Dutch Exploration and Colonization

views updated

Dