Caveat from the Archive: Pieter van Dam’s Beschryvinge van de Oostindische Compagnie and Crisis Management
Keywords:VOC, Pieter van Dam, crisis discourse, archives, information, bureaucracy, description
This article considers the dynamics between the ideals of good governance, crisis, introspection, and routine. It centers on the Beschryvinge van de Oostindische Compagnie (Description of the [Dutch] East India Company; hereafter, VOC), commissioned in 1693. Compiled by the company’s secretary Pieter van Dam over the course of more than a decade, this work charted the VOC’s organization, areas of operation, and internal processes. The Beschryvinge originated from a perception of crisis among the directors stemming from the company’s decreasing profitability and illicit behavior among those in its service. The directors’ sense of crisis resonated with a growing awareness throughout Europe that good governance required information on administrative actions and procedures. Their concern led to a series of initiatives aimed at providing better means of obtaining such information. Charged with synthesizing the company’s sprawling archive into a more practicable compendium, the VOC’s leading bureaucrat used little and large tools of knowledge to mold the company’s operational practices into a coherent whole, thereby putting the perceived crisis into historical perspective. Ultimately, van Dam’s Beschryvinge contradicted the directors’ fears that the company was inefficient. In doing so, the manuscript reinforced the power and resilience of the VOC’s bureaucracy
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