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WHY DID THE LARGEST CORPORATION IN THE WORLD GO BROKE?

An economic review

- Abridged version -

By Peter Reynders

With a deafening and thunderous noise the large Amsterdam warehouse at the old shipyards of the United East-Indies Company, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), collapsed on the 14th of April 1822. It simply imploded, except for one wing. An artist immortalised the scene. The event re-enacted the death of the VOC 20 years before. For almost two centuries, the landmark building had stored the riches brought by thousands of ships, waiting to be sold by Dutch auction. The VOC store was no more.

The large Dutch company had died a catastrophic and wealth consuming death about twenty years before. The first truly multinational corporation in the world went bankrupt leaving a debt of 219 million Dutch guilders. The Dutch government had tried to prop it up by taking it over and dismantling it, but suffered under its debts until well into the 19th century.

Both the VOC's successes and some of her failures are related to the monopoly status given to her by the Dutch government, the States-General, in its foundation charter in 1602. This charter also gave her extraordinary powers to act in foreign territories in a number of ways on behalf of the States-General.

The establishment of 'monopoly products' was pursued through 'monopoly contracts' and at times through the use of violence inflicted on the Portuguese, the English and the Spanish through the company's naval power. By this means they also had exerted their influence on some of the Asian communities, notably in Ceylon and the Moluccas. Other successes, such as being the only western entity allowed to trade with Japan through their trading post at Deshima, illustrate the VOC's diplomatic skills. Other achievements demonstrated their committed entrepreneurship, at least for much of her first century of trading, an intricate knowledge of Asian trade relationships, and superior navigational and ship building skills.

The popular notion that the European navigators and traders enriched themselves with great ease, thanks to their monopolistic position, has, however, been subject to renewed scrutiny. It has since been realized that entrepreneurial abilities and competency in commercial management were other important factors in the equation.

Many reasons have been advanced for the demise of the VOC. None fatal in themselves when times were prosperous, but deadly when conditions were more trying.

The Fourth English War

Researchers in business history place the defeat of the Dutch nation in the 'Fourth English War' (1780-1784) as the prime reason for the decline of the VOC. Not only had the English built an empire based on slave trade, piracy and other maritime efforts in the 16th and 17th century, but with its navy now sailing towards the pinnacle of its power at sea, they captured many VOC ships during this war and imposed quite onerous terms under the 1784 Peace of Paris. The English East India Company (EIC) could now trade without hindrance from the VOC and took over key VOC settlements in the Far East. However historians seem to agree, that even without the Fourth English War, the VOC would have gone down during the 19th century because of other intrinsic weaknesses, as indeed also the EIC did.

Rule under Napoleon and attempts to rebuild

During the last years of the company's life, the Dutch nation was a satellite state of France, a state of affairs that continued until the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. During this period the now all-powerful English navy, at times consuming up to 20% of its nation's taxation revenue, considered ships of any country to be fair game. This included those of the French run Netherlands, so even sailing under another flag made little difference. Consequently efforts to restart the VOC or any significant trade with Asia proved futile.

Following the Fourth English War and the resultant loss of trade, the VOC's bankruptcy came in steps. After 1795 and the accession of the French satellite regime of the 'patriots', the VOC's Board, the Gentlemen Seventeen (G17), were replaced by a 'Committee for East Indies Trade'. At the end of 1799 the VOC was nationalized. The State took over all property and the catastrophic debt. The operations of the VOC Chambers continued for a while, but in 1803 those in Enkhuizen, Hoorn and Delft were closed. The Chambers in Middleburg and Rotterdam were downgraded to branch offices. Employees were dismissed and marine infrastructure given to the Dutch navy.

The English made peace with France in 1801 and hence with its Dutch vassal state. They returned all trading settlements except Ceylon, a key VOC centre. Hundreds of Dutch ships, at enormous expense were then sent out to the east to capitalize on this peace. Most became booty for the English navy however, as unbeknownst to the Dutch captains, a dispute about Malta with Napoleon had started the war anew between France and England. The English, after defeating the French at Trafalgar, took the former VOC settlements in Asia, at Cape of Good Hope, the Moluccas, and the Dutch colonies in the Americas. It prevented all trade except its own. Added to this the Dutch were harassed in their home ports, by the French military seeking to prevent 'smuggling of goods to England', and by England when at sea. A Dutch return to trade with Asia was allowed after the military feats at Quatre-Bras and Waterloo in 1815, their reward for having fought with the English against Napoleon. Ceylon and the Cape were however not returned.

