Why they signed on for the VOC 1)

Reading the Journael of the Ongeluckige Voyagie van 't Jacht de Sperwer (the unhappy voyage of the jaght the Sperwer) makes one wonder what made people throw themselves in an adventure like this. One may consider the shipwrecking of the Sperwer and the involuntary stay of the surviving crew as a company accident, but who enlisted as a sailor on a VOC ship, should have known that one exposed himself at a considerable risk.

Though the Heeren XVII did everything in their power to make these risks as small as possible. And not totally without success. The health conditions of the crew for instance became little by little better. Around the middle of the seventeenth century contagious diseases like cholera, didn't occur more on board of the ships than in contemporary Amsterdam.

From the records which have been kept, we know that he, who survived the first journey, made statistically a good chance to keep up for years. According to present standards these ships would have been hardly called seaworthy. Nevertheless it appeared from the 'daghregisters' (daily records) in which the departures and arrivals of the ships were written down, that from the so-called return ships on route to the Indies in two centuries only two percent perished. From the ships on their way home only four percent didn't return. So it is well possible that the perspective of being separated for a long time from family and acquaintances was a bigger drawback for signing on then the fear of possible dangers. But maybe was the desire for adventure sometimes bigger than the family ties. According to Arthur van Schendel the scent of pepper and nutmeg, which floated around the warehouses of the VOC, turned into many a young man's head, and they let themselves seduce by the exiting stories which old seamen told, while sitting on their "lie benches". This might have played a role. But the most important reason to take service with the VOC, will have been poverty.

A research done by the Department of Agricultural History of the former Agricultural Academy of Wageningen, shows that in the period, which is called in the History books of the Netherlands: the Golden Age, many civilians suffered from hunger. And for these people a VOC-contract meant a living. In the 17th century the social lower classes in Holland were better fed then in the rest of Europe, but hunger amongst them was not a rare occurrence. In 1653, the year in which the unhappy voyage of the Sperwer took place, many failed grain harvests in the East-Sea countries and war violence on the North-Sea (first English War) led in many cities of the Republic to severe shortage of food. J.A. Faber, Death and Famine in Pre-Industrial Netherlands (1980).

It appeared that when life circumstances of the lower class improved little by little, less and less Hollanders seemed to be willing to sign in as a sailor at the VOC. In the beginning of the 18th century only the officers on most VOC-ships were still Hollanders. The rest of the crew members were Scottish, Scandinavian or other immigrant workers. And already in the 17th century conjunctural fluctuations caused problems with getting people to sign on. Sometimes the shipbuilding industry of the VOC competed with the shipping industry. When many ships had to be built, there was much employment and this created a lack of sailors.

Then some coercion had to be practiced. Everywhere recruiters were active. With fine words and empty promises they appeased the doubters and irresolutes. A contract was signed easily. Illiterate, and those were the most, could suffice with putting a cross. How much would be known to them of the contents of the contract? Who signed once, stayed usually loyal to the VOC. Who was strong and didn't drown, because the sea demanded its toll as well, completed his tour of duty and signed on for the next period. Because it was not easy to find a job ashore, and who had been at sea for a long time could not thrive well as a landlubber.

Few happy ones made a career, and became eventually a skipper. Ex-captains of the VOC sometimes had beautiful dwellings build in their place of birth. They had made it, but the rest just remained a motley crew.

How a jaght was designed.

In the course of the 16th century the appearance of the newly build ships changed somewhat. It became fashionable to build a new-built ship as a Spiegelschip (a ship with a straight stern, a transom). The types themselves didn't change though, and it was quite possible to see two ships that were of the same type, but nonetheless were different, since only the newer ship would have a transom  

By the end of the 16th century smaller, fast, but usually completely rigged, transomships, whatever their type, are indicated by the merchant navy with the word "jaght" (yacht, which is derived from the Dutch word: jacht, it means hunt, hunter, but also speed and in the latter meaning it was used for the ship).

Well-known jaghts are the Duyfken, which partook in a voyage to the Indies under the command of Cornelis Houtman in 1595, the Halve Maen, which Hudson sailed to North America in 1609, and the Sperwer, its voyage being described before, ending in a shipwreck on the coast of Quelpaert in 1653. Since the Sperwer was launched in Amsterdam in 1648, which was the year of the Munster peace treaty, when it shipwrecked, it was only five years old.

