A Brill Calendar: January 16
The Letter of the "Heeren Zeventien"
Few mercantile organizations in the Dutch Provinces Holland and Zeeland received from prosperity such diverging assessments as the ‘Vereenigde Oost-indische Compagnie’: the United East-India Company.
The company, designed by Holland’s foremost statesman early in the 17th century, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, and operational since 1602 has been seen as both an astute attempt to pre-empt the damaging competition between Dutch cities like Hoorn, Delft and Amsterdam (which lead to a net financial loss for the young Republic in its eagerness to exploit East-Indian riches); a kernel of a ‘Dutch Identity’; and as a government-endorsed money machine. Sadly, the company was driven in the main by a greed that saw mass-murder and misery inflicted on the native peoples it encountered.
The VOC, often termed ‘the world’s first multinational’ – for no better reason it would seem that she enlisted seamen from foreign European countries – was directed by 17 delegates from a small number of Dutch cities in two western Provinces of the Republic. Called ‘de Heeren Zeventien’, this elite managed operations in great detail. Usually, their orders and rulings focused on making an instant, and sizable profit for an immediate future; dovetailed with an astute sense for practicability.
It is seldom that their instructions reflect any confidence in the contributions of academic scholarship. Nevertheless, on January 16, 1619 the ‘Heeren Zeventien’ signed and despatched a letter to their Governor-General in South-East Asia, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, in his head-quarters, Batavia, ordering him to transport specimens of plants with a potential usefulness to Leyden University. The University’s ‘Hortus Botanicus’ already had quite a reputation as a site for studying exotic plants, and discovering botanical laws ruling their growth, maintenance and multiplication.