Management structure and its participants

The management structure of the VOC was complex and cumbersome compared with a modern multinational. When the VOC was founded it united a series of companies located in different Dutch coastal cities, all of them trading in Asia and in fierce competition with each other. Thereafter these companies merged into one structure. Six cities, Amsterdam, Middelburg (Zeeland), Rotterdam, Delft, Enkhuizen and Hoorn, each with a VOC 'Chamber' were represented on a central board of directors, known as the 'Gentlemen Seventeen' (G17). Amsterdam's Chamber held 8 seats or half minus one. This structure was brokered by Johan Van Oldenbarneveldt, the second most influential political player as 'raadpensionaris' of Holland, to encourage a steady source of income to support the war the seven provinces were fighting with Spain, their 80 year war of independence. A stronger economic base was needed to continue their prosecution of the war.

The VOC Chambers were the executors of the G17's decisions, as was the Company's 'Council of the Indies' in Asia. The Chambers would raise investment, propose to the G17 what products should be ordered from Asia, conduct bookkeeping, build or buy ships, recruit staff and equip, load and finally dispatch the fleets. The structure at the Chambers typically included the Chamber directors who supervised an accountancy department, the 'management of arrivals unit', the storage 'comptoir' department and the rather large 'equipage' section. This last section would manage the purchase and building of ships, the hiring of sailors, officers and senior trading staff, experienced captains and the odd 'Predikant' (preacher) paid by and answerable to the company. The spread of work directed by the G17 followed a set formula, half going to the Amsterdam Chamber, a quarter to Zeeland, and 1/16 to each of the smaller Chambers.

The G17 had three sessions each year of up to a month's duration. G17 meetings were very demanding and required members to undertake time consuming travel between cities to attend meetings. The G17 were supported by the VOC Solicitor and his office and four committees. One committee supervised the central bookkeeping, one prepared annual reports, another organised and supervised the auctions of incoming produce. A highly influential committee known as 'Haags Besogne' ('business of The Hague'), made up of ten members of the G17, again with Amsterdam supplying half minus one, documented with the assistance of the Solicitor, the decisions of the G17 in the form of the carefully written orders required to manage their Asian operations.

From 1622 there was a fifth committee in attendance at the G17 meetings. Investors had revolted in the early years against low dividends and a committee of nine, elected from the "chief participants" i.e. investors with a stake in excess of f6000, was allowed to attend the G17 meetings. They had an advisory role only and the many disagreements, protests and conflicts arising from their presence in the G17 meetings was an entertaining story in itself. It was a very cumbersome and inefficient structure for decision making, considering also the additional layer of the VOC's Asian management structure.

The G17's counterpart in Asia, the 'Council of the Indies' in Batavia (modern day Jakarta) from the 1620's, was officially subordinate to the G17, but in practice more its mirror. It was chaired by a 'Governor-General', the VOC 's chief business manager and civil and military leader in the Indies. It included the Governor and Council of Police for those areas where the VOC had territorial powers, a Mercantile Director and Council for the key trading settlements without territorial powers, as well as some individual Commanders, Chiefs, Managers and so forth, gathered in another Council representing the smaller trading posts.

This body was to ensure that the goods ordered by the G17 went to Europe, manage the VOC's intra-Asian trade and estimate and request the resources that were required from the home front to keep up the VOC business in Asia. This was known as the "general request" and included all needs and wants of all Asian offices, storehouses, forts, harbour works and personnel. The request could include quite odd items. The WA Maritime Museum, for example, has on display a rather large Dutch renaissance-style stone portico shipped stone by stone as part of the general request. It was recovered from the wreck of the Batavia, wrecked in 1629 on the Abrolhos Islands.

The Council of the Indies was also responsible for:

This complicated system developed early in the 17th century and continued to the end of the 18th century.

Slow communication

The long distances involved in conveying decisions and information by sailing ship from VOC headquarters to Batavia, and vice versa, greatly impaired the company's effectiveness. The voyage out for the VOC fleets, following the adoption of the Brouwer route in 1616 via the southern Indian Ocean and past the west coast of Australia, still took about 9 months. The return trip took about seven months. Consequently recipients were often unaware of important events for months at a time, so policy decisions could be based on out-of-date information at times detrimental to the company and were sometimes forced to abandon recent initiatives because of it. Resolutions from the G17 meetings that had to be first formulated and documented by the Haags Besogne, ultimately took at least nine months to arrive in Batavia.

