By the start of the 17th century merchants from the Dutch Republic had begun to undertake voyages to the ‘Spice Islands’ of the Indian Ocean. This put them in direct competition with established traders from other European nations including Portugal and Britain, both of whom had previously dominated the market.
Due to the high risks for individual investors who mounted these individual voyages, the Dutch government supported the creation of a new umbrella company two years after the establishment of the competing English East India Company. The United East India Company combined the various individual business interests into a single entity that was granted a 21-year monopoly on the Dutch spice trade. Consequently the risk to investors was reduced as their individual funds were invested in the entire company’s voyages, meaning that if some ships failed to return they were not completely wiped out. In return investors received an annual dividend of 18%.
Known in the Netherlands as the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC, the company grew to become arguably the first transnational corporation. Yet by the middle of the 17th century it had begun to function as a state within a state that possessed its own army and political authority. Having usurped both the British and Portuguese competitors in the East Indies, the VOC dominated trade in the Indian and South Pacific Oceans for almost two centuries. During this time it sent almost a million European people to work in the region in almost 5,000 ships, more than the rest of the continent combined.