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  • Writer's pictureBen West

A Brief History of Oost-Indisch Huis in Amsterdam

What is Oost-Indisch Huis?

Oost-Indisch Huis is a 17th-century Dutch national heritage site and the Former headquarters of the Dutch East India Company which was one of the most powerful companies in history, and also one of the most destructive.

Oost-Indisch Huis

Oost-Indisch Huis History

It may be an imposing building, but most people who walk past East India House, headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, don’t give it a second thought. The Company – officially called the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC in the Dutch language – was founded in 1602 and traded with nations throughout modern-day Asia. Its merchants embarked on countless expeditions across the world in order to bring back spices, silks, opium, herbs and other prized items that fuelled a period of great prosperity. At this time, Amsterdam was becoming the most important point for the shipment of goods in Europe and establishing itself as a leading centre for what we now know as international capitalism. Within the year of its foundation, the Company’s Amsterdam office started trading in its own shares, and thus can claim to be the world’s first formally listed company. Amsterdam, and the Netherlands more widely, were journeying into an era historians still refer to as the ‘Golden Age’.

However, in its pursuit for economic strength, the VOC caused an enormous amount of suffering. The company engaged in slavery and the exploitation of foreign lands and their peoples. In fact, during the 17th and 18th centuries, it’s estimated that between 600,000 and 1.1 million enslaved people were transported to VOC territories. The beginnings of global capitalism are difficult to unravel from those of colonial oppression.

This huge building, overlooking the Kloveniersburgwal, was built to impress. The façade is designed in the Dutch Renaissance style – an allusion to the supposedly Roman virtues of commercial openness and territorial expansion – and attributed to architect of national significance, Hendrick de Keyser. As the Company’s purpose-built premises, de Keyser’s striking red and white building provided numerous functions: an auction room, warehouse, administrative centre and office.

In the 18th century, the Company experienced financial troubles and was eventually dissolved in 1798. The building was then used for a few years as the seat of the colonial government of the Batavian Republic. Now owned by the University of Amsterdam, it lives on as a science library, and is a listed Dutch national heritage site, or rijksmonument.

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