Jacob van Heemskerk

Jacob van Heemskerk was a Dutch explorer and sea captain (1567-1607). He was one of the key figures in the early years of Dutch maritime expansions into East Asia. He was responsible for the early success of Dutch trade in East Asia. As we will see, an incident he caused in this context will have unintended consequences for jurisprudence.

Heemskerk’s Life

 Heemskerk was born in Amsterdam. He began his exploratory voyages at the end of the 16th century, when he was approaching 30 years old.

 Historical Background

 The background was the Age of Explorations: from the end of the 15th century, Portugal successfully pioneered the East India Sea route with Vasco da Gama and started the long-desired spice trade. In the first half of the 16th century, it established a maritime empire, forming important bases in the waters of East Asia, including Goa in India and Malacca in Southeast Asia.
It gained enormous wealth from the trade in cloves, pepper, and other spices. At that time, the Netherlands did not yet exist as an independent state, but was part of the Low Countries (present-day Benelux).
 In 1568, some of the nobles of the Low Countries started a rebellion against their prince, King Felipe II of Spain. The rebels gradually moved to the north. The southern provinces continued to submit to the Spanish king. Around that time, in 1580, Felipe II annexed Portugal and also became King of Portugal. The northern provinces therefore came into conflict with Spain and Portugal.
 The northern provinces would officially become independent as the Dutch republic in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Heemskerk played an imporetant before that, at the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, in the midst of the revolt.

 Exploring the Northern Sea Route

 First, Heemskerk tried to open up new routes to China; by the end of the 16th century, the English and the Dutch sought to expand abroad, as Portugal and Spain had done. The Anglo-Dutch countries also tried to reach the waters of East Asia, aiming at the rich market of China.
 In doing so, the British and Dutch explored routes to reach East Asia from north of their own countries. Why? The Portuguese East India route was a southern route that went south through Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, and to India. If the British and Dutch chose this route, they feared that Portugal would interfere with their voyages and trade. Therefore, they decided to seek another route and explore the northern route.
 Another reason was that a northern route was thought to exist at that time. In this era, Europe did not have accurate geographical information about the world. Indeed, Portugal was the first European to collect geographical information on East Asia. This information was very important to win the trade competition with other countries. Therefore, Portugal made it a state secret and took measures to prevent it from being leaked to the other countries.
 As a result, there was even less geographic information on East Asia available to the English and Dutch. Under these circumstances, there was some hopeful speculation that a northern sea route might exist. If such a route existed, it would have provided a shortcut to China from the Anglo-Dutch coutries. Of course, such a route never existed.
 Heemskerk organized an expedition to explore the northeastern passage to China and reached the Svalbard Islands in 1596. Further on, they plunged into the Arctic region. But when they reached Novaya Zemlya, their ship was trapped in an icy sea. So, the group spent the winter in this Arctic region. They became the first Europeans to winter in the Arctic region. In 1597, they escaped from there and returned home. 

Significance and Impact of the First Arctic Wintering

 Incidentally, the experience of Heemskerk and others in wintering in the Arctic region was soon to be put to good use in the Dutch republic. Two points should be mentioned here.

 First, the Northern Company was established in the Dutch republic for economic and trading operations in the North. The Northern Company became active in the Arctic area for whaling and the skins of seals, deer, and other animals. But it was necessary to protect the related facilities from English and other competitors. To this end, in the 1630s, the Northern Company developed and implemented plans to winter its employees in the Arctic area. In doing so, Heemskerk’s wintering experience was used to promote these plans.

 Second, it was a contribution to Dutch travel literature. Soon after their Arctic wintering, a record of this wintering was published. Although the author was not Heemskerk, this wintering account became important as the beginning of a genre of Dutch travel writing based on logbooks. While wintering in the Arctic area was attempted, similar travelogues were published and became commercially successful. These were tales of hardship and adventure in the harsh Arctic nature. The wintering of the Heemskerk became its beginning.

 Trading Success in East Asia

 Heemskerk attempted to reach East Asia, where at the end of the 16th century, Europeans, primarily Portugal, had established a maritime empire. Spain had established a base in the Philippines. Both countries were subject to Felipe II.
 In 1598, Heemskerk accompanied Jacob van Neck’s fleet on a voyage of East Asian trade. This time they took the East India sea route. Neck returned home after completing a series of missions. But Heemskerk went on to the Moluccas Islands in Indonesia. The Moluccas, as they were called the Spice Islands, were a trading post for nutmeg, cloves, and other valuable spices.
 At this point, Portugal had formed a base in the Moluccas and was trading with inhabitants. Initially, Portugal attempted to establish its monopoly trade. However, it was not successful due to conflicts with Muslim local princes. In this context, the fleet of Heemskerk arrived there.
 Heemskerk traded in Ternate, Banda Islands, and Ambon, and obtained many spices. He returned to Holland and made great profits. This success excited the Dutch people. Thus, Dutch trade in East Asia began in earnest.

The Santa Catarina Incident

 Heemskerk once again set out for East Asian waters. In 1603, he attacked and captured the Portuguese merchant ship Santa Catarina in the Strait of Malacca near Singapore. The ship’s cargo was taken and sold for a huge profit. This act of privateering is known as the Santa Catarina Incident.
 Portugal criticized this act of privateering as piracy. Hugo Grotius, as a lawyer, was assigned to defend Heemskerk’s actions in the Santa Catarina case. In doing so, this act of plunder was justified as part of the Dutch war against Portugal.
 This incident led to Grotius’s “The Freedom of the Seas” and other works. This work was written to discuss freedom of navigation and trade at a time when England and the Dutch republic, in addition to Spain and Portugal, were attempting to expand overseas. It defended the new entry of the Dutch republic into the European colonialist races. The book would cause controversy in Europe and contribute to the development of international legal theory. Heemskerk has consequently set the stage for this.

 The Admiralty

 At the beginning of the 17th century, the Dutch republic was still at war with Spain and Portugal. Heemskerk was now appointed commander-in-chief of the Dutch navy. In 1607, he commanded the Battle of Gibraltar. This was an important naval battle against Spain and Portugal at the time and became the subject of many paintings. Heemskerk won the battle. He himself, however, was killed in war.

Jacob van Heemskerk

Recommended or Selected References

羽田正『東インド会社とアジアの海』講談社, 2017

Inger Leemans(ed.), Early modern knowledge societies as affective economies, Routledge, 2020

Adam Clulow(ed.), The Dutch and English East India Companies : diplomacy, trade and violence in early modern Asia, Amsterdam University Press, 2018

Femme S. Gaastra, The Dutch East India Company : expansion and decline, Walburg Pers, 2003