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Key Trends

There are a number of important shifts in the composition of the Company’s imports over the seventeenth and eighteenth century that are well known, and have been much discussed in the existing literature. Our database has the potential to shed new light on a number of these. The outcome of some preliminary analysis is discussed below.

Although the VOC has often been dubbed a spice trading company, its composition of trade evolved over the two centuries of its existence. In the Seventeenth the VOC was the most successful European trader in spices. This success in the spice trade is visible in the order lists in several ways. First of all, behind the orders for nutmeg, mace, cloves and cinnamon stood a global monopsony position in the trade of these commodities. In the pepper trade, the VOC also had a strong position, but the English East India Company was a competitor in this market. The trade in spices was very profitable, but also proved very inelastic. Trade in spices to Europe did not really grow and sometimes even showed signs of decline in the Eighteenth Century. The problems of the VOC in matching production in Asia with supplies in Europe are visible in the order lists, both in the figures and in the textual part.

Already during the Seventeenth century, the VOC expanded its trade to include textiles from India. At first the VOC traded in Indian textiles to barter for spices in the Indonesian Archipelago. In the second half of the Eighteenth Century, the VOC hesitantly followed the EIC in the textile trade to Europe. The order lists show us that during the Eighteenth Century, the textile trade of the VOC expanded, but contracted in the middle of the century. The English and French East India Companies, supported by fleets and armies from Europe, brought European wars to India. War disrupted the production of textiles especially on the Coromandel Coast and in Bengal. The order lists show how the Austrian War of Succession (1740-1748) and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) changed the patterns of the orders.

During the Eighteenth Century, Tea and coffee became important commodities in the trade of the VOC. During the Eighteenth century, the VOC moved into tea and coffee. Coffee was transplanted to the areas surrounding Batavia, Ambon and Ceylon. These new cultivation areas of coffee meant a serious alternative for the more expensive coffee from Mocha. The order lists show how the trade in coffee from Java and Ceylon soon was very successful, but was restrict as cheaper coffee from the Americas came on the European market. Tea was bought in Batavia from the Chinese Junk traders. After 1730, the VOC strongly expanded its returns of tea and it became one of the most important commodities in the returns of the VOC. All these developments meant the VOC slowly evolved from a spice trading company into a company trading in a much more varied mix of goods.

Although the VOC specialization in spices, textiles, coffee and tea was quite successful, many other commodities slowly disappeared from the cargoes of the VOC. In the mid-century, the value of the VOC return cargoes peaked. As the profitability had greatly decreased, the VOC decided to cut back on its returns. From then onwards unprofitable commodities slowly disappeared from both the order lists and from the returns, whilst the VOC focussed on the most profitable commodities. This development can now be studied through the order lists. The figures will show when the VOC gave up on certain commodities or when new commodities were introduced. Although they have not been published in the database, the textual parts of the archival material can supply new answers to the question why these trades were not profitable enough for the VOC to pursue.