ow did the earth's peoples, cultures, economies, and polities become so closely interconnected? When did our world become 'global' and what vital role did Asia and Africa play at the centre of this new international community? New questions are being asked about the history of Asia and Africa and about their interaction with the West, but how do we unlock the answers? What is the key?

Unravelling a 'Braided' World History

t sites across Asia, Africa, and Europe, remnants of this global past lie in wait. Kilometres of archives have survived centuries of humidity and tropical heat, and historians have only just begun to unearth their secret treasures--answers to the riddle of humankind's collective past. Only a few experts are able to decipher the handwritings of the archives or even to determine its languages. This unique collection of records has been glorified in the colonial past and despised in nationalist awakenings, but as modern historians unravel its secrets layer by layer, they become more and more convinced that it is the most complete and extensive source on early modern World History anywhere: the Archives of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), 1602-1796.

The VOC archives are a mutual heritage of various cultures
(click image to enlarge)

The VOC:
The World's First Multinational

he VOC (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) was a Dutch trading company founded by traders and burghersfrom port towns such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Middelburg. It was the largest and most impressive of the early modern European trading companies operating in Asia. It formed in 1602 when the States-General of the United Provinces, the highest authority of the Republic of the Netherlands, persuaded several competing Dutch spice-trading firms to incorporate into a single trading company. It had the States-General's authority 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.

Seventeen gentlemen (The Heeren XVII) served as the Board of Directors in the Netherlands of the world's first joint-stock company. VOC -Asia was governed on-site by a governor-general at Java, his Council of the Indies, and by subordinate VOC officials in a network of forts and factories in Africa, the Middle East, India and Sri Lanka, throughout Southeast Asia, and up into China, Taiwan, and Japan.

Statistically, the VOC eclipsed all of its rivals in the Asia trade. Between 1602 and 1796 the VOC sent almost a million Europeans to work in the Asia trade on 4,785 ships, and netted for their efforts more than 2.5 million tons of Asian trade goods. By contrast, the rest of Europe combined sent only 882,412 people from 1500 to 1795, and the fleet of the English (later British) East India Company, the VOC's nearest competitor, was a distant second to its total traffic with 2,690 ships and a mere one-fifth the tonnage of goods carried by the VOC. The VOC enjoyed huge profits from its spice monopoly through most of the 1600s. In the last quarter of the 17th century European demand shifted to textiles, coffee and tea, commodities over which the VOC did not and could not exercise a monopoly. Thus VOC revenues came increasingly from tolls, taxes and tributes collected through an expanding colonial administration over its territorial holdings in Africa and Asia. Crippled by a debt of almost one hundred million guilders and reeling from the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War and French control over the Netherlands, the VOC was liquidated at the end of the eighteenth century.

25 Million Pages of Historical Records

he VOC presence in and around Monsoon Asia resulted not only in warehouses packed with spices, textiles, porcelain and silk, but also in shiploads of documents. Most of the papers found in VOC archives were produced by locally-stationed Company officials, but much was also produced by the peoples with whom they interacted: kings and noblemen, traders and middlemen, shippers and shahbandars(harbour masters). The extensive information network that the VOC built up for its business operations is impressive indeed. Data on political, economic, cultural, religious, and social circumstances over a broad area circulated between hundreds of VOC officials and dozens of establishments around the world and the administrative centres in the Netherlands and at Batavia, now the city of Jakarta. Twenty-five million pages of VOC records survive among the vast holdings of VOC repositories in Jakarta, Colombo, Chennai, Cape Town, and The Hague.

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