Skip to main content

Historiographical Context

Research emanating from the VOC’s archives has opened up new perspectives on how the trade of the VOC was organised. The VOC trade has traditionally been studied from a maritime perspective, allowing us good understanding of the migrations of ships and people entailed in the VOC trade. Bruijn, Gaastra and Vermeulen’s Dutch-Asiatic shipping in the 17th and 18th century (1987) is a seminal work on the shipping of the Dutch East India Company. The database is also available online. Within a time-span of the two hundred years of its existence, it tracks all the voyages made by the VOC ships between Europe and Asia, not only listing the routes of the ships, but also the duration of all these voyages. This extensive database on the shipping of the VOC has since been supplemented with a database on the people travelling in VOC ships between the Dutch Republic and Asia. The VOC Sea-voyagers database lists as many as possible of the people, from sailors to high ranking officials, travelling on VOC ships during almost the whole existence of the VOC. Such work has brought as invaluable insights in the scope of trade and how the Asian goods were brought to Europe.

The trade of the VOC has received substantial attention too, especially by studying the materials available in the ‘Generale Staten’ or ‘General Ledgers’. These ‘Generale Staten’ were drawn up at the end of every trading season in order to calculate profits and loss of VOC trade. They are called ‘Generale Staten’ because the VOC consisted of several different chambers who all gave their particular information to draw up a ‘General’ report. These ‘Generale Staten’ give a general overview view of VOC trade, but only within broad categories such as ‘tea, cotton textiles, silks, pepper, etc’. De Korte has analysed the large documentation contained in the ‘Generale Staten’ and shown how the VOC trade expanded until the 1740s. After the 1740s the VOC trade contracted, but stabilized at a lower level. Steur’s Herstel of ondergang: de voorstellen tot redres van de Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, 1740-1795 (1984) has an appendix with trading statistics taken from the Generale Staten from 1740 onwards. His findings are in line with those of De Korte. Unfortunately, Steur only indicated the monetary value of the individual goods, which makes a comparison with the order lists which are stated in quantities impossible. Gaastra has also used the Generale Staten to describe the textile returns of the VOC in an article entitled: ‘The Textile Trade of the VOC: the Dutch response to the English Challenge’. Christiaan Jorg has used them to specifiy the VOC returns of tea.

The study of VOC trade has also gone beyond data from the Generale Staten. Glamann’s Dutch Asiatic shipping, 1620-1740 (1958) has shown that the VOC was more than a simple trader in spices. Thanks to his work on total volumes of trade in some key years, we know that the VOC transformed from a company predominantly trading in spices to a company heavily involved in the trade in tea and textiles. The varieties of tea in the VOC returns have been described in Liu Yong’s The Dutch East India Company’s Tea Trade with China, 1757-1781 (2007). He gives very detailed figures for the tea trade, although his book is mainly focussed on a short period of 24 years. Recently, the ING Huygens institute published a database on the trade of the Dutch East India Company. Based on the Bookkeeper-General (Boekhouder-Generaal) archive of the Dutch East India Company, it is possible to trace all returns of Asian commodities (with the exception of the direct trade with China) to Europe. Due to the state of the archives, only 55 years of the 18th century remain, and these years have all been put online. The database also consist of the intra-Asian trade of the VOC, which means the goods send to Europe can often be traced to their origins in different parts of Asia. Already before the BGB database was published, Els Jacobs has already analysed the trade of the VOC in the Eighteenth century, by using several sample years from this archival source. As so many years are missing in the BGB database, the order lists offer a nice alternative to trace changes in the commercial strategies of the VOC.

Due to the extensive trade of the VOC both in Asia and with Asia, a lot of information has been written down in the VOC archives on the trading conditions in Asia. The VOC servants in the different settlements kept track of all news they considered note-worthy. They did so in order to better predict trading conditions, prices and profits. As the VOC had wide-spread trading posts, many histories have been able to write about Asian people and societies whilst local sources material no longer exists. This information has also been used to tell part of the histories of the people in Asia. There are too many studies on all the different trading regions to mention, so I just want to point you to the last developments in this field. The recent TANAP-project has allowed historians from Asia to research the histories through the archives of the VOC. These histories have given us many new insights into the circumstances of trade in Asia, but they have also shed little light on the trade between Asia and Europe.

The order lists are valuable and new contribution to our knowledge of VOC trade to Europe. Their value has already been acknowledged for individual commodities. Femme Gaastra in his article on textiles has pointed our attention to the importance of studying the order lists for an understanding in the variety of textiles the VOC traded in. The order lists themselves have been singled out as a very precise source of especially the different varieties of textiles. In the history of Chints, special emphasis is placed on the orders for Chints as they are the only way to show how great variety of Chints was traded by the VOC. As a consequence, the numbers for Chints have been reproduced in this work. Liu Yong has used the order lists to supplement his trading figures of tea, in order to illustrated demand and the final result of trade. The order lists still holds a treasure of unexplored information about many other commodities the VOC traded in.