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VOC Organization


Batavia as Administrative Centre

F.S. Gaastra

ll the VOC establishments in Asia (thus including that at the Cape of Good Hope) were subject to the Governor-General and Council in Batavia. At the same time Batavia was the most important and, for a while during the seventeenth century, the only harbour of arrival and departure for ships to and from Europe. Communications between the directors in the Dutch Republic and the various establishments was also carried on principally via the Governor-General and Council and its administrative machinery.

Coat of arms of Batavia (in the middle)between the arms of the towns of the six VOC chambers: Delft, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Middelburg, Hoorn and Enkhuizen
(click image to enlarge)

There were a number of exceptions to this rule. The VOC establishment at Gamron in Persia and at times the establishments in India corresponded with the directors at home overland via the Levant. Besides this, after the founding of the establishment at the Cape of Good Hope, there was an exchange of correspondence between the administrators there and the directors in the Dutch Republic. Finally, whenever ports other than Batavia were included in the Europe-Asia trade, there was a direct exchange of letters between the directors and that particular establishment at that time(19).

The Governor-General and Council saw this trade which circumvented Batavia as a threat to their own position. Moreover, they considered that such moves detracted from the efficacy of the role of Batavia as rendez-vous. Therefore the authorities in Batavia were well pleased when in 1636 the directors stopped the direct trade with Coromandel, Surat and Gamron, which had actually begun before the foundation of Batavia. In 1665, however, the Governor-General and councillors had to resign themselves to the fact that Ceylon was to function alongside Batavia as second port for homeward-bound shipping. The Heren XVII had given their assent to this trade in order to be able to supply the rapidly growing demand for pepper on the European market - the pepper from Malabar was imported via Ceylon. Moreover, this route had the added advantage that cinnamon from Ceylon was imported into Europe more quickly and, because it did not have to be transshipped, in better condition.

After Ceylon was granted a direct connection with home, fierce competition rapidly flared up between the governor of the island, Rijklof van Goens, and the Governor-General and Council. Van Goens believed that Ceylon, or more accurately the city of Galle, from where the homeward- bound VOC ships sailed, would serve as a better rendez-vous than Batavia for the Indian establishments of the Company. The result of his efforts was that the homeward-bound fleet from Ceylon was sometimes more richly laden than the ships from Batavia. On the basis of this the directors decided to extend this directe vaart (direct trade) to Coromandel and Bengal. This, however, did not prove a success, perhaps partly because Batavia did not support this policy and possibly even sabotaged it. Whatever the cause, little by little, the Governor-General and Council managed to win back lost ground and, by about 1700, apart from Batavia, only Galle had a direct link with patria.


The city of Mocka (modern-day Al Mucka in Yemen); around 1700
(click image to enlarge)

The shifts in trade during the eighteenth century brought new changes in the shipping. During the first three decades, ships, known as coffee ships, sailed regularly from Mocca on the Red Sea via Galle back to the Netherlands. More importantly, after a caustic debate between the Heren XVII and the Governor-General and Council, in 1720 a direct link was established between The Netherlands and Canton. Up to 1733 the chambers of Amsterdam and Zeeland sent a total of thirteen ships to Canton, which failed to make Canton. After this, the organization of this trade was once again entrusted to Batavia on the understanding that of the two or three ships which then sailed annually from Batavia to China, only one would return to its homeport; the other ships with their cargoes of tea and porcelain sailed back to the Netherlands via the Sunda Straits. Eventually, in 1756, when the Chinase commissie was inaugurated, the trade with China was once again managed from the Dutch Republic; the direct return fleet was continued.

In the eighteenth century, besides Galle and Canton, the third harbour with a direct connection with the Dutch Republic was that of the main establishment in Bengal. From 1734 onwards two ships sailed annually from Bengal to Holland, and after 1742 this became four. Furthermore, from 1750 onwards one ship per year was sent to Hooghly by the Amsterdam Chamber. And in 1770 a direct sea link was also established with Coromandel.

The direct shipping link and the correspondence between patria and the establishments in India which this brought in its wake notwithstanding did not represent a fundamental infringement to the position of Batavia as the head office of the VOC in Asia. Batavia remained the centre for administration and book-keeping. Furthermore, the Governor-General and Council in Batavia continued to forward copies of correspondence with all its subordinate VOC establishments to the directors at home, including the letters exchanged with Ceylon, Canton and Bengal.

The Governor-General and Council were assisted in their work by the generale secretarie (central administration). The secretary to the Governor-General and Council, who was in charge of the secretariat, attended the meetings of the Raad van Indië and drew up the resoluties (proceedings)(20). Either the secretary himself, or the second man in the secretarie, an employee with the rank of koopman (merchant), entered up the Batavia dagregister (diary). The many clerks employed in the secretarie took care of the extensive paperwork entailed in the correspondence with the establishments in Asia and the chambers at home.

