The Most Valuable Company of All Time

17th century plaque to Dutch East India Company (VOC)

The Dutch East India Company, otherwise known as the United East India Company, or the VOC (Dutch translation: Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) is a trading syndicate borne in the 1602 Dutch Republic—present-day Netherlands—to defend the state’s Indian Ocean trade and assist in the Dutch War of Independence from Spain.

The Dutch government granted a 21-year monopoly for the spice trade in Asia and the company would eventually send over one million voyagers to Asia, which is more than the rest of Europe combined. In lieu of the 200-year run as Europe’s foremost trading behemoth, the peak of the company’s prospects coincided with Tulip Mania in Holland in 1637. Broadly considered the world’s first financial bubble, the history of Tulip Mania alone is a crazy story. During this frothy time, the Dutch East India Company was worth 78 million Dutch guilders, which translates to $7.9 trillion in today. [adjusted for inflation]

Dutch East India Company factory in Mughal Bengal. By Hendrik van Schuylenburgh, 1665

The DEIC was labeled both a trading company and a shipping company, and prospered through most of the 17th century as a hired gun for the reigning Dutch commercial empire of the East Indies. [present day Indonesia, dissolved in 1799] This was one of the first examples of vertical integration and a proto-conglomerate, diversifying into multiple commercial and industrial activities such as independent trade. Goods included imported Bengal Subah silks and textiles, East Indian spices, Indonesian coffee, Formasan sugar, and South African wine.

The Dutch government granted the company a trade monopoly in the waters between the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa and the Straits of Magellan between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Their right’s included expunging treaties with native princes, building more forts, maintain the armed forces, and to carry on administrative duties through officials who were required to take a sworn oath of loyalty to the Dutch government.

A bond from the Dutch East India Company (VOC), dating from 7 November 1623. The VOC was the first company in history to issue bonds and shares of stock to the general public.

Into the 18th century, the DEIC had transitioned from a commercial shipping enterprise to a territorial organization mainly interested in the agricultural produce of the Indonesian archipelago. Toward the end of the 18th century, the company turned corrupt and in massive debt. Socio-economic changes in Europe, the shift in power balance, and less successful financial management resulted in a slow decline between 1720 and 1799.

After the financially debilitating Fourth Anglo-Dutch War lasting from 1780 to 1784, the company was nationalized in 1796 and officially dried up on December 31, 1799. All assets were seized by the government with VOC territories becoming Dutch colonies. The company was condemned for its monopolistic policy, colonialism, uses of violence, and slavery. Therefore, Dutch government would revoke the company’s charter, and in 1799 it officially overtook its debts and possessions.

Below is the chart you’ve been waiting for.

Data published in 2017

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