By its build the Sperwer should be considered a "Vlieboot" (also called a vliet, a boat that could be sailed through the "Vlie", i.e.. to open sea). The size of such seaworthy jaghts was between the 15 and 80 last (A last is a: A measure of volume for ships; and b: A measure of cargo/deadweight capacity; a last is 2000 kg), at a maximum length of 135 voet (A voet is a measure of length; a Rijnlandse voet is about 30 cm) and a width of 25 voet. The water replacement was around the 540 tons.

The rigging consisted of three masts; a square rigged jibmast (or mast with a foresail), a big mast, a mizzen with a gallant, a topsail and a Latin sail. Jaghts were designed for the transportation of artillery. 

"Jaght" was not an absolute type indication but a relative one. A jaght was built more for speed, where other ships of the same type would be built more for transport. A jaght would therefore have had smaller hold, and less guns. It would still have been armed, though: The jaght the Sperwer had 30 pieces on board, which actually made it for a jaght rather heavily armed.

That "jaght" is not the name of a fixed type is demonstrated by the fact that sometimes the smallest type of warship was called "jaght" as well, though it was more commonly indicated as "pinnace". Usually, however, the name was limited to the types directly below the warships in size.

Apparently sometimes even the transom was not considered a requirement. At least, this is apparently the only way to explain the occasional mix-ups with the transom-less Flutes [a a narrow type of ship also called a flyship], such as the following one:

The daily record of Batavia tell us that December 11, 1667, 'Hendrick Hamel, gewesen boeckhouder (*) van het jagt de Sperwer, nevens nog seven 7 personen van gemelte jagt, den 28e November jongsteden met de FLUYT de Spreeuw is aengecomen'. (Hendrick Hamel, former bookkeeper of the jaght the Sperwer , beside 7 other person of the mentioned jaght, did arrive on last November 28 with the FLUTE the Spreeuw). But in the Hollantsche Mercurius, XIX, 1668, page 113, it is written that " 't JACHT de Spreeuw 20 Julij 1668 in Tessel wel gearriveert" (the jaght de Spreeuw had well arrived). 

The flute itself was derived from the "Vlieboot", but it was shaped longer, which may account for its name. The first flute was built in 1595 by Pieter Jansz. Liorne. Though Flutes did not have transoms, they were nevertheless built in two styles. Flutes sailing to England or sailing South had an ordinarily shaped deck. However, since Danish taxes were calculated in relation to the size of the deck, flutes sailing North or East were built with a relatively small deck and a bulky trunk, to lower the costs of visiting Norway or passing through the Sont.

It has been established, however, that at least the Sperwer was indeed a jaght. Like any ship in the service of the VOC, jaghts were primarily meant for the transport of merchandise. Furthermore, since they were fast ships, they were used to transport persons and messages, and occasionally ammunition.

The bigger part of the trunk was taken by holds for the cargo. This left little room for the crew, who were accommodated rather tightly. Most of the crew was quartered on the tween deck, an area where one could hardly stand up straight. Here the mates slept and used their meals. There were no beds, inner walls or closets; their personal possessions were kept in chests. In the bow were some primitive toilets, however, in heavy weather when the bow plunged into the waves these sanitary provisions could not be used.

The officers were accommodated slightly more comfortably. They slept in cabins near the stern of the ship. However, most officers had to share a cabin, sleeping in bunks or hammocks, and sharing a common room next to the
galley. The bookkeeper had his own office with a writing desk, where writing was done standing up, and a closet for the ship papers and the money chest, of which chest both bookkeeper and skipper had a key.

The most beautiful cabin on the ship was the cabin for the skipper. This was located on deck at the rear of the ship. It had windows to the front as well as windows that looked out through the transom, to let in as much light as possible. The aft windows also gave the captain the only clear view aft on the whole ship, except for guard in the crow's nest, and it must have been through those aft windows that skipper Reijnier Egberse of the jaght the Sperwer saw, by coincidence, on August 1, 1653, the island the jaght had drifted precariously close to.

