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Dutch Republic


DUTCH REPUBLIC. Sir William Temple, English ambassador to The Hague, famously described the Dutch Republic in 1673 as "the Envy of some, the Fear of others, and the Wonder of all their Neighbours." How such a small country"this undigested vomit of the sea," as one of Sir William's less charitable compatriots put ita country that had not even existed a century earlier, could develop in such spectacular fashion is one of the marvels of the early modern era.


During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Low Countries, occupying roughly the territory of present Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, had first gained prominence as the northern counterparts of Renaissance Italy. As in Italy, more or less autonomous towns, like Bruges and Ghent, later also Antwerp, attracted droves of international merchants. Like Italy, the Low Countries were politically divided, into as many as seventeen quasi-independent territories. During the fourteenth century, the dukes of Burgundy first started to bring some of these territories under their rule, and this process continued and intensified under the Habsburgs when they inherited the Burgundy legacy in 1477. It took until 1543, however, before all seventeen territories of the Netherlands were united for the first time under the same ruler, the Habsburg emperor Charles V (ruled 15191556). By this time, the Reformation was already having an impact. In the heavily urbanized Low Countries, the new religious ideas spread quickly. Efforts to repress religious dissent soon followed, and this repression clashed with the regions' traditions of independence. In 1566 a revolt of the nobles coincided with mass protests against Catholic authority. Attempts to repress the rebellion came close to success at several points but failed every time, mainly because of competing commitments of the Spanish Habsburg crown elsewhere in Europe. In 1579 the rebel provinces formalized their collaboration against Spain in the Union of Utrecht, which later came to be seen as the founding document of the Dutch Republic. During the 1590s, while Spain was preoccupied with the Wars of Religion in France, the rebels consolidated their positions, and when the Spanish crown went bankrupt in 1607, the independence of the northern provinces was confirmed in a Twelve Years' Truce in 1609. Most other European states now formally recognized the Republic of the Seven Netherlands, the Dutch Republic, as an independent state. In 1621 the war was resumed because neither the Spanish nor the Dutch could as yet face up to the implications of peace. The war, however, effectively ended halfway through the 1630s, when the lines of demarcation began to harden into proper borders. The Treaty of Münster, part of the 1648 pan-European Peace of Westphalia, which also ended the Thirty Years' War, brought the Dutch Revolt formally to an end. By then, all the characteristics of the Dutch Golden Age were in place.


The Golden Age was built on firm economic foundations. As a result of the unsuitability of its soils for the growing of grain, the staple of late medieval agriculture, farmers in the western areas, notably the counties of Holland and Zeeland, had already turned to cash crops, such as flax and madder, as well as the cattle that were to determine the Dutch image abroad. Butter and hard cheeses, as well as beer and salted fish, were early export products of the northern Netherlands. The food deficit was made up by imports from France and especially from the Baltic region. To sustain this substantial trade in bulk products, the Dutch built a large merchant navy consisting of highly efficient, and constantly improving, vessels that were designed to reduce transport costs. This helped make the Dutch into the carriers of Europe. By 1530 Holland's merchant navy was larger than those of the French and the British combined.

During the sixteenth century, Dutch harbors, mainly in the provinces of Zeeland and Holland, had acted as satellites of a trade system dominated by Antwerp. Initially, Antwerp had been on the rebel side, but in 1585 it was conquered by Spanish troops. Meanwhile, the Dutch closed off the River Scheldt to prevent oceangoing vessels from reaching Antwerp's harbor. Merchants from Antwerp dispersed all over western Europe, but around 1590 a majority converged on Amsterdam, and, together with native merchants, they took new initiatives. Dutch ships sailed to the Mediterranean for the first time in 1589 to supply famine-stricken Italy with grain. They went to Venezuela in 1599 to fetch salt, necessary for curing herring. And most spectacularly, in 1594 a first group of ships left the republic for the East Indies. With Antwerp severely handicapped, Dutch towns, but especially Amsterdam, took over as the main middlemen of international trade. Throughout the world the Dutch guilder became accepted as currency.

