The two Dutch colonial companies, the WIC (West Indian Company) and the VOC (United East-Indian Company) both had an interest in Africa, but for very different reasons. The WIC was interested in the continent's coastal regions, mainly its tropical part as one of the three apices of the triangular trade. For the VOC the continent was a major geographical obstacle that made the journey to the spice islands of the East Indies like the Moluccas and Java long and dangerous. The company therefore looked for convenient way stations, pit stops, to increase the success rate of its voyages.
The triangular trade
The triangular trade is one of the darker aspects of the history of the Dutch empire, because one of its major ingredients was slave trading. The three corners of the triangle were:
- Amsterdam and other Dutch ports where colonial goods from the Americas where sold and European goods purchased.
- The ports of the African coast where European goods were exchanged for Africa's major 'product': slaves.
- The ports of the Americas, both North and South, where slaves that survived the horrors of the voyage were sold and American goods purchased.
One of the reasons that the trade became triangular is that attempts to bring a cargo of slaves back to the ports of the Netherlands ended in a boycott. In the Netherlands proper slavery had long been abolished and the attempt to sell African slaves in Amsterdam and later in other cities resulted in an angry refusal to let the slaves set foot on Dutch soil. The captain had no choice but to try and salvage what was left of his 'cargo' by sailing them to the Americas. How many slaves survived yet another voyage is not known.
Despite the revulsion at the idea of slavery, the owners of the ships and shareholders of the WIC were regarded as prominent and powerful members of Dutch society. After all: money talks rather than smelling.
The WIC colonies that were to survive up to the decolonization of the 20st century, Suriname and the Antillian islands were mainly way stations for the slave trade from where they might stay for a while before being sold in cities like Savannah GA or Charleston SC. On the African side the company maintained a number of coastal settlements, the island of Goeree (named after an island on the coast of the province of Holland) is the most infamous.
Slavery was not abolished in the colonies until 1866 (after the American Civil War) and at that time the very rationale for maintaining the small African coastal possessions was gone. They were handed over to Britain, that by that time had started to colonize the interior of the continent extensively. There had never been much reason for the WIC to penetrate the continent, because slaves did not need to be hunted. They could be bought. In fact, a number of coastal African states thanked their power and wealth to their policy of enslavement of their African neighbors. They could then sell them for a good price to Dutch (and other) traders, while taking the possessions and the land of the people they had conveniently gotten rid of.
Today, some of the descendants of the ones sold into slavery seek their roots in Africa, at times amid the descendants of those that sold their ancestors off.
The involvement of the VOC in the more temperate zone at the Cape of Good Hope is a very different story. Its rationale was not that that area had much to offer in terms of exploitable products, human or otherwise. It was inhabited by people who had exceeded the hunter-gatherer state only partly. They did have sheep for instance, but these sheep did not produce wool. This meant that a stop over at this halfway point to Batavia was not possible, because what the ships needed: food, timber, repairs involving metal work etc. could not be provided by the local population.
This caused the VOC to do something it seldom did: to consider bringing in colonists from Holland to settle the area themselves. In fact the Cape colony founded in 1652 by van Riebeeck is the only successful attempt in Dutch colonial history to settle a region with a Dutch population. They brought in farmers ("boeren") from the The Afrikaans language spoken today in South Africa and Namibia is daughter language of Dutch.
One of the reasons the VOC was not too eager to establish a population settlement is the bottom-line nature of their philosophy: They feared that the Boers would trigger problems with the native population that they then would have to spend money on. The VOC disliked wars: they cost money.