All throughout the 18th Century, the United East India Company was plagued by warfare in India. Fighting both their European rivals and the native Princes slowly drained the VOC’s coffers. Management in Amsterdam had little tolerance for lost profits, but the expense of waging war would inevitably lead to the Company’s domination of India itself. The VOC went to war when the United Provinces went to war and against the same enemy. During the wars with France, they attacked the French East Indian Company and its holding in India. The VOC’s own navy did the fighting on the seas, while native allies and mercenaries comprised the bulk of the land forces. Only Dutch officers served in the VOC’s Army. France’s own Indian army launched its own attacks on Company holdings in Goa and along the western coast of India. The bloodshed at the Battle of Nagapatnam in 1758, ending in a Dutch defeat cost the lives of over ten thousand Indian soldiers when the Company officials refused to surrender. One newspaper in Rotterdam put it well when after the battle it declared that the VOC would defend their holdings to the last Indian.
Per the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the VOC took control over all of former French India. This only brought them into conflict with Mysore. Between 1767 and 1775, the VOC waged war against Mysore, who steadfast refused to trade with the Dutch. Through a series of alliances with Princes in the Deccan, the VOC finally subjugated Mysore, annexing it outright and securing undisputed Dutch control over all of southern India. The heavy-handedness of the Company is the source of much of the anti-Dutch sentiment that has raged in India over the centuries. The entry of the Dutch into America’s own revolution brought the VOC into conflict with their last opponent; the British East India Company.
When word of war reached India, the Company was not ready to take Bengal. Like the VOC, the British trading company also had its own share of enemies in northern India. The Company spent hundreds of thousands of guilders arming these anti-British Princes and bringing them into alliance with the VOC. The British did likewise with the Dutch’s own Indian malcontents. On the seas, the VOC wasted no time in attacking British ships. Losses in trade in 1779 alone drove the British East India Company’s profits so low that bankruptcy was inevitable. It was not until well into 1779, that the VOC have sufficient forces in place to invade Bengal. The first regiments landed in March of 1779.. They petitioned both Parliament and King for assistance against the invasion. Word of British losses provoked many natives in India to rise up against company rule.
British control over the land was forever broken on June 15, 1779, when VOC soldiers decisively defeated the British at Dacca. The battle was one of the few cases of two rival corporations actually coming into direct conflict on the land, relying more upon Europeans borrowed from their respective government than native soldiers. Never again would companies wield so much power as they did at the Battle of Dacca. Following the battle, company officials surrendered all assets in Bengal to the VOC. It would be three years before the British would react to the shock to their own economy. Britain’s Royal Navy set sail for India in 1782, with fifty ships and enough soldiers to hopefully drive the Dutch from Bengal. Tragically, the fleet never reached Bengal. It was intercepted by VOC and Dutch ships off the coast of Ceylon. The Battle of Jaffna marked the end of British control over India and Dutch supremacy. Little did Company officials in Amsterdam realize that within a generation, their own political power would be forever shattered.
Following the defeat of the British East India Company, the VOC commercial empire dominated the Indian Ocean, holding large chunks of land along with millions of Indian, Ceylonese and East Indian subjects liable to company taxes. The VOC used what they taxed and invested it into the area in which it was taxed. Along with road and harbor improvements around the ocean, the VOC ran its own company schools and hospitals within its private empire. Tens of millions of more people were dependent upon the VOC. Across Sumatra and Borneo, small states and sultanates grew dependent upon the VOC for all of its external trade. The Kingdom of Kandy, still nominally independent, could not access the outside world without the use of VOC ships. For all intent purposes, between 1783 and 1799, the VOC was one of the largest Empires in the world.
Like all empires, the VOC’s Indian Ocean operation was not without troubles. The largest trouble came not from native population, but from the Dutch colonists in South Africa. Kapenstaat was established early in the 17th Century by the VOC as a resupplying base for the spice trade. When the settlers, known today as the Boers, attempted to alter their own farming practices, growing crops that would gain themselves profits, the VOC declared they were in violation of their contracts. The issue of these contracts is still a controversy, centuries later. The great-grandparents of the Boers had entered into contracts with the VOC. In exchange for transportation out of the United Provinces to lands of more opportunities, the settlers would grow a certain portion of crops, such as potatoes, wheat and fresh fruit for the VOC’s ships.
Settlers’ experiments in growing sugar and cotton were quickly squelched by the Company. The VOC needs food grown at the Cape, not cash crops. Much protest came out of the issue. “It is my land, and I will grow what I like,’ to which the VOC replied that no, you are our employees and you will grow exactly what we tell you to. Instead of a second Brazil, the Cape became Holland, Flanders or even Limburg transplanted on the opposite side of the world, complete with dairy farms, but minus the liberty. Rebelling against the Company was a poor option, since the VOC had absolute control over what entered and exited the Cape Colony.
Instead of rising up, the Boers moved out. The first exodus of Boers took place long before the conquest of Bengal. In 1768, over a hundred families packed up their belongings, seeds, supply, livestock and anything else they thought they would need to survive, and moved further inland into the Weld. The VOC moved fast to stop them, or more specific, to stop the movement of livestock. Wool from sheep and leather from cattle comprised an appreciable part of the colony’s economy. Not to mention to meat produced also fed the crews of passing ships. The VOC sent several expeditions to bring back the Boers. In 1786, they sacked Johannebourg, taking all livestock back to the Cape, burning the thriving settlement and even poisoning the watering hole.
This was the peak of the anti-Boer campaign, as the Board of Directors in Amsterdam decided that pursuing the Boers was simply not worth the expense. After giving the British the boot in India, the Company was in severe debt. Anything that could be cut, was cut. Instead of bringing back the Boers, thousands of new settlers were brought to Kapenstaat from Flanders. These colonists had but one decade to live under the VOC’s rule. To further exasperate their debt, the VOC had the third largest navy in the world, behind the United Provinces and the United Kingdom respectively. The upkeep of such a navy took almost 40% of the Company’s budget in 1798.