Dutch European trade centered on the exchange of raw materials from northern Europe, such as wood, tar, and grain, for necessities such as salt, luxuries such as French wines, and the inevitable spices. Around 1600 Dutch merchants gained direct access to the Asian spice markets. They fetched salt from Venezuela, coffee and sugar from Brazil, and silk from the Middle East. Amsterdam became the center of European trade, the city where everything was supposed to be for sale. Financial institutions were created: the Amsterdam Exchange was built in 16081611, and the Exchange Bank was founded in 1609. The availability of exotic products helped create new industries such as sugar refineries, tobacco factories, and silk weaving, all of which had been unknown in Holland before 1600. The number of guilds in the Dutch Republic almost doubled during the seventeenth century, from about 650 to more than 1,100, again testifying to the expansion of urban industries. Although guilds were later reckoned to be bad for the economy, they oversaw production in such highly successful industries as painting.

It has been claimed that Dutch economic success was predicated on its experience in bulk trade, but that underestimates the role of the so-called rich trades in wine, spices, and other valuables. It would, however, likewise be a mistake to see Amsterdam as a mere successor to Antwerp, from which many of these rich trades came to the north. The really innovative aspect of the Dutch economy was its level of integration between the agricultural, industrial, and service sectors. Numerous forward and backward linkages, for instance between trade, shipbuilding, and the cultivation of hemp, ensured that economic growth touched a wide area and cut deeply into Dutch society. It has been suggested that this must have made the Dutch economy "modern" at least a century before the industrial revolution. There is a substantial truth in this, but one has to keep in mind that in quantitative terms at least, Dutch growth figures, though impressive by the standards of the time, were very modest when compared to those of the industrial era.


One of the most remarkable results of Dutch commercial expansion was the establishment of Dutch culture across the globe. During the first stage of the "great discoveries," the European world system had been dominated by the Mediterranean powers. In the late sixteenth century, northern Europe started to join in, and the Dutch were initially the most successful of these new competitors for the non-European riches. The first companies, established during the 1590s, were merged in 1602 into the Dutch East India Company, or Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC). Its prime target was the Indonesian spice islands, where the VOC established exclusive contracts with local princes. When these proved impossible to enforce, the VOC started to police the islands, and in some places, notably in the Moluccas, displaced the whole population, converting the farms into plantations worked with slave labor. In 1618 Batavia (now Jakarta) was established as the VOC's headquarters in the Indonesian archipelago. The VOC was, however, much more than a regional trading company. Its monopoly charter, granted by the Dutch States General, extended from the Cape of Good Hope eastward, and to a remarkable degree, the VOC managed to implant itself in that vast area. By the third quarter of the seventeenth century, Dutch trading posts had been established on the Malabar and Coromandel coasts of India, while Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) had become an almost exclusive Dutch preserve. In China the VOC lost its initial foothold on the mainland but managed to hold out in Taiwan. From 1641 the VOC was the only foreign trader allowed to do business with Japan, albeit under severely restricted conditions. Between these various outposts a lively trade was conducted, and the VOC became as much an intra-Asian business as an export firm. During the 1680s it employed 11,500 Europeans in Asia, more than half of them soldiers, as well as 6,000 people recruited locally, including 2,400 slaves. Nonetheless, twenty to twenty-five ships sailed annually to the East Indies from Holland, and half of those made the return trip. But the deficit again underlines the importance of the trade within Asia itself. All those ships called at the Cape of Good Hope, where Cape Town was officially established in 1652 as a victualing station.

The VOC was a hugely successful enterprise, reputedly the largest firm of its times. By comparison, the Dutch West India Company, or West Indische Compagnie (WIC), was a sorry affair. It was created in 1621 after protracted protests from the Spanish, who considered the Americas their private fief. Because they and the Portuguese, who were also under Spanish rule at the time, were so well entrenched, the WIC found it much more difficult to establish a profitable business. In 1630 the WIC managed to conquer the northeastern corner of Brazil from the Portuguese, but the original European settlers started a guerrilla war and in the end managed to oust the company again in 1654. In 1634 several Caribbean islands were occupied, which are still part of the modern Kingdom of the Netherlands. But they proved to be profitable mainly as trading posts, from which African slaves were forwarded to the French and English sugar islands and the Spanish colonies on the mainland. From the second half of the seventeenth century, Dutch planters in what was to become Surinam also bought slaves. To maintain its supply of slaves, the WIC had several forts on the West African coast. It has been estimated that Dutch traders handled no more than about 5 percent of the slave trade, but that still means an estimated three thousand individuals shipped year after year for about two centuries by Dutch merchants alone.

