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VOC and WIC were not above the law

The powerful Dutch East India Company and West India Company were summoned before the High Court more often than historians have assumed. The complainants varied from competitors, to the Companies' own staff and even poor citizens. This is what Leiden historian Kate Ekama has discovered. PhD defence 13 September.

Very few historic studies have been made of the legal history of the VOC (1602-1798) and the WIC (1621-1792). Ekama delved into the archives of the High Council of the Hague and discovered 74 VOC and 32 WIC legal cases. 'A surprising number,' Ekama commented. 'Historians have suggested that at that time people preferred to resolve disputes without resorting to the law, mainly because legal proceedings were too expensive.’

Taking a case to the High Council

Many of the cases she came across first appeared in the city courts of Amsterdam and Middelberg and very persistent disputes were brought before the Court of Appeal of Holland (the provincial court). After that some litigators continued to pursue their cases to the High Council of Holland, Zeeland and West-Friesland, the highest legal body in the country.  The total of 106 VOC and WIC cases is probably only the tip of the iceberg, but Ekama 's research covered only those cases brought before the High Council.

Map of the monopoly trading area of the VOC and the WIC. (National Museum Amsterdam)

Monopolies law

The States-General had delegated administrative and legal rights to the companies, each in its own monopoly trading areas. For the VOC, this was the area of the Indian Ocean, and the WIC had monopoly rights in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But, the VOC and WIC were  subordinate to the States General and the legal courts in the Republic. Moreover, the monopolies law also provided opportunities, in particular for senior VOC officials, to lodge a case with the States-General, who could refer the case to the High Council. 

The High Council of Holland, Zeeland and West-Friesland. (National Museum Amsterdam)

Poor widow

The complainants who took their cases all the way to the High Council were highly diverse. Powerful entrepreneurs and shareholders sued the VOC and WIC because they felt financially disadvantaged,, and employees sued the companies to have their salaries paid. Family members or other parties with a legal entitlement took the companies to court to have their relatives' salaries paid to them because employees' salaries were transferable. One case that Ekama came across was that of widow Neeltje Claas, the mother of a captain who had died. Claas took legal proceedings pro deo – in some cases this was possible - against the VOC, mentioning in the case documents that she was a poor woman. In 1699, she won her case and the VOC had to pay her her son's salary. 

Trade in slaves and gold

And conversely, the companies also took their own employees to court, and even to the High Council. They accused employees of smuggling goods and secretly trading in them themselves. The WIC could not get a grip on the so-called 'lorrendraaiers', smugglers who were active in the Atlantic area in violation of the WIC monopoly. The High Council thus had to decide on such issues as the illegal trade in gold and African slaves. Shareholders, too, took one another to court, and there were also cases brought by shareholders against VOC administrators. 

More interdisciplinary research needed

These kinds of cases relating to the WIC were not generally brought before the High Council, probably because the VOC trade in shares was much bigger and more important than that of the WIC, or so Ekama suspects.  More research on the conflict management measures taken by both companies is needed to explain the differences in legal cases in greater detail, she believes. ‘Historians and legal experts still study the history of the VOC and WIC too often from the viewpoint of their own discipline. More interdisciplinary research on these kinds of legal conflicts would have the benefit of providing new insights into the colonial history of the Netherlands.’


Text: Linda van Putten
Images: National Museum Amsterdam
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