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Cryptography: Dutch East India Company letter decrypted

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When an official of the Dutch East India Company saw his life’s dream shattered in 1673, he sent a secretary on a journey with a coded letter.

The big data companies of our time are Facebook (Meta), Google (Alphabet), Amazon and Microsoft and undoubtedly have a considerable influence on our society and our state today – as not only the discussions about European digital sovereignty and the control of social networks prove which we keep reporting. Influential large corporations are not a phenomenon of the Internet age, they existed long before Meta & Co. and sometimes accumulated so much influence and power that even Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg could be jealous.

The world’s largest company in the 17th century was the “Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie” (VOC), in English “Dutch East India Company”. It existed for almost 200 years from 1602 to 1798. A private, multinational trading company with 20,000 employees that had a monopoly on trade with “the East”. Shares in the company could already be traded by means of the first shares. In its heyday the VOC commanded over 150 ships and had 200 to 250 locations spread across the coasts of Asia About 40 percent of the employees of the Dutch company were German.

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The great power of the VOC was manifested in the privileges of waging wars, imprisoning and even executing convicts, and minting their own coins, among other things. And because the company’s communications had no less impact than those of states, like state agencies, they sometimes used encryption for important messages. In two articles we have already taken you on a journey through the history of cryptography, cracked the Vatican’s encryption in the early modern period and examined the encrypted letters of Emperor Maximilian II. In this article we jump from the 15th and 16th to the 17th and Asia.

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