The Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), or the United East India Company, was not only the first multinational corporation to exist, but also probably the largest corporation in size in history. The company existed for almost 200 years, from its founding in 1602, when the States-General of the Netherlands granted it a 21-year monopoly over Dutch operations in Asia, until its demise in 1796. During those two centuries, the VOC sent almost a million people to Asia, more than the rest of Europe combined. It commanded almost 5,000 ships and enjoyed huge profits from its spice trade. The VOC was larger than some countries. In part, because of the VOC, Amsterdam remained the financial center of capitalism for two centuries. Not only did the VOC transform the world, but it transformed financial markets as well.

 

The United East India Company Takes Over Asian Trade

The foundations of the VOC were laid when the Dutch began to challenge the Portuguese monopoly in East Asia in the 1590s. These ventures were quite successful. Some ships returned a 400 percent profit, and investors wanted more. Before the establishment of the VOC in 1602, individual ships were funded by merchants as limited partnerships that ceased to exist when the ships returned. Merchants would invest in several ships at a time so that if one failed to return, they weren’t wiped out. The establishment of the VOC allowed hundreds of ships to be funded simultaneously by hundreds of investors to minimize risk.

The English founded the East India Company in 1600, and the Dutch followed in 1602 by founding the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie. The charter of the new company empowered it to build forts, maintain armies, and conclude treaties with Asian rulers. The VOC was the original military-industrial complex.

The VOC quickly spread throughout Asia. Not only did the VOC establish itself in Jakarta and the rest of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), but it established itself in Japan, being the only foreign company allowed to trade in Japan. The company traded along the Malabar Coast in India, removing the Portuguese, traded in Sri Lanka, at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, and throughout Asia. The company was highly successful until the 1670s when the VOC lost its post in Taiwan and faced more competition from the English and other colonial powers. Profits continued, but the VOC had to switch to traded goods with lower margins. They were able to do this because interest rates had fallen during the 1600s.