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An archival VOC mentality? Archival issues in an early-modern Dutch-Asian context


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


This Research Seminar focuses on the archives of the VOC or Dutch East India Company. It partly serves as a practical and more specific counterpart of the Literature Seminar. It addresses archival issues in the context of a 17th- and 18th-century Dutch-Asian commercial enterprise. While the VOC records formally comprised business administration, in practice they also functioned as a giant repository of valuable and secret information on all sorts of events in early-modern Asia.

The remaining VOC records comprise various archives and collections, consisting of many different types or even "genres" of documents, including, for example, memoirs, reports of embassies, and maps. Further, they partly overlap with materials that fall outside the confines of these records, but are closely related to them, such as private papers, missionary records, travel accounts, and even works of art. These diverse materials were produced with different purposes, are composed and organised in different ways, and present information from different perspecitives.

This course considers and compares all these sources from both an archival and a historiographical point of view. The central question is: was there a specific “archival VOC mentality” with regard to the way records were created and information was processed? Therefore, this seminar looks for similarities and differences between, on the one hand, the VOC archives and, on the other hand, archives of contemporaneous Dutch institutions as well as other European overseas trading companies. Students who cannot read (old) Dutch may work with such other European records, for example those of the English, French, or Scandinavian East India Companies.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  • 1) The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 2) The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 3) The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 4) The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 5) The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;

  • 6) The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;

  • 7) The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;

  • 8) The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;

  • 9) The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;

  • 10) (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

The student has acquired:

  • 11) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following;
    -in the specialisation Archival Studies: archiving in a colonial context; insight into the significance of archiving processes for the way in which a society deals with its documentation heritage in general and its historical practice in particular; disclosure, including digital disclosure, of archives as part of the broader heritage sector;
    -in the specialisation Colonial and Global History: how global (political, socio-economic, and cultural) connections interact with regional processes of identity and state formation; hence insight in cross-cultural processes (including the infrastructure of shipping and other modes of communication) that affect regions across the world such as imperialism, colonisation, islamisation, modernisation and globalisation (in particular during the period 1200-1940).

  • 12) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subspecialisation in question, with a particular focus on the following:
    -in the specialisation Archival Studies: theoretical foundations of archivistics; assessment and selection of archives;
    -in the specialisation Colonial and Global History: empirical research from a comparative and connective perspective.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student has acquired:

  • 13) Thorough understanding of the organisation of the VOC archives and how it compares to the organisation of closely related materials (private papers, missionary records, etc.), to archives of contemporaneous Dutch institutions, and to records of other European overseas trading companies.

  • 14) Thorough understanding of how these various organisational principles are related to the objectives and audiences of those materials and the sort and tone of information they contain.

  • 15) The ability to analyse and compare archives created in an early-modern Dutch-non-Western context.

  • 16) (ResMA only): The ability to set up and carry out original research that raises new questions, pioneers new apporaches and/or points to new directions for future research.


The timetable is available on the MA History website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)
    This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the seminar.

  • Excursion (visit National Archives in The Hague)

  • If desired, an extra class on old Dutch handwriting can be organized.

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours= 280 hours

  • Seminar attendance: 26 hours

  • Study of compulsory literature: 50 hours

  • Assignment(s): preparation for lectures and presentations: 27 hours

  • Research and writing paper: 177 hours

Assessment method


  • Written paper (ca. 7500 words, based on research in primary sources, including footnotes and bibliography)
    Measured learning objectives: 1-8, 11-15 (ResMA also 10 and 16)

  • Oral presentations
    Measured learning objectives: 3-7, 9

  • Assignment 1 (reviewing other students’ oral presentations)
    Measured learning objectives: 8-9


  • Written paper: 70 %

  • Two oral presentations: 20%

  • Assignment 1: 10: %

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that all subtests must be sufficient.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Inspection and feedback

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • posting powerpoint presentations and literature

  • general communication between lecturer and students

Reading list

Literature will be announced closer to the start of the course and/or during classes. No literature needs to be studied beforehand.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Lennart Bes