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Cornelis de Houtman was a Dutch explorer who discovered a new sea route from Europe to Indonesia and who thus begun the Dutch spice trade. At the time, the Portuguese Empire held a monopoly on the spice trade. Houtman was also a spy, having worked against the Portuguese by bringing back to the Netherlands privileged nautical information obtained during his stay in Portugal.

In 1592 Cornelis de Houtman was sent by Amsterdam merchants to Lisbon to discover as much information on the Spice Islands as he could. Portugal and Spain, then united, had closed their ports to Dutch ships in 1585, during the Eighty Years' War. Houtman spent about two years in Portugal. While his official work supported the Portuguese explorations in Southeast Asia, he surreptitiously gather information for the Dutch. Houtman returned with important and previously secret information about the seas and lands of the East: the coasts, the reefs and skerries, the sea currents, the winds, landmarks, local birds, friendly and enemy foes and about the strengths and weaknesses of the Portuguese.

At the same time he returned to Amsterdam, Jan Huygen van Linschoten returned from India. The merchants determined that Bantam (Banten) provided the best opportunity to buy spices. In 1594, the two merchants founded the company 'compagnie van Verre' (meaning "the long-distance company"), and on April 2, 1595 four ships left Amsterdam: the Amsterdam, Hollandia, Mauritius and Duyfken.

Troubles began immediately.  By the time the expedition reached Madagascar, 70 sailors had died from scurvy. The ship arrived in Banten, Java in June 1596, just west of the modern city of Jakarta. Jan Huyghen van Linschoten had warned in advance not to pass through Portuguese controlled Malacca Strait, but instead to seek passage through Sunda Strait.

Houtman was introduced to the Sultan of Banten, who promptly entered into an optimistic treaty with the Dutch, writing "We are well content to have a permanent league of alliance and friendship with His Highness the Prince Maurice of Nassau, of the Netherlands and with you, gentlemen." Unfortunately, Houtman was undiplomatic to the sultan, and was unable to buy spices at all.

Houtman next sailed to Madura, but was attacked by pirates. In Madura, they were received peacefully, but Houtman ordered his men to seek revenge for piracy against the local inhabitants.  The expedition next sailed for Bali, and met with the island's king. They managed to obtain a few pots of peppercorns on February 26, 1597. Two of the crew members stayed on the island. At Bawean, the Amsterdam was purposely set on fire, and the crew divided over the other three ships.  It was decided not to go to the Moluccas and return to Holland. That evening another one of the skippers died. De Houtman was accused of poisoning him.

While the expedition was a humanitarian disaster and financially probably just broke even, it was a symbolic victory, breaking the Portuguese strangehold on trade in the region. Soon, the Dutch would fully take over the spice trade in and around the Indian Ocean.

On his second trip to the East, Houtman and his troops got into a confrontation in Aceh, because of his rude temperament, and soon there were fierce battles with the Acehnese Navy, led by Aceh's female admiral, Keumalahayati (Malahayati) who eventually managed to kill Cornelis de Houtman. Because of that incident, Queen Elizabeth I of England decided to send an emissary to the Sultan of Aceh, asking permission to enter Malacca Strait.