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