Dutch Golden Age wasn’t all that Dutch

By the late 18th century, up to 70% of the soldiers manning the ships of the Dutch East India Company came from outside the Netherlands

Frank Jacobs

From a young age, Frank was fascinated by maps and atlases, and the stories they contained. Finding his birthplace on the map in the endpapers of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings only increased his interest in the mystery and message of maps.

While pursuing a career in journalism, Frank started a blog called Strange Maps, as a repository for the weird and wonderful cartography he found hidden in books, posing as everyday objects and (of course) floating around the Internet.

"Each map tells a story, but the stories told by your standard atlas for school or reference are limited and literal: they show only the most practical side of the world, its geography and its political divisions. Strange Maps aims to collect and comment on maps that do everything but that - maps that show the world from a different angle".

A remit that wide allows for a steady, varied diet of maps: Frank has been writing about strange maps since 2006, published a book on the subject in 2009 and joined Big Think in 2010. Readers send in new material daily, and he keeps bumping in to cartography that is delightfully obscure, amazingly beautiful, shockingly partisan, and more.

As this map of all the places of origin of VOC crews suggests, the Dutch empire was multicultural rather than purely Dutch

The Dutch still call it their Golden Age: in the 17th century, they built a trading empire that spanned the globe and propelled them to the pinnacle of power and influence in Europe. World cities as far apart as New York, Cape Town and Jakarta are all built on Dutch foundations.

But the Dutch Golden Age wasn’t all that Dutch. As these maps show, the crews manning the ships of the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, came from all over Europe, and indeed from all over the world.

The maps were prepared by Jelle van Lottum, Senior Researcher at the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands in Amsterdam. Specialising in maritime and migration history, Mr. van Lottum traced the places of origin of the soldiers, sailors, and officers crewing VOC ships on a map.

The records span the Company’s entire history, from the early 1600s to the late 1700s. “The VOC relied on a highly international labour force, the composition of which changed strongly over time”, Mr van Lottum says. 

This map shows all traceable places of origin of VOC crews throughout the centuries. Obviously, the Netherlands themselves figure strongly; but almost every other present-day country in Europe contributed manpower to the Dutch maritime effort: from Iceland to Turkey, and from Portugal to Finland.

The rare exceptions are Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Belarus. VOC records even show crew originating in North Africa.

As the years went on, crews came from further inland, throughout the 18th century especially from the West German states.

On this map, places of origin 20 km or less from a major river are marked in blue. It shows how important inland waterways were as a means of transportation, and as conduits for information and migration.

On its ships, which travelled between Europe and Asia, the VOC carried mainly European crews. But there were also men born in Asia and the Americas on board, as the following maps show.

In Asia, present-day Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India were major sources of VOC personnel, but the Dutch East India ships were also crewed by Japanese, Taiwanese, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese soldiers and sailors.

From the Americas, Dutch possessions (in the Caribbean and on the South American mainland) served as major sources for VOC crews, but VOC ships also featured Haitians, Jamaicans – and not a few Philadelphians.

Even from the start, VOC crews were very international. The graph below shows a big dip from 1680 to 1720 – the only period when foreign-born VOC soldiers made up less than half of the total.

The high point came near the end, around 1790, when no less than 70% of the common soldiery on board VOC ships came from outside the Netherlands, as well as close to half of all common sailors, and even nearly 30% of the ships’ officers.

Mr van Lottum's research provides a useful reminder that labor migration in previous centuries was as common - and as economically important - as it is today.


All images © Jelle van Lottum.

Strange Maps #934

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

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