finalized, the results of the comparison and any imbalances in building activities up to that moment were taken into account.

Remarkably enough, it was often at the spring session that a decision was already made about the remittance of dividends. Therefore, this was done even before the auction of spices had taken place in March, and, furthermore, before the end of the financial year, which closed either in the middle or at the end of May. This means that the payments were entered in the books of the year still current. It is true that after 1669, at the suggestion of the Amsterdam Chamber, it was decided to wait until the books had been closed and the balance drawn up before assessing the dividend, but as early as about 1684 the old practices had been resumed.

Finally, it was at the spring session that the date on which the Haags Besogne would meet was decided. The directors who had been delegated to this gathering by their chambers had to count on spending quite some time in The Hague. Sometimes the Haags Besogne was in session for as long as three months. The return fleet not only brought a generale missive from the Governor-General and the Council of the Indies to the Heren XVII, but also copies of the correspondence between Batavia and the other establishments in Asia. This correspondence, arranged by establishment along with the relevant passages from the generale missiven and from letters which had been written earlier on behalf of the Heren XVII was read and replied to by the Haags Besogne. The report of the Besogne, which was known as the Haags Verbaal, is mainly a summary of the letters which had been read, with a reference to the draft reply, which is nearly always included at the back of the Verbaal. Occasionally short remarks were added; sometimes a more extensive commentary was given, for instance, when the directors in The Hague were able to obtain information directly from an employee who had come back from Asia.

As the Haags Besogne reviewed the navale magt, the survey of the Company ships present in Asia, which was prepared in Batavia, this was the body most suitable for drawing up a list of the complete VOC fleet, and on the basis of this to give advice about the building of new vessels. During the eighteenth century the directors in The Hague added more details to the Verbaal, for instance, those relating to the sale of European goods in Asia. Besides this the Besogne found itself tackling a lot of the tasks which the Heren XVII could not, or would not, handle in their sessions. The directors in The Hague were also regularly requested to speed up or to bring to a close various cases in which the VOC was involved before the Hof van Holland (provincial court of justice) Lastly, the directors assembled in The Hague availed themselves of the opportunity to discuss the way matters relating to the equipage were progressing. When the Amsterdam directors had not done so during the spring session, they usually presented the Haags Besogne with a proposal for sending precious metal with the ships of the current equipage, in anticipation of the expected order from Batavia. This last matter was the only item on which the Haags Besogne took a decision. All other matters to which the Besogne had turned its attention were then placed before the next session of the Heren XVII for deliberation.

After this, in June, the committee whose job it was to check the books and draw up the annual balance sheet met. On this occasion not only the directors on this committee - two from Amsterdam, one from Zeeland and three from the other chambers (thus one chamber was not represented) - but also the book-keepers from the six chambers wended their way to the Oostindisch Huis of the Amsterdam Chamber. Here, each in turn, the accountants presented their books and financial documents for inspection. Finally, the committee drew up the general balance sheet of the VOC in patria from the six balance sheets. Among the papers which this committee collected were the lists of the goods sold by each chamber, the stocks, the outstanding debts and credits, the cash in hand and the credit balance in the bank of exchange. Once every four years when, according to the rules laid down in the charter, a financial accounting had to be made to representatives of the States General and the principal shareholders, after the books had been closed, they were inspected yet again by chamber.

From Amsterdam the committee could not really keep a close eye on the accounting. This was the reason that now and again a committee was appointed to inspect and check the books on the spot. A wide-spread fraud perpetrated in the Hoorn Chamber in 1670 had been the motive behind the formation of such a committee. The inspection of the chambers did not follow any particular schedule. Sometimes, after a session of the Heren XVII in Zeeland had finished, some directors stayed on in order to carry out this task. Then, on their return journey to Amsterdam, they inspected the chambers of Delft and Rotterdam, and later in the year visits were paid to Amsterdam, Hoorn and Enkhuizen.

Samples of silk, ordered in China
(click image to enlarge)

The third meeting
of the Heren XVII took place in the summer, usually in July, but sometimes not until August. This was when the draft reply of the Haags Besogne was discussed. After it had been approved and any amendments had been made, this reply was sent to Batavia in September with the first ships of the new equipage. The summer was also the time that provisional estimates were reached about ships, crews and goods for the forthcoming season. Moreover, a decision was made on the quantity of precious metals to be dispatched on the ships sailing in September; therefore this ruling was also an anticipation of the order which would only be received at the end of August and of the definitive decision, which would be taken later in the year. In the eighteenth century a provisional eis van retouren (order for return goods) was drawn up so that Batavia could set to work as soon as possible to assemble the goods for patria; therefore the questions which were decided later in the year by the Heren XVII increasingly assumed a supplementary character.

