The coastal provinces of Holland and Zeeland had for a long time prior to Spanish rule been important hubs of the European maritime trade network. Their geographical location provided convenient access to the markets of France, Germany, England and the Baltic. The war with Spain led many financiers and traders to emigrate from Antwerp, capital of Flanders and then one of Europe's most important commercial centres, to Dutch cities, particularly Amsterdam, which became Europe's foremost centre for shipping, banking, and insurance. Efficient access to capital enabled the Dutch in the 1580s to extend their trade networks beyond northern Europe to new markets in the Mediterranean and the Levant. In the 1590s, Dutch ships began to trade with Brazil and the Gold Coast of Africa, and towards the Indian Ocean and the source of the lucrative spice trade. This brought the Dutch into direct competition with Portugal, which had dominated these trade networks for several decades, and had established colonial outposts on the coasts of Brazil, Africa and the Indian Ocean to facilitate them. The rivalry with Portugal, however, was not entirely economic: from 1580 the Portuguese crown had been joined to that of Spain in an "Iberian Union" under Phillip II. By attacking Portuguese overseas possessions, the Dutch forced Spain to divert financial and military resources away from its attempt to quell Dutch independence. Thus this began the Dutch-Portuguese War, which would last until the 1650s.
In 1594, a "Company of Far Lands" was founded in Amsterdam, with the aim of sending two fleets to the spice islands of Maluku. The first fleet sailed in 1596 and returned in 1597 with a cargo of pepper, which more than covered the costs of the voyage. The second fleet, departing in 1598 and returning in 1599, returned its investors a 400% profit. The success of these voyages led to the founding of a number of companies competing for the trade. The competition was counterproductive to the companies' interests as it threatened to drive up the price of spices at their source in Indonesia while driving them down in Europe.