Studies in Overseas History

Merchant in Asia. The Trade of the Dutch East India Company during the Eighteenth Century

Els M. Jacobs

For much of its two centuries of existence (1602 to 1799), the VOC, the Dutch East India Company was the largest trading company in the world. Although the VOC was established to operate primarily as a trading company, it soon also came to play a prominent military, diplomatic and political role on the Asian stage and eventually it laid the foundations of the Dutch colonial empire in the Indonesian Archipelago.

Merchant in Asia is the first study to pay attention to the full breadth and width of the VOC commercial activities in Asia. It looks at the company from the peak of its fame until its final decline at the end of the eighteenth century. The study focuses on the main trade goods - spices, Indian textiles, Chinese tea and Javanese coffee - and their specific by-products. Els Jacobs has analyzed in detail the VOC trade in fifteen of the most important commodities that together made up 85% of the total turnover.

This innovative study is based on extensive research of the VOC archives and many other Dutch sources, as well as a detailed quantitative analysis of the VOC bookkeeping records. In the study the author sketches in vivid detail how the merchants of the VOC sold, bought, and even supervised the production of tropical products and how they dealt with Asian suppliers and consumers. In addition, she looks at the range of problems the merchants encountered in the maritime trade from Yemen and Persia in the West to China and Japan in the East, including India, Ceylon, Malacca, and the Indonesian Archipelago.

(In English, 474 pp. ill.)

About the Dutch edition, Koopman in Aziƫ (published in 2000), Gerrit Knaap wrote: 'This is, as I have said, an extremely useful monograph, addressing a wide range of topics and problems. At the same time its clear structure and functional illustrations make it a very accessible publication. Hopefully, in the near future the entire book, or at least its conclusions in the form of articles, will also reach international (that is non-Dutch), audiences. Jacobs' book has a great deal to say to Asianists everywhere in the world, and as the number of Asianists capable of reading Dutch is rather limited, the results of this study should be brought to their attention in English.' - Review in: Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 158 (2002) 339-343

Prior to her present position as secretary-general of the Netherlands National Commission for UNESCO, Els M. Jacobs (PhD. Leiden 2000) taught maritime and Dutch national history at Leiden University for almost twenty years. As guest curator at the maritime museums in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, she has been in charge of several major projects, including the National Anniversary Exhibition The Colourful World of the VOC 1602-2002, as well as a well received television series on the history of the VOC for Teleac/NOT, the Dutch educational broadcasting company. Among her earlier works is In Pursuit of Pepper and Tea: The Story of the Dutch East India Company (1991). Merchant in Asia was published in Dutch in 2000 as Koopman in Aziƫ.

Studies in Overseas History Vol. 8