Food and drinks aboard were plainly bad, at least for the common sailors. They ate porridge or grit and prunes cooked in butter in the morning, yellow peas or beans with salted meat, stock fish or bacon covered with a butter sauce or just bread in the afternoon for lunch. Often dinner was was just a concoction of the leftovers. Additionally they received per week half a pound of butter and five pounds of bread or ship's biscuits. They ate in groups of seven from one bowl or plate. Daily they received a mutsje [=1.5 deciliter] of wine or jenever, and a liter of beer. After about five weeks the beer would go bad and they had to drink water which on it's turn turned undrinkable very soon as well because of the tropical heat. Sometimes they stirred the water with a hot iron rod to try to kill the vermin, but in order not to eat the worms, bugs or insects, they had to drink the water with their teeth closed.

The officers on the other hand, received daily fresh meat and vegetables. There was life-stock aboard and aft there was a small vegetable garden with herbs and other greens. They ate with pewter tableware in the cabin of the skipper.

The Lords XVII were strict in their orders about the hygiene aboard. The holds had to be aired on a regular base. It had to be fumigated with gunpowder and juniper berries and afterwards sprinkled with vinegar. The bunk linens had to be aired regularly on deck and between decks had to be cleaned with the fire-hose. The rotten keel water under in the ship, the bad hygiene and the fact that people sometimes took a crap anywhere (although heavily fined), was a breeding ground for diseases. Not to forget the fact that people didn't wash themselves.

The one-sided food and the hygiene were a cause for many diseases. There was a lack of vitamins and scurvy and beriberi were common. The gums rotted and the legs got swollen, often the patient just died, since the barber was most of the times not a good doctor. When the Cape of Good Hope was opened as a refreshing station and also when ships took pots with fresh herbs along, scurvy was not the most important cause of dead and desease anymore, but other diseases like dysentery, spotted fever and typhoid fever were still rampant. Malaria was common in Asia as well.

Irregularities were severely punished. Blasphemy, inebriety and spilling food overboard, were fined, fighting, using dice or making them and gambling in general were usually punished with solitary confinement, flogging and when someone had been fighting, his hand was pinned to the mast with his own knife and he had to figure out how to free himself. Keelhauling was the punishement for insulting an officer. Mutiny and sodomy were considered fit for capital punishment. The culprits were just thrown overboard or hung from the yard. Murder was just punished if there happened to be a witness. There was a system with which there were three kinds of councils responsible for the discipline. The council of naval officers the so-called broad council and the militairy council for the soldiers aboard. Above all this stood the skipper or captain who had a final word in the verdict and could overrule the councils.

In the light of this information one should also read the Journael of Hamel. One should not only look at what he wrote, but also what he didn't write.

Outside the territorial waters of the Republic, the skipper represented both the Company and the country of which his ship hoisted the flag. That's why his cabin had a representative function and was furnished distinguishably. The skipper sometimes received highly placed guests over here. Important functionaries of the VOC, who sailed as passengers, used, with their family, this cabin as a day room. That's why it was relatively spacey. On most of the jaghts there were two big cabinets, in which glassware, crockery and cutlery was stored. In the other the sea charts were stored. These were in brass cases. There was also a list, on which all the charts were mentioned, which was signed by the skipper. Because the skipper paid deposit for the charts, which was refunded when he handed back the undamaged charts after the journey.

Example of a hand-drawn chart like they were used in the 17th century on board of the VOC-ships.
Initially all these charts were made in Amsterdam. Later there was a map manufactory in Batavia. The charts were drawn by hand. They had only the coastlines with all the bays, coves and shoals. Again some time later the professional cartographers also published charts.. Of course these were printed.

They were beautifully decorated with mythological characters, like the sea god Neptune, depictions of existing or legendary animals and of ships. On board there were a limited number of navigational instruments, amongst which a compass, the cross staff, the back staff, and the mariners astrolabe. They formed the set of instruments that 17th century Dutch mariners used to measure altitude of objects and calculate latitude. The longitude could be determined with a clock, based on the determined latitude. The first marine clock however, did not appear until 1735, invented by John Harrison and it was 40 years later that Harrison developed a clock that won the prize from the English Board of Longitude. Marine chronometers were exceedingly rare aboard ships until well into the 19th century. Oceanic sailors used dead reckoning and empirical measures to determine longitude. Dead reckoning was a deductive way of reckoning; estimating location and speed using a variety of different methods including wind, waves, bird sightings, and current. Dutch ships of the 17th century did not carry sextants, which were not invented until about 1760. Even then, it was not practical until mechanical dividing machines were developed about 1775. The octant was more commonly used, with the sextant coming into greater use in the 19th century. The octant came into being in the early 18th century (1730s) 1). 

