the Gen­tle­men 17 the Dutch East In­dia Com­pany, the VOC

the Dutch East In­dia Com­pany, the VOC, was the world’s first joint stock com­pany, with 1,800 ini­tial in­vestors.

When Con­stantino­ple fell to the Turks in the mid-fif­teenth cen­tury, Chris­tian busi­ness­men could no longer eas­ily buy from Mus­lim traders. By that time, spices were an es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent in the larders of rich Eu­ro­peans – spices pre­served meat in an age be­fore re­frig­er­a­tion, and they masked the taste when the flesh rot­ted. If Eu­ro­peans wanted to main­tain the sup­ply of pep­per, cloves and nut­meg, they would have to go di­rectly to the is­lands where the spices were grown. That be­came pos­si­ble in 1497, when the Por­tuguese ad­ven­turer Vasco da Gama sailed around the bot­tom of Africa and ‘dis­cov­ered’ the sea route to the East. The Por­tuguese quickly found their way to Maluku, home to the most pre­cious spices. They made first for Ter­nate, a vol­cano is­land cloaked in cloves. […]

Kiematuba-TernateKnown as the Spice Islands, Maluku was obsessively sought for many years before they were rediscovered by Portuguese sailors in the 15th. century.

The British sea cap­tain Fran­cis Drake de­scribed the Sul­tan of Ter­nate’s court when he vis­ited in 1579. Drake blew in to Ter­nate as one of his last stops on a voy­age around the globe. Though this li­censed pi­rate was no stranger to riches, he was duly im­pressed by the Sul­tan (the ‘king’) who, Drake said, was draped in gold cloth from the waist down. He wore red slip­pers, a huge gold chain, and rings on six fin­gers: two of di­a­mond, two of turquoise, a ruby and an emer­ald.

As thus he sate in his chaire of state, at his right side there stood a page with a very costly fanne (richly em­broi­dered and be­set with Sap­phires) breath­ing and gath­er­ing the aire to re­fresh the king, the place be­ing very hot 1)↓.

Even in Drake’s day, the Sul­tan’s chaire of state was no longer the com­fort­able place it had once been. Por­tuguese can­nons had blown holes in the prin­ci­ple of free trade. They didn’t want some of the spices, they wanted all of the spices. For them, trade was a zero sum game, though not, it turned out, one they were very good at.
 Ac­cord­ing to Drake, ‘The Por­tu­gals . . . seek­ing to set­tle a tyran­nous gov­ern­ment over this peo­ple . . . cru­elly mur­thered the king him­selfe.’ Their plans back­fired; the peo­ple of Ter­nate re­volted and kicked the Por­tuguese out. Then other Eu­ro­peans – Spaniards, British and Dutch – sailed in. As they com­peted to buy spices in Maluku and sell them in Eu­rope, prices in Maluku rose and prof­its in Eu­rope fell. The back­ers of these ex­pen­sive ex­pe­di­tions were dis­pleased. In 1602 the mer­chants of the Dutch re­pub­lic de­cided to do some­thing about it. They banded to­gether to form the Dutch East In­dia Com­pany, the VOC.
The VOC was the world’s first joint stock com­pany, with 1,800 ini­tial in­vestors. The hype around the com­pany’s for­ma­tion also gave rise to the world’s first stock ex­change; early in­vestors were sell­ing off their stake in the com­pany at a pre­mium be­fore the first ship had even sailed. The com­pany’s di­rec­tors, the ‘Gen­tle­men 17’, were un­der huge pres­sure to de­liver value to their share­hold­ers. The first step to­wards greater prof­its was to cor­ner the mar­ket for spices, elim­i­nat­ing com­pe­ti­tion from other Eu­ro­peans. Their strate­gies were bribery, co-op­tion and brute force. […]
 The VOC wanted to buy up ev­ery sin­gle clove, but they couldn’t – al­most ev­ery fam­ily in the north­ern Maluku is­lands owned trees, and they would rather sell them to Mus­lim traders than to these hairy white in­fi­dels. Then the Gen­tle­men 17 hit upon the idea of de­stroy­ing the clove trees in all but one is­land, Am­bon. They paid the lo­cal sul­tans hand­somely to achieve this, be­gin­ning a tra­di­tion of brib­ing and co-opt­ing lo­cal lead­ers that was to last for over three cen­turies.
 The mar­ket for nut­meg should have been eas­ier to cor­ner, be­cause at the time, it only grew in one place on earth: the tiny, iso­lated Banda is­lands which rise out of one of the deep­est seas on the planet, barely vis­i­ble on most maps…
Eliz­a­beth Pisani, In­done­sia Etc.

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1. Fran­cis Drake, The World En­com­passed by Sir Fran­cis Drake . . . Col­lected Out of the Notes of Mas­ter Fran­cis Fletcher . . . and Com­pared with Divers Oth­ers [sic] Notes That Went in the Same Voy­age, ed. Fran­cis Fletcher. Lon­don: Nicholas Bourne, 1652.

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