An example of the consequences of this slow communication was the order received by Governor-General Jan Pieterzoon Coen following the signing of a treaty, permitting the London based East India Company (EIC) to trade freely in the Moluccas, when Coen's fleet had just chased them out of that sphere in severe and costly sea battles. Another consequence was the G17's orders for Asian goods arriving as much as two and a half years after they were formulated. This period was so protracted because the VOC's intra-Asian trade first had to earn the collateral to pay for the orders. Asian suppliers were not always interested in European goods, unless it was gold or silver. It must be realised that this was the period preceding the industrial revolution in Europe, and many craft products in Asia including silk, fine cotton, rugs and fine china, were more sophisticated than their European counterparts. The 'General Request' goods would also arrive in the Indies up to a couple of years after the request was dispatched. Furthermore, the long distances also severely constrained supervision and control of senior staff who often acted in their own self-interest, taking advantage of the slow communications and used it to justify their actions.

The internal commercial information system

The VOC was a huge company even by today's standards. The G17 presided over 6 Chambers as well as the Council of the Indies, which was at times responsible for 30 trade settlements in Asia. Overall the company had over one hundred ships and between 20,000 and 30,000 employees in Holland and Asia. The VOC would build over 1500 ships during her trading years. But the G17 were never served by an integrated book-keeping system that combined its financial and commercial information with that of the Chambers, the Council of the Indies and 'factories' in the east. The Chambers' accounts were kept separate. Annual summaries of the Chambers' results were presented to the G17. Consequently the integration of financial information was poor.

The bookkeeping system used was based on that from the companies that had united into the VOC. These small companies had sought investment for each expedition only, ships, cargo and crew. On their return, goods would be sold, as would the ship. Captain and crew would be dismissed and the investment, along with any profit, returned to the investors. All outgoings were booked under "equipage" for the expedition and all sales as revenue, the difference being the profit. Hence the VOC Chambers booked all outgoings for the year 1603 under 'year 1 equipage', for 1604 'year 2 equipage' etc. and continued this for two centuries. The booked income was the revenue from auctions and other sales of the return cargoes. But the VOC now retained its own ships, captains and crews for the next voyage. Their sales in Asia, mostly of European goods, gold, silver, fabrics, was not shown in the European books, just the dispatch costs. The value of the ships she owned (some made ten return trips some only one, others simply foundered on their first voyage), was not entered as a separate item in the accounts. The cost of buying or building them was simply shown under 'equipage'. The VOC also employed a sophisticated cartography section in Amsterdam, producing maps that were updated from Captain's logs and charts.

A further complication was the VOC bookkeeping in Asia. Set up in 1613 it remained unchanged for the life of the company. VOC goods reaching Holland were passed on to the Chambers at cost price, and this practice was followed in all transactions between its Asian 'factories'. This meant that profits were hard to calculate. Further confusion arose from the fact that silver coinage was valued at 25% higher in Batavia than in Holland.

The VOC did have a rather primitive kind of profit calculation and an accountancy system that did not reflect its operations. The information provided to the G17 and the Chamber directors gave no clear indication as to which products were the most profitable. There is some evidence that the unit price was occasionally supplied so the profitability of at least some goods was known. Historians clearly agree, however, that the G17 were consistently provided with an incomplete picture of their organisation and its performance. Financial details kept in Batavia and in the many trade settlements along the Asian coasts could take years to become known in Amsterdam, if ever.

Monopoly products

The achievement of monopolies was one of the G17's primary policy objectives. These were gained though negotiation with other entities or by means of war with competitors and the use of force. Military force was applied in the 1620's in the Moluccas, so that mace and nutmeg became monopoly products for the VOC. A third way of achieving an effective monopoly was the purchase of the suppliers business over time, through the sheer weight and wealth of the expanding company and by the withholding of follow-up contracts to force a sale. Consequently, by using these methods, the VOC had gained complete control of the Asian cloves harvest by the 1670's. Monopoly pricing usually results in an increase in price but a reduction in sales volume. This also applied to other VOC monopoly products, such as mace and nutmeg. Very high monopoly prices also stimulated 'smuggling' and 'black marketeering' necessitating costly military action further undermining profitability.

Shares

The fact that the VOC had just one share issue would seem incomprehensible today. Their first and only share issue took place early in 1602 when all Chambers established a shareholders register. A total of 6.5 million guilders in shares were invested, with the Amsterdam Chamber being the largest, with a float of f3.7 million. Investors came from a broad cross-section of Dutch society, as well as other countries. For example, spoon maker Thijs Dierckzoon invested f150, seamstress Klazien Klaasdochter and servant maid Aaltje Gerritsdochter both invested f100. Shares were soon being traded, so within 10 years the number of shareholders had declined from around 1100 to just over 700. Nevertheless, these shareholders were to wait many years before they began to receive any worthwhile dividends; in the establishment years the VOC hardly paid any.

This failure to initiate further share issues meant the VOC was chronically under-capitalised. When extra capital was required over the next two centuries the G17 would use loans, short-term bonds, debentures and 'anticipation notes'. The latter were advance payments from merchants who planned to buy 'first choice' products at the next auction, well before a return fleet had actually arrived. These advance payments could be as high as f20 million. This borrowing regime was rather disastrous especially when some ships, or even the whole return fleet, did not return and nothing could be auctioned. This was a particular problem during the Fourth English War at the end of the 18th century when much of the fleet was pirated by the English navy, sending the company into a severe financial crisis. The States-General had to be called upon for substantial loans to help the company survive. They always obliged because the VOC was considered to be of national economic significance. It seemed the VOC had an emergency no limit credit card issued by the States-General.

Political influence

While at times its saviour the involvement of the States-General at other times was quite disruptive and costly. Trade regulation or taxes, political interference in commercial decisions, the exorbitant levees imposed as a condition for the renewal of the VOC Monopoly Charter were commercial hurdles. Furthermore, as a condition of granting the Monopoly Charter the States-General took on the power of appointing the members of the G17 from a shortlist presented by the Chambers. In this they demanded that a team of State-appointed observers attend the meetings of the G17. This mechanism allowed other towns and provinces to influence the decisions of the G17. For example, the intended import of certain highly profitable fabrics from Asia was successfully resisted because of perceived competition with the cloth industries in the City of Leyden, not a VOC town. So the extraordinary situation existed of not only was a team of shareholders taking part in G17 meetings, but also a Government delegation albeit with only an 'advisory vote'.

Staffing

It has been suggested that the limited size of the Dutch population meant there was insufficient personnel available with the requisite skills to run a business of the scale of the VOC. As a consequence staff at all levels were often drawn from other European countries or from Asia.

The largest group of personnel in the VOC was the military. Records of an incomplete count ordered by the G17 shows a breakdown of the military stationed on land in Asia in 1688 as a total military of 7,806 out of 11,551 personnel. The number of sailors was roughly half that of the military. Over half of the soldiers came from outside the Dutch Provinces and included Germans, Scandinavians, Poles, English, Swiss, Flemish, even people from the Baltic States. The VOC was perhaps an early version of the French Foreign Legion, where unmarried male adventurers and 'riff-raff' from all over Europe could get a job. The maintenance of a large and expensive military force, not normally part of the corporate equation, is thought to have contributed to the fall of the company in the end. Paradoxically, the smallest personnel component was 'management and business', less than 1,000 over the whole of Asia, suggesting a serious imbalance in the staffing of the company.

Intra-Asian trade, decline in entrepreneurship and rise in corruption

The VOC under the ambitious, entrepreneurial and controversial Governor-General Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the VOC deliberately set itself up to become part of the well-developed and centuries old intra-Asian maritime trade. Coen understood that becoming part of this old trade network would be highly profitable. The case he put to the G17 in 1619 revealed his intricate knowledge of the trade patterns in Asia. He argued that by just supplying ships, money could be made within Asia that could finance regular shipments of Asian goods to Europe, without much collateral being required from the Dutch provinces. The G17 were sufficiently convinced by these arguments to make ships, crews and other resources available to develop the intra-Asian trade. While this strategy was highly successful it also meant that when the remote employees in Asia endeavoured to also trade for themselves, they were in direct competition with the company they worked for.

The G17 and the Chambers tolerated senior employees making money for themselves, but it became clear particularly by the 18th century, that things were getting out of hand. The private activities of the more senior merchants were known to the G17, because the repatriation of their earnings to Holland and Zeeland via the financial system of the company. Money was paid in Batavia and a bill of exchange was provided, with the funds being collected again in the Netherlands from the Chambers upon production of the bill. Many staggering cases have been documented.

