Page 15 - Dutch Asiatic Shipping Volume 1
P. 15

 a new sea route to Asia by merchants of Amsterdam and Zeeland. It is an old argument, that can be traced back to the diarist of the Eerste Schipvaart, Willem Lodewijcks.5 In 1585 Philip II, archenemy of the Republic and since 1580 also owner of the Portuguese crown, had put an embargo on all foreign ships in Spanish and Portuguese harbours, and from then on minor arrests kept the trading situation uncertain. Fear of further measures is supposed to have kept Dutch merchants away from trade with Lisbon, the city where the Portuguese brought the precious products from Asia.
This argument is now, rightly, being called into question. Trade between the Netherlands and Spain and Portugal in fact continued - none of the parties could do without it. But there were circumstances of a different nature that made it difficult if not impossible for merchants from Amsterdam or Middelburg to benefit from the trade in Asiatic goods, of which pepper was by far the most important one. The crown granted contracts for the sale of pepper in Lisbon; in 1591 this 'European pepper contract' came into the hands of an international syndicate in which the firm of Fugger was one of the participants. This syndicate appointed some merchants in Amsterdam and Middelburg as representatives. Furthermore in 1585 Antwerp lost its position as staple for Asiatic products in northwestern Europe, due to the blockade of the Scheldt, and it looked as if Hamburg was to take over this position. But during the same years the Portuguese were unable to maintain their level of imports from Asia, with the inevitable result of an alarming rise in the pepper prices in Europe.6
Whereas merchants in the northern Netherlands had therefore sufficient incentives to embark on the Asiatic trade, there was plenty of opportunity as well. Neither capital nor enterprise were lacking. The arrival from the southern Netherlands of numerous merchants with plenty of capital, seeking refuge in the north after Antwerpen's surrender, contributed much to both.7 The necessary expert knowledge was available as well. The most able geographer and navigation expert in the Republic, the clergyman Petrus Plancius,of Flemish extraction, was closely involved with the preparations for the voyage to Asia. And above all there was the great benefit derived from information supplied by Jan Huygen van Linschoten, the Dutchman who had spent many years in Portuguese service. His Reysgeschrift, containing the sailing instructions for the route to Asia, was made available to the ships. The weaker points in Portuguese power in Asia were learnt from him, and it was on his advice that thefirstfleet made for Java in order to bypass the Portuguese ships.8
Moreover, the authorities did not remain neutral. Part of the more than one hundred guns and smaller weapons were made available by the States of Holland and the cities of that province. In addition the ships were granted exemption from import and export duties, and the shipowners' representatives on the fleet, Kornelis de Houtman among them, held charters or patents issued by Prince Maurits. This official support did not imply that the expedition had a military character, but indicates an appreciation of the great risks the ships were taking by entering a region claimed by the Portuguese as their exclusive trading domain.9
5 Rouffaer and IJzerman, De eerste Schipvaart, I, xxxi-xxxii; Den Haan, Moedernegotie en grote vaart, 75-76.
6 On pepper market and contract system: Kellenbenz, 'Autour de 1600: Le commerce du poivre des Fugger'; Wake, 'The changing pattern of Europe's pepper and spice imports'.
7 Brûlez, 'De diaspora der Antwerpse kooplui'.
8 On preparations for the first expedition: Mollema, De eerste Schipvaart der Hollanders, 29-40. 9 Den Tex, Oldenbarnevelt, II, 385.

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