Bringing the history of early globalisation and colonialism at the fingertips of researchers and the wider public.


Consisting of approximately twenty-five million pages, the UNESCO Memory of the World-listed archives of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC) offer a unique view on interactions between European and non-European actors in Asia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Currently, however, doing research on this vast collection of handwritten documents is extremely challenging.

The GLOBALISE project of the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands and four partners will change this. Over the period 2021-2026, and in close collaboration with scholars from all over the world, we will develop an online infrastructure that unlocks the key series of VOC reports for advanced new research methods. At the same time, the infrastructure will engage the wider public with this many-sided and increasingly hotly-debated period of Dutch overseas history.

In this 3-minute video we introduce our project and explain the possible uses of the GLOBALISE infrastructure by scholars, heritage institutions and the wider public interested in the history of early globalisation and colonialism.

GLOBALISE introduction video
Video credits: Studio Bertels


Job openings

We’re hiring a’Team Lead Historical Contextualisation’. Full job posting on Academic Transfer. Closing date: 30 September 2021.

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The source

GLOBALISE unlocks the General Letters (Generale Missiven), the key series of VOC reports from the company’s Asian headquarters in Batavia (now Jakarta in Indonesia) to the Dutch Republic. This series of approximately 105,000 handwritten folios is of crucial importance to our understanding of the history of the world. It provides detailed and structured overviews of historical events and social, political, and economic developments occurring in the vast region where the VOC was active.

This region stretched from modern-day Jemen to Japan, encompassing the Indonesian archipelago, Sri Lanka, the coasts of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, the island of Taiwan, and various Chinese cities. The reports also provide information on Madagascar, scattered regions on the east coast of Africa, and the area around Cape Town. Covering almost the entire seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the General Letters are the most complete and extensive body of sources on early modern world history. For some regions, they are among the earliest written historical sources.

A page from the General Letters
Photo Dave Straatmeyer

The reports provide information on a wide range of subjects. Trade features most prominently. On the first picture below (click images for large versions), Dutch vessels are visible on the river Ganges at Hugli, just north of Kolkata. But there is much more going on in this picture. On the right, a local official set up camp, probably to negotiate with representatives of the VOC. This is also reported on in the General Letters, as are the local plants and animals, and the religious ceremony at the back. Other topics covered by the VOC reports are the vicious wars waged by the company in name of the Dutch Republic, such as the conquest of Macassar on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi in 1667, depicted on the second picture below, and the as yet under-researched topic of slavery in Asia (third picture).

The trading post of the Dutch East India Company in Hooghly, Bengal. Painting by Hendrik van Schuylenburgh, 1665. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, license CC0

The trading post of the Dutch East India Company in Hugli, Bengal.
Painting by Hendrik van Schuylenburgh, 1665.
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, license CC0.

The conquest of Macassar in 1667 by Cornelis Speelman. Engraving by Johannes Vingboons. Dutch National Archives, license CC0.

The conquest of Macassar in 1667 by Cornelis Speelman.
Engraving by Johannes Vingboons.
Dutch National Archives, The Hague, license CC0.

A senior merchant of the VOC with his wife and an enslaved servant.
Painting made in circle of Aelbert Cuyp, c.1650-c.1655
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, license CC0.

The importance of the General Letters has long been recognized and much effort has been made to make this source better accessible for researchers. Between 1960 and 2017, the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands and its predecessors published annotated selections of the General Letters (link to online version). Even though the series consists of 14 hefty volumes, it only covers about one-sixth of the available material. To improve the accessibility of the original documents, the TANAP project compiled a database with short descriptions of documents in VOC archives held in various places around the world. Also, sections of the General letters have been translated to make them available for non-Dutch researchers. Cheng Shaogang for example translated sections related to the history of Taiwan into Chinese.

Technological advancements now make it possible to go much further in unlocking this source. The National Archives of the Netherlands are in the process of scanning all their VOC material (scans are accessible through the online inventory, the General Letters sent to the Zeeland chamber of the VOC can be found from inventory number 7527). In a project called De ijsberg zichtbaar maken (2018-2021), much of this handwritten material was automatically transcribed. The transcriptions are available for browsing and searching on this website. The GLOBALISE project takes it from there.

The project

Our team processes the material provided by the National Archives so as to allow for advanced querying, and thus facilitate large-scale, in-depth and structured analyses of interactions between European and above all non-European actors in and around the VOC empire.

In the short (Dutch-language) video below, project leader Matthias van Rossum explains how we do this and discusses the impact on research with Cátia Antunes, Professor of History of Global Economic Networks at Leiden University.