For example Gerard Demmer's career with the VOC included Governor of Ambon, President of the Council of Justice, Member of the Council of the Indies, with a contract providing for a salary of f350 per month. He ultimately transferred f165,750 back to Holland in 1652 and another f57.100 in 1654 by VOC bills of exchange

Investigative Commissioners were sent out to the east by the G17. Upon arrival they either did not get any cooperation with their investigation, they joined in the self-enrichment schemes as soon as they arrived, or they were simply eliminated. In one such case a Mr. De Roo was allegedly poisoned when his investigations got too close for comfort. Hendrik Adriaan Van Rheede tot Drakenstein remains the only recorded investigative commissioner who managed to bring about the dismissal of at least some of the senior "freeloaders". Van Rheede advised the G17 to appoint 'Independent Fiscals', directly answerable to the G17. But this system also failed because of the remoteness of trading posts and the limited supervisory incapacity of the G17. It was so limited that effective obstruction continued or the Independent Fiscals colluded in the local schemes they had unmasked, and also came home rich.

It has been argued however that there were also a great many able and reliable administrators and traders amongst the VOC hierarchy, and without them bankruptcy of the VOC would have occurred much earlier. The pattern generally during the 17th century was for staff to be keen, highly dedicated and entrepreneurial, whilst in the 18th century they were increasingly working hard for themselves.

It is noteworthy that during the 18th century senior employees at times privately entered into highly successful business relationships with Englishmen working for the EIC. One can speculate on what might have happened if the EIC and VOC had merged, such as happened with the later fusion of Royal Dutch Oil with Shell.

Ultimately the need for reform and steps to control corruption became obvious to the G17 over time, but they responded too slowly, implemented their plans hesitantly and acted only in the latter part of the 18th century. By then it was already too late.

Shift in trade patterns in Asia

A noticeable shift in trade patterns in the 18th century was another factor in the demise of the VOC. This change was most apparent in the types and relative volumes of Asian goods being traded, and the result was a steady reduction in profit margins. Dramatic changes in the VOC trade network in Asia began in Japan after 1680 when the conditions of Japanese trade were altered by the Japanese Government.

The End for the VOC

It is clear that up until 1660 the VOC had earned substantial profits in Asia. Between 1660 and 1670 it was severely affected by wars in Ceylon and Malabar, but this was followed by a further ten years of profit making. After that, profitability declined and began to turn into severe losses. Revenue totaled f327M from 1621-1700 and f450M from 1700-1780. Costs however escalated dramatically in the later years: f290M before 1700 and f570M between 1700 and 1780. Losses took on catastrophic proportions after 1770. In its internal reporting, after 1690 there was no single year in which the Company was able to show a profit. In the 17th century 90% of revenue was from trade. By the 18th century this was only 60%, with the remainder coming from taxes, toll and the transfer of the opium trade to the Amphion Society.

Changing patterns of trade and poor governance were major contributing factors in the demise of the VOC. This was exemplified by its unsustainable financial practices. Dividends issued by the Chambers in Holland before 1688 came out of revenues from the sales of goods that had been purchased with the profits of its Intra-Asian trade. Thereafter the Chambers were required to provide substantial trade capital for intra-Asian trading activities. This resulted in a shift in the balance and control of the VOC, from its European to its Asian components with much of the effective decision making then taking place in Batavia.

Lessons from 200 years VOC?

The VOC failure to issue shares to raise further capital was one of its fundamental failings. One could argue that in spite of this and the multiplicity of other causes of bankruptcy, if they could manage to keep the company afloat for 200 years the situation could not have been too grave. But this would be the wrong sentiment. If the VOC and any of its components were operating like this today or even midway in the 19th century she would not have lasted. One view is that it collapsed under the weight of its earlier success and could not regroup when political circumstances became tough.

Interestingly the Dutch population at the time of the founding of the VOC was less than two million. Since then the population has increased almost tenfold and is, like Australia's, approaching 20 million. Corporate governance in the Netherlands has also evolved and matured considerably as a result of this historical experiences, so that there are now some twenty Dutch multinationals that employ, like the VOC, more than 20,000 people each. This represents a twentyfold increase in the workforce of such corporate entities. So perhaps the VOC was simply laying the foundations for future success.

