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Money and the pursuit of wealth: Part 45…entire armies hired to fight for their country

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JUST as the 16th Century saw the rise of Portugal and Spain, the 17th century was the Netherlands’ century.

By then, Antwerp had declined and Amsterdam took its place in the scheme of things in the Low Countries.

The Netherlands had colonies in the Americas, and together with the Portuguese, opened Japan to trade.  

By 1566, when Holland revolted against the Spaniards, the Netherlands was a strong commercial nation.  

Dutch fishing fleets plied the North Sea, and the fish they caught were packed or dried and sold throughout central and southern Europe.  

Dutch merchants cut into the trade of the Hanseatic League and then entered the commercial life of the Mediterranean.

In 1579, the Netherlands declared its independence from Spain.

By then, the country’s mariners, known collectively as the ‘sea-beggars’, were helping to enrich merchants and bankers in Amsterdam. 

Sea-beggars organised the East and West India Companies, the Amsterdam Stock Exchange and the Bank of Amsterdam, the three legs upon which the country’s greatness was erected.

All the while, the Dutch carried on a series of wars with England and France, on occasion with both simultaneously. 

While costly in financial terms, they were far less so in human terms.

Holland’s leaders hired entire armies to fight for their country.

As an English observer noted, “He that hath coin shall have strangers to fight for him.”

The Dutch East India Company was organised in 1602, and given a monopoly of the Oriental trade for 19 years.

The charter was renewed regularly.

Just as the BSAC established in Southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, the company, with enthusiastic support from the government and others, was empowered to establish colonies, maintain armed forces and assume sovereign power when, and where, it deemed this necessary to conduct business.

Under the leadership of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the company drove the Portuguese from the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia, displaced English traders in the region and obtained a strong position in the spice trade.

As a result, for many years the East India Company was able to pay large dividends, ranging from a high of 75 percent in 1606, to 50 percent in 1611, after which payments dropped off. 

For a long time, the company was a stellar performer on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange.

The New Netherlands Company was organised in 1613 to conduct commerce in the Americas, with a three-year monopoly that was not renewed.

The Dutch West India Company, which took over the New Netherlands Company’s territory and more, was organised in 1621.  

It, like the BSAC, received a charter to trade and establish colonies in the Americas and the west coast of Africa below the Tropic of Cancer.

This company established a small colony in New York harbour called New Amsterdam, another further up the Hudson River and one in New Jersey.  

These were followed by settlements in South America and the Caribbean, including Curaçao. For a while it appeared the Dutch West India Company might seize Brazil from the Portuguese. While these settlements were not as important as those of the East India Company, Dutch shipping interests cut deeply into the trade of the English and French settlements.

The Dutch empire was always more commercial than political, in this respect resembling that of Portugal. 

The Dutch had little interest in agriculture, mining, settlement or industry. 

What mattered to them was possessing trading posts through which they could attract items available in the areas they controlled using trade goods from elsewhere.

For this, they mastered the art of naval construction.  

In the late 17th Century, four of every five European vessels were Dutch, plying an area bounded by Japan to the east, South America to the west, the Cape of Good Hope and the Straits of Magellan to the south, and the Baltic and the North Atlantic to the north.  

Dutch ships could be found on every ocean and sea.

Insofar as Africa was concerned, initially Dutch traders and sea captains went in search of gold. However, the growth of a Dutch foothold in Brazil led them into the lucrative slave trade.  Entering the Gold Coast, Dutch traders established good relations with some of the African chiefs by offering superior trade goods at lower prices. 

In addition, they could provide cowry shells harvested off the coast of the Maldives Islands near Ceylon, which the West Africans used as currency.

Writing in the mid-17th Century, a Dutch geographer noted; “The readiest merchandise. . . are certain shells called boesjies [cowries] . . . Without them foreigners can drive but poor trade….” According to him, cowrie shells represented one-third of the goods exchanged for slaves.

The West African chiefs might have realised that competition with the Dutch would cause the Portuguese to offer better terms.

Dutch successes prompted them to establish barracons of their own at Fort Nassau and on an island off Cape Verde named Goree.

In 1637, Dutch traders seized Elmina from the Portuguese. 

By then, they were the dominant force in West Africa, having supplanted the Portuguese in the slave trade.

By then, too, the ‘triangular trade’ had come into existence, the key to which was the business of slaving.

While there was never a template or pattern, the triangular trade began in Europe, where merchants knew they would need trading goods to exchange for slaves.

These were generally guns and ammunition, trinkets, pots and pans and other such products. These were sent to trading stations, or ‘factories’ on the coast where local chiefs would arrive with their captives, and the bargaining would begin.

In the end, the chiefs departed with the trading goods and the Europeans had their slaves!

The next step was to transport the slaves to the Americas, particularly the West Indies, where they would be exchanged for sugar, tobacco and other agricultural products, which were taken to Europe to be sold. 

Large profits could be made with each exchange. 

By-now the familiar practice of taking products from areas where they are relatively inexpensive and selling or trading them in areas where they are more desirable was well-established.

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field. For comments E-mail: linamanucci@gmail.com.

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