Interview with Matthias van Rossum and Cátia Antunes on GLOBALISE (in Dutch)
Video credits: Notion Film & Animation

We apply an innovative combination of semantic and historical contextualisation methods on the automatically generated transcriptions of the handwritten original General Letters. Our teams recognises and identifies entities (such as places, persons and commodities) and events in the text, and links these to a comprehensive collection of historical reference data related to VOC history—accurate historical contextual information, compiled from a broad variety of European and Asian sources. Moreover, using state-of-the-art natural language processing (nlp) technology, we place the entities, events, and their interrelations in a knowledge graph, structured by an ontology. Hence comes the full name of the project: General Letters Ontology-Based AccessibiLity InfraStructurE (acronym GLOBALISE).

This will lead to a breakthrough in research practices. Currently, a researcher who wants to know how many slaves were transported by the VOC from Madagascar to VOC settlements in Asia would generally perform simple search queries in the edited volumes of the General Letters or the transcribed sections of the VOC archive, using search strings such as ‘slaaf*’, ‘slave*’, ‘leyfeygen*’, ‘lijffeygen*’ and ‘l*f*ge*’ to find mentions of enslaved people. This yields multiple series of single references to slavery, including slave trading or transportation, but also references to slave-based production, control over the enslaved, slave uprisings, etc. The researcher then studies all these references from the different queries individually in order to manually select relevant references and to process relevant data for specific research questions. With the GLOBALISE infrastructure, a future researcher can build a query to specifically retrieve observations of transportations of enslaved people from Madagascar, with their respective destinations. These results are ready to be processed using quantitative and qualitative research methods.

Impression of a map view with a timeline filter showing results of a search query.

The GLOBALISE infrastructure will allow researchers to answer new and more complex research questions. For example, with regard to the seventeenth-century sugar boom in Taiwan, it is known that the establishment of this industry was related to the settlement of Chinese planters and migrants. At the same time, much less is known about the sugar industry itself, such as the labour relations in the plantations. VOC officials for example reported the need for slave labour. Is it possible that both Chinese migrants and enslaved workers from other parts of Asia were employed in the sugar industry? The new opportunities to query observations on the development of sugar production, Chinese migration and slave imports will allow researchers to analyse their possible relations. The results of these scholarly endeavours will have important implications for debates on plantation societies and slave labour regimes, and on the impact and legacy of colonialism.

Users from around the world can interact with the GLOBALISE infrastructure through an easy-to-use interface.

We also aim to engage the wider public to explore the General Letters and learn about the history of early globalisation and colonialism. Users from around the world will be able to explore the source material through an easy-to-use interface. We also actively appeal to the public to help us improve our infrastructure. Citizen scientists can correct transcription errors and wrongly identified entities, supplement the available contextual information, and add extra layers of interpretation.

The GLOBALISE infrastructure is not reserved for the Dutch East India Company’s view of the world. It will be open to additional source material, such as documents of Asian rulers and polities.

Our team

Project management & user interaction

Matthias van Rossum, project leader GLOBALISE

Matthias van Rossum

Project leader
Contact page

Lodewijk Petram, project manager GLOBALISE (photo Fjodor Buis)

Lodewijk Petram

Project manager
Contact page

Technical infrastructure


Historical contextualisation


Semantic contextualisation


Steering committee


Advisory board

Victor de Boer
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, NL
Ulbe Bosma
International Institute for Social History, NL
Pepijn Brandon
International Institute for Social History, NL
Titas Chakraborty
Duke Kunshan University, China
Marens Engelhard
Dutch National Archives, NL
Marieke van Erp
KNAW Digital Humanities lab, NL
Johan Fourie
Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Ewout Frankema
Wageningen University & Research, NL
Oscar Gelderblom
Utrecht University, NL
Jos Gommans
Leiden University, NL
Michiel van Groesen
Leiden University, NL
Hans Hägerdal
Linnaeus University, Sweden
Elisabeth Heijmans
Antwerp University, Belgium
Els Jacobs
Rotterdam Centre for Modern Maritime History of Erasmus University and Maritime Museum Rotterdam, NL

Bondan Kanumoyoso
Universitas Indonesia, Indonesia
Geert Janssen
University of Amsterdam, NL
Wim Manuhutu
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, NL
Sri Margana
Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia
Anne McCants
Chris Nierstrasz
Erasmus University Rotterdam, NL
Alicia Schrikker
Leiden University, NL
Rombert Stapel
International Institute for Social History, NL
Jeroen van der Vliet
National Maritime Museum, NL
Jan de Vries
UC Berkeley, USA
Andreas Weber
University of Twente, NL
Nira Wickramasinghe
Leiden University, NL
Jan Luiten van Zanden
Utrecht University, NL


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