Model of the Dutch East India Company ship “Valkenisse”

From Asia to the Netherlands, the Dutch East India Company dominated maritime trade in the 17th and 18th centuries.

A model of the United East India Company ship (East Indiaman), “Valkenisse,” 1717 (The Netherlands), wood with hemp, cotton rigging, 228.6 x 96.5 x 203.2 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re upstairs in the painting galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In the middle of this grand gallery of paintings from the Netherlands and Flanders, there is this enormous, unexpected object. There’s a model of a ship.

Benjamin Weiss: [0:23] When we were planning this gallery, we knew we wanted to tell stories that complicated the history of Dutch and Flemish painting. One of the key stories about this period and the society that created these extraordinary works of painting is the question of where the money came from.

[0:40] We had, in the collection, an extraordinarily complicated and beautiful model of a Dutch East India Company ship that was designed to go back and forth between the Netherlands and the Dutch colonies in what’s now Indonesia, Batavia, the present-day city of Jakarta.

Dr. Zucker: [0:58] The Dutch East India Company was this extraordinarily powerful organization, this company that we would recognize now as a multinational corporation, but one that had far more power than any corporation does in the 21st century.

Benjamin: [1:13] The decision was made by competing companies and competing factions within the Netherlands that they couldn’t all go off and try to exploit the trade to Asia individually, and that they should basically pool their resources into one giant joint stock company, the United Dutch East India Company.

Dr. Zucker: [1:30] That meant they weren’t competing against each other and they could instead compete against the other great maritime powers in the world at that point.

Benjamin: [1:38] Also, they could go into a complicated imperial situation, one with competing European powers, the Portuguese and the Spanish, but also very large powers in Asia. The Dutch were not a particularly big country, but by uniting together into this joint company, the Dutch were able to establish a dominant position within the Europe-to-Asia trade.

Dr. Zucker: [2:00] The reason that the Dutch wanted access to Asia was because of the luxury goods that they could procure and bring back to Europe to sell at a very handsome profit.

Benjamin: [2:10] The first successful Dutch trip to trade in Southeast Asia brought back profits of 400 percent. The ships came back with spices and porcelain, with silks and other fabrics that were not made or even possible to be made in Europe.

Dr. Zucker: [2:26] By the time this ship was launched in 1717, the trade route was well-established. The ship would set sail, and their first port of call would be at the Cape of Good Hope, which the Dutch established as an important colony, one that was a way station on the way to Asia.

Benjamin: [2:42] On the long journey back and forth between the Netherlands and what is now Indonesia, in Batavia, a whole network of smaller ships, some owned by the Dutch, some owned by Chinese merchants, some owned by Indonesian merchants, would bring goods back and forth from China, from Japan, from other islands in what is now Indonesia, in India.

[3:01] All brought together, processed, put onto one of the big ships like the Valkenisse and taken back to Europe to be sold into the European market.

Dr. Zucker: [3:09] The entire enterprise was a violent and terrible one. For example, Batavia, this enormously important trading capital for the Dutch in Asia, is essentially a fortress and enslaves the local population. Dutch wealth was built on violence.

Benjamin: [3:24] It’s worth noting, when you look at the Valkenisse, that this sailing ship is also a warship. Along the whole perimeter, the hull, are gun ports. This is a ship that’s meant to intimidate, and if need be, inflict violence.

Dr. Zucker: [3:35] With its masts, the model is much taller than I am, and it is built with incredible detail. When we walk up close to it, we can get a sense of what it would be like to be on one of the many decks of this ship.

Benjamin: [3:47] That’s actually most likely the very point of the model, because this is a model that was almost certainly made at the time when the ship, the real ship itself, was built.

[3:56] Though we don’t know for sure exactly why the model was built, the likeliest answer is that it was either designed as a salesman’s sample for the directors of the VOC to tell them what the new ship would look like, or one that was made at the same time the ship was being built to put on display in the company offices as a way of advertising the new vessel.

[4:15] One of the things about the Dutch in the 17th and the 18th centuries is that they live in a country which is dominated by maritime trade. Even people who don’t go to sea can tell the difference between an accurate and an inaccurate depiction of a ship or a model. The ways that the model reflects actual ships are really important.

[4:33] People see ships in the harbor, people see ships in pictures, and in a way that we don’t understand today, people could tell the difference between an artist or a model maker who knew what they were doing and one who didn’t.

Dr. Zucker: [4:44] That meant it had to be accurate, which gives us this extraordinary window into this early 18th century ship.

[4:50] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Benjamin Weiss and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Model of the Dutch East India Company ship “Valkenisse”," in Smarthistory, January 3, 2023, accessed July 12, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/model-of-dutch-east-india-company-ship-valkenisse/.