Irina Ridzuan

Pelts and skin

Smelly goods from New Amsterdam


West-Indies Warehouse - The West Indies House, `s Gravenhekje 1 seen from the Kalkmarkt on the Nieuwe Waalseiland (later: Prins Hendrikkade) over the water of the Oudeschans.   On the left the Kikkerbilssluis and the IJgracht, after 1879 the Prins Hendrikkade. Image taken from Amsterdam Archive . Item no.  010097003757

“If it was the search for a short route to Asia that brought the Dutch to North America, it was the beaver that made them stay” (NNI, 2019).

Like most trade network, the North American fur trade was incredibly lucrative when the Dutch got into the game, in the 17th century. But this was already the apex of the narrative. At the start of it was a barter-system between natives and European fishermen: of which the former traded beaver pelts for goods like iron-based tools or woven textiles (Innis, 1960). Transactions were per chance with no real system in place, but this all changed in the late-sixteenth century when beaver-pelt grew to be the most fashionable of items in Europe. Of course, this demand in Europe did not emerge out of thin air. In fact, Russia was the biggest exporter of these furs and they safeguarded their felt-making technology very well. But as soon as the craze took hold of Europe, Russia was no longer able to supply such high demands; thus, by 17th century, North America’s beaver pelts really proved their worth in gold (Carlos, 2019). And as the demand for beaver fur rose, firms emerged which dealt with pelts exclusively. The French in today-Canada were one of the first, and amongst these firms is the New Netherlands Company, established in 1614, in order to maximize their trading profit in North America. In 1621, their presence as prominent Dutch traders in the “New World” was replaced by Dutch West Indies Company (WIC), before they became more well-known for their role in the Transatlantic slave trade.

What is most interesting about at this point is that the fur trade was likely the most profitable export out of the West Indies around the time WIC was instated. And the Company also had plans to not only monopolize the trade to gain leverage over the English and French, but to establish a colony in North America through the established trading posts. In fact, the Amsterdam Kamer of the WIC founded a commission to develop New Netherlands as a colony and most of the funds came from the WIC’s profits from the fur trade (Koot, 2015). Having said that, certainly these fur pelts were such valuable commodities coming through the port of Amsterdam. What is most interesting to us the storage of these pelts and hides in the West-Indisch Pakhuis (West-Indies Warehouse) on Rapenburg.

This warehouse was purpose-built in 1642, to store imported goods and merchandise from the West-Indies. Appropriately, the ground level was used to store and, sometimes process, furs and hide from trading posts brought in from New Amsterdam through the city’s port. By 1647, the WIC had moved their headquarter to the Pakhuis, and thereby ran all trading activities as well as business of the settlements from this very building. What we find most outstanding is the mingling between the musty beaver pelts scent with the bustling bureaucracy of running a company. The history of aroma trapped within this building in itself bodes more exploration. Not to mention, the interesting scent of beaver pelts being unloaded into the city, all waiting to be fashioned (through an even smellier process) into the haute couture garments of the elite.

Can you imagine a modern equivalent of a scent history like the West-Indisch Pakhuis? Like a Google office with a ground-level tannery.