National Archives of the Netherlands (Ministry of Education, Culture and Science)

Discovery of VOC archives in Calcutta, India

A single sentence in an Indian book from 1945: 'There is also a small collection of Dutch records in the Bengal Record Room' led Lennart Bes of the Nationaal Archief to suspect that not all the surviving VOC archives in the world had been located during the TANAP project. Thanks to the Mutual Cultural Heritage programme, he was able to put this theory to the test in Calcutta, where he suspected that the documents –if they still existed– were held at the West Bengal State Archives.

The discovery

After spending some time searching in Calcutta's bustling university district, Lennart introduced himself to the head of the Reading Room, presenting his letters of recommendation from the director of the Nationaal Archief and the Netherlands Embassy in Delhi. 'Dutch records? Sure!' He was immediately handed a catalogue that listed, in black and white, ten bundles of VOC documents. As they had never been requested before, the documents were in the darkest and dustiest corner of the storeroom but, after some vigorous dusting, the word 'Dutch' appeared on the cover of one of the hefty bundles!

New research possibilities

The discovery comprised two metres of untouched VOC archives, consisting of some 5,000 leases from the period 1702-1825: documents containing details (location, date, value), in Dutch and Bengalese, of land leased by the VOC to residents of Bengal. As this was regarded as an active archive when the Dutch left Bengal in 1825, the British administration in India took over the lease documents, packaged them, and subsequently had them restored. Until now, covered in a thick layer of dust but in excellent condition, the documents have been waiting to be discovered by a researcher. They will soon be added to the list of VOC archives on the TANAP website.