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Mar 27, 1614

Early Modern Corporatism, Part II: The Dutch Path from Explorers to Monopolists

“Navigation, trade, and commerce, in…the West-Indies, and Africa” is reserved exclusively to “the common united strength of the merchants…one General Company.”

Editor’s Note

As we saw in the first number of our current series, the turn of European history from medieval to Early Modern consisted partly of monarchs shedding themselves of various feudal burdens.  As they granted an endless series of state powers to private, chartered, incorporated entities, monarchs entered into league with a new class of capitalist-monopolists (and though they possessed no real theory of economics to speak of, those of this interest group are generally referred to as the “mercantilists”).  These monied interests took the form of banks, insurance agencies, vast mercantile concerns, and even colonial ventures.  Often, the lines between these different sets of corporate interests blurred, and the specific details of a corporation’s rights and privileges depended upon the context in which the monarch granted the charter.  In any case, the new species of incorporations emerged from the corpus of medieval kingship.  Monarchs generally benefitted from the exchange, now focusing entirely on forging nation-states and imperial militaries.  Corporate efforts at exploration, trade, colonization, and raw materials production could offset the costs and travails of governing global empires, and ease many of the traditional problems of governing Europeans.  Such great transitions marked the shift from feudalism to capitalism, medieval to Early Modern, the Dark Ages to the Renaissance and Enlightenment—however one would like to cast the change, it was one of the most important historical problems humans had encountered to that point.  The fusion of corporation and state power tended to encourage the very worst elements of both, producing a flood of enslavement, slave trading, the almost complete extermination of Native Americans from the planet, the construction of the largest and most powerful empires which ever existed, and world wars that consumed massive portions of the global population. 

As we see below, even in a rebelliously liberated country like the Netherlands it took only a few decades to turn innocuous trading firms into militarized arms of statecraft.  The first charter selected is a general proclamation that any agencies which demonstrate a sustained ability to carry out colonial trade stand to receive permanent and exclusive (monopoly) charters in the future.  By the end of the year, the States-General granted a long list of capital-rich individuals the exclusive rights to trade “in America between New France and Virginia…called New Netherland.”  The company directly governed the colony and its extremely small population, while only a decade later the States-General turned its gaze to the far richer southern reaches of the Atlantic.  The Dutch West India Company’s charter is barely recognizable as a business enterprise and reads much more like a diplomatic arrangement between an empire and its client state.  The company is granted wide latitude to govern colonies, deal with natives, and exploit their monopoly on trade in the entire Atlantic zone from the Caribbean to the Straights of Magellan.  The company’s duties to the government are enumerated in excruciating detail, giving the reader a perhaps too generous taste of modernity’s origins.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

General Charter for Those who Discover Any New Passages, Havens, Countries, or Places: March 27, 1614

Be it known, whereas we understand it would be honorable, serviceable, and profitable to this country and for the promotion of its prosperity, as well as for the maintenance of seafaring people, that the good inhabitants should be excited and encouraged to employ and occupy themselves in seeking out and discovering passages, havens, countries, and places that have not before now been discovered nor frequented; and being informed by some traders that they intend, with God’s merciful help, by diligence, labor, danger, and expense, to employ themselves thereat, as they expect to derive a handsome profit therefrom if it pleased us to privilege, charter, and favor them that they alone might resort and sail to and frequent the passages, havens, countries, and places to be by them newly found and discovered for six voyages as a compensation for their outlays, trouble and risk, with interdiction to all, directly or indirectly to resort or sail to or frequent the said passages, havens, countries, or places before and until the first discoverers and finders thereof shall have completed the aforesaid six voyages. Therefore, we, having duly weighed the aforesaid matter and finding, as hereinbefore stated, the said undertaking to be laudable, honorable, and serviceable for the prosperity of the united provinces and wishing that the experiment be free and open to all and every of the inhabitants of this country, have invited and do hereby invite all and every of the inhabitants of the United Netherlands to the aforesaid search, and, therefore, have granted and consented, grant and consent hereby that whosoever any new passages, havens, countries, or places shall from now henceforward discover, shall alone resort to the same or cause them to be frequented for four voyages, without any other person directly or indirectly sailing, frequenting or resorting from the United Netherlands to the said newly discovered and found passages, havens, countries, or places until the first discoverer and finder shall have made or cause to be made the said four voyages, on pain of confiscation of the goods and ships wherewith the contrary attempt shall be made, and a fine of fifty thousand Netherlands ducats to the profit of the aforesaid finder or discoverer…

Grant of Exclusive Trade to New Netherland by the States-General of the United Netherlands: October 11, 1614

