“‘t eylant Formosa sal worden een cooren-schuyre voor onse Nederlantse buytencolonien”, a VOC official exulted in 1637. He summed up how much merchandise the island, now Taiwan, had yielded. It translates to ‘the island of Farmosa will be a wheat barn for our Dutch outer colonies.’
The United Dutch East India Company (VOC) archive is huge, but it will become much easier to search in the future. Science organization NWO will make 3.8 million euros available to make the mountain of paper more accessible. Research that would normally take years will be reduced to the click of a mouse.
The VOC archives contain the documents that the trade organization drew up worldwide between 1602 and 1795, from Amsterdam and Middelburg to Asia and Africa. The 25 million pages have been included by UNESCO in the Memory of the World index.
“It is one of the largest archives worldwide with the most information about this part of history for large sections of the world,” explains project leader Matthias van Rossum. “At the moment research posibilities are limited, but this project will break down barriers so that everyone can investigate it in depth from behind a desk.”
VOC Researchers now have to manually wrestle through the scanned documents in fiddly centuries-old Dutch. With the new software: searching becomes almost as easy as on Google. It will not only learn to read the graceful handwriting in sometimes faded ink, it will also convert the old Dutch into more comprehensible search results.
The program also takes into account that many names and place names were not yet standardized at the time. A scientist searching for Nagasaki must automatically retrieve all entries for Nangesaky, Nangesaqui, Nangazackij and Nagnasakij from the computer. Anyone who researches Taiwan wants to immediately have all the results for Formosa, as the Portuguese called the island, and Packan, as it is called in China.
These changes have to be entered manually, a chore for which a crowdsourcing project is set up.
It will take five years to develop the software.
Sugar and Spice
Researchers can use one question to find out everything. For instance, how much sugar, porcelain or enslaved people the 4,785 ships transported. Or they can request details about a trading post in a given time.
It will provide new insights about Dutch history, but also about that of Africa and Asia.
In many cases, the colonial archive is one of the oldest sources on those regions. The VOC records can provide insight as never before into economic relations, mutual power relations and customs or religions. The general public should also be able to use the archive, for instance for family tree research.
The software, which is being developed by the IISH, the National Archives, VU, Huygens ING and the KNAW, will also be made available to other archives, so that they can also be made accessible.