In the Company’s Service
Life in the Dutch East India Company in a hundred personal testimonies (1602-1799)
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Dutch United East India Company (VOC) was the largest commercial enterprise in Europe - a private organisation of unprecedented size, the world’s first multinational. Its trade network extended from the Cape of Good Hope, Persia and Arabia in the west along the coasts of India, the Indonesian archipelago to the Moluccas, Japan and China in the east.
A million men tried their luck on the VOC’s ships in Asia; they hoped to earn more than in tradition-bound Europe and some of them felt the pull of the unknown, the exotic. Anyone signing on for a VOC ship knew that he was in for an adventurous but arduous time. Countless recruits never arrived, others died shortly after their arrival and only a few actually managed to make their fortune.
Much has been written about the business aspects of the VOC: the trade in pepper and fine spices, china, tea and cotton materials, about the profits made and the management of the scores of VOC trading posts in Asia. Much less is known about the everyday life of the tens of thousands of Company staff.
In the Company’s Service allows Company employees to speak about their personal experiences. The authors have chosen a hundred personal stories from the travelogues, ship’s journals, letters and memoirs that have survived, many of which have never previously appeared in print. All ranks are represented: from cabin boy to master, from clerk and bookkeeper to Governor-General and from private soldier to major. They are tales of scurvy, fights, heat, hunger, thirst and brutal discipline, of storms and of lying becalmed, as well as of strange encounters with alien peoples and astonishment at extraordinary animals and plants.
No one was spared disappointment, homesickness and despair, but there was also the joy on return of meeting old friends, and the thrill of having survived the Asian adventure.
The VOC was hell on earth, from which an estimated two-thirds of the seamen, soldiers and clerks failed to return alive. The odd individual became wealthy, but the price was too high for the rest and the families they left behind, as is made abundantly clear by the poignant fragments in In the Company’s Service.