Heeren XVII or Gentlemen Seventeen was the name for the board of directors of the Dutch United East India Company (VOC), founded in 1602. This central executive body consisted of representatives from the VOC's six constituent chambers, located in cities where previously separate "pre-companies" had been established: Eight were from Amsterdam, four from Middelburg (Zeeland), and one each from the four smaller chambers—Rotterdam, Delft, Hoorn, and Enkhuizen. The seventeenth member was appointed in turn by Zeeland or one of the smaller chambers. In theory, Amsterdam could be outvoted, but in practice the power of this large chamber over the smaller ones was such that it could usually get its way. The Gentlemen Seventeen met two or three times a year in the presiding chamber, either Amsterdam (six years in succession) or Middelburg (two years in succession). The timing of these meetings, which usually lasted four to five weeks, coincided with the rhythms of the shipping traffic between the Dutch Republic and Asia. New directors were to be appointed by the provincial assemblies, the states of Holland and Zeeland, from a short list prepared by the acting directors. This power, however, was soon usurped by the town councils of the respective chambers. Partly as a result of the appointment policy close ties were formed between the ruling oligarchy of regents, members of the town councils, and the company directors.
The founding charter of 1602 permitted the VOC to build forts, appoint governors, maintain soldiers and fleets, wage war, and conclude treaties with foreign powers in Asia in the name of the States General of the Dutch Republic. Instructions to governors had to be approved by the States General, and the top VOC officials had to swear an oath of allegiance in the presence of the States General. In addition, commanders of homeward-bound fleets had to report on conditions in Asia. From a legal perspective, the VOC can be considered an executive instrument of the States General with a restricted mandate. In practice, however, the States General had little effective control and rules were soon ignored. Close informal contacts existed between the government and the company because the directors came from the same ruling regent class, but official control was minimal until the late eighteenth century. The financial report submitted to a committee from the States General every four years was a mere formality. When the company's charter had to be extended, the occasion was seen primarily as a suitable opportunity to extract money from the directors.
Several committees advised the meetings of the Gentlemen Seventeen or carried out preparatory work. There was a committee for checking the bookkeeping, one for preparing the annual balance, another for attending and supervising the company auctions, a wartime committee dealing with secret routes and signals, and one for dealing with correspondence with the High Government and other company servants in Asia. The latter committee met in the company lodge in The Hague and was therefore called the Haags Besogne. It was formed by ten directors: four from Amsterdam, two from Zeeland, and one from each of the smaller chambers.
An important VOC official was the company's advocate, the secretary to the board of directors. He attended both the meetings of the Gentlemen Seventeen and the Haags Besogne and drafted the resolutions of these bodies. In addition, he participated in the deliberations of the Amsterdam chamber, and carried out numerous other tasks for the directors. The advocate was the only permanent official at the highest level and could sometimes exert a great deal of influence on company policy. Pieter van Dam, for example, occupied this post for more than fifty years from 1652 until his death in 1706. Van Dam wrote his multivolume Beschryvinge van de Oostindische Compagnie (Description of the East India Company) at the request of the Gentlemen Seventeen. The work, describing the history and organization of the VOC, was intended to act as an internal reference and policy guide for the directors. Today it serves as an invaluable source of information on the Dutch East India Company in the seventeenth century.
Some controversy exists over the alleged inadequacy of company bookkeeping and the declining quality of management in the eighteenth century. Though bookkeeping in the Dutch Republic could be quite problematical and balances reported by the individual chambers did not provide a complete picture, the Gentlemen Seventeen had inside access to the figures from Asia and additional financial details. At crucial points, the process of decision-making was institutionalized and rational. To compare the company with a modern multinational corporation, however, would be to ignore the restricted technological means available and the different mentality of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The slowness and uncertainty of overseas communications inevitably formed a weak link in the system. Patronage and personal preferences played a decisive part in the appointment of directors and other senior officials. It was accepted at all levels that, to a certain extent, one could enrich oneself through and at the cost of the VOC. Finally, management was not always of consistent quality. Against periods characterized by an active, inspiring, and innovative policy on the part of the directors must be set others in which routine, inertia, and lethargy were dominant.
Bruijn, J. R., F. S. Gaastra, and I. Schöffer, eds. Dutch-Asiatic Shipping in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Rijksgeschiedkundige Publicatiën, Grote Serie, 165, 166, and 167. 3 vols. The Hague, Netherlands: M. Nijhoff, 1979–1987.
Dam, Pieter van. Beschryvinge van de Oostindische Compagnie, Vol. 1, Pt. 1. Edited by F. W. Stapel and C. W. Th. van Boetzelaer. Rijksgeschiedkundige Publicatiën, Grote Serie 63. The Hague, Netherlands: M. Nijhoff, 1927.
Gaastra, Femme S. Bewind en Beleid bij de VOC: De Financiële en Commerciële Politiek van de Bewindhebbers, 1672–1702. Zutphen, Netherlands: Walburg Pers, 1989.
Gaastra, Femme S. The Dutch East India Company: Expansion and Decline. Zutphen, Netherlands: Walburg Pers, 2003.
Korte, J. P. de. The Annual Accounting in the VOC, Dutch East India Company. Amsterdam: NEHA, 2000.
Meilink-Roelofsz, M. A. P. "The Structures of Trade in Asia in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries." Mare Luso-Indicum 4 (1980): 1-43.
Somers, J. A. De VOC als Volkenrechtelijke Actor. Gouda, Netherlands: Quint, 2001.
Steensgaard, Niels. "The Dutch East India Company as an Institutional Innovation." In Dutch Capitalism and World Capitalism, edited by Maurice Aymard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.