Whereas [a list of merchant-proprietors], all now associated in one company, have respectfully represented to us that they, the petitioners, after great expenses and damages by loss of ships and other dangers, had, during the present year, discovered and found with the above named five ships certain new lands situate in America between New France and Virginia, the sea coast whereof lie between forty and forty-five degrees of latitude, and now called New Netherland. And whereas we did, in the month of March last, for the promotion and increase of commerce, cause to be published a certain general consent and charter setting forth that whosoever should thereafter discover new havens, lands, places, or passages might frequent or cause to be frequented, for four voyages, such newly discovered and found places, passages, havens, or lands to the exclusion of all others from visiting or frequenting the same from the United Netherlands until the said first discoverers and finders shall themselves have completed the said four voyages or cause the same to be done within the time prescribed for that purpose, under the penalties expressed in the said octroy, etc.; they request that we would accord to them due act of the aforesaid octroy in the usual form.

Which, being considered, we, therefore, in our Assembly, having heard the pertinent report of the petitioners relative to the discoveries and finding of the said new countries between the above named limits and degrees and also of their adventures, have consented and granted, and by these presents do consent and grant, to the said petitioners now united into one company that they shall be privileged exclusively to frequent or cause to be visited the above newly discovered lands…now named New Netherland…and that for four voyages within the term of three years…without it being permitted to any other person from the United Netherlands, to sail to, navigate, or frequent the said newly discovered lands, havens, or places, either directly or indirectly within the said three years, on pain of confiscation of the vessel and cargo wherewith infraction hereof shall be attempted, and a fine of fifty thousand Netherland ducats for the benefit of said discoverers or finders; provided, nevertheless, that by these presents we do not intend to prejudice or diminish any of our former grants or charters. And it is also our intention that if any disputes or differences arise from these our concessions, they shall be decided by ourselves…

Charter of Privileges and Exemptions the Dutch West India Company: June 7, 1629.

Be it known, that we knowing the prosperity of these countries, and the welfare of their inhabitants depends principally on navigation and trade, which in all former times by the said Countries were carried on happily, and with a great blessing to all countries and kingdoms; and desiring that the aforesaid inhabitants should not only be preserved in their former navigation, traffic, and trade, but also that their trade may be encreased as much as possible in special conformity to the treaties, alliances, leagues and covenants for traffic and navigation formerly made with other princes, republics and people, which we give them to understand must be in all parts punctually kept and adhered to: And we find by experience, that without the common help, assistance, and interposition of a General Company, the people designed from hence for those parts cannot be profitably protected and maintained in their great risque from pirates, extortion and otherwise, which will happen in so very long a voyage. We have, therefore, and for several other important reasons and considerations as thereunto moving, with mature deliberation of counsel, and for highly necessary causes, found it good, that the navigation, trade, and commerce, in the parts of the West-Indies, and Africa, and other places hereafter described, should not henceforth be carried on any otherwise than by the common united strength of the merchants and inhabitants of these countries; and for that end there shall be erected one General Company, which we out of special regard to their common well-being, and to keep and preserve the inhabitants of those places in good trade and welfare, will maintain and strengthen with our Help, Favour and assistance as far as the present state and condition of this Country will admit: and moreover furnish them with a proper Charter, and with the following Priveleges and Exemptions, to wit, That for the Term of four and twenty Years, none of the Natives or Inhabitants of these countries shall be permitted to sail to or from the said lands, or to traffic on the coast and countries of Africa from the Tropic of Cancer to the Cape of Good Hope, nor in the countries of America, or the West-Indies, beginning at the fourth end of Terra Nova, by the streights of Magellan, La Maire, or any other streights and passages situated thereabouts to the straights of Anian, as well on the north sea as the south sea, nor on any islands situated on the one side or the other, or between both; nor in the western or southern countries reaching, lying, and between both the meridians, from the Cape of Good Hope, in the East, to the east end of New Guinea, in the West, inclusive, but in the Name of this United Company of these United Netherlands. And whoever shall presume without the consent of this Company, to sail or to traffic in any of the Places within the aforesaid Limits granted to this Company, he shall forfeit the ships and the goods which shall be found for sale upon the aforesaid coasts and lands; the which being actually seized by the aforesaid Company, shall be by them kept for their own Benefit and Behoof…

II. That, moreover, the aforesaid Company may, in our name and authority, within the limits herein before prescribed, make contracts, engagements and alliances with the limits herein before prescribed, make contracts, engagements and alliances with the princes and natives of the countries comprehended therein, and also build any forts and fortifications there, to appoint and discharge Governors, people for war, and officers of justice, and other public officers, for the preservation of the places, keeping good order, police and justice, and in like manner for the promoting of trade; and again, others in their place to put, as they from the situation of their affairs shall see fit: Moreover, they must advance the peopling of those fruitful and unsettled parts, and do all that the service of those countries, and the profit and increase of trade shall require: and the Company shall successively communicate and transmit to us such contracts and alliances as they shall have made with the aforesaid princes and nations; and likewise the situation of the fortresses, fortifications, and settlements by them taken.

