Vermeer's Hat

Vermeer's Hat by Timothy Brook

Book: Vermeer's Hat by Timothy Brook Read Free Book Online
Authors: Timothy Brook
turn of the seventeenth century, VOC ships were also in the South China Sea, probing along the coast north of Macao
     as far as Fujian Province for a place where they could set up trade with China. As the Chinese government already had a trading
     arrangement with one set of “Franks,” as they then called Europeans (they picked up the term from the Arabs), in Macao, it
     was not interested in making concessions to another set. But private Chinese merchants were eager to trade with any Franks,
     and some officials were willing to come to an understanding if the price was right. Most notorious of the Chinese officials
     was Gao Cai, an imperial eunuch in charge of collecting maritime customs duties. As customs receipts went directly into the
     accounts of the imperial household rather than the ministry of finance, Eunuch Gao bent the rules of the bureaucracy for the
     benefit of his master. In 1604, he set up a private trading entrepôt in the lee of an offshore island where his agents could
     trade with the Dutch in return for handsome gifts for himself and the emperor. The provincial governor soon got wind of the
     scheme and sent in the navy to curtail the eunuch’s smuggling. 2
    The absence of strong states in Southeast Asia, compared to China, made that region a more promising region for the Dutch
     to find a foothold. The Spanish (based at Manila in the Philippines) and the Portuguese were too few to dominate the thousands
     of islands in that zone, so the Dutch moved in swiftly, seizing what were called the Spice Islands from the Portuguese in
     1605. Four years later, the VOC set up its first permanent trading post at Bantam on the far west end of the island of Java.
     After capturing Jakarta to the east, the company moved its headquarters to this location, renaming the town Batavia. Holland
     now had a base on the other side of the globe from which to challenge the Iberian monopoly on Asian trade. The new arrangement
     worked well for the company. The value of Dutch imports from the region grew by almost 3 percent annually.
    The White Lion became one of the Netherlands’ earliest and more spectacular casualties in the war to dominate the trade with Asia. The ship
     had sailed on its maiden voyage from Amsterdam to Asia—a distance of some fourteen thousand nautical miles (twenty-five thousand
     kilometers)—as early as 1601, a year before the VOC was formed. 3 It reached home in July of the following year. Mounting tension with Portuguese vessels in Asian waters justified its being
     refitted with six new bronze cannon fore and aft. When it embarked on its second journey to Asia in 1605, the White Lion sailed as a VOC ship. The new business arrangement is recorded on the backs of the copper cannon, which the salvage archaeologists
     fished out of the bay in 1976. Foundry master Hendrick Muers inscribed them with his name and the date— Henricus Muers me fecit 1604 —above which he overlaid the interlocking company initials, VOC , plus an A , the insignia of the Amsterdam Chamber of the VOC.
    The White Lion successfully completed a second voyage and then set off on its fateful third in 1610. It was unloaded at Bantam, then reassigned
     to a naval squadron charged with suppressing an uprising for nutmeg traders in the Spice Islands. The White Lion spent that winter as part of a fleet preying on Spanish ships sailing out of Manila. Five were captured. It was put into interisland
     shipping for the spring and summer, then ordered back to Bantam to load up for its third return journey to Amsterdam. On 5
     December 1612, it departed as one of four ships under the command of Admiral Lam. On the first of June the following summer,
     it left St. Helena on the final leg of its voyage to Amsterdam. We know the rest of the story.
    Dutch piracy provoked diplomatic protests from other European nations, and not just Portugal. 4 When the Dutch seized the Santa Catarina in 1603, Portugal demanded the return of the ship with all

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