In the 10th century, Abd al-Rahmân b. Umar al-Sufî(d. 986-7) wrote 386 chapters, describing 1000 uses for the astrolabe, including finding latitude. Chaucer wrote the first English technical manual (1391?) on the astrolabe with similar procedures for solar sightings. Altitude readings could be taken with any available instrument and then applied to an astrolabe to use it as an analog calculator rather than a sighting instrument.

The cross-staff in use was a simple device that worked reasonably well for measuring the angle of the sun above the horizon at noon. It was fitted with one movable vane (transversally) that, with the end of the staff placed at the eye of the observer, was positioned so that it appeared to touch both the horizon and the sun. The angle was then read from a scale on the staff.

The mariner's astrolabe in common use by the Dutch seamen at the time was a wheel-shaped, cast-brass instrument of perhaps 17 to 20 centimeter in diameter with a thumb ring at the top. The ring mount was designed to allow the instrument to hang vertically plumb and to provide for precise rotational control by the user. The disk was divided into four quadrants, two or more of which had scales divided into 90 degrees each. The astrolabe had a rotating sighting arm (alhidada), mounted through the center. Though the astrolabe offered a reliable and accurate method of measuring altitude, the mariner's ability to read the degree scales along the rim was a limiting factor on the precision of the observation. Since each degree division for a 17 cm diameter instrument was only about one centimeter, the mariner could read the angle only to the nearest half degree. As with the quadrant, the mariner's ability to make an astrolabe sighting at sea could be completely frustrated by movement of the ship. 

A barometer was neither on board, this instrument was only invented in 1643 by the Italian Toricelli. It didn't belong to the standard equipment of the VOC-ships in the 17th century. A thermometer was missing as well. Celsius made his scale division only in the year 1742. Because these instruments were missing, a hurricane announced itself often, for crew and skipper alike, totally unexpected.

3. A trip to the Indies of a return convoy

jaghts like the Sperwer made their journey from Holland or Zeeland to the East-Indies only once in their existence. They stayed there subsequently to maintain the connection between the several factories. The connection with the mother country was done by the so-called return-ships. These were much bigger than the jaghts, sometimes twice as big. During a trip to and from the East-Indies, they sailed always in convoy. Such a convoy was called a return-fleet.
Most return-fleets had Amsterdam as their home port. The ships from Amsterdam sailed out of the IJ via the Zuiderzee to the roadstead of Texel. There they waited for the ships from Hoorn and Enkhuizen. Then the convoy sailed southward till the mouth of the Meuse. Here the ships from Rotterdam and Delft/Delftshaven joined the convoy. From there they sailed further until the mouth of the Scheldt, where they waited for the ships from Middelburg. Only after all the ships had joined, the journey started.
One of the skippers, most of the time somebody from Amsterdam, was in command of the convoy. He was called the commander and his ship the flagship.

A critical phase was passing the Iberian peninsula. To limit the chance of meeting a Spanish or Portuguese convoy, a western course was followed via the Cape-Verdian Islands and the Azores Islands. Off these islands, on the African coast there was a Hollands factory called Goree (see part of the map from 1806, nowadays Dakar. Click on it to see the whole map). The convoy anchored here; fresh water, vegetables and fruits were taken in and messages exchanged. But nobody was allowed to leave the ship. Most of the times the convoy sailed on in 24 hours.

Usually the next place where the convoy anchored was the factory Elmina on the Ivory Coast (Jan Boonstra has been in Elmina and says it's on the Goldcoast, nowadays Ghana). Thus some other factories were frequented and finally the convoy arrived after several months in Cape Town, where it stayed for at least one month. Everybody embarked and before they sailed on, the ships were cleaned thoroughly. There were almost always sick persons who had to stay behind. Sometimes there were so many sick persons that one of the ships had to stay behind as well.