III. Saving, that they having chosen a governor in chief, and prepared instructions for him, they shall be approved, and a commission given by us, And that further, such governor in chief, as well as other deputy governors, commanders, and officers, shall be held to take an oath of allegiance to us and also to the Company.

IV. And if the aforesaid Company in and of the aforesaid places shall be cheated under the appearance of friendship, or badly treated, or shall suffer loss in trusting their money or Goods, without having restitution, or receiving payment for them, they may use the best methods in their power, according to the situation of their affairs, to obtain satisfaction.

V. And if it should be necessary for the establishment, security and defence of this trade, to take any troops with them, we will, according to the constitution of this country, and the situation of affairs furnish the said Company with such troops, provided they be paid and supported by the Company.

VI. Which troops, besides the oath already taken to us and to his excellency, shall swear to obey the commands of the said Company, and to endeavour to promote their interest to the utmost of their ability.

VII. That the provosts of the Company on shore may apprehend any of the military, that have inlisted in the service of the aforesaid company, and may confine them on board the ships in whatever city, place, or jurisdiction they may be found; provided, the provosts first inform the officers and magistrates of the cities and places where this happens.

VIII. That we will not take any ships, ordnance, or ammunition belonging to the company, for the use of this country, without the consent of the said company.

IX. We have moreover incorporated this company, and favoured them with privileges, and we give them a charter besides this, that they may pass freely with all their ships and goods without paying any toll to the United Provinces; and that they themselves may use their liberty in the same manner as the free inhabitants of the cities of this country enjoy their freedom, notwithstanding any person who is not free may be a member of this company…

XI. And that this company may be strengthened by a good government, to the greatest profit and satisfaction of all concerned, we have ordained, that the said government shall be vested in five chambers of managers… And the Provinces in which there are no chambers shall be accommodated with so many managers, divided among the respective chambers, as their hundred thousand guilders in this company shall entitle them to…

XIII. And the States of the respective United Provinces are authorized, to lay before their High Mightinesses’ ordinary deputies, or before the magistrates of the cities of these Provinces, any order for registering the members, together with the election of managers, if they find they can do it according to the constitution of their Provinces…

XIV. That the first managers shall serve for the term of six years, and then one-third part of the number of managers shall be changed by lot; and two years after a like third part, and the two next following years, the last third part; and so on successively the oldest in the service shall be dismissed…

XVI. That evry six years they shall make a general account of all outfits and returns, together with all the gains and losses of the company; to wit, one of their business, and one of the war, each separate; which accounts shall be made public by an advertisement, to the end that every one who is interested may, upon hearing of it, attend; and if by the expiration of the seventh year, the accounts are not made out in manner aforesaid, the managers shall forfeit their commissions, which shall be appropriated to the use of the poor…

XVII. No one shall, during the continuance of this charter, withdraw his capital, or sum advanced, from this company; nor shall any new members be admitted. If at the expiration of four and twenty years it shall be found good to continue this company, or to erect a a new one, a final account and estimate shall be made by the nineteen, with our knowledge, of all that belongs to the company, and also of all their expences, and any one, after the aforesaid settlement and estimate, may withdraw his money, or continue it in the new company, in whole or in part, in the same proportion as in this; And the new company shall in such case take the remainder, and pay the members which do not think fit to continue in the company their share, at such times as the nineteen, with our knowledge and approbation, shall think proper.

XVIII. That so often as it shall be necessary to have a general meeting of the aforesaid chambers, it shall be by nineteen persons…

XIX. By which general meeting of the aforesaid chambers, all the business of this Company which shall come before them shall be managed and finally settled, provided, that in case of resolving upon a war, our approbation shall be asked.