Compared to these activities in Central and South America, Dutch involvement in the European settlement of North America was modest. However, in 1609 Henry Hudson, in the service of the VOC, sailed up what is now known as the Hudson River while trying to find the Northwest Passage to Asia. In 1614 the first colonists arrived and in 1624 Fort Nassau was established on the site of present-day Albany in upstate New York. In 1626 the Dutch bought what later became known as Manhattan, for the equivalent of sixty guilders in goods, and established New Amsterdam. Many place names in New York City, like Staten Island, the Bowery, Wall Street, Brooklyn, Flatbush, and Flushing, still testify to the Dutch presence, though the last Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant, had to hand over the colony to the English in 1664.


The "Dutch" colonies were by no means exclusively Dutch. There simply were not enough Dutch natives to conquer the whole world. Therefore, the WIC and VOC employed numerous immigrants. In this respect they were a mirror of Dutch society as a whole. During the seventeenth century, Dutch population increased from an estimated 1.5 million to a little under 2 million. During the eighteenth century, the increase was a mere 10 percent. Although we will never know the precise figure, there is no doubt that this population growth was mainly due to immigration. Around 1600 the majority of immigrants were refugees from the Southern Netherlands, people who for religious or economic reasons, or a combination, no longer wanted to live under Habsburg rule. In those same years a small group of Portuguese Jews also settled in the Dutch Republic, for a similar combination of reasons. From the 1620s onward, new groups of immigrants started to arrive. They came from all over Europe, but mainly from Scandinavia and the German territories, which had been ravaged by the Thirty Years' War. Germans made up by far the most numerous group of foreigners in the republic during the seventeenth century, and this would continue into the eighteenth and indeed nineteenth centuries. Around 1685 another wave of refugees, thirty-five to fifty thousand strong, arrived from France, expelled by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The second half of the seventeenth century also saw the arrival of a substantial number of eastern European Jews, who began to outnumber those from the Iberian Peninsula.

Immigrants who settled permanently in the republic did so overwhelmingly in the towns. In seventeenth-century Amsterdam, only one-third of those married (their places of origin are known) were natives of the city. Another third came from elsewhere in the republic, but the remaining third were immigrants from abroad. These figures almost exactly match those of the late twentieth century. Amsterdam was particularly welcoming to foreigners, even granting citizenship rights to Jews. As a result, the city grew more than fourfold during the first half of the seventeenth century. But other towns received their fair share, too. The influx reinforced an already prominent feature of Dutch society, its remarkable degree of urbanization. Before the Dutch Revolt, the Low Countries had been, together with Italy, the most urbanized region of Europe. In the seventeenth century the Dutch Republic outstripped all other countries in this respect. In 1700 a third of the population lived in towns of ten thousand and over. There were no fewer than twenty towns of that size in the republic; in England, by comparison, there were only eleven. Thus the republic was not only urbanized to an unusual degree, but its urban population was also dispersed across a great many urban centers. In the middle of the seventeenth century, a network of special canals was dug, interconnecting most of these towns with regular towboat services which, in their day, were considered to be the pinnacle of public transport.

With the towns in the forefront, it was almost inevitable that the urban elite had a large impact on society as a whole. The mercantile community and the councillors of the enfranchised towns, who were known as "regents," were the richest and most influential class in a society that has therefore often been described as "bourgeois." Their homes lined the canals in Amsterdam and other towns of Holland. In the eastern part of the country, however, the old economy was still very much alive, as were the old social structures. Noble families dominated not only the countryside, but many towns as well. When not taking up office, they often served in the Dutch army, which was one of the largest in Europe.


