A Field Trip in the Netherlands
Cultural values and the repair of a VOC ship
Have you heard the expression, “That ship has sailed!” Well, in this case, No, it has just gone for repair. The replica VOC Ship, Amsterdam, from Amsterdam’s National Maritime Museum, is under repair. The ship is an important part of the history of the East India Company or VOC (in Dutch: Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) and the seventeenth century. If it weren’t for constant pumping, the ship would sink. During the restoration every few years, problems are identified such as rotting wood or damaged material, or seams that are no longer watertight. The plan is for new masts and coating and varnishing the ship to protect it from the elements.
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History of VOC ships
According to Brittanica.com, in 1602, the East India trading company was founded in the Dutch Republic or modern day Netherlands to help with the Dutch war of independence from Spain and to secure Dutch trade in the Indian Ocean. The company grew throughout the 17th century as a branch of the dominant Dutch commercial empire in the East Indies (present-day Indonesia). In 1799 it was dissolved.
By the 18th century from a commercial shipping enterprise it changed to a loosely formed territorial organization. At this time, it was intent on the agricultural produce of the Indonesian archipelago. Considerable debt and corruption haunted the VOC toward the end of the 18th century. This led the Dutch government to eventually revoke the company’s charter. In 1799, the government took charge of the company’s debts and possessions.
Although the VOC is considered by some to be the “forerunner of modern corporations” and the VOC navigators and cartographers are credited with helping to “shape geographical knowledge of the world as we know it today”, the VOC must still be recognized as participating in slavery, the slave trade and colonialism and warfare overseas.
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The museum emphasizes that the ship is as much for looking as it is an object of study or consideration for education. With this in mind, a few years ago I incorporated a visit to the Maritime Museum for my Personal Branding and Professional English university course. The idea was an extension of branding from personal to global in terms of the Dutch association with shipbuilding. It was a small group of about 12 students, but they came from everywhere in the world from Brazil to Macau to the Ukraine. Truly a global community.
Along with the visit to the museum, I arranged for a tour aboard the Amsterdam. The tour exceeded our expectations. It was an hour long and the tour guide had a detailed narrative about every part of the boat from the topside to the sleeping cabins below. There was even an eating area arranged with replicas of food from the ship’s original period. The students seemed to love the experience. How much fun to be on one of these vessels!
Pitfalls of 17th Century Ships
The outing, which was early on in the course, seemed to have been a success. This attracted the attention of one of the leaders of the Summer School. He visited after one of the classes, and I expected no less than high praise. The students were writing, reading and learning while also getting some hands-on experience with branding.
The funny thing is that my colleague had asked them to write and draw about their experience. She then had them put their drawings up on the wall. I was there while she walked around the room with the school representative to appraise the results. He walked around and then came to a stop. He said suddenly, “What is this? Did something happen?” I had no idea what he was talking about. Then he said the drawing showed the student hitting her head somewhere in the ship. I turned to my colleague and asked her what this was about.
Apparently in her class with the students they told her that the sleeping cabin had such a low ceiling that one of the students hit their head. No one had brought it to my attention during the tour or afterwards. I asked her if it was serious. She said no and that actually it became a sort of comic situation. Huge sigh of relief.
I had a small heart attack as I was responsible for the students when on the outing, and if anything happened to them it would be on my head. A good learning experience to keep in mind for the next time. It seems that all was forgiven. When the students did their end of course I Am Amsterdam videos, I was delighted to see that they included images or clips about their fun time at the National Maritime Museum.
Having said this, you could ask if their parading around the VOC ship like tourists and then documenting it in a personal branding video, they were trampling on the victims of a the VOC from the 17th century. You could ask if there are still reverberations of these inqualities and discriminations and whether any restitution is in order.
For Further Discussion
History can be complicated. A culture’s values can change over time, and you have to decide who should be held accountable and if changes must be made.
Do we, for instance, tear down all the statues representing a previously tolerated belief or change all the names for sports teams when seemingly discriminating against a certain group? In the Netherlands, do we get rid of the Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), the helpers to the white bearded St. Nicholas? Of course, the VOC history is important, and it played an important role in the Dutch and Global history. However, like the act of taking the VOC ship off for repair and restoration, there is something to say for rewriting history, reinventing ourselves, and allowing voices to be heard.