VOC Organization

Organization of the VOC Chambers

F.S. Gaastra

s the managers of the chambers, the task of the directors was to carry out the decisions taken in the sessions of the Heren XVII. Very early in the seventeenth century the chambers were given facilities for this work. An Oostindisch Huis, where the directors met, the accountants, cashiers and clerks carried out their administrative activities and where goods were occasionally stored, was set up in all the cities with chambers. Besides this there were the requisite warehouses and complexes for the building and equipping of ships: shipyards, sailmakers', rope-walks, forges; not forgetting abattoirs, apothecaries and a multitude of other businesses(14). The internal organization of the various chambers differed somewhat one from the other. When it was all said and done, the chambers of Amsterdam and Zeeland were respectively eight and four times bigger than one small Chamber and this alone made different demands on the organization.

In Amsterdam the directors usually met twice a week, on Monday and Thursday. During sessions of the Heren XVII and when there were matters which had to be dealt with quickly, extraordinary meetings were added. Many activities were, however, handled in committees. Initially the directors followed the practice which had begun in the voorcompagnieën of setting up separate committees for each equipage. Directors were appointed for one season or one year to a committee for shipbuilding, victualling, ammunition, book-keeping or the sale of goods. Sometime around the middle of the seventeenth century four permanent committees, which in the eighteenth century were called departments, evolved. When directors were appointed they were given a seat on a committee and mostly remained active there for the whole of their term of office(15).

The various administrative departments and sections of the business fell under these committees. The work was divided up as follows: (See the webpage with a diagram of the organization of the Amsterdam Chamber.)

  1. The commissie voor de rekenkamer (committee for the audit office) was in charge of the chief accountant, the clearing office, the pay office and the clerks' office. The chief accountant made up the ledger and the journal of the Chamber and he administered the transfer of shares and the remittance of the dividends. In the liquidation office were kept the books in which the transactions with merchants were accounted for. The pay office was in charge of the extensive personnel administration and the scheepssoldijboeken (ship's pay-ledgers) were held there. Lastly, the clerks' office carried out the secretarial duties.
  2. The job of the commissie van ontvang (reception committee), often in conjunction with the rekenkamer, was to supervise the cashier. This committee was also given the responsibility of the buying up the silver and gold which was to be sent to Asia. The cashier and his assistants worked in the ontvangkamer (reception office).
  3. The heeren van 't pakhuis (warehouse masters) or, according to their later more dignified nomenclature, departement van de commercie, supervised the book-keepers in the warehouse office. Here a record was kept of which goods had been purchased, which of these were sent to Asia, which imported goods had been received from Asia, and what prices these had fetched at the auctions. Besides, the directors on this committee had yet another task: they had to audition ministers of religion who wished to be considered for an appointment in Asia.
  4. The task of the commissie van de equipage (equipage committee) was the inspection of all matter to do with shipbuilding and the outfitting of vessels. These directors supervised the shipyards, they were present when vessels sailed from and dropped anchor in the Texel roads, and were charged with recruiting sailors and soldiers.
Plan of the deck of a VOC ship indicating amongst others the storage of victuals ( C and H ),
c. 1760. (click image to enlarge)

In the Zeeland Chamber the directors formed themselves into three committees: the commissie van de thesaurie (finance committee), commissie van de koopmanschappen (commerce committee) and the commissie van de equipage (equipage committee)(16). Here it was also the custom to give a director a seat on one of the committees as soon as he was appointed but, because equipage and commerce were considered to be much bigger plums on account of the possibility they offered for granting establishments to protégés and obtaining emoluments, there was a great deal of changing around: if a place on the equipage committee fell vacant, very often somebody from the finance committee took it and a newly appointed director was placed on the finance committee. The administrative division in Zeeland was identical to that in Amsterdam, albeit there were fewer people employed in the various establishments. Zeeland also had a chief accountant, a cashier's office, a commercial office and a pay office. Furthermore, just as was the case in Amsterdam, there were book-keepers and clerks in the shipyards. The office known there as the buiten-comptoir was an office in the warehouse.

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