Digitisation project answers questions about Dutch colonial trade in minutes

A VOC bond from 1632
A VOC bond from 1632

Dutch historians have been awarded a €3.8m grant to digitise a large part of the 25 million surviving handwritten documents from the business administration of the Dutch East Indies (VOC) company.

The aim of the project, dubbed ‘Globalise’, is to not only to make the information accessible to historians and others across the globe but to present them with the answers to their questions in minutes, albeit in 17th or 18th century Dutch.

The most important documents, the General Missives, which contain summaries of the reports made by VOC officials to their Dutch masters, are kept at the national archive in The Hague and have long since been published in book form. These comprise 200,000 documents which have been partly digitised but are not easy to navigate.

‘Our aim is to make all the texts easily navigable using an intelligent search system. Ask for the amount of tobacco that a certain VOC ship carried and you will get all the passages in which the different spellings of tobacco appear along with references to units of weight – from ‘cattij’ to ‘Zwolse pond’ to ‘oncen’, plus all the names the ship ever sailed under,’ project leader Matthias van Rossum told Trouw.

Foreign historians can search the data base using search terms in English if there is anything they wants to know about local wars, harvests or natural disasters in the area the VOC operated in, from South Africa to numerous places in Asia, but will have to have the results translated.

It will still be much quicker, however, Van Rossum said. ‘A student assistant of mine spent almost a year ploughing through documents to find out how many slaves were transported on a VOC ship. If he had had to search the millions of other documents as well it would have taken years. Research like that could now be done in minutes.’

Last year the national archive put the names of 21,000 people who lived as slaves in the former Dutch colony of Curaçao online, enabling their descendants to find out about their ancestors.

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