Jan Pieterszoon Coen and the township of Coen (N.Qld)

Your Honours should know by experience that trade in Asia must be driven and maintained under the protection and favour of your Honour’s own weapons, and that the weapons must be paid for by the profits from the trade; so that we cannot carry on trade without war, nor war without trade.

— Jan Pieterszoon Coen, in a letter to the directors of the Dutch East India Company.

Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Rijksmuseum Collection

It was Jan Pieterszoon Coen who founded the port city of Batavia (Jakarta) in 1619 as a regional trading base, to build and repair ships, warehouse spices and to be the military and administrative headquarters of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the East Indies. ‘King Coen’ or the ‘Butcher of Banda’ ruled his realm ruthlessly from 1618-1623 and from 1627-1634 delivering the VOC vast quantities of Asian commodities at low prices.

Asian and Dutch ships at anchor off Batavia, 1649 (Netherlands Maritime Museum)

It was Jan Pieterszoon Coen who successfully developed the Intra-Asian trade which generated huge profits for the VOC and its shareholders, and it was these profits that drove the ‘Golden Age’ of Dutch Art. He wrote of his business plan to the Directors of the VOC and the key message was ‘all without money from the Netherlands’:

Gujurati textiles must be traded for pepper and gold on the shores of Sumatra: Pepper from Banten for reales and textiles from the coast of Coromandel, Chinese goods and gold for sandalwood, pepper and reales, silver can be got from Japan for Chinese goods, the textiles from the Coromandel coast for spices, pieces of eight from Arabia for spices and other small goods, making sure that one compensates the other, and that all is done in ships without money from the Netherlands.

— Jan Pieterszoon Coen, in a letter to the directors of the Dutch East India Company.

Jan Pieterszoon Coen was a member of the Dutch fleet commanded by Admiral Verhoeven that sailed to the Banda Islands in 1609 with orders to build a fort and consolidate Dutch control over the nutmeg trade. As the walls of the fort rose, opposition from the Bandanese increased until the admiral was forced to arrange a peace meeting with the local chiefs. Jan Pieterszoon Coen narrowly escaped death when the Bandanese surrounded and killed Admiral Verhoeven, along with 42 Dutch soldiers and senior officials.

Jan Pieterszoon Coen was always going to take his revenge against the Bandanese and in 1621 he assembled a fleet of thirteen vessels and an army of over 1500 soldiers to sail from Batavia. After provocations from both sides he unleashed the Banda Massacre which is said to have killed as many as 15,000 islands and sent the remaining population into exile.

The execution of the 42 Bandanese headmen in revenge for the death of Admiral Verhoeven and his men. (Banda Historical Museum)

Coen’s lasting legacy was the Dutch monopoly over the growth of nutmeg and cloves in the Spice Islands, which he established by force of arms and the deaths, exile or enslavement of thousands of islanders. A statue stands in the town square of his hometown Hoorn in honour of its most famous son, but whatever honours and reputation as an empire builder Jan Pieterszoon Coen enjoyed during his lifetime, these were always accompanied by charges of barbarity and inhumanity.

The statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen standing in the town square in Hoorn

In 1623 the Dutch East India Company sent an expedition of two ships, the Pera and the Arnhem, commanded by Jan Carstensz to explore what they later called the Gulf of Carpenteria. He named a river on Cape York Peninsula after Jan Pieterszoon Coen, as shown on the map below. Today that river is known as the Archer River and the name Coen River is given to one of its tributaries.

The west coast of Cape York as mapped by Jan Carstensz in 1623

The township of Coen lies is on the eastern side of Cape York Peninsula with the Coral Sea forming its eastern boundary. and the Gulf of Carpentaria forming its western boundary. The Peninsula Developmental Road 81 runs roughly north to south through the locality. and the township is located where this road crosses the Coen River. The township is 2,200 km northwest of Brisbane and in the 2016 census it had a population of only 364 people. I am not sure how many of the good people of Coen know the full history of the infamous Jan Pieterszoon Coen.

Coen township located where Development Road 81 crosses the Coen River


About ianburnet

Author of the book, Spice Islands. Which tells the History, Romance and Adventure of the spice trade from the Moluccas in Eastern Indonesia over a period of 2000 years. Author of the book, East Indies.Which tells the history of the struggle between the Portuguese Crown, the Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company for supremacy in the Eastern Seas. Author of the book 'Archipelago - A Journey Across Indonesia'. Author of the book 'Where Australia Collides with Asia' Author of the book 'The Tasman Map'. Author of the book 'Eastern Voyages'.
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2 Responses to Jan Pieterszoon Coen and the township of Coen (N.Qld)

  1. sytske A.D. arnason says:

    Hi Ian! Very nice piece about the infamous Dutch efforts to get rich from the Indies. Please keep up your research and please keep me posted!

    Being completely snowed in here it is truly wonderful to be reminded of the work you do to remember the infamous Dutch heritage on the other side of the globe. For a Dutch person, our history is not something to be proud of and yet …. the connection with Indonesia is strong and loving for many of us Dutch. How the Indonesians see the Dutch connection is somewhat more complicated. But notwithstanding, there is a continued connection as you know. Love from us here in snowy Millerton. and please keep me posted. Love, Sia

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