Friday, July 1, 2016

BOISSEVAIN Gen6 | Jan (1836-1904) (Updated Oct 4, 2016)

Jan Boissevain (Gen6, 1836-1904)
Jan Boissevain was a ship-owner and major entrepreneur, born in Amsterdam on December 12, 1836. His father was Gideon Jeremie Boissevain, also a ship-owner, and his mother was Maria van Heukelom. He married, on May 15, 1862, Johanna Petronella Gerharda Brugmans.

Jan (the older brother, by six years, of my great-grandfather Charles Handelsblad Boissevain) worked with his father from the age of 13, after finishing comprehensive primary school.

Jan's Eastward Shipping Expansion

Gideon Jeremie Boissevain, Jan's father, owned a small shipping company. From Jan's letters we  know that early on he was figuring out ways to grow the family firm.

Jan's main idea was to make the small shipping company a big one by adding a steamship service between Holland and the Dutch East Indies. This went against the conventional wisdom of the day that steamships were only good for short sea voyages and that sailing ships were needed for the long voyages because coal weighed too much to store for long distances.

He had two ideas to reduce the weight of the coal. His first idea was to use the coal-fired engine as auxiliary power, much as sailboats today have an engine aboard for maneuvering in tight spaces or when the wind has died down.

Then, during the 1860s, he decided that the entire trip to the East Indies could be made with one load of coal, because:
  • The completion of the Suez Canal would greatly reduce the distance to the Indies.
  • Slow progress replacing the North Holland canal gave steamships a big advantage over sail. 
  • Greater efficiency of steamboat engines meant a long range for steamships.
Jan therefore decided that he and his father should offer the steamship service all the way to the Indies, and closely followed Dutch government policy relating to sea routes to India, doubtless reading his brother Charles's newspaper carefully. He expressed himself about this in two articles in The Economist in 1868 and 1869, citing statistics on the desirability of subsidies for the creation of canals.

In 1869, when the Suez Canal was nearing its inauguration, a Scottish ship-owner shocked Amsterdam by proposing a steamship line to the Dutch East Indies. The response in Amsterdam was immediate. In August 1869 a stakeholders' meeting was convened by an Amsterdam shipbroker to preempt the Scotsman's plan. An action committee was created and Jan Boissevain–since November 3, 1868 (and until August 22, 1873) a Liberal member of the Amsterdam Provincial  Council–was elected a member. The committee approached Prince Henry of the Netherlands ("the Navigator"), who was to represent the Dutch government at the Suez Canal opening. The Prince promised to cooperate, financially and morally, to ensure that a Dutch company serviced the route.

These initiatives annoyed the Scottish shipowner. While Prince Henry was in Egypt, the Scotsman attacked the preparatory work of the committee, blaming Boissevain (as the youngest member of the Executive Committee). The committee quickly prepared a new plan, focusing on trade with India, instead of the more favorable trade with Southern Europe. The Amsterdam market was skeptical about Boissevain's calculations, even though they were carefully put together. When the tender was opened in March 1870, only 2.5 million guilders of the required 3.5 million capital was raised.

After an intense patriotic ampaign, conducted with the support of Prince Henry, a renewed public offering attracted the required level of subscriptions. On May 13, 1870 the Steamship Company "Netherlands" was created with a three-man board of which Jan Boissevain remained the soul for 34 years. The King acted as patron and his brother was an active honorary president.

The mayor of Amsterdam was Chairman of the Company–Cornelis Jacob Arnold (Koo) den Tex, an Amsterdammer, born March 12, 1824, died December 6, 1882. He began in 1847 his career as a lawyer in Amsterdam and in 1866 he became a Liberal member of the council. From 1868 to 1880 he was Mayor of Amsterdam, and became Senator until his death in 1882. His biography has been written.

For the first few years,  the new company did not prosper. The projected revenue proved to have been optimistic. The lease for the port facilities in Nieuwediep from the Royal Navy was short-term and renewal was an uncertainty. The competition for North Sea business became stronger starting in 1876 and was in full swing by 1879. Larger ships started coming to the area and the port installations on the IJ were found to be inadequate. Worst of all, the company was suffered several accidents:
  • A Scottish-built ship in 1871 caught fire and burned after barely a day at sea. While tragic, no lives were lost. However, the company remained for years entangled in lawsuits over compensation to passengers. 
  • Unreliable propellers caused many repair costs and delayed travel in the early years. 
  • In 1881, another ship sank in the Indian Ocean. One of the lifeboats, with its crew and passengers, disappeared into the waves.
However, the Company survived. In 1873 it harvested the thanks of the Government for speedy military shipments at the outbreak of the Aceh War in Northern Sumatra. The company paid its first dividend in 1874.

