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How one of the most profitable companies in history rose to power - Adam Clulow

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During the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company cornered the booming spice market and pioneered trade routes between Asia and Europe. It is widely considered the most profitable corporation ever created. But such success came with an overwhelming cost in human life. Adam Clulow sheds light on the Dutch East India Company’s invasion and genocide of Indonesia's Banda Islands.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Adam Clulow
  • Director Hernando Bahamon
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Composer Manuel Borda
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Cella Wright
  • Content Associate Abdallah Ewis
  • Script Editor Iseult Gillespie
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma
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Today we live in a world dominated by multi-national companies, from Apple to Exxon to Volkswagen to we know their brands, their products and their stock prices. Their influence penetrates every aspect of our lives. Where did this all start?  In many ways, the Dutch East India Company was the world’s first true multi-national. Founded in 1602 to break into Asian trade, it established a web of outposts around the globe. The Company’s corporate brand, VOC, the initials of its name in Dutch, were instantly recognizable from Europe to Africa to Asia. The VOC pioneered innovations that are still used by modern companies including tradable shares and limited liability for its chief executives. 

Although it had many features we associate with a modern corporation, the VOC was a historically distinct organization that wielded a string of powers traditionally monopolized by the state. This composite nature can be traced back to the Company’s 1602 charter. Article 35 of this foundational document described three wide-ranging powers: the right to conduct diplomacy with any ruler it might encounter, the right to maintain (and of course deploy) military forces, and the right to seize control of territory (by building fortresses and strongholds). This potent trinity formed the organization’s birthright, and from the moment its first ships appeared in Asian waters, it made full use thereof. The contradictions between the Company’s state-like characteristics and its more conventional qualities as a corporation mean that it is frequently described in terms of dualities as both a political and an economic organization. Jurrien van Goor, one of the most influential VOC historians, calls it a “hybrid state: run as a business concern but acting like a kingdom.”

By some measures, the VOC was the most profitable corporation ever created, far eclipsing the annual earnings of even the most successful company today. It was also highly innovative, developing new trades routes that enabled it to the ride the first great wave of globalization to unprecedented success. But the Dutch East India Company was also a violent presence in Asia. It made use of its sovereign powers to wage almost continuous war against a range of enemies and rivals. Across its long history, the Company combined trade and violence in a seamless mix. It used its soldiers and sailors to protect its profits and it used these profits to build fortresses and recruit military forces. For the VOC, “trade without war or war without trade” was inconceivable. The two could not be separated.

For the history of the VOC, see the Rijksmuseum exhibition.

For a sense of the Company’s expansive empire across Asia see the Atlas of Mutual Heritage

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Adam Clulow
  • Director Hernando Bahamon
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Composer Manuel Borda
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Cella Wright
  • Content Associate Abdallah Ewis
  • Script Editor Iseult Gillespie
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma

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