These activities target Year 4: Humanities and Social Sciences. They aim to facilitate an understanding of the drivers for the growth of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (translated from Dutch as ‘United East India Company’, and commonly referred to as the VOC or Dutch East India Company). It provides a historical context for students before they explore more than 400 years of Dutch influence in Australia.

Which spice is the spice of life?

Spices were a valuable asset in the goods traded by the VOC. The company expended immense military and financial resources, going to war several times in their pursuit of a monopoly on the spice trade. Spices were sourced from islands around Java and throughout Asia, and included cloves, mace, cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg.

Have students research the purported health benefits of these spices, and their many uses in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Game: What can you trade with me?

Pre-lesson preparation

Prior to the lesson, print and cut up a set of trading cards where each card is labelled with one of the following items that the VOC traded.

While there are 20 different trading cards, you will only give each student 8 cards. If you have 25 students, you’ll need 200 trading cards in total, so you’ll need to print your set of cards 10 times.

Pre-game set up

Prior to the activity, briefly explain a little about the VOC or United East India Company.

Tell your students they will be engaging in a game that helps them understand the value of various goods, in a market where certain commodities are worth more than others. The game should take a whole lesson to play and discuss, or roughly 50–60 minutes.

Distribute 8 trading cards to each student in your class.

Once you have distributed the trading cards, write the following on the board:

A yard of silk cloth = 2 points
A yard of cotton = 1 point
A bushel of pepper = 7 points   
1 bushel of nutmeg = 6 points
1 ounce of copper = 8 points
1 bushel of cinnamon quills = 8 points
1 bushel of mace = 5 points
A pouch of opium = 60 points
1 bushel of cloves = 15 points
An elephant tusk = 60 points
A one-ounce bar of gold = 100 points
A porcelain tea cup = 10 points
1 bushel of tea = 5 points
One elephant = 80 points
One deer pelt = 30 points
One sharkskin = 20 points
A bushel of seashells = 5 points
A bushel of tobacco = 3 points
A bushel of coffee beans = 4 points
Each dye = 4 points

Play Round One

Tell students they will have 5 minutes to trade cards with their fellow classmates. During those 5 minutes, they can haggle or barter for goods where they hope to make a direct swap of the same value, or slightly better or slightly less value, depending on what they want to buy from one another. They can exchange more than one card at a time (i.e. they might trade one elephant tusk, for an elephant, nutmeg and some copper).

Divide your students into three groups. Making sure that the groups are out of earshot, give each group the following secret instructions that they must not disclose to members of other groups:

Group 1: The aim of the game is to win the most points
Group 2: The aim of the game is to win the most cards
Group 3: The aim of the game is to have the most spice

Have students engage in the five-minute trading session.

After the session, ask the students to reflect on the overall trading experience, by posing the following questions:

  • Did anyone feel that they made any good deals?
  • Did anyone feel they lost value? Why?
  • Which items were most sought after and why?
  • In earlier centuries, what do you think would have determined the value of various goods?

Tell the students that they can now disregard their group’s secret instruction.

Play Round Two

Tell the students that they will now play four more rounds of the game, but as different nationalities. They will retain these nationalities for the remainder of the game. To determine their nationalities, ask them:

  • Whose set of cards has the most value? Tell this student they are going to be Dutch, representing the VOC.
  • Who has the most sharkskin and deer pelts? Tell these two students they are going to be Taiwanese.
  • Who has the most copper, gold and porcelain in their trading cards? Tell these three students they are going to be Japanese.
  • Who has the most silk? Tell this student they are going to be Indian.
  • Who has the most spice cards? Tell these (minimum five) students they are going to be Islanders from the Netherlands East Indies in the next game.
  • Tell the remaining students that they are Europeans.

If you find that you have overlap (i.e. the person with the most valuable cards also has the most copper), do some card swaps until all nationalities are represented.

Tell the students that, from now on, Japan will only trade directly with the VOC and not with any other country. Ensure all students know which of their classmates are Dutch and Japanese.

Play a 5-minute trading session, telling the students that Japan would like to buy silk.

Play Round Three

Play another 5-minute trading session, telling the students that Japan would like to buy sharkskin and deer pelts.

Play Round Four

Play another 5-minute trading session, telling the students that the Europeans want as much spice as possible.

Play Round Five

Play a final round, telling the students that they cannot speak while trading. They can only use hand gestures and body language. The aim of this round is to gain the highest-value set of cards. Japan still will not trade with any other country but the Netherlands/VOC.


Ask the students to reflect on the subsequent rounds of the game, by posing the following questions:

  • What happened when we decided that Japan would only trade with the VOC? How did this change trading?
  • What happened when you couldn’t use words/verbal language to trade?

Have students write a short response about what they learned from the activity.