Now the most dangerous part of the journey began: the crossing from Cape of Good Hope to the Island of Java, right across the Indian Ocean. It started already right east of Cape Town, in the area where the treacherous Cape storms raged (The Portuguese called the cape for a while Cape of Storms, but then the sailors didn't want to go there anymore, so John II renamed it to Cape of Good Hope). When the convoy came into a hurricane, the skippers not rarely stayed on their post for days in a row.

While the mates worked in shifts and were regularly relieved, the skippers didn't get out of their clothes. A myth had to be kept up. (Think of the myth of the flying Dutchman) If a skipper would hand over his task to his coxswain, the mates might conclude that he was just as well or maybe even better than the skipper. When the convoy had passed the area of the Cape storms, soon the island of Mauritius came into sight. This island was conquered in 1598 by the Hollanders. It was called Mauritius after the then Stadtholder Maurits of Nassau. The trip was interrupted for the last time over here. As much fresh water as possible was taken in and furthermore some fresh fruits and fresh vegetables. Damage caused by the storm was repaired over here. After that the journey continued. For several weeks after that, the persons on board didn't see anything else than sky and water. Especially a lot of water. Sometimes towering waves. Like tiny nutshells the ships of the convoy floated on the immeasurable ocean. In the middle of the day it was often unbearably hot, the pitch ran out the splits. 

To protect themselves against the burning sun, pieces of sails were stretched horizontally over the deck. The mates walked half-naked, but the skipper stood completely dressed on the castle. He even kept on his hat. The decorum demanded that. 

At the end of the journey, there was often lack of certain foods. Cockroaches seemed to have eaten the beans and peas, worms were crawling in the flour and the drinking water started to smell. Though there was a regular hunt at rats, their numbers remained constant. The mates were also troubled by lice and fleas. On top of that they started to become bored, they longed to the end of the journey.

Everybody became overjoyed when the watch at the end of the journey of two months after Mauritius shouted: "Land a shore."The commander and the other skipper skimmed the horizon with their binoculars. Had they sailed the right course? Or did the convoy go too much to the south and were they in front of the unknown Southland" terra australis?" The coast became clearer and clearer, the charts of street Sunda were taken out of their cases. On these was also a silhouette of the southwestern point of Java and of the south coast of Sumatra, as well as the small islands in-between. Finally the tension was broken. The convoy was in the entrance of Strait Sunda. Cheering went in the air. The mates received a drink. Carefully they sailed on. The first land birds were flying over the ship. On the horizon a dot appeared which became bigger and bigger. It appeared to be a VOC- jaght, which was on the outlook.

Some salute shots were exchanged, after which the jaght turned around and sailed to Batavia as fast as possible to report the arrival of the convoy.

The northwestern point of Java was rounded. They sailed that close to the coast that palm-trees could be seen with the bare eye. Some local ships appeared, fisherman boats and perahus. They passed Bantam. More ships could be seen. And there it was; the roadstead of Batavia. Again salute-shots were exchanged between the convoy and the batteries ashore. Some hours later the ships anchored. Relieved the bookkeeper of the flagship closed his Journael with the following words:

Heden den 18en Maij, zijn Godtloff, behouden te Batavia gearriveerd, na weijnigh tegenspoet, de Tijger, de Witte Leeuw, de Constantia en de Hollantsche Tuyn uyt Amsterdam, 't Wapen van Hoorn en de Westfrysia uyt Hoorn, de Lelie en de Vryheijt uyt Enkhuizen, De Hollandia uyt Rotterdam, De Spreeuw uyt Delft en het Wapen van Middelburg uyt Zeeland..

Today, May 18, safely arrived at Batavia , praise to the Lord, after little adversity, The Tijger , the Witte Leeuw , the Constantia and the Hollantsche Tuyn from Amsterdam, 't Wapen van Hoorn and the Westfrysia from Hoorn, the Lelie and the Vryheijt from Enkhuizen, the Hollandia from Rotterdam, the Spreeuw from Delft and the Wapen van Middelburg from Zeeland.


1) I want to thank William T. (Chip) Reynolds Captain of the Half Moon for some excellent remarks on this page especially about the instruments on board and some of the terminology. Also thanks to Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg who has sent email with corrections and additions. (Back to top)

Click on the image to learn more details about ship rigging and there you can also download the above uncompressed image (4,2Mb)

If you want to have an idea how the size of the sailors related to the size of the ship, follow this link (it also gives a good idea how small a boat like the Sperwer really was

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