XX. The aforesaid general meeting being summoned, it shall meet to resolve when they shall fit out, and how many vessels they will send to each place, the company in general observing that no particular chamber shall undertake any thing in opposition to the foregoing resolution, but shall be held to carry the same effectually into execution. And if any chamber shall be found not following the common resolution, or contravening it, we have authorized, and by these presents do authorize, the said meeting, immediately to cause reparation to be made of every defect or contravention, wherein we, being desired, will assist them…

XXIII. And if it should happen that in the aforesaid general meeting, any weighty matter should come before them wherein they cannot agree, or in case the vote are equally divided, the same shall be left to our decision; and whatever shall be determined upon shall be carried into execution…

XXVIII. The managers shall have for commissions one per cent. On the outfits and returns, besides the Prince’s; and an half per cent. On gold and silver: which commission shall be divided…

XXXI. The manager shall not deliver or sell to the Company, in whole or in part, any of their own ships, merchandise or goods; nor buy or cause to be bought, of the said Company, directly or indirectly, any goods or merchandize nor have any portion or part therein on forfeiture of one year’s commissions for the use of the poor, and the loss of Office…

XXXVII. So when any ship shall return from a voyage, the generals or commanders of the fleets, shall be obliged to come and report to us the success of the voyage of such ship or ships, within ten days after their arrival, and shall deliver and leave with us a report in writing, if the case requires it.

XXXVIII. And if it happens (which we by no means expect) that any person will, in any manner, hurt or hinder the navigation, business, trade, or traffic of this Company, contrary to the common right, and the contents of the aforesaid treaties, leagues, and covenants, they shall defend it against them, and regulate it by the instructions we have given concerning it.

XXXIX. We have moreover promised and do promise, that we will defend this Company against every person in free navigation and traffic, and assist them with a million of guilders, to be paid in five years, whereof the first two hundred thousand guilders shall be paid them when the first payment shall be made by the members; Provided that we, with half the aforesaid million of guilders, shall receive and bear profit and risque in the same manner as the other members of this Company shall.

XL. And if by a violent and continued interruption of the aforesaid navigation and traffic, the business within the limits of their Company shall be brought to an open war, we will, if the situation of this country will in any wise admit of it, give them for their assistance sixteen ships of war, the least one hundred and fifty lasts burthen; with four good well sailing yachts, the least, forty lasts burthen, which shall be properly mounted and provided in all respects, both with brass and other cannon, and a proper quantity of ammunition, together with double suits of running and standing rigging, sails, cables, anchors, and other things thereto belonging, such as are proper to be provided and used in all great expeditions; upon condition, that they shall be manned, victualled, and supported at the expense of the Company, and that the Company shall be obliged to add thereto sixteen like ships of war, and four yachts, mounted and provided as above, to be used in like manner for the defence of trade and all exploits of war: Provided that all the ships of war and merchant-men (that shall be with those provided and manned as aforesaid) shall be under an admiral appointed by us according to the previous advise of the aforesaid General Company, and shall obey our commands, together with the resolutions of the Company, if it shall be necessary, in the same manner as in time of war; so notwithstanding that the merchantmen shall not unnecessarily hazard their lading.

XLI. And if it should happen that this country should be remarkably eased of its burthens, and that this Company should be laid under the grievous burthen of a war, we have further promised, and do promise, to encrease the aforesaid subsidy in such a manner as the situation of these countries will admit, and the affairs of the Company shall require.

XLII. We have moreover ordained, that in case of a war, all the prizes which shall be taken from enemies and pirates within the aforesaid limits, by the Company or their assistants; also the goods which shall be seized by virtue of our proclamation, after deducting all expenses and the damage which the Company shall suffer in taking each prize, together with the just part of his excellency the admiral…and the tenth part for the officers, sailors and soldiers, who have taken the prize, shall await the disposal of the managers of the aforesaid Company…

XLIV. The managers of this Company shall solemnly promise and swear, that they will act well and faithfully in their administration, and make good and just accounts of their trade: That they in all things will consult the greatest profit of the Company, and as much as possible prevent their meeting with losses…

XLV. All which privileges, freedoms and exemptions, together with the assistance herein before mentioned, in all their particulars and articles, we have, with full knowledge of the business, given, granted, promised and agreed to the aforesaid Company; giving, granting, agreeing and promising moreover that they shall enjoy them peaceably and freely; ordaining that the same shall be observed and kept by all the magistrates, officers and subjects of the United Netherlands, without doing anything contrary thereto directly or indirectly, either within or out of these Netherlands, on penalty of being punished both in life and goods as obstacles to the common welfare of this country, and transgressors of our ordinance… And that none may pretend ignorance hereof, we command that the contents of this charter shall be notified by publication, or an advertisement, where, and in such manner, as is proper; for we have found it necessary for the service of this country.

Given under our Great Seal, and the Signature and Seal of our Recorder, at the Hague, on the third day of the month of June, in the year sixteen hundred and twenty one.

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