Jan Pieterszoon Coen

Jan Pieterszoon Coen

Jan Pieterszoon Coen (8 January 158721 September 1629) was an officer of Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the early seventeenth century, holding two terms as its Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies.

A national hero in the Netherlands, for providing the impulse that set the VOC on the path to dominance in the Dutch East Indies. A quote of his from 1618 is well known, "Despair not, spare your enemies not, for God is with us" ("Dispereert niet, ontziet uw vijanden niet, want God is met ons" in Dutch). Since the latter half 20th century he has been looked at in a more critical light, as some people view his often violent means to have been excessive.

Coen was known in his time on account of strict governance and harsh criticsm on people who did not share his views, at times directed even at the 17 Lords of the VOC (for which he was reprimanded). His overall policies were however never judged to be unreasonable. Coen was known be strict towards subordinates and merciless to his opponents. His willingness to use violence to obtain his ends was too much for many, even for such a relatively violent period of history. When Saartje Specx, a girl who he had been entrusted to care for, was found in a garden in the arms of a soldier, Pieter Cortenhoeff, Coen showed little mercy in having her whipped instead of drowned in a barrel as he first intended. Cortenhoeff was beheaded.


Coen was born at Hoorn on 8 January 1587 and in 1601 travelled to Rome to study trade in the offices of Justus Pescatore, where he learned the art of bookkeeping. Joining the Dutch East India Company (VOC), he made trading voyages to Indonesia in 1607 and 1612. On the second trip, he commanded two ships and in October 1613 was appointed accountant-general of all VOC offices in Indonesia and president of the head office in Bantam and of Jakarta. In 1614, he was made director-general, second in command. On 25 October 1617 the 17 Lords of VOC appointed him their fourth governor-general in the East Indies (of which he was informed on 30 April 1618).

On account of disputes at the head office in Bantam with natives, the Chinese, and the English. The VOC desired a better central headquarters. Coen thus directed more of the companies trade through Jacarta, where it had established a factory in 1610. However not trusting the native ruler, he deciding in 1618 to convert the Dutch warehouses into a fort. While away on a expedition the English had taken control over the town. Coen managed to reconquer Jakarta, fire destroying most of the town during the process. He rebuilt city and fort. In 1621 the city was renamed Batavia. Coen preferred Nieuw Hoorn, after his Hoorn, but didn't get his way.

Coen also set about establishing a monopoly over the trade in nutmeg and mace which could be obtained only from the Banda Islands. The inhabitants of Banda had been selling the spices to the English, despite contracts with the VOC which obliged them to sell only to the VOC, at low prices. In 1621, he led an armed expedition to Banda, taking the island of Lonthor by force after encountering some fierce resistance, mostly by cannons the natives had acquired from the English. A large part of the inhabitants were killed or exiled to other islands.

On 1 February 1623, he handed his post to Pieter de Carpentier and returned to the Netherlands, where he was given a heroes welcome off the coast of Texel. He then became head of the VOC chamber in Hoorn and worked on establishing new policies. During his absence from the East Indies, difficulties with the English were exacerbated by the Amboyna Massacre. On 3 October 1624 he was reappointed governor-general in the East Indies, but his departure was hindered by the English. In 1625, he married and in 1627 departed incognito for the East Indies with his wife, their newborn child and her brother and sister, starting work on 30 September 1627. After his arrival, the English abandoned Batavia and established their headquarters in Bantam.

Twice during Coen's term in office, Sultan Agung of Mataram besieged Batavia, in 1628 and 1629. However, Agung's military was poorly armed and had inadequate provisions of food, and was never able to capture the city.

During Agungs second siege Coen suddenly died on 21 September 1629. Some say that at Agungs graveyard in Imogiri, central Java, that parts of Coens remains were secreted away from their Batavia resting place, and placed under the stairway to Agungs grave, as all pilgrims to the grave would walk over them.


Further reading

  • Milton, Giles (1999). Nathaniel's Nutmeg, or, the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0374219362.

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