The directeur-generaal was responsible for trade and shipping throughout the whole of the Asian branch of the enterprise. Naturally he was expected to discuss such important matters as the compilation of the eis for goods and monies from patria in the council. In Batavia the warehouses, both for the merchandise and for provisions, the pay office and the ready money were under his supervision. He was assisted by two opperkooplieden van het Kasteel (senior merchants of the Castle). From 1664 the jobs were divided between these two officials in such a way that the first or senior of them administered the goods which were sent in by the Asian establishments, while the junior looked after the goods which were dispatched from Batavia. The extent of their task expanded in the course of time in which case the staff in the negotiekantoor (trade office), which they headed, was increased by a series of merchants, junior merchants and book-keepers.

The boekhouder-generaal (chief accountant) was also subordinate to the director-general. On the basis of the trading books from the establishments, the chief accountant made up both the generaal journaal (general journal) and the generaal grootboek (general ledger), copies of which were forwarded to the chambers of Amsterdam and Zeeland. Furthermore, the accountant-general administered the cargoes which had been received from the Dutch Republic, as well as the retourgoederen which were sent back home. The bevindingen op de eisen (notes on the orders), which had been sent to the Dutch Republic since the last quarter if the seventeenth century, will have been provided by the office of the accountant-general. When the ships were unloaded in Batavia an inspection was held to check to what extent the goods received corresponded to the original demands or orders of the Governor-General and Council, with reference to the decision the Heren XVII had taken on these. When this had been done, the original order with a report on any excesses or omissions was sent back to the Netherlands, so that the directors could see where they or the chambers had been remiss(21).

Apart from this, from the work of the chief accountant can be deduced that in Asia, in contrast to patria, the accounting was centralized. The system employed did not link up with that of the chambers(22). The rationale behind this was very logical: as factor, the Asian branch of the business was responsible to the enterprise in the Dutch Republic for everything that it received from the chambers. The firm in the Dutch Republic was regarded as a unit, the current account refers to the Generale Oostindische Compagnie (General East India Company). In these current accounts everything which had been received from home in the way of goods and monies was noted in the credit column, and what was shipped back home in the way of return wares appears in the debit column. Expenses incurred in Asia were divided between five items: the general expenses, pay, expenses for ships, fortifications, and schenkagie (gifts). Under income, a distinction was made between income from trade and that derived from taxes and suchlike (called respectively generale winsten (general profit) and generale inkomsten (general income)). In the eighteenth century several items of costs and incomes were added to the books, but the system itself remained unchanged. The generale missiven also contain financial data about the Asian business. The making up of the general journals could sometimes be a lengthy process and therefore the book-keepers quickly gathered together the results from the various establishments and drew up the balances of income and expenditure per establishment. These could then be sent back with the return fleet in December or February as part of the generale missive. The 'real' financial books arrived as much as a year later.

The visitateur-generaal, who was also under the director-general, had the task of inspecting the books and financial administration in Asia. He was also put in charge of checking the consumptie-rekeningen, in which, after their arrival from home, the captains had to account for the provisions used during the voyage.

The central role of Batavia in the Asian business is made obvious not only by the financial administration, but is also quite clearly indicated in the personnel administration as well. The pay office kept the number of staff throughout the whole of the Asian business up to date and for this purpose was annually supplied with the requisite information by the establishments. Every year after 1689 a complete list of the Company personnel in Asia was sent home in duplicate.

Batavia was also the seat of the highest law court in Asia, the Raad van Justitie. It was a rule that the president was also a member of the Raad van Indië. Furthermore the seven members of this council were appointed by the Heren XVII, a fact that could not always prevent conflicts with the Governor-General and Council. The job of the fiscaals - there were two in Batavia - was to detect crime and the act as prosecutors.

In order to play a central role in the maritime traffic Batavia was also provided with the requisite infrastructure such as shipyards, warehouses, a workmen's quarter and suchlike. No new ships were built in Batavia, but a lot of maintenance and repair work on the ships had to be carried out there, and the facilities needed for this were located on the island of Onrust, which lay just off the coast of Batavia. Work here and the ships in the roads were under the charge of the equipagemeester (master of the equipage). He was present when ships arrived and when they sailed; before they sailed he and one of the fiscaals called the muster-roll of that ship, after which he checked the cargo.

Map of Batavia (click image to enlarge)

Naturally Batavia was also provided with administrative bodies for the city itself. These administrative institutions appear to have been copied from those in cities in the Dutch Republic: there was a college van schepenen (board of aldermen), a college van weesmeesteren (board of governors of the orphanage) and a college van heemraden (polder board). Public order was maintained by the baljuw (bailiff) and his men or kaffers. The Governor-General and Council exercised a great deal of influence in these organs; the presidents of these institutions were usually members of the Raad van Indië. There was scarcely any citizenry independent of or free from the VOC and, in so far as there were any vrijburgers (free citizens), they had little say in the management of things. (See the webpage with a diagram of the organization of the VOC in Asia.)


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