The Dutch West Indies Company (West-Indische Compagnie or WIC) started as a company of privateers. Its ships attacked enemy vessels and stole cargos, or indeed the entire craft. This was authorised by the States General as part of the war against Spain, and letters of marque sanctioning these attacks were issued to the WIC. Later, the WIC developed into a trading monopoly organising commerce with North and South America.

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Spanish treasure

Bust of Piet Heyn. Hendrik de Keyser II, 1636

Dish made of silver from the treasure fleet and presented to the governors of the WIC. The Hague, c. 1684-1687

The Dutch West Indies Company (West-Indische Compagnie or WIC) was founded in 1621. According to its charter, issued by the States General, the organisation was set up to trade with territories west of the Cape of Good Hope: along Africa’s west coast, North and South America. Yet the WIC was more concerned with plundering Spanish ships. The Dutch were especially tempted by the massive Spanish treasure fleet that carried its precious cargo each year from the New World to Europe. The first attempt in 1626 failed, but in the following year the Dutch succeeded. At Matanzas Bay in Cuba, WIC admiral Piet Heyn captured the Spanish treasure fleet. With 31 heavily armed ships he overwhelmed the Spaniards. The booty, worth over 11.5 million guilders, was so enormous, it took eight days to load the silver. Heyn received a hero’s welcome when he returned to the Republic.

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Sugar: West Indian gold

Brazilian village. Frans Jansz Post, c. 1644-1680

House of a Dutch colonist in Brazil. Frans Jansz Post, c. 1644-1680

Tempted by the commercial success of the Portuguese sugar crop in Brazil, the Dutch West Indies Company (WIC) captured the towns of Recife and Olinda in 1630. A few years later, the WIC appointed Johan Maurits van Nassau governor general of Brazil. Under his rule (1637-1644) the colony flourished. The territory was expanded to encompass a wide strip along the northeast coast some two thousand kilometres long. He also commissioned botanists to study the natural history of the territory and artists to compile a record.

In 1637, a Dutch fleet also captured the Portuguese fort at Elmina on Africa’s west coast, known as Gold Coast. From Elmina, Africans were transported to work as slaves on Brazil’s sugar plantations. The Portuguese retook Dutch Brazil in 1654. The Dutch moved on to Surinam and set up sugar plantations there, slaves and all.

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Crown of Ardra

Crown for the king of Ardra. England, c. 1664

While it may look impressive, this crown is made of cheap materials: copper, glass and velvet. It was never intended to adorn the head of a European monarch. The crown was commissioned as a gift for the African king of Ardra and was above all symbolic. The English hoped that the crown and a treaty would cement their commercial ties with this African kingdom. In fact, the crown never reached Ardra. It was captured in 1664 by a Dutch fleet commanded by Michiel de Ruyter. The fleet had been sent by the Republic to drive out the English, who had taken the Dutch forts on Africa’s west coast.

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Slave market at Elmina

Portrait of Jan Pranger, director general of Gold Coast. Frans van der Mijn, 1742

Portrait of Machteld Muilman, second wife of Jan Pranger. Frans van der Mijn, c. 1745-1747

The Dutch West Indies Company (WIC) soon lost its two prize possessions: Brazil and the colony of New Netherlands in North America, although the latter was exchanged for Surinam and the Antilles. On the Guinean Gold Coast (today’s Ghana), at Sao Jorge da Mina, known as Elmina, the WIC traded mainly in gold and slaves. Contemporary eyewitnesses say that the Dutch did little more than booze, screw and curse. For them, the biggest problem at that tiny outpost was boredom. The WIC transported Africans to Brazil, and later to the Antilles, to Curaçao where a slave market operated in the 17th century. Conditions on the voyage from Africa were horrific and many Africans died at sea. The survivors were sold as slaves and their new owners set them to work on huge sugar plantations, and later in tobacco fields.