On rare occasions, under the pressure of special circumstances, there was not enough time to summon a full complement of the Heren XVII. In such instances, a meeting of the Halve XVII was deemed sufficient. For instance, after the outbreak of the war with England and France in July 1672, an extra session of the Halve XVII was summoned in The Hague, for just one day, 'so as not to cause a stir or be conspicuous'. Weather conditions could also cause a great deal of confusion. In 1681 when a severe frost made the journey by the directors from Holland to Zeeland impossible, a Halve XVII was summoned with The Hague once again as the venue to organize the spring auctions. However, these sorts of meetings trod on a lot of toes. The Zeeland directors were afraid that the other chambers would be all too ready to seize such opportunities to transfer the meetings to The Hague during the time that Zeeland held the presidency. Amsterdam had objections to the Halve XVII because it was composed of four Amsterdam directors, two Zeelanders and four (sometimes two) delegates from the smaller chambers. With only four representatives, Amsterdam was underrepresented. Moreover, because of the even number of those present, voting could be deadlocked. Amsterdam wanted voting by Chamber, in which the four Amsterdammers would be permitted to have eight votes and the Zeelanders four or - if the Chamber of Zeeland happened to be in the chair - five votes.

The growth of the business and the concomitant increasing workload of the Heren XVII meant that in the course of the eighteenth century the directors found themselves ever more pressed for time. Above all during the lengthy deliberations in The Hague the schedule got increasingly out of hand. Sometimes the summer session could only get under way late in August and by then the return fleet had already arrived home. This was the time when the directors had a lot of work to see to in the chambers and also had to devote their attention to the preparations for the autumn session of the Heren XVII. Therefore, in 1751, it was decided to cancel the summer session. The multitudinous provisional decisions about the equipage and suchlike were left in the hands of the Haags Besogne; from then on the draft missive of the Haags Besogne was dealt with immediately the autumn session commenced, in order to limit any delay in its dispatch to the minimum.

Shortly after the middle of the eighteenth century yet another change was implemented in the organization of the central management. In 1755 it was decided to change the pattern of the trade with China and to send ships directly from the Netherlands to China. This entailed an infringement on the role of Batavia as organizer of shipping in Asia. Furthermore, the trade and shipping for China was put in the hands of a separate committee. This Chinase Comité (Chinese Committee), composed of directors from various chambers, fixed the equipage for Canton, decided how much tea, porcelain and other goods were to be bought, and corresponded with the VOC employees in China. After its inception, trade with China was dealt with only summarily in meetings of the Heren XVII. This form of organization, by which the trade and shipping for one area was entrusted to a special administrative branch, remained an exception within the Company and it was not imitated for any of the other areas(12).


Riverside of Hangchiu (modern-day Hangzhou), drawn for the Chinese emperor in 1667.

(click image to enlarge, approx. 170 kB)

All in all, the central management was badly constructed. The Heren XVII did not meet in permanent session. The composition of the assembly was constantly changing, and the Heren XVII had no administrative staff. Nonetheless, due to the practices which had evolved, the administration was a force to be reckoned with. The decisions of the Heren XVII were binding for the chambers; because each chamber was represented in the XVII, the directors of the chambers executed these decisions. There were certain unwritten rules honoured in the selection of delegates to the Heren XVII from the chambers of Amsterdam and Zeeland, and probably from the other chambers as well. In Amsterdam burgomasters and ex-burgomasters had precedence over other directors, after this seniority was taken into account. A similar rule was applied in Zeeland. However, by no means always did directors avail themselves of their 'right' of delegation, and certainly when there were sessions in Zeeland it was sometimes difficult for the Amsterdammers to drum up the eight members required for their delegation. During their term of office many directors will have attended one or more sessions of the Heren XVII; a number of directors attended the sessions so regularly that, despite the many changes, a certain degree of continuity was achieved(13).

The Amsterdam Chamber wielded great influence in the central administration. The preparations for and the conduct of the sessions of the Heren XVII were matters which the Amsterdammers tackled very thoroughly. During discussions of the agenda at the sessions of the Heren XVII, the Amsterdam directors already submitted detailed suggestions on such important items as the equipage or the order for Asian goods, which had been given to the delegation. During meetings if the other chambers criticized the Amsterdam position, the Amsterdam delegation would consult the other directors in the chamber - something that was less feasible when the meeting was held in Middelburg; in such cases consultation was by correspondence.

Finally, the continuity in the administration was boosted by the work of the Company advocates. These advocates - there was a first and a second advocate - acted as secretary to the directors and, consequently, were the only permanent high-ranking officials who had a function on the central management. The advocate assisted the presidential chamber in the compilation of the agendas for the meetings of the Heren XVII and he attended these sessions as well as the meetings of the committees set up by the Heren XVII. Besides this, he was in the service of the Amsterdam Chamber. The most famous Company advocate was Pieter van Dam, who, for more than fifty years, from 1652 to 1706, occupied this office and compiled the important Beschryvinge van de Oostindische Compagnie about 1700. (See the webpage with a diagram of the organization of the VOC.)

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