Are some vestiges of the VOC system still alive? It has been suggested that the VOC offered a bureaucratic model for 19th century trading companies in terms of integrating commercial and colonial interests and that the VOC offered a paradigm for integrating a consensus and alliance model in the home country with the utilization of the natural and human resources of the host country. The experience of the VOC lead subsequent Dutch governments to adopt a rather laissez-faire attitude towards business having learned that too much control can have negative consequences. After World War II however, Dutch firms became more socially aware, so that at present Dutch legislation requires the adoption of a 'balanced' approach to corporate management. In this all stakeholders, including shareholders, customers, the community, the authorities, employees, suppliers and the environment must be taken into account as part of the commercial equation. This contrasts with US and Australian business legislation and practice where the interest of the investor group is still paramount.

Finally the VOC experience suggests that having an army as part of a corporation is bad for business in the long term. A company will always be tempted to use such might, becoming burdened in the process with the responsibilities of a colonial government or an occupying power. Apart from the lives lost and the social distortions created, they almost inevitably end up becoming embroiled in the machinations of local or regional politics. Commercially, some sort of impost in cost terms invariably results. It is not an efficient way to run a company. Today the role of the military is principally to defend the home country and keep the peace, under the control of the civilian government. It should not be used to secure access to resources or trade in another country to meet commercial imperatives. Or is it?


The VOC and Australia

There have been a number of early European based 'monopoly companies' trading in Asia. The combined impact of the Portuguese Estada de India, the first practitioner of the monopoly product principle, the Muscovy, the Ostend, the Swedish and the English East India Companies, the VOC and the many smaller enterprises of the vast, old and highly developed intra-Asian trading network is often overstated. The few percentage points of the total Asian economic turnover that went to Europe and the number of European people living and trading in Asia compared to the Asian population was relatively insignificant in the two centuries of the VOC.

None of the activities of these companies is as significant as the role the VOC played in Australia's early maritime history. It was the VOC that made the Southland's existence known to the world. It first placed our continent on the world map enabling better known mariners such as Dampier, Cook and Flinders to enter the story.

Of the 54 recorded European ships that sailed into Australian waters before 1770, 42 were VOC ships. Sloepie, the first ship built here by Europeans, was built by a shipwrecked VOC crew. Our first European immigrants, Wouter Loos and Jan Pelgrom De Bye, convicted criminals dropped off on the mainland in 1629, were VOC employees. The first armed conflict on land in our history between two groups of whites was between a VOC crew and its mutineers. The first recorded white 'Southland baby' was born aboard a VOC ship moored on our coast. The first recorded Europeans to chart part of our coast were Captain Willem Janszoon and his crew in Duyfken a small vessel bought second hand for f2200, heralding the beginning of our written history in 1606. The first recorded navigator to circumnavigate our continent and first prove that it is an island, and that it must have an east coast, lead the VOC's exploratory forays. His name was Abel Tasman. The first pictures drawn by Europeans of our coast and of some of our wildlife were by artists aboard VOC ships, et cetera.

That is not to suggest that the London based East India Company (EIC) has no connection with early Australian history. Our first European shipwreck on the coast of Western Australia in 1622, the Tryall, was an EIC ship skippered by John Brookes. Like the Batavia, it too ended up as a horror story, but less heroic, less complicated, less well known.

With the exception of Captain Gonzal, who provided enthusiastic reports about this continent and its people, VOC captains invariably reported unfavourably on the trading potential with Aboriginal peoples. 'Too poor to dress themselves', 'most miserable creatures on earth' they would write in their logs. The VOC, having visited, sought trade, searched for their own shipwrecked vessels and tried to chart dangerous coastal features during the 17th century did, apart from Gonzal in 1756, deliberately not return at all, during the 18th century, arriving when they did only by accident.

Australians on the east coast know little about the VOC. In 2006 it is 400 years since it began our written history. But many historians, researchers, educational bodies and media rely on Britsh sources in telling our story. Our national TV broadcasters usually focus on British history when it comes to our beginnings, often without even offering an Australian viewpoint. We watch Henry VIII and his wives, Elizabeth I, the Battle of Hastings, discuss the Magna Carta, as if they are relevant here, etc. but they hardly constitute our own early history. There are ABC programs on such things as the 400th anniversary of Guy Fawkes' "Gunpowder Plot", interesting but rather irrelevant to our history. In 1602, no Englishman, including Guy Fawkes, had ever heard of this Southland, other than perhaps as a legend. Yet in 2002 there was not a single program about the 400th anniversary of the founding of the VOC, the body that revealed Australia to the world. Why is it so? To learn more of the unveiling of Australia visit www.australionthemap.org.au

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