Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

Serving the East and the West – Strategies in Imperial Career Paths Within the VOC and the WIC

How did interests outside the scope of the Dutch chartered trading companies influence the career-paths of Dutch colonial governors?

2012 - 2016
Erik Odegard

My research project focuses on the career-paths of two Dutch colonial governors in the Seventeenth century. I ask the question how and why their careers were influenced by interests which lay outside of the scope of the Dutch chartered trading companies. For example, did their family connections help them or hamper them in their career? I have chosen two cases for a more in-depth analysis: Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen as governor-general of Dutch Brazil, and Rijckloff Volckertsz. van Goens as governor in Ceylon and ultimately governor-general in Batavia. This will allow me to study to what extent career-making mechanisms differed in the East and the West.

In the seventeenth century the Dutch chartered trading companies (VOC 1602, WIC 1621) established forts, trading posts and colonies throughout the Asian, African and American littoral. To govern these possessions, formal hierarchies were put in place. Though the official structures of the companies seems to have been well-studied, this thesis will argue that this is not actually the case and that we lack a good understanding of a crucial aspect of empire-building: career-making. The official structures were staffed by individuals who pursued their own interests, in their own ways, and for their own ends. Working in- and outside the official structures of the chartered companies, these men built their own careers and in the process of doing this also helped build a global empire. Thus, the title of this thesis accentuates the importance of understanding their individual interests and goals if we are to understand the rhythm and pace of Dutch expansion. This also points to the importance of those networks that enabled them to build their careers, or those that tried to thwart them. This addresses the following types of questions:  How did the governors and other colonial officials make their way to the top? What were the strategies and mechanisms they involved? What was the role of non-company interests, groups, and individuals on their careers? By exploring these questions, this thesis will add to our understanding of the actual way in which governance of the colonies was organized and how the Dutch colonial empire operated in practice. 

The literature on the Dutch companies has traditionally focused in the maritime aspects of their operations: trade patterns, shipping routes, etc. In general, the institutional side of the companies has been privileged. This thesis seeks to add to his body of literature by focusing on the interactions between the formal, institutionalized framework of the companies and the personal and sometimes nominally illegal behavior of the companies’ servants. By asking how governors actually managed their careers and tried to put themselves in position for advancement, the nexus between company, personal, familial, and state interests is exposed. One conceptual frame which might be fruitfully explored is that of the company-state as advocated by Philip Stern.

To study these phenomena, two cases have been selected for more in-depth analysis: these are the careers of Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen and Rijckloff van Goens. The first served as the WIC’s governor of Brazil in 1636-1644, the second as the VOC’s governor of Ceylon in 1665-1675 (with intermittences) and in 1677-1681 as governor-general in Batavia. Though the study thus follows the careers of these two men in greater detail, it is not intended as a double biography, rather it will focus on the moments in their careers where we can identify those individuals and groups who could influence the composition of the overseas’ administrations. The two cases have been selected for the fact that both ultimately left their office amidst much discussion and discontent. Maurits was fired by the WIC directors in 1644 and Van Goens was forced into resignation by the recalcitrance of his council. The situations of crisis and discontent in which these events took place highlight the fault lines within the companies and show the different interest groups at work. This is what makes for an interesting and fruitful comparison, despite the great personal differences between both men and the different periods in which they were in power

This thesis follows a number of working hypotheses which will be explored in due course. These will briefly be presented here. The first hypothesis is that the Dutch Republic of the Early Modern period and its chartered companies can be seen as a single empire and studied in the scope of one research. In the Dutch literature East- and West-India companies are nearly always studied in isolation from one another. The term ‘empire’ or its equivalents is rarely used, though international scholarship has no problem using this term. Seeing the companies and the Republic as an integral whole will allow us to identify influences and events that impacted the companies and the careers of its servants, but which strictly speaking fall outside of the realm of the companies. A good example would be the purges in the city councils of Holland in 1672-73, which had a great impact on the composition of the VOC’s body of directors and thus also on the selection of colonial governors.

Related to this point, this thesis hypothesis that we can speak of a single ‘imperial elite’, which managed both the Dutch state (at all its levels) and the companies. Indeed, this single integrated social space in the Republic, where events in one sphere of the empire could have great effects on the elites managing it, and thus on other parts of the empire as well, is perhaps the best single argument in favor of studying the Republic and the companies as a single entity.

I hypothesize that in order to build a sustainable career, company servants needed to develop three different types of networks: with the company directors in the Republic; with their colleagues in the colonies; and with local and colonial society. The order in which an individual developed these links could vary from case to case, however, and was dependent on the particular strategy for advancement. Nonetheless, individuals who failed in either of these three fields, would surely be fired or find their career a dead-end. The two individual cases represent different ways in which this process could go wrong.  

By studying in depth the career of two Dutch colonial governors, this thesis will set the relations between companies and state in a new light and argue that outside interests actually had a great impact on the management of the companies. Familial relations, patronage or shared interests (for instance botany) could help advancement within the formal hierarchies. Behind the scenes of the formal institutions, other hierarchies and relations were at play, but these are rarely encountered in the literature. The thesis will contribute to changing our idea on the relation between state and companies, change ideas on how the companies were managed and staffed and to what extent outside agents could influence company policy. Altogether this will contribute changing the way in which we perceive Early Modern Dutch colonialism and expansion.

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