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Decimated Dutch merchant fleet returned home 400 years ago

First East Indies mission’s bittersweet results start of global trade

Tags: Dutch Exploration

AMSTERDAM - On August 14, 1597 the remnants of a Dutch merchant flotilla that had set sail for the East Indies twenty eight months earlier, returned to Amsterdam in a lamentable condition. Its decimated crew - only 89 of the original 249 men survived the ordeal - was unable to moor the three remaining ships and had to be assisted by people ashore. Although the flotilla returned with only a small amount of cargo, it was evident that trade with the East Indies - then largely controlled by the hostile Portuguese - was quite possible. Those who sailed after the first expedition confirmed it beyond doubt. The first foray into the still unknown East Indies and enemy territory extracted a steep price from its Dutch sponsors but also helped lay the foundation of the Dutch Republic as a global seafaring and trading power.

The first flotilla of four merchant ships had left Amsterdam on April 2, 1595, to blaze a Southern trail to the Indies. Around the same time, efforts were made to find a Northern route, resulting in the ill-fated journey of Captain Willem Barentz who perished with his crew near Nova Zembla in the Arctic Ocean. The 1595 expedition - named “Eerste Scheepvaart” (or First Ship Sailing) - was led by its principal commissioner, Cornelis de Houtman, a man who single-handedly and on numerous occasions, managed to jeopardize the entire endeavour. De Houtman had to cope with unknown seas and other natural perils, but he also managed to constantly quarrel with and fight against the crew and its commander Meulenaer, the commissioner’s own aide, the natives and the hostile Portuguese traders and garrisons along the way.


The first expedition was organized and paid for by the ‘Compagnie van Verre’, (the name literally translates as the ‘Long Distance Company’), a group formed by nine affluent Amsterdam merchants who wanted to circumvent a Spanish trade boycott. Two years earlier, they had sent De Houtman and his brother Frederik to Portugal to check out the competition and learn as much as they could about the route to the Indies and the possible trade.

Building and outfitting the four ship cost the entrepreneurs 290,000 guilders, then a formidable amount of money! Plotting a course for the Indies was done by well known geographer Plancius and information on coastal developments and other circumstances was given by researcher and travel author Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, who for years had lived in Goa, a Portuguese trading post on the Westcoast of the Indian subcontinent. The outbound trip was uneventful until Cape Hope, beyond which the poor on-board diet and lack of fresh food and vitamin C resulted in a disastrous outbreak of scurvy. To save the expedition, De Houtman decided to lay over at Madagascar, a sojourn that lasted for six months. By then, he had lost so many of his sailors that one of the bays on the island became known as ‘Hollantsche Kerckhoff’ (Dutch cemetery).

Meanwhile, the quarrels between De Houtman and assistant commissioner Gerrit van Beuninghen had become a daily routine. It resulted in Van Beuninghen being put in the brig. That in itself caused a serious rift among the crew. The schism lasted for many months.

When the men were sufficiently cured of what in the Dutch language became known as ‘scheurbuik’ (‘a stomach that seems to tear up’, a word derived from the Latin term ‘scorbutus’), the journey was continued and eventually, the ships reached the Westcoast of Java. There, the Dutch encountered not only hostile natives but also Portuguese traders and soldiers, contrary to expectations. Nevertheless, De Houtman managed to set up a trading post, but his policies were counter-productive and the natives eventually forced the Dutch to abandon the site. Two attacks by natives had resulted in the deaths of a dozen sailors.


After this disaster, De Houtman sailed his ships to Bali, where native reception was far more friendly and the Dutch even were received by the local potentate. Trading for spices - the single commodity the Compagnie van Verre was looking for - proved aagain an elusive goal.

In February 1597, the crew of the much-plagued expedition openly rebelled against De Houtman. The fleet council - representatives of officers and crew of the three remaining ships - deposed De Houtman, citing his penchant for quarrelling. Van Beuninghen - a free man again - used force to secure some cargo, a few barrels of peppercorns, and with that meagre load the Dutch ships turned tail.

The homebound journey was as laborious as the outbound trip. The ships were unable to anchor anywhere beyond Cape Hope, as the Portuguese ruled the Atlantic Ocean, and prevented the flotilla from taking on much needed supplies on the island of St. Helena. Knowing that they were from then on in Portuguese-controlled seas, the crew headed straight for Amsterdam. Averaging only 100 kilometers a day, the decimated, tired and starved men reached Dutch coastal waters several months later.


However great the ordeal and its cost, Dutch merchants saw opportunities to trade directly with the East Indies - bypassing the Portuguese - and as such the expedition was considered a very successful undertaking. The Compagnie van Verre eventually was succeeded by the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) when all such Dutch merchant groups merged into a government sanctioned monopoly.

Although the first cargo consisted only of pepper, subsequent trade expeditions confirmed the availability of other spices. Additionally, other - natural and manmade - products could be obtained in the Indies and the neighbouring region. Without the ‘First Ship Sailing,’ the history of the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies may have turned out very differently. However, the Dutch rose to the challenge when Spain enforced its trade boycott against its rebelling subjects. As it was, Spain helped propel the Dutch into their Golden Age, the country’s dominance of the Seven Seas, and its rise as a political entity known as the Dutch Republic and Amsterdam as its capital, as well as the institution of the VOC. Spain was insolvent several times while it fought its protracted war against the Dutch.

The Dutch language has been influenced greatly by the country’s trade and travel. Specifically, two of the many words dating from that era come to mind: ‘scheurbuik’ and ‘peperduur’, the last one being the expression for something exorbitantly dear, in other words: ‘as expensive as pepper’. The price of success was high: the sacrifices of the sailors and the merchants’ fortunes at risk. On both issues the return of the first expedition underscores these facts.

Captain De Houtman later was hired by Amsterdam merchant De Moucheron to head another trade foray into the East Indies. A cantankerous man, De Houtman repeated his interpersonal mistakes. He and many of his crew were killed in an attack by soldiers of the Sultan of Atjeh in September of 1599. It is thought that the Portuguese incited the Sultan to attack the Dutch who were seen as intruders in Portuguese domain.