VOC in Papua Part 1: When Dutch Traders Landed in the Island of Gold

VOC in Papua
VOC in Papua

Some of you might have considered the Dutch people were superior due to their history as long-lasting colonialism and tyranny. However, what you probably did not know was that the Netherlands were once colonized too.

The Netherlands were colonies of the Kingdom of Spain in the 16th century. Back then, the city of Antwerp was the primary hub for the Portuguese spice traders. The Dutch people were prosperous distributors of spices imported by the Portuguese from the far, unknown orient. Well, at least the Dutch did not know where it came from then.

Until one day, the Portuguese decided to shift its primary trading hub to Hamburg instead. With one of their main sources of livelihood threatened, the Dutch had to figure out a way to survive. Thus, revolutions broke in the Netherlands and in 1958, the Dutch begun a series of expeditions to find out the Portuguese’s source of spices.

VOC in Indonesia

VOC in Papua
VOC in Indonesia

The first Dutch’s expedition team comprised of four ships led by Cornelis de Houtman landed in Banten in 1596. Banten was the primary pepper port of West Java then. However, with competitions from the Chinese and British traders then, the Banten endeavor did not bring much.

Two years after, the Dutch came back with more—22 ships led by Jacob van Neck—and traveled further to the island of Maluku, the treasure chest of spices in the region. With multiplied profits gained from the spices obtained and traded internationally, unhealthy competition emerged among the European countries.

This competition to monopolize the East Indies’ spice trading led to the formation of state-endorsed trading companies in early 1600. One of them was the Dutch’s VOC, which stands for Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, in 1602.

If you thought the VOC was a mere trading company, you had surely been mistaken! By right VOC was like a state within a state—a quasi-state. Why?

Well, the VOC had most of the rights a state had then. Executive rights, legislative rights, judicative rights. You name it! They had their own armed forces. They signed agreements between countries and declared wars against one. They created laws. They captured and performed trials for their subjects who did not abide by their laws.

VOC in Papua

VOC in Papua
VOC in Papua

A decade after their first landing in Banten, the VOC had established its territories in a number of Indonesian regions up to Maluku and Ambon. By then, the island of Papua and the Nieuw Guinea were already listed in the world’s map and famously known as Isla de Oro or Island of Gold among the European sea voyagers. So, the VOC assigned an expedition to the island in 1606.

Led by Willem Janszoon, the team reached the shore of Papua, a land covered with dense jungles, with the main goal to find gold along the beach of western Papua. Did they find it then? No one really knew.

Until 1642, when another Dutch sailor, Abel Tasman, landed in the southern coast of Papua, the presence of Dutch people, or even the VOC, was not prominent. At that time, VOC put their focus more on the islands of Maluku, not only for its precious spices but also as strongholds against the Spanish and English.

In fact, according to the book “Mengindonesiakan Indonesia” by Harry Kawilarang, the Dutch and the British could not inhabit the island of Papua at all. Why? Other than malaria, these unfortunate Europeans were also afraid of the cannibalism of the indigenous Papuans.

Even after VOC was dissolved in 1800 and the Dutch had never really succeeded inhabiting the island, after prolonged territorial fights with the British, finally, Papua was officially a Dutch colony in 1842. The Treaty of London marked clear territorial divisions between the British and the Dutch. Papua was among the Dutch’s, together with Sumatra, Java and Maluku. Four years later, the Dutch also claimed the West Papua.

Fought for by both the Dutch and the British, in 1895, Papua was split into two, Papua and Papua New Guinea. The Dutch’s persistent claim on the Papua island continued to last even after 50 years later; after many Indonesian revolutions against the Dutch colonials, Japanese occupation,  and various attempts of re-claiming the Indonesian regions. Why?

Firstly, the Dutch certainly did not want to lose out in power over the ore mountain, Mount Carstensz or Puncak Jayawijaya, filled with gold and copper deposits. The location—now the world’s largest gold mine owned by the Freeport—was a definite source of pride and profit even since it was first discovered and reported by the Dutch geologist, Jean Jacques Dozy in 1936.

Secondly, being a small country with many colonies made the Dutch territory seemed larger to the world. Next, traumatized Dutch runaways from the surrounding revolting regions needed a place to call home. Finally, extensive migration back to the Netherlands was an unpreferred option due to the potential social and political issues that might arise from this exodus.

Despite years of efforts to claim Papua, the Dutch finally lost its claim after a political move by the Indonesian Government through the New York Agreement in 1962 and the Act of Free Choice in 1969. Papua was then officially a territory in the independent Republic of Indonesia.