After the first VOC ships came back with their freight, inhabitants living close to the warehouses could smell the unknown exotic fragrances. People passing by thought they had landed in countries in the Far East or they complained about the stale air of spices which gave them a headache.
Pepper, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg were unknown luxurious goods. In the first days of the VOC people would pay the same amount for a small parcel of pepper as they had to pay for a chicken coup. This is where the Dutch expression ‘peperduur’ (as expensive as pepper) came from. In that period pepper grains were a trading currency. Anyone who travelled through Europe and didn’t want to carry a lot of gold or silver with them sowed the popular trading good in the seam of their clothing. Spices were used as medicine, cosmetics and to enhance the taste of food.
Spices and porcelain
Above all spices were luxurious goods. Everyone who wanted to spoil their guests or wanted to prove their prosperity would put food on the table which was spiced with eastern flavours. Nutmeg and pepper were the champagne and caviar of the Golden Ages. Besides that porcelain became fashionable. Marco Polo already told about the extremely thin but strong porcelain from the east which people in Europe weren’t able to make, because of the simple reason that the raw material needed, Kaolin wasn’t known yet. An auction in Amsterdam for porcelain which came from a captured Portuguese ship, became an unknown success and was named Carague porcelain (named after the type of ship), which later was changed to Kraak porcelain. It became a fashion to have at least some porcelain at home on show and if it was possible to fill a whole closet or cabinet with it. Furniture makers created specially-designed cabinets for the pottery. Cabinets were built for Chinese sets of temple porcelain. The Delft earthwork manufacturers tore their hair out at this unexpected competitor. It even lasted until the 18th century, before the secret of making porcelain was stumbled upon in Meissen.
After the middle of the 17th century the importance of trade shifted from spices to textile, especially the colourful cottons and silk chintzes from India were the hype. In the Netherlands, they were used as curtains or worked into clothing. In the regional costumes from the Zaan or the Hindelopen chintz was widely used till the end.
Coffee and elephants
In the 17th century coffee and tea were very popular. A separate set of crockery was made for it. Coffee houses and tea rooms flourished. The tea came from China and was made by Chinese merchants, who were brought to Batavia. Coffee came from the Arabian world. The VOC set up an office in Mokka for the coffee trade. However, soon in 1707 it worked to bring coffee plants to Java, which launched the coffee plantations, as we know them. The series of products, in which the VOC traded, is almost endless and varies from tin, tea, tobacco and tamarind to olive oil, onyx, opium, and even elephants. On Ceylon, the Dutch people developed a trap, a kind of a huge hoop-net, with which elephants could be captured, without the animals damaging the bales of spices. A beautiful white elephant could fetch as much as 7000 Dutch gulden. Everywhere in Asia, the VOC had specialists who had enough knowledge of this business to not let themselves being misled with inferior silk, false gemstones and grains of sand between the peppercorns and all the other different tricks used. Stowing of freight caused much concern. Porcelain was for instance packed in tea chests to prevent breakages. On the inside those chests were covered with tinfoil to prevent the damp from entering. Textile and spices had to stay dry in every kind of weather. A quick shipment was literally worth gold, because how much quicker the spices were transported, the fresher they were and how much more they were worth.
On the journey money chests were stored in the captain’s cabin, which contained enough coins to buy what was needed. Those VOC coins were the dollars in Asia, and you were able to trade the coins everywhere. Furthermore consumer goods were brought along for the settlements of the VOC, from paper and ink for the clerks to cannons, clothing, food, nails and all manner of items needed by the people there. To keep the balance in the ship, the holds were filled with ballast, sand and gravel, bricks, blue tiles and prefabricated natural stone for houses, churches and forts.
text: Ruud Spruit
translation: Frederieke Loth, RSG Enkhuizen, tto-junior