Jan as Banker and Negotiator

Jan Boissevain had other successes. A few years later, India was hit by a catastrophic decline in sugar prices. This led to serious difficulties for the Dutch East India Commercial Bank in the autumn of 1884 because it had overextended itself, far beyond its own resources, to make loans to planters. If loan payments were made subject to a moratorium it would create a disaster for the East Indies economy and, indirectly, the two steamship lines "Netherlands" and "Rotterdam Lloyd". The project, seemed impossibly difficult because so much money (nine million guilders) was needed, and by  a deadline of only five days.

The big banker AC Wertheim and Jan Boissevain joined other Amsterdam businessmen to save the bank. They each independently took a position in the Stock Exchange, without prior consultation (as Boissevain wrote later). A new company was formed. All of the needed subscribers were found, and two hours before the expiry of the five-day period the money was raised and the Dutch East India Commercial Bank was saved.

When the crisis came over the issue of the Paketvaart between Java and Amsterdam, he played a central role. When the possibility of war arose, and complaints from passengers and shippers increased, the national interest demanded a purely Dutch company, which, however, could scarcely get off the ground in the face of the strong existing competition.

Boissevain was known as a flexible and effective negotiator, paying attention to the interests of the other side. During repeated trips to England and Scotland, he succeeded in building a friendship with the director of the Dutch East India Steamship Company, Sir William McKinnon. He used his connections and knowledge to acquire the entire fleet of the company for reasonable price, taking over Royal Packet Company.

When the assets of his company were transferred in 1877 from Den Helder to Amsterdam, the urgent need a larger dry dock in Amsterdam became clear. Boissevain spearheaded the formation of the Amsterdam Drydock Company, which lasted more than a century, the first 26 years of it with him as president. In this way he played a major part in creating the prosperity of the port of Amsterdam.

Jan as Politician and Organizer

Boissevain as mentioned had meanwhile become a Liberal member of the Amsterdam provincial council. He would remain there until 1898, and would be elected again for Amsterdam from 1901 until his death.

The growth of the port of Amsterdam meant that many new trained machinists were needed. Jan put his support behind the creation of a school, was later named the Secondary Technical School.

The establishment of the Netherlands Shipbuilding Company in 1894 was in large part enabled by   negotiations with laid-off workers from "Werkspoor" by the board and management committee of the Netherlands Shipbuilding Company.

Jan was extremely empathetic with his workers, as is evident from the fact that he was for many years chairman of a housing association which built houses for workers. He and his wife Johanna Petronella [Nella?] helped them with advice and assistance when they ran into personal difficulties. , gratitude was expected for some workers more and more as their straight regarded went. That is why he felt the strike of port workers in 1903, which led to the rail strikes, as a personal insult, which may be life has hastened. In the spring of 1904 he moved with his wife and daughter to Bellagio and left behind a printed suicide note for all its employees. At his wish, he was buried in Bellagio in the Protestant cemetery. Despite his schooling having ended early, Jan Boissevain was a well-read man who spoke his language well and French without an accent. He subscribed to The Guide - Potgieter was a family friend - and the Revue des Deux Mondes. The articles in these magazines were the favorite subject of his conversation table, where all gossip was strictly forbidden.]

He was a faithful churchgoer in the Walloon Church, but also on occasion listened to liberal Reformed and Mennonite pastors. But when his children's New Guide preferred Symbolists over the Romantics, and questioned the tenets of Christianity, he would not follow them. When dealing with employees was no longer a matter of individual assistance, but tough negotiations with unions, he left this part of the management task normally to his attorney co-director, the younger LPD Op ten Noort.

He was a major actor in the Dutch economy of his time and can be properly called an Amsterdam trading and shipping magnate. He died in Bellagio, Italy on May 13, 1904.


A biography has been written in Dutch on Mayor Cornelis Jacob Arnold den Tex. See also The twin sister of Charles Handelsblad Boissevain (Gen6), Hester Boissevain, married Nicolaas Jacob den Tex, nephew of the Mayor. I translated the Dutch text using my frail Dutch supplemented by Google Translate, and added information as needed from other sources.


Boissevain, Charles, Onze Voortrekkers [Our Forebears] (Amsterdam, 1906).
Boissevain File, Amsterdam Municipal Archives (Archief), Amsterdam.
Commemorative Book of Steamship-Company Netherlands 1870-1920.
de Boer,  MG, History of the Amsterdam Steamships (Amsterdam, 1921-1922 3 parts.)
den Tex, Jan, in Biographical Dictionary of the Netherlands 1 (The Hague, 1979).
Hofland, Peter, and Members of the Council. The Amsterdam City Council from 1814 to 1941. (Amsterdam 1998) 132.
Netherlands Society Annual, 1871-1903, History of the first 25 years of the Steamship Company "Netherlands" (Amsterdam, 1895).
Pierson, NG, Braine Hearth 1904, 742-750.
Rammer, JC, in New Netherland Biographical Dictionary, VII, 161-164.


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