• Written by Peter van der Linde
    5 August 2011

Our new office will be situated in the “West Indian Warehouse” in Amsterdam. It was used by the Dutch West Indian Company as its headquarters between 1647 and 1674. Fur and sugar from North and South America were amongst the trade goods that were stored in this building.

Since we decided to move to our new office space in Amsterdam with the 1%Club and Text2Change, I have been trying to find out a bit more about the history of the place, and the company that built this warehouse in 1642 – out of interest. I ended up buying a book and spending half a day on the internet reading up on wars, the history of New York, slave trade, and piracy until I got side-tracked by a one-legged hero called Pieter, whose name is miss-spelled as Peter on millions of cigarette packages. Anyway, I thought it would be nice to share a bit of what I found so far, for those interested:

The Dutch West Indian Company (WIC) was founded on the 2nd of June 1621, in the Dutch Golden Age, to act as the Atlantic wing of the trading empire. The largest success of this company (best described by an English historian as ‘IBM with guns’) was the seizure of the Spanish silver fleet, by Piet Hein in 1628 – and, perhaps in retrospect, the establishment of the trading post New Amsterdam, that later became New York City. You might want to have a look at these video’s: part one and two, to get a sense of those early NYC days. In Africa the WIC established slave trade posts on the Gold Coast, one of the darkest pages of our colonial history.

In this letter, dated November the 5th 1626, WIC-administrator Pieter Schaghen described the situation of New Amsterdam. Among other things he mentioned the fact that the island of Manhattan had been purchased from the Indians for goods worth sixty Dutch guilders. He also listed the number of beaver skins (7426) that arrived in the Netherlands. The original of this document is held by the Rijksarchief in The Hague. A copy can be downloaded here. Transcript and translation here.

It’s quite fascinating to read about the decisions that were made within the walls of our new office, back in those days. When the board of 19 directors of the WIC, the Heren XIX, heard news about some issues in New Amsterdam they simply decided to send war veteran Pieter Stuyvesant – a guy who lost his lower right leg to a canon ball – to get things organised and make money. It was simple as that. But not even Pieter could stop the four English warships that sailed into the harbour on August the 29th, 1664. They took over New Amsterdam and officially renamed it New York, in honor of the Duke of York – to whom the colony had been promised as a birthday present..

Even though New Amsterdam might speak to the imagination now, it only played a small part in the history of the West Indian Company. The majority of efforts where focused on trade with South America – via the Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, where it founded cities such as Willemstad on Curacao.

In the online city archive of Amsterdam, many paintings can be found of the West Indian Warehouse dating all the way back to the 17th century. Hereby some images that provide an impression over time:

1693 Dutch Golden Age

1749 (reversed image)

1800 (reversed image)

1914 World War I

I’m really looking forward to moving into this building with our team, to help shape its future. We expect to get set-up by the end of this month. Opening drinks in mid-September!

Peter van der Linde is a co-founder and director at Akvo.org.