What Was the World’s First Megacorporation?

The Dutch East India Company was the world’s first megacorporation and the most impressive of the early modern trading companies in Asia in the 17th-18th centuries.

By UNESCO Memory of the World

De wapens van de VOC en Batavia (1651) by Becx, Jeronimus (II)Rijksmuseum

Dutch East India Company (VOC)

The Dutch East India Company (VOC, Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie), founded in 1602 and liquidated in 1795, was a Dutch trading company, formed by consolidation of several trading companies to become a megacorporation. It got the authority of the Dutch government in the trade zone between South Africa and Japan to conduct trade, erect fortifications, appoint governors, keep a standing army, and conclude treaties in its name. 

The Shipyard of the Dutch East India Company at Amsterdam (1696) by Bakhuysen, LudolfMauritshuis

Why Was the Dutch East India Company (VOC) Important?

It was the largest and most impressive of the early modern European trading companies operating in Asia. The VOC eclipsed all of its rivals in the Asian trade. It sent almost a million Europeans to work in the Asia trade on 4,785 ships and netted more than 2.5 million tons of Asian trade goods.

Hoge Regering 2483 – 0994 (17th - 18th centuries) by Dutch East India CompanyUNESCO Memory of the World

Archives of the Dutch East India Company (VOC)

The VOC presence in and around Monsoon Asia resulted in shiploads of documents. Most of the papers in the VOC Archives were produced by locally stationed company officials and the people they interacted with: kings and noblemen, traders and middlemen, and shippers and harbor masters.

India and the Middle East (1596) by Jan Huyghen Van LinschotenKalakriti Archives

Where Are the VOC Archives?

The VOC Archives were created in South Africa, Yemen, Iran, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Taiwan, Japan, and the Netherlands. Records have survived in Jakarta, Colombo, Chennai, Cape Town, and The Hague.

De handelsloge van de VOC in Hougly in Bengalen (1665) by Schuylenburgh, Hendrik vanRijksmuseum

Why Were the VOC Archives Set Up?

In order to control the trade and their servants 1,000s of kilometers away, a voyage of many months by ship, the VOC set up a gigantic information network. Every trading post had to copy the main bulk of its administration and the servants of the VOC made detailed reports. 

Colombo gezien vanaf de rede (ca. 1710) by Steiger, CornelisRijksmuseum

Importance of the VOC Archives

They contain the most complete, extensive source on early modern world history anywhere, with data on the history of 100s of Asia’s and Africa’s former local political and trade regions. They reflect the history of the European expansion regions where the VOC founded trading posts.

Hoge Regering 2471-0452 (17th - 18th centuries) by Dutch East India CompanyUNESCO Memory of the World

Types of Information in the VOC Archives

They include data on political, economic, cultural, religious, social, geographical, and agricultural circumstances over a broad area circulated between 100s of VOC officials and dozens of establishments around the world, and the administrative centers in the Netherlands and at Batavia, now Jakarta. These sources include: daily reports, expedition reports, financial records, correspondence, treaties with local rulers, trade, and products needed in the region reports.

Gezantschap van de VOC op audiëntie bij de vorst van Kandy, Sri Rajadi Raja Sinha (1785-10-10 - 1786-02-14) by Brandes, JanRijksmuseum

1. Expedition Reports

The VOC Archives include reports written by VOC directors about expeditions to explore the region and embassies to the local and national rulers. They describe the personal relations of the court, the shifts of power, the foes and allies, and reflect the life and history of the people in the region of these trading posts.

Zoo. Bird. Dodo.LIFE Photo Collection

2. Maps and Drawings

There are 1000s of maps and drawings in the VOC Archives. Frequently, these pictures were the first representations ever made of the people, houses, landscape, and flora and fauna of these regions. One of numerous discoveries was the now extinct dodo.

The Dutch and Chinese Settlements at Nagasaki, a pair of handscroll paintings (1750/1799)British Museum

3. Natural Sciences

The VOC Archives contain information about the development of natural sciences. Between 1640-1754 the VOC settlement on an island in the harbor of Nagasaki was called “Japan's window on the Western world” because, apart from the Chinese, the Dutch were the only foreigners to trade with Japan in this period of seclusion. Until 1854, the Dutch language was used for the scientific discourse.

Com Comp Dutch East India Co See Comp West IndiesLIFE Photo Collection

4. Event Described in Every Korean Schoolbook

The VOC Archives include information concerning regions and periods where little or no other written sources have survived. For example, the journal of a Dutch commander who visited Korea, is still considered as a vital source for the early 16th century history of Korea.

Singalese militairen in dienst van de VOC en gezanten van de koning van Kandy (1785-11-29) by Brandes, JanRijksmuseum

Asian and African Historical Sources

There were 100s of Asian and African former local political and trade regions that had their own historical sources. These ranged from carved inscriptions in stone, manuscripts on palm-leaf and bark, court chronicles, trade correspondence, travel reports, and the records of civic administration.

Southern India (1682) by Johan NieuhofKalakriti Archives

VOC Archives - Asian and African Historical Sources

The VOC Archives richly supplement historical sources on Monsoon Asia and Southern Africa, providing the data necessary to draw a broad comparative picture from regions to villages. They offer a wealth of knowledge on these societies in the 17th-18th centuries and place both national and regional histories into multi-regional and global settings.

Hooghly-Chinsura, West Bengal (1626) by François ValentijnKalakriti Archives

VOS Archives Today - 5 Fingers of One Hand

Many documents were destroyed or disappeared but as duplicates were made and shipped from VOC Archives globally to administrative centers in the Netherlands and Indonesia, copies are often found there. The VOC record groups and sub-record groups make up fonds and can’t be separated. They constitute an organic whole and belong to each other like the “5 fingers of one hand.”

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UNESCO's Memory of the World Programme is an international initiative launched to safeguard the documentary heritage of humanity against collective amnesia, neglect, the ravages of time and climatic conditions, and willful and deliberate destruction.
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