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View of Table Bay with ships of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), c. In the 1600s the size of the Dutch merchant fleet probably exceeded the combined fleets of England, France, Spain, Portugal, and Germany.

was originally established as a chartered company in 1602, when the Dutch government granted it a 21-year monopoly on the Dutch spice trade.

Before the Dutch Revolt, Antwerp had played an important role as a distribution centre in northern Europe.

After 1591, however, the Portuguese used an international syndicate of the German Fuggers and Welsers, and Spanish and Italian firms, that used Hamburg as the northern staple port to distribute their goods, thereby cutting Dutch merchants out of the trade.

Some fleets were lost, but most were successful, with some voyages producing high profits.