A Fictional Account of a Group of Men Changing the World

Sometimes I wonder, what it is like standing in the precipice of changing the world. Do those people know they’re changing the world? Did the Dutch parliament in 1602 know the significance upon the world when they decided to charter the Dutch East India Company (hereupon I shall use VOC – Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie – in its stead)? Was it merely driven by pure capitalism and a drive to compete against the English East India Company?

Don’t assume for one moment that I am wearing rose-tinted glasses, having a romantic view of history. I would much rather live in today’s world than the worlds of yesteryear. I am not blind to the cut-throat (quite literally) ruthlessness of peoples of the past. I am merely wondering about history. What was it like to be in their shoes?

As much as I like to believe that they knew they would be changing the world, this is how I imagine it:

The Dutch parliament convenes. There were Great Matters of State to conduct. Now this parliament was very new and fairly inexperienced when compared to other states. You see, state lines were not as well-defined as they are today. There was some question as to who has sovereignty over the Dutch Republic as it was in the middle of the Eighty Year War [1], where the Seven Netherlands had just won its independence from Spain about 20 years prior. Then the English tried to claim sovereignty and failed.

Now they’re saying Liz I has just granted a Royal Charter to form the East India Company to wrest control of the spice trade route from the Spanish? How dare they! It was Jan Huyghn, a Dutchman [2] who procured and published the secret Spanish spice routes! It was Cornelis de Houtman, a Dutchman who proved that the spice routes were worthwhile! And the English have the balls to steal our routes? And they want to build many ships to control the route!

“Why don’t we start a competing company?” suggested one parliamentarian. “Yeah, it would show that we’re a proper Nation now, not something the English and Spanish can make little of,” said another. But where were they going to get the money? Holland was just fresh out of a war with the Spanish and English. Money was not easy to raise, and the Dutch government is pretty short of it.

Then one smart-ass parliamentarian  suggested an innocuous idea. “You know how we have enough legal framework to form a vennootschap [3]? Maybe let the participanten [4] own the company, but not let them withdraw any of their ownerships?”, he said. “What if the participanten wanted out?” asked another interjecting parliamentarian, perhaps the more rational and reasonable of them. “Well, fuck the poor! Just kidding. Here’s the brilliant part:  They can liquidate their interests, but they can only do so by selling their interests to another person. In short, the money never leaves the vennootschap!”

“But no one will be stupid enough to be a participanten! You won’t raise the capital!” said the doubting parliamentarian, probably named Tomas or something like that. The smart-ass parliamentarian patted Tomas on the back, and pointed at the window overlooking a rive.  “Fear not my friend. Look yonder at the Amstel [5]. Look at the boats. Those are pesky immigrants from the dreaded Deutschland descending down the river! And look, the crummy Catholics coming from the Low Countries!”

“STOP THE BOATS!” yelled a parliamentarian suddenly, probably named Geert or something like that. He was instantly shouted down by shouts of “shutthefuckup!”

“Ahem. Those immigrants will buy interests in this vennootschap. We’ll slap on a fancy name! Let’s emulate those Liz-led, Latin-loving louts of London. Let’s call it a Compagnie [6]! It’s Latin! It sounds cool! We’ll tell them it’s the best thing since sliced bread – “

“Sliced bread hasn’t been invented yet. What is sliced bread? Why would you slice bread with your knife, you barbarian?!!??” interjected yet another parliamentarian, blissfully unaware that his progeny two centuries from then would grow up to be the Earl of Sandwich. He took a bite out of a baguette and placed a slice of ham into his mouth as he stared beadily at the smart-ass politician.

“As I was saying, we’ll convince the immigrants that it’s a good deal. de Houtman’s journey yielded a 400% return on investment. That should be enough of a benchmark.” continued the smart-ass parliamentarian, quite irritated that his speech had been interrupted by a racist fuckwit and a dimwit.

“I like the idea. A sucker is born every minute” said Francis Barnham, an unsolicited English barrister acting as an advisor to the Dutch parliament. He wasn’t in the room earlier and had suddenly and mysteriously joined the session, having just left Gray’s Inn [7]. “Fuck narrativium“, he thought to himself.

“What about dividends?” asked Tomas, yet to be convinced. “Dividends? We don’t speak latin here!” shouted Geert van Onverdraagzaamheid.

“Well, I don’t think people would be expecting profits. Heck, if we don’t have enough money, we can pay them back in spices. 10 cloves per person!” replied the smart-ass parliamentarian. Even doubting Tomas chuckled at the idea.

“Well then. let it be done!”. There were cheers and hooting and applause.

And so, history was made when the VOC was chartered by the Dutch parliament, forevermore changing the world.

  1. [1]Though they didn’t know that the war was 80 years long. It was always “over in the next year”
  2. [2]They probably weren’t so nationalistic. There wasn’t a solid ‘Dutch’ identity yet. Carrots were still purple. Carrots were bred orange in the mid-17th century in a spate of Dutch nationalism (rather, loyalty to the House of Orange)
  3. [3]In deference to high fantasies, one must invent words in order to make the fiction more immersive. See this xkcd. Anyhow, vennootschap means company in Dutch
  4. [4]This means shareholders
  5. [5]I doubt the Dutch Staten-Generaal was ever near the river. If anywhere it’d probably be in the Hague. But call this artistic licence
  6. [6]This also means company
  7. [7]which incidentally has only one shed and not fifty

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