De Vries J. (2005) The Dutch Atlantic economies

De Vries, Jan (2005) “The Dutch Atlantic Economies”, in  Peter A. Coclanis, ed., The Atlantic Economy During The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries: Organization, Operation, Practice, And Personnel, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, p.1-10.

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Initial forays

The Dutch started venturing outside the European waters in the late 16th century. This first Dutch Atlantic economy was built upon small private commercial partnerships (partenrederijen) drawn up usually for the duration of the voyage and led by an active partner who participated to the trip (p.2).

After long years of debate, the Dutch government finally agreed in 1621 to create a pendant of the VOC for the Atlantic unifying all trades and enjoying a monopoly: the West India Company (WIC). From the start, this new structure was an highly complex one involved in Canadian fur and pelt (p.3), Guinean gold and ivory, Portuguese salt, Brazilian sugar, etc.

The Dutch merchant community was highly reluctant to invest in the venture. It was regarded more as a political enterprise with colonial purposes than a commercial one. As a result, it took over two years to assemble the initial capitalization.

The “first Dutch Atlantic economy

The initial years were sluggish, but in 1628, Piet Heyn captured the entire Spanish silver fleet carrying a cargo worth 11.5 million guilders. This event suddenly gave the WIC the trust it needed to ensure the financial backing of its next venture: the conquest of Pernambuco (Recife).

This part of Portuguese Brazil was used to develop an active plantation agriculture. To furnish the necessary labour thousands of WIC employees and Dutch settlers (including numerous maranos) moved to the region. They also imported over 30,000 slaves (p.4).

But the company’s monopoly was impossible to enforce. Foreign competitors and Dutch illegal traders prospered out of the “leakage” thus preventing the company from enjoying satisfactory return on investment (p.5). In 1648, the WIC finally had to allow any Dutch merchant to freely trade in its territories in exchange of a fee. Thus “the WIC in the New World transformed from an trading company to an administrative entity”.

The original Portuguese population (moradores) revolted in 1645. Badly in debt, lacking political support, the company finally had to retreat from its Brazilian foothold in 1654.

The Second Dutch Atlantic Economy

Facing the loss of their most meaningful colony, the Dutch diverted their attention to supplying other European colonies with manufactures and services. The Dutch granted credit to British, French and Spanish planters all over the Caribbean (p.6). WIC-controlled Curaçao acted as the region’s entrepot for Dutch trade.

Dutch influence proved crucial in the move towards sugar made by British Barbados and French Martinique in the middle of the 17th century. This allowed the WIC’s slave trade to prosper, the company’s ports in Africa shipped away some 57,000 slaves in the third quarter of the 17th century.

European planters favoured also greatly the Dutch interloper’s commercial services over their own national monopoles. As a result, colonial products kept arriving to the Netherlands. In Amsterdam for instance, despite the loss of any large Dutch-controlled plantation, over 50 sugar refineries were still supplying half the sugar consumed in Europe (p.7).
Soon however, the European mercantilist countries endeavoured to enforce ther monopoly claims (1651, English Navigation Acts, French trade ordinance of 1664 and 1673).

In took some time to gather the military instrument and political will to back these claims, but the successful rise of the French Compagnie des Indes Occidentales and of the English Royal African Company clearly showed that the golden years were coming to an end for the Dutch interlopers. Only the Spanish possessions remained opened to them.

The Second Anglo Dutch War (1664-1666) almost swept the WIC away from all its New World possessions. However, while the French-Dutch alliance was re-conquering them all (p.8), Louis XIV imperialists claims in Europe forced the Dutch into seeking English support before New Amsterdam could be taken away from them.

The cost for the WIC of the mercantilist build up is made clear by the decline in the number of sugar refineries in Amsterdam that decreased to 34 in 1668 and then to 20 in 1680. Commercial losses and military expenditure finally forced the company to reorganized in 1674 (p.9). In 1713, a final blow was thrown to the Second Dutch Altlantic economy as the Spanish awarded the asiento, or monopoly over slave trade to the English South Sea Company, thus crushing the remaining fortune of Curaçao.

The third Dutch Atlantic economy

The only option the Dutch had left was to develop their own plantations in Surinam and Guyana. Those colonies always remained the property of the WIC and as such were subject to the company’s monopoly for the import of inputs. However, they did not benefit from the usual mercantilist policies at home, their output was competing against other European colonies’ products on the Amsterdam market (p.11).

One Response to De Vries J. (2005) The Dutch Atlantic economies

  1. Tres agrable initiative Julie!

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