That is how the famous Dutch historian Johan Huizinga described the republic's political structures in 1941. His verdict stood in a long line of condemnations, and it is true that the political legacy of the Dutch Revolt seemed at first glance less than straightforward. The 1579 Union of Utrecht had attempted to compromise between two conflicting principles. On the one hand, the struggle was supposed to restore the traditional autonomy of the provinces and cities that supported it. The result of this was that the individual provinces gained quasi-independence; they spoke of each other as "allies." Within the provinces, towns and nobles, the latter representing the countryside, shared power, albeit in varying degrees. In most provinces their votes were balanced, but in Holland the nobles held one vote against eighteen for the towns. Taxation was for the provinces to decide, and most provinces had their own university and their own legal system as well as their own currency. In many areas, regulation was left to individual communities. As a result, local authorities wielded wide-ranging powers.

The Union of Utrecht also stated that to continue the struggle, it was necessary to coordinate the defense of the country. The participants pledged to act in this respect "as if they were one province." To that end, they cooperated in the States General, where each province held one vote, and decisions could be vetoed by any single province. The presidency of the States General rotated among the provinces, each holding the chair for one week at a time. Proposals in the States General were referred back to the provinces, which in turn referred them to the nobles and the towns. Thus, issues of war and peace were discussed in the town halls of both Amsterdam, representing its 200,000 inhabitants, and tiny Sloten, in Friesland, with 450 inhabitants. In all, an estimated 2,000 individuals participated in the decisions of the States General.

The most important counterweight to the autonomy of local institutions was the stadtholder from the House of Orange. Under Habsburg rule the stadtholders were provincial governors, and William I of Orange, known as "William the Silent" (15331584) had been one of them. When he emerged as leader of the Dutch Revolt, it proved impossible to abandon the office, even after the abjuration of the king in whose name he had held it. After William's death, the office was retained and coupled with the command of the navy and army of the young republic. The two northern provinces of Friesland and Groningen, however, continued to elect distant relatives of the Oranges as their stadtholder. Nonetheless, the Orange stadtholders, both because they served in several provinces at the same time and because their military offices gave them a special responsibility for national defenseWilliam's sons Maurice (15671625) and Frederick Henry (15841647), who both served as stadtholders, proved extremely capable generalsthe stadtholders emerged as informal heads of state. During the minority of William III of Orange (16501702), however, Johan de Witt (16251672), the political leader of the province of Holland, emerged as a national leader.


The Dutch Revolt had been a struggle for political autonomy and against the religious policies of the Habsburgs. As with the political structures, the religious outcome was deeply ambivalent. In the Union of Utrecht, freedom of conscience was promised to individual Dutchmen and -women, a highly significant step at a time when many Europeans were prepared to kill over religious issues. But at the same time, it was laid down that each province was entitled to create its own religious order, implying that the exercise of such freedoms might be seriously limited. This was indeed what happened. In the course of the revolt, the Calvinist church, well suited to the small-scale resistance and clandestine operations that typified the struggle, had emerged as the church of the revolt's leadership. Even William I of Orange, who had been a Lutheran and a Catholic before, and was a politique (one who favored a political solution to the religious conflicts) at heart, joined the Calvinists. During the 1580s, the activities of the Catholic Church were outlawed. Its buildings were handed over to the Calvinists, who were the only religious group allowed to practice their rites in public. Freedom of conscience had clearly become the liberty to believe, but certainly not the liberty to practice. The Calvinist church became the public church, and support of Calvinism became a precondition for political office. Nonetheless, only a small minority of the population initially joined the ranks of the Calvinists. In 1600 probably no more than 15 percent of the population were full members, with an unknown additional number coming to services without, however, joining the church. In part the Calvinists themselves were to blame for their lack of popular support. They set very high moral standards for their members and made it clear that only those who were willing to live by those standards would be made welcome. The authorities were halfhearted in their support of Calvinism, regularly accusing its ministers of religious extremism. They were also unwilling to risk a confrontation with the numerous non-Calvinists. And they persuaded themselves that tolerance was good for business.

