While cleaning up my first chapter today, I had to do a little research on the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or “VOC”). When you’re writing historical fiction, details matter. It was important to know when ships bearing luxuries from overseas might be arriving back in port to Amsterdam. So off to the internet I went.
Here are a few things I learned, for whoever might find them handy in other writing or research projects.
- Fleets left Amsterdam three times a year: The Easter Fleet left around … Easter. The Fairground Fleet left in September after gathering at the Rede van Texel, a roadstead off the coast of the Texel Island, north of what is now the city of Den Helder. The Christmas Fleet left around — you guessed it, Christmas.
- A common time for fleets to return was early summer, shortly before the start of July.
- One benefit of mooring in Texel before leaving on the long journey is that the ships could fill up on “fossil water,” which was rich in iron and wouldn’t spoil as quickly.
- VOC fleets first made use of trade routes pioneered by the Portuguese. They sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and then hugged the coast of Africa and then India as they made their way to East Asia.
- Starting in 1613, the Dutch discovered that by sailing east from the Cape of Good Hope to Australia, they could cut the time it took to sail from Amsterdam to Indonesia from a whole year to just six months!
- Galle, in what is now Sri Lanka, was a place known to produce the best cinnamon. This is particularly relevant to my interests. Or rather, to my protagonist’s interests
- Besides carrying goods back and forth between the Netherlands and Asia, the VOC ships also carried passengers. Some were looking to start up merchanting businesses in the colonies. Others were looking to get away from their old lives and start over. Some were returning to Europe from the colonies to get an education or seek a spouse.
- The VOC didn’t just conduct trade between Asia and Europe, but also developed interregional trade. For instance, Holland prized the spices found in what is now Indonesia, but the people there weren’t very interested in what the Dutch had to sell. What they really wanted were chintz fabrics from India. So the Dutch began buying chintz from India specifically to sell in Indonesia.
- Luxury items that flowed into Amsterdam because of the VOC included: floral chintz fabrics; spices such as pepper, cloves, nutmeg, anise and cinnamon; Japanese porcelain, which in turn inspired the potters in Delft; silk and silk threads; scents like incense and musk; gems such as diamonds and rubies from India; pearls from Yemen; Persian carpets; Chinese umbrellas; Japanese lacquerware; newly addictive things like coffee and tea (chocolate, tobacco and, dare I say, cocaine would come later through the Dutch West Indies Co.); and were exotic plants, fruits and animals, like monkeys, which I will be writing about later; specialty woods such as Brazil wood and ebony.
- Goods leaving Europe included: Limestone, marble and European oak to be used in ship building and repairing in Dutch outposts; Dutch foods such as salted butter, cheese, jenever, and salted herring; European items not used by other cultures, such as wigs, glasses, silk stockings, stays for ladies garments, shoes of European fashion, linen and wool fabrics, and lace; construction materials such as nails and tools; seeds for crops; furniture; glass bottles for the South African wine industry; medicinal products; dyes; paint; ink; wax and paper.