World's oldest share
In 2010 Ruben Schalk, a history student from Utrecht University, found the world’s oldest known ‘share’ during his thesis research in the Westfries Archief in Hoorn. It dates from 1606 and was issued by the VOC chamber of Enkhuizen.
The document is made out to the Enkhuizen inhabitant ‘Pieter Hermanszoon boode’. His name was really Pieter Harmensz and he served as a personal assistant to the Enkhuizen mayors. After his death in 1638 he left the ‘share’ to his widow and their daughter Ada. The document ultimately ended up in the Enkhuizen city archives which are kept in the Westfries Archief in Hoorn, the Regional Historic Centre for eastern West-Friesland.
VOC EnkhuizenThe Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC was the country’s biggest trading company during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was the world’s first joint-stock limited liability company with freely transferable shares. The public share subscription ended on September 1st 1602, giving everybody the chance to participate in the new venture. Amongst the 538 Enkhuizen subscribers were remarkably numerous craftsmen, small entrepreneurs and citizens like Pieter Harmensz. With 540,000 guilders subscribed the VOC chamber Enkhuizen supplied, after Amsterdam and Middelburg, the third most capital to the company.
‘Share’The Enkhuizen ‘share’ is dated 9 September 1606, the day on which Pieter Harmensz paid the last installment of his 150 guilders investment in the VOC. This amount was entered in the Enkhuizen chamber’s ledger. In return Pieter Harmensz received this document, which therefore is really a quittance. An interesting feature is the long series of notes on the inside of dividend payments up to 1650. The three other known ‘shares’ have rather fewer such notes. Trade in VOC shares started almost immediately after the closure of the offer. This provided a stimulus for the rise of the Amsterdam stock exchange, the world’s oldest such exchange. The Enkhuizen ‘share’ is almost three weeks older than the previous record holder, dated 27 september 1606. This is in the possession of a group of German investors, who are offering it for sale for an astronomous amount. It remains a mystery how the document ended up in Germany. We do know for certain that around 1980 it was still in the collection of the Amsterdam City Archives.
Changing conceptionsThe discovery of this document, tied to research at Utrecht University, demonstrates that the VOC had far more financial teething problems than we knew until now. The company’s governance structure also left much to be desired. To finance its operations the VOC had to boost its equity by borrowing from private investors, and its cash shortage meant that initially its shareholders received no dividend at all. Strong shareholder pressure led the company finally to pay a dividend in 1610, partly in money and partly in spices. Shareholders retained a right to subsequent dividends, but were never given a say in the running of the company. This does not tally with current conceptions of the VOC as the first modern and transparent company.
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