Monday, July 1, 2013


100. Explaining history: The case of the United East India Company

This is the last item in a series on multiple, Aristotelian causality.

This is also the 100th item on this blog, and to celebrate that, an interview has been posted on YouTube (In the search bar, type: bart nooteboom). In the next item, 101, I will give a survey of the contents and the readership of the blog so far.

Multiple, Aristotelian causality can help to explain history. Here I consider the example of the Dutch United East India Company in the 16t/17th century.

It all began when for some unknown reason the herring shifted their spawning grounds from the Baltic to the North Sea, which borders Holland. That left an unsatisfied demand for herring in the Baltic, as a commercial opportunity. This is an example of Aristotle’s conditional cause. Entrepreneurs (the efficient cause) jumped at this opportunity, for the sake of profit (the final cause). The herring provided the material cause.

 In triangular trade, herring caught in the North Sea could in the Baltic be traded for wood and grain, which could be shipped to Portugal and Spain to be traded for wine and spices that the Portuguese brought from the East. The Dutch had the advantage that their harbours thawed earlier, in the extreme cold of that epoch, called ‘the little ice age’, than those in the Baltic, which allowed them to go to the Baltic, arriving when the harbours thawed there, go to Portugal and return just before the harbours at home froze again, while for Baltic traders departure would be later and return would have to be earlier, precluding the round trip in a single season. That fluke of geography was another conditional cause. 

Several innovations were required. One was the curing of herring to preserve it for the voyage. Another was the issue of shares to spread risks across multiple sailings. These are examples of the formal cause: how things are done.

Trade from Holland, from the North sea, had to compete with the Hanze cartel, entrenched since the 14th century, of cities along the river Ijsel in the East of what now is the Netherlands together with traders in the Baltic. This was another conditional cause.

The Hanze cartel controlled inland transport to the Baltic, as well as the sea passage around the North of Denmark. They exacted toll in proportion to the deck surface of passing ships. This provided an incentive for the Dutch to build ships with a narrow deck in combination with a spacious hold, which led to the innovation of the ‘Flute’ ship. The design and the wood technologies involved were derived from the technology of building dikes and sawing wood in windmills. That is all part of the formal cause.

The triangular trade was so profitable, to both the Dutch and the Spanish and Portuguese, that it was kept up even during the eighty-years war of rebellion of the protestant Dutch against the Catholic Spanish who then ruled the Netherlands.

Portuguese trade with the East started to fail due to internal political failure and strife. That provided an incentive for Holland to find a route of its own to the East. They first tried to go along the North, but the attempt stranded on polar ice, in Nova Zembla. Then they went south and found their way around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, where they built settlements for replenishment of stocks. That led to the development of the Dutch-speaking South-African community of the ‘Boers’ (Dutch for ‘farmers’). Coming around the Cape to seek access to the East, the Dutch were first shipwrecked on the wild Australian West Coast, and subsequently chanced upon the isles of what now is Indonesia, where they settled trading posts and from there developed a colony.

In sum, the development was a largely coincidental confluence of opportunity, geographical location, and obstacles to be overcome (conditional cause), the supply of herring (material cause), entrepreneurship (efficient cause), in the profit seeking of an emerging protestant society (final cause), and technology and innovation (formal cause).