Given the fierce competition between the towns of the Dutch Republic, this may well have been true. The Portuguese Jews, for example, who started to arrive around 1600, cleverly managed to extract maximum concessions from local authorities by playing them off against each other. This strategy ultimately won them unprecedented freedom, notably in Amsterdam where they could even obtain citizenship rights, albeit under somewhat restricted conditions. Amsterdam was notoriously relaxed in its attitudes towards the "tolerated churches," even allowing the building of two Lutheran churches and two synagogues in the course of the seventeenth century. The Catholics, on the other hand, remained tarred as the church of the Spanish enemy. In the first half of the seventeenth century, much of the Catholic church organization had to be rebuilt clandestinely. Those efforts met with remarkable success, given Catholicism's illegal status. Catholics had to celebrate mass in so-called hidden churches and reckon with regular police raids. Nonetheless, by the end of the century, as much as a third of the Dutch population professed the Roman Catholic faith, not many fewer than the state-sponsored Calvinists who made up almost half the population. Equally remarkable perhaps was that, despite strong language from ministers and priests about their pernicious opponents, individual Dutchmen and -women were quite able to live in peace with neighbors and colleagues of a different persuasion.

It would be wrong, nonetheless, to think of the Dutch as a nation of innate tolerance. Zeeland and the northern provinces were almost completely Calvinist. In the eastern part of the country, the non-Calvinists had a hard time. In the course of the seventeenth century, Roman Catholics were excluded there from urban citizenship rights and therefore prohibited from joining a guild. Tolerance, in other words, was first and foremost a characteristic of the mercantile towns of the west.


The introduction of the Reformation, and the Dutch Revolt more generally, had led to a collapse of the traditional markets for the visual arts in the northern Netherlands. Nonetheless, many artists from the south were seeking refuge in the north. Desperate for work, they started to develop new subjects, hoping to please the newly rich middle classes. This led to the creation of what was later to become known as genre painting, scenes from everyday life, often enlivened with a pun or hidden moral. Painting became an exceedingly popular art. Foreign visitors commented on the numbers of paintings in the homes of even modest Dutch families. It has been estimated that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as many as five million paintings must have been produced in the Dutch Republic, perhaps even double that number.

As the new market expanded, Dutch artists specialized in a variety of subjects. One painted little else but landscapes (Jacob van Ruysdael, 1628/291682), another confined himself to winter scenes (Hendrik Avercamp, 15851634), or kitchen interiors (Gerard Dou, 16131675), or naval engagements (Willem van de Velde de Jonge 16331707). The great majority of the paintings produced during the Golden Age were cheap and fairly worthless from an aesthetic point of view, decoration rather than art. But some artists produced a stunning quality, taking the depiction of their modest subject matter to entirely new levels of craftsmanship. It was not just the still famous Frans Hals (1581/851666) of Haarlem or Johannes Vermeer (16321675) of Delft who excelled, but in fact a crowd of painters who still impress. Even in traditional subject matter such as scenes from ancient history and the Bible, Dutch painters, notably Rembrandt van Rijn (16061669), excelled.

After 1672, however, the domestic market for paintings collapsed. This was partly due to the great crisis of that year, when the Dutch Republic was attacked from various sides. The crisis seems to have precipitated a shift in taste, especially among well-to-do buyers, from contemporary masters to the established names from the first half of the century. But there was also the underlying problem of the secondhand market. The production of the previous half-century had been so abundant that the market was already awash with paintings of good quality, leaving little room for new work.


After the Treaty of Münster in 1648, the future had looked very bright for the Dutch Republic. Its huge army could be reduced in size, promising a substantial peace dividend. The republic's neighbors, meanwhile, were in disarray. Germany was exhausted by the Thirty Years' War; the Civil War in England was in full swing, and in France the Fronde had revealed the precariousness of the monarchy during Louis XIV's minority. The twenty years of Johan De Witt's leadership as grand pensionary of Holland (16531672) were generally prosperous and peaceful, even though punctuated by two naval wars with England (16521654 and 16651667) and several smaller skirmishes. But trouble was brewing. After Louis had taken power personally in 1662, he set his sights on the Spanish Netherlands. A division was proposed that would give the French and the Dutch both a share of the spoils. The Dutch, however, were weary of having France as a neighbor and declined the invitation. In 1670 France and England concluded a secret alliance and in 1672 they attacked the Dutch Republic, along with the bishops of Münster and Cologne. Even though the Dutch navy under Michiel Adriaanszoon de Ruyter (16071676) succeeded in preventing an English invasion, the French armies occupied a substantial part of the country. William III (16501702) became stadtholder and had to save the situation. Peace with England was concluded in 1674, but not with France until 1678 (Treaty of Nijmegen). The war proved to be the first in a series. To avert the danger of French hegemony, William invaded England, where he and his wife, Mary, who was the daughter of King James II, had claims to the throne. This resulted in the Glorious Revolution of 1689, which gave parliament ascendancy over the monarchy (now William and Mary), but gave William his Anglo-Dutch alliance.It alsoled torenewedwar withFrance: theWar oftheLeague of Augsburg, which ended with the 1697 Peace of Rijswick. In 1703 another war broke out, this time over the future of Spain. In this War of the Spanish Succession, the English and the Dutch fought together under the command of the duke of Marlborough. The allies won the war, but the Dutch lost the peace. The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) was a grave disappointment, and the republic was financially exhausted. Henceforth, it had to abstain from involvement in warfare.

Other European countries, meanwhile, were recovering from prolonged instability and imposing high tariffs on Dutch imports. The huge financial efforts of the forty years of war with France had eroded the competitive edge of the republic's merchants. Loss of great-power status meant the republic could no longer protect its overseas trade routes. By 1715, when the republic was temporarily unable to pay the interest on its national debt, it had become clear that the golden days were over. What was left was an agonizing memory of those wonderful times. Throughout the eighteenth century proposals were launched, serious as well as fantastic, to bring them back, all to little avail. With the death of William III in 1702, the Orange dynasty became extinct. William left his inheritance, including the French principality of Orange, long occupied by Louis XIV, to his distant relatives, the Frisian stadtholders. But it was only when a new French invasion threatened in 1747 that the majority of the provinces actually accepted the Frisian stadtholder as their new leader under the name of William IV (17111751). The crisis also tempted them to give William unprecedented powers to interfere with local and provincial government. Under William IV and especially under his son William V (17481806), an elaborate network of political patronage, centered on the court in The Hague, was created, unifying the country, albeit it in an informal way.


In December 1782 as many as a third of the adult men in the city of Deventer in the eastern Netherlands signed a petition clamoring for reform, especially the restoration of the town's former autonomy. It was an action clearly aimed against the overwhelming control by the Orange court, and it mobilized not just the middle classes, but also disaffected sections of the ruling elite. The idea caught on, and for the next five years the Dutch Republic became deeply divided by this so-called Patriot movement that hoped to restore the country's former greatness by going back to the roots of the "ancient constitution" of 1579. In 1785 the stadtholder had to flee The Hague, becoming an exile in his own country. He ultimately had to be saved by his brother-in-law Frederick William II of Prussia from ignominious defeat by the Patriots in the fall of 1787. Thus the Prussians prevented the Dutch from upstaging the French Revolution of 1789. Many Patriots fled the country and went into refuge in France, where they witnessed the French Revolution firsthand. When they returned to their homeland in the winter of 17941795, to bring the revolution at long last, they had completely new ideas about the reforms that were needed. Instead of the federalism of the old republic, the newly created revolutionary Batavian Republic needed a unified government. A national assembly was created in 1795, but it took until 1798and a radical coup d'état with French backingbefore a unitarist constitution could be forced upon a doubting (thoroughly purged) electorate. After that, the Dutch underwent several more regime changes before Napoléon's brother Louis (17781846) was appointed king in 1806. The Netherlands has been a monarchy ever since.

See also Amsterdam ; Anglo-Dutch Naval Wars ; Antwerp ; Capitalism ; Dutch Colonies ; Dutch Literature and Language ; Dutch Revolt (15681648) ; Dutch War (16721678) ; Habsburg Dynasty ; League of Augsburg, War of the (16881697) ; Netherlands, Art in the ; Netherlands, Southern ; Oldenbarneveldt, Johan van ; Patriot Revolution ; Spanish Succession, War of the (17011714) ; Trading Companies ; Tulips ; William and Mary ; William of Orange ; Witt, Johan and Cornelis de .


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Maarten Prak

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