Courting Conflict: Opposition against the Dutch East and West India Companies in the Hoge Raad van Holland, Zeeland en West-Friesland
How did free agents oppose the monopolies held by the VOC and WIC in court?
In the thousands of words written on the histories of the Dutch East and West India Companies, the details of how the companies were established and the processes of negotiation and contestation that surrounded the drafting, implementation and maintenance of the chartered monopolies have not been adequately explored. My research focusses on opposition against the companies and in particular the connection between the processes by which the companies were created and the opposition that they faced from merchants and their networks. Opposition could and did take various forms – my primary focus is on litigation as a means of opposing the companies and a way that the companies responded to their opponents. The VOC and WIC appeared in the Hoge Raad van Holland, Zeeland and West-Friesland in numerous lawsuits, the records of which form my main archival source.
The Dutch East and West India Companies faced sustained opposition. This began as early as plans to create the two companies were first discussed and continued throughout the period of each company’s existence. Opposition could and did take various forms – from flagrant disregard of the monopolies, corruption within each company, illegal trade and smuggling, to litigation. It is on this latter form of opposition that my research is focussed. In the vast scholarship on the two chartered companies, inadequate attention has been paid to the ways in which the companies were opposed in court. The research is guided by the question ‘How did merchants and their networks oppose the Dutch East and West India Companies within the legal and political spheres of the Dutch Republic?’ The main players in this are the merchants and their networks who opposed the companies; the Dutch East and West India Companies; the States General; and the highest and appellate court of the Republic, the Hoge Raad.
I hypothesise that issues not resolved in the formation of each company continued to surface as opposition. Thus I contend that the processes by which each of the companies were created are very significant. Negotiation and contestation characterised the chartering the VOC which was granted its founding charter in 1602 as well as the WIC, which formally came into being in 1621. Why certain parties were included and others excluded from the negotiations and the resulting companies will be analysed. Furthermore, an attempt will be made to identify whose interests these inclusions and exclusions served.
Through four case studies of opposition against the two companies which culminated in legal disputes before the bench of the Hoge Raad, I will examine mechanisms of opposition. By doing so, I will differentiate typologies of opposition. Did the VOC and WIC face different kinds of opposition? And why? While still in the planning and negotiating phase, the WIC faced both internal and external opposition. Internal opposition took the form of competing draft charters which set out different visions of the company; external opposition was manifest in opposition to the geographical and commodity scope of the planned company’s monopoly. Whether or not a similar pattern can be identified in opposition against the VOC in the years prior to 1602 will be considered. After its creation, merchants and their networks opposed the VOC by requesting charters for their own enterprises or by trying to enforce the terms of concession previously granted to them. Did the WIC face a similar kind of opposition?
This research will contribute to scholarship on the Dutch East and West India Companies in three ways. Firstly, it will elucidate mechanisms of opposition to the companies, highlighting the role of merchant networks in this. Secondly, it will bridge the historiographical divide which has characterised so much of the literature on the two companies. Beyond comparing the two companies, the VOC and the WIC will be drawn into the same analytical framework and the connections and overlaps between the companies will be brought to the fore. Thirdly, research on this form of opposition against the companies and its effect will challenge our understanding of how empires were created. This is relevant for historiography on the VOC and WIC and discussion of whether or not a Dutch empire existed in the early modern period. Moreover, it will contribute to the study of empire formation more broadly than the Dutch case.