By the 1650s the Dutch were the world’s leading trading nation and the mighty Vereenigde Oost-indische Compagnie (VOC) the world’s largest trading enterprise. Amsterdam, its home base, was a huge entrepôt for pepper and spices, sugar, tobacco, timber and manufactured articles from across the globe. VOC policies and laws would set in train processes that would profoundly shape the colonial society established at the Cape.
It was predominantly black pepper, supplemented by cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and mace, which lured the Dutch at the end of the sixteenth century over the dangerous seas to the Far East. These products were found only in a handful of countries, including present-day India, Malaysia and Indonesia. Pepper was used to preserve food at a time when the use of ice had not yet been realised. It was worth more than gold in weight. By the end of the seventeenth century the VOC was importing more than four million pounds of pepper annually, far outstripping other products. In the eighteenth century sugar and coffee from Java would become increasingly important imports.