Well, maybe not the other half, maybe the quarter of one percent. We are talking about Willem van Loon, who had the means and the good fortune to get in on the ground floor of one of the most profitable companies in history– the Dutch East India Company. On a recent trip to Amsterdam, we dropped by to see the family home on the Keizersgracht. It is one of the grandest historic canal homes in Amsterdam.

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By 1602, various traders from Portugal, England and the Netherlands had made fortunes bringing back spices from the Moluccan Islands. In the summer of 1599, Jacob van Neck sailed back with a ship laden with nearly a million pounds of pepper, cloves nutmeg, mace and cinammon. The commander and his men were feted as heroes, paraded through the streets of Amsterdam while the city’s church bells rang.

Dutch East India Company Warehouse

The profits were so extravagant that the spice trade threatened to turn into a nautical gold rush with one country against another, cities against cities. Amsterdam merchants responded by petitioning their delegates in the States General, which represented all the provinces of the Netherlands, for a total and exclusive monopoly.

This outrageous demand was rejected, but the Attorney General realised that some sort of Dutch monopoly was essential. He insisted that small investors from across the country be included. On March 20, 1602, a deal was struck and the VOC came into being. It was known as the Seventeen, for the number of men on the council. It was awarded a monopoly for 21 years.

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Just eleven days later three ships were dispatched. They were ordered to establish trading links with Java, Sumatra, Ceylon and the “other spiceries,” sail to China and open up trading houses there as well. Military action was both permitted and expected. The VOC is often considered to have been the first multinational corporation in the world. It was the first company to issue stock. It possessed quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, coin money, and establish colonies.

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The Dutch East Indian Company eclipsed all of its rivals in the Asia trade. Between 1602 and 1796 the VOC put almost a million Europeans to work on 4,785 ships, and netted more than 2.5 million tons of Asian trade goods. The fleet of the British East India Company was a distant second with 2,690 ships and one-fifth the tonnage of goods carried by the VOC.

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In 1619 the Seventeen established a capital in the port city of Batavia (now Jakarta). Over the next two centuries the Company acquired additional ports as trading bases and safeguarded their interests by taking over surrounding territory. It remained an important trading concern and paid an 18% annual dividend to its shareholders for almost 200 years. The van Loon family did very well.

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For the stunning profits there was a price to pay, and most of it was paid in the Far East. On one journey to the Banda Islands, a Dutch crew became incensed that they had to eat putrid beef while plump cattle and buffalo roamed freely in the streets. To the Singalese, they were holy animals. The captain paid lip service to the wishes of the King, but allowed his men to butcher and roast some cows. After getting his guests drunk at an elaborate banquet, the King and his people took their revenge, killing the Vice Admiral and all those who were with him. Massacres among all the players in the spice trade were not uncommon.

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The history of the spice trade is absolutely fascinating, and I’m sure there are many wonderful Dutch books on the subject. The only narrative I am familiar with is told from the British point of view. It is a work of popular history by Giles Milton called “Nathaniel’s Nutmeg.” The ending is astonishing. Read it and you will never look at New York City in quite the same way.

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