18 September 2020

The V.O.C. packet-boats (1788-1794)

During the later part of the 16th century several cities in the Netherlands (Middelburg, Hoorn, and Amsterdam among them) equipped vessels, with the specific purpose of trading with the Far East. These were all done under single contracts. Competition among the cities was fierce and detrimental to the financial outcome of the expeditions.

The States General of the United Netherlands Provinces recognized that by coordinating these efforts a more lucrative trade could be set up.

The result of these efforts was the founding of the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (V.O.C.) in 1602. This government supported enterprise over the years developed into what we would now call a ‘multinational’. The States General granted licenses to the VOC lasting roughly 20 years each. The last one expired December 31, 1799, signifying the end of the VOC.

For the VOC to better function, timely communication between the head office in Amsterdam and the various overseas ‘factories’ was crucial. A plan was made to build 10 special vessels (Packet-boats) whose main function was to transport mail. These packet-boats should be able to make a roundtrip in about 11 months, compared to the more common 18 months for the older, and mostly larger vessels.

Letter sent with the packet-boat de Kraay. “D.G.G” = Dien God Geleide (Guided by God).

To finance this enterprise it was decided to take along private mail (and not just company mail) and charge the recipients of the mail for this service. The amount charged depended on the ‘format’ of the mail. Although there are no official records of what these nine formats represent it is known that they were referring to the size of the letters sent. The rates for forms size “1” through “9” were 6 stuivers, 12 stuivers, 1 guilder, 2 guilders, 3 guilders, 4 guilders, 5 guilders, 6 guilders and 7 guilders respectively.

The VOC made four different hand cancels for this purpose. They could be considered ‘postage due’ cancels, since they were applied at the departure point of the letter, indicating the amount of money the receiver had to pay in order to take possession of the letter. One cancel was for 6 stuivers, the second one for 1 guilder, the third one 2 guilders and one for 3 guilders. By combining the various cancels and using one more then once, all possible rates could be made up.

Each vessel had a total crew (from captain down to the two deckhands) of only 24 on board; all well trained seamen. Although in general no passengers were on board, this occasionally happened. The most famous passenger ever undoubtedly was Captain Bligh (from the Mutiny on the Bounty fame), who hitched ‘a ride back home’ on board the Vlijt.

The schedule visualized was to have a packet boat leave the Netherlands every three months, and complete a roundtrip in 11 month. This would mean that under ideal circumstances only four vessels were needed. To be a bit more flexible five vessels were originally assigned to the full Netherlands — Batavia rotation. The other five built had different assignments.

The sixth vessel had to make a trip twice a year between Cape Good Hope and Ceylon to assure good communication with this part of the VOC enterprise, while the other four vessels were for backup. Two were stationed in Batavia, the others in Ceylon and Amsterdam.

The vessels were built by the various chambers at their own wharves. Amsterdam built four, Zeeland two, and the others one each.

PacketboatChamberDeparture Dates   
Maria LouisaAmsterdam01-09-178809-10-178916-06-179222-05-1794
FaamAmsterdam22-12-178805-03-179016-12-1791 21-03-1794
VlijtZeeland (Middelburg)06-04-178902-06-179020-03-1792
LuchtbolRotterdam01-06-178906-09-179001-07-1793
ExpeditieDelft01-09-178928-12-1792
HaasjeAmsterdam18-11-178909-07-179120-09-1793
SnelheidHoorn06-01-179002-05-1791
StarZeeland (Middelburg)19-02-179009-04-1793
ZeemeeuwEnkhuizen02-04-179026-12-1793
KraaiAmsterdam20-02-179130-09-179206-09-1794

It is interesting to note what ultimately became of the ten vessels.

ShipFate
Maria LouisaCaptured by the English near Cape of Good Hope.
FaamCaptured by the French and moved to Brest.
VlijtDiverted to Norway (due to War with England couldn’t reach A’dam).
LuchtbolSold to the Danish East-Indië Compagnie.
ExpeditieCaptured by the French.
HaasjeCaptured by the English.
SnelheidSold to ‘Noorderkwartier’ (Dutch Navy)
StarCaptured by the English.
ZeemeeuwSold to the Danish East-Indië Compagnie.
KraaiStayed in Asian waters till at least 1801.

How much mail was transported by these packetboats? During the period 1788-1794 about 56,000 letters were sent from the Netherlands to the Far East, while about 50,000 letters were sent the other way. The total intake in guilders was roughly 75,000 guilders, not sufficient to finance the trips, but with cargo and passengers on board as well it made some contribution to the actual costs of these trips.

References

References for this article:

  • Perry Moree Met Vriend die God Geleide, 1998, Walburg Press
  • Alex ter Braake Early mail by ship to and from the Netherlands Indies, 1967, A.P. Congress Book, Vol. 33
  • Dr. G. Hogesteeger a.o Naar de gordel van smaragd, 1995, PTT-Museum
  • Rietdijk Postzegelveiling # 556, 1995, Rietdijk Auctions
  • P.C. Korteweg De V.O.C. stempels, 1929, Nederlandsche Philatelisten-Bibliotheek
  • J.H. Beer van Dingstee De Ontwikkeling van het Postwezen in Ned. Oost-Indië, 1935, Drukkerij A.C. Nix & Co., Bandung

Please note: this article was published in the Netherlands Philatelists of California’s Newsletter. It is published here with kind permission of the author.

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