Empire in the Americas, Dutch

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Empire in the Americas, Dutch

The overseas expansion of the Northern Netherlands began in the late sixteenth century, when Dutch ships, until then confined to European waters, embarked on explorations of the wider world. This outward thrust took place in the midst of an eighty-year war with Habsburg Spain, which would eventually give the Dutch United Provinces their independence in 1648. The Spanish monarchs unwittingly contributed to Dutch explorations outside Europe by arresting hundreds of Dutch ships in Iberian ports in the 1590s. Because the embargoes effectively ended the lively Dutch trade with the Iberian Peninsula, Dutch merchants started sending their ships on voyages outside Europe to obtain the tropical products previously obtained in Portugal and Spain: cloves, pepper, nutmeg, sugar, salt, gold, and silver. Salt and sugar initially lured the Dutch to the New World. Their search for salt took the Dutch to a natural salt lagoon off the coast of Venezuela at Punta de Araya, while sugar invited voyages to Brazil. Inheriting from Antwerp a triangular trade with Lisbon and Brazil, Amsterdam became the main outlet in northern Europe for sugar by the first years of the seventeenth century.

After a twelve-year truce (1609–1621) came to an end, the Dutch extended the war with Spain to the Americas and began planning major colonial activities there under the auspices of the newly founded West India Company (WIC). Its task was to direct and coordinate the flow of trade in the Atlantic basin, but also—even more importantly—to open new fronts against the Iberian enemies. Shipping between Portugal and Brazil suffered especially at the hands of the privateers who seized hundreds of enemy vessels. The most spectacular capture, however, occurred in 1628 in the bay of Matanzas (Cuba), when a Dutch naval force subdued the Spanish flota bound from Veracruz for Seville. The cargo seized was made up of prodigious quantities of precious metals, indigo, cochineal, tobacco, and dyewood.

Starting in 1624, war was also waged in mainland America. In that year, the Dutch conquered Salvador (Bahia), the capital city of Brazil, but they were ousted after only one year. In 1630 they returned to Brazil with a
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fleet of fifty-two ships and thirteen sloops. After a successful invasion, the territory under Dutch rule expanded before a local rebellion put them on the defensive. The Dutch finally surrendered in 1654 and eventually gave up all claims to the lands lost in exchange for the right to load salt for free in Portugal for a number of years.

Apart from an occasional windfall, the financial performance of the West India Company was miserable. Although large amounts of sugar, tobacco, and brazilwood were sent from Brazil to the Dutch Republic, the proceeds did not outweigh the very costly war in Brazil. Nor did the supply of African slaves on credit to Portuguese planters improve company finances. When it finally went bankrupt in 1674, the WIC was replaced by an organization that had little in common with its predecessor except for the name. Having already lost most of its commercial monopolies in previous decades, it was dismantled as a military machine.

In North America, Dutch settlements did not have to fear Habsburg armies. It was here that Dutch merchants had started to conduct trade soon after Henry Hudson, an Englishman in the service of the Dutch East India Company, in 1609 found the river that still bears his name. The foundation of the West India Company led to the creation of a permanent colony, New Netherland, in what is today New York State, ruled after 1626 from the town of New Amsterdam on Manhattan. In 1655 part of today's Delaware was captured from Sweden and added to New Netherland. Despite its commercial insignificance, New Netherland attracted perhaps more immigrants than all other colonies in Dutch America combined, but it fell prey to an invading English fleet in 1664.

Other colonies were founded in the Caribbean, where the Dutch conquered St. Martin (1631) and Curaçao (1634), and planted their flag on the Windward Islands of Aruba and Bonaire (1636) and the Leeward Islands of St. Eustatius (1636) and Saba (1640), as well as Tobago (off and on between 1628–1678). Finally, Guiana was a popular destination for Dutch migrants as well. Numerous small and short-lived settlements arose in this vast area between Venezuela and the Amazon delta. The most prosperous was Suriname, originally captured from England by a naval force dispatched from the province of Zeeland in 1667. Over the following one hundred years, Suriname was the Dutch plantation colony par excellence, producing a variety of crops including sugar, coffee, cocoa, and cotton. In the second half of the eighteenth century, its output may have equaled the combined production of the adjacent Guiana plantation colonies of Demerara, Essequibo, and Berbice.

Equally important for the Dutch economy were the Dutch entrepôts of Curaçao and St. Eustatius. Between 1660, when Curaçao became the main center of slave distribution for the Spanish colonies, and 1729, the island re-exported almost 100,000 slaves to ports in Spanish America. Merchants in Curaço also mastered the art of contraband trade with their Spanish neighbors, gaining access to valuable cargoes of cocoa, tobacco, and precious metals. Starting in the 1730s, St. Eustatius emerged as another center of Dutch contraband trade in the Caribbean, tapping the riches from the surrounding English and French islands and from the Thirteen Colonies.

Dutch activity in the Americas was fundamentally different from that in Asia, where the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) maintained a Dutch monopoly and where it established a string of factories, fortified trading posts defended by garrisons. The VOC became a highly profitable organization, as it benefited from the general commercial crisis rocking Southeast Asia in the mid-seventeenth century. The Dutch faced an entirely different situation in the Atlantic world, where the creation of an intricate network of factories did not make sense. Nor was there an Atlantic counterpart of the centuries-old inter-Asian trade in which the Europeans could participate. Whereas the VOC achieved spice monopoly, making it possible to fix prices, the WIC was unable to obtain monopoly of sugar. Not even the occupation of northeastern Brazil, the world's largest producer, helped the company achieve that goal. Another difference with the VOC was that the WIC failed to combine warfare with a vigorous commercial enterprise. In spite of the WIC's shortcomings, however, Dutch trade with the Americas grew significantly in the eighteenth century, due to the activities of hundreds of small Dutch trading firms. While historians, following contemporary observers, have traditionally considered Dutch American trade to have been relatively modest, some recent estimates put its average value near that of Dutch trade with Asia.

see also Colonization and Companies.


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