Spices such as cinnamon, ginger and especially pepper, where known to the peoples of the Far East for millennia and used as staples in their diet. In Europe, however, spices were a luxury item and much sought after. Since the time of Rome, a trade in spices existed. However, with the fall of Rome and the coming of the Dark Ages, the trade slowed to a trickle in the Far West. In the coming centuries, Italian city-states, such as Venice, dominated the trade in Europe, going through the Byzantines, the Arabs and later the Ottomans, acting as their middle men. However, the Ottomans controlled contact with India and the Far East, and imposed heavy taxes on European traders.
During the middle of the 15th Century, an alternative route to the Indies was sought after. The Portuguese made several attempts to circumnavigate Africa, succeeding in 1488. In 1497, Portuguese traders sailed as far as India, loaded their hulls with spices, and returned to Europe. The Castillian and Argonese monarchs were convinced that by sailing west, an expedition could make it to India. They allocated three ships for Columbus to use, figuring that if he was truly mad, then they would only be out three ships. If he were correct– He did reach land, however it was not the spice-rich lands he desired. This voyage opened the New World to the Old.
In 1509, at the Battle of Diu, the Portuguese defeated an Ottoman-Venetian force, securing their own place in India. Over the next thirty years, the Ottoman navy was forced from India, leaving Portugal in control of the spice trade. Further Portuguese control over Ceylon and the East Indies gave them unsurmountable control of the trade in spices. Some voyages brought back wealth rivaling the annual revenue of some European states. This wealth, and attempts to block trade with the Indies is what turned the United Provinces’ struggle for independence into a conquest of the Portuguese colonial empire. Portugal’s attempts to cut out Dutch traders from the wealth of spices is believed to have lead to Portugal’s downfall and eventual absorption by Spain.
Early Dutch Voyages
The first exclusively Dutch venture into the Far East in search of spices started in 1595, when a group of Dutch merchants attempted to bypass Portuguese control of the spice lanes. In 1596, a four-ship flotilla, commanded by Cornelius de Houtman made contact with the spice islands in present day Indonesia. At Java, the fleet battled both hostile natives, and Portuguese sailors, losing half the crew in their time around Java. However, they returned to the Netherlands with sufficient loads of pepper to declare the voyage profitable.
By 1598, several more of these small trading fleets reached the East Indies, and most returned with significant profit. In March of 1599, a twenty-two ship fleet commanded by Jacob van Neck set sail for the spice islands. Though eight ships were lost in the course of two years, the remaining ships returned to Europe with a profit margin of over four hundred percent. Furthermore, the traders allied themselves with anti-Portuguese elements, and cleared the island of Hitu for exclusive trading rights with the United Provinces.
In these years, a company was formed for the duration of a single expedition. Given the amount of capital invested, and the dangers in making the voyage, investors were keen to receive their own share of the profits. After the voyage ended, the spices, other cargo, and ships themselves were liquidated and the cash split between the investors. These early investments were hit or miss. The ships could return with huge profits, or they could not return at all, falling prey to the weather, pirates, disease or enemies of the Dutch state.