According to this, the VOC only controlled some ports, cities (like Batavia/Jakarta) and its surrounding. Yet, it seems to be a very successful corporation, mostly benefiting from the natural resources of what is now Indonesia. How did they become so rich without controlling most of the territories? Why couldn't the locals make that much themselves?


To fill out JK's answer: the VOC directly controlled very little except the shipping routes to Amsterdam (and a few other Dutch ports, but the majority of goods arrived at Amsterdam).
Indirectly, through deals and influence at the local courts of the rulers of the islands, they controlled far more. By supplying those rulers with weapons, advisors, European luxury goods, etc. etc. they effectively had exclusive trade agreements for most everything that left the islands for the outside world. This was of course later turned into direct control, with the local rulers becoming ever more figureheads for the Dutch governors and their governments, until eventually the Dutch East Indies became a full colony with a permanent Dutch controlled civil service.
As the Dutch fleet in the area was also the most powerful in the area (more powerful than even the British for a long time, in fact during the early stages of WW2 the combined Dutch/British/American fleet in the area was under Dutch command because they had the largest contingent of ships and aircraft) their was little that competitors could do to break the VOC's trade monopoly (the Portuguese tried, and later succeeded by subterfuge as they smuggled nutmeg and other seeds out of the Dutch East Indies to their own colonies, causing in years following the prices of those commodities to crash in Europe as supply overwhelmed demand).

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  • It is unrelated to the question, but Dutch had an extremely weak navy before and during WWII. They had no money and no technology to built actual battleships in 20s, 30s, so effectively copied some cruisers from the Italian by visiting their shipbuilding sites. Their whole navy strategy was that they may able to protect themselves from a secondary attack, if the main forces of Japan will battle with the capital ships of the Britt. Their capital ships were altogether two (pretty hack job) light cruisers! Their far most successful units were the submarines, destroying many Japanese ships. – Greg Nov 8 '14 at 2:05
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    @Greg the Dutch navy was weak, but in theater they were stronger than the Brits and Americans, who had their main fleets elsewhere and mainly some coastal defense forces in the area. – jwenting Nov 8 '14 at 18:22

Te VOC was not interested in control of people or land, but trade. For example nutmeg; the dutch burned every bit of it except on an island of 1 square km so they could control all of it. IIRC the value would go from 1 in Indonesia to 50000 in Amsterdam. The VOC was the single most profitable company in history (according to my prof.). A journey would take a total of three years, and was very dangerous, but every ship that came back would earn it's cost back multiple times. Also the VOC aggressively took in the local market and forbade the locals from selling anything themselves, all inter-Asian trade was to go by the VOC.

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    Basically correct, but incomplete. – jwenting Nov 18 '13 at 7:47

Short answer: Indonesia is a very concentrated country in terms of the disposition of its population.

Jakarta is a port city and capital located on the island of Java, one of the smaller of Indonesia's main (top five or six) islands, but which has over half of Indonesia's population. Add neighboring Sumatra, and you have three quarters of the country's population on less than a third of its land area. Located strategically at the west end of Java next to Sumatra, Jakarta thus serves a population of nearly 200 million, more than any country in the world except China, India, and the United States. While the absolute numbers were different in colonial times, the relative order of magnitude hasn't changed that much.

It was a case of "all roads lead to Rome." An Indonesian who wanted to sell to Europe would take his goods to Jakarta and sell it to the VOC. Ditto for a European who wanted to sell to Indonesia. Under the circumstances, controlling the import-export trade of Jakarta was tantamount to controlling the foreign trade of Indonesia, then and now, one of the most populous countries in the world.

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    That situation is as it is today, but was it the case 500 years ago? Possibly it was, maybe it wasn't. Fact is however, that there was no central government at the time. Each island, in many places each village or valley, was governed by its own king or whatever title the strong man used. And the Dutch dealt with those that had valuable trade goods individually, at least initially until the entire archipelago was brought under central Dutch control centered around Java and Sumatra as the places where the governor had his offices. – jwenting Nov 20 '13 at 6:24
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    re "Indonesia is a very concentrated country". Have you checked a globe Tom? Indonesia with its waterways covers more surface area of the globe than Western and Central Europe combined. – Pieter Geerkens Apr 18 '14 at 12:57
  • @PieterGeerkens: I meant the PEOPLE were concentrated (not the land) and edited the post to make it clear. Indonesia has a LAND area of 735,000 square miles, and a population of 237 million. Java by itself has 54.000 square miles and a population of 143 million. That's 60 percent of the population in 7 percent of the land area, which spells "concentration" to me. The question was, how did the VOC "corner" Indonesia's trade when it controlled only a small part of the country. Control that 7 percent or slightly more) and you're there. – Tom Au 1 hour ago – Tom Au Apr 18 '14 at 15:44
  • @TomAu that's now. Before the Dutch established central control the population was much lower, far more scattered. – jwenting Nov 7 '14 at 21:57
  • @jwenting: If the Dutch were responsible for "concentrating" the population in and around Jakarta, that's how they "cornered" the Indonesian trade. Unless you're telling me that the concentration occurred AFTER the Dutch left. – Tom Au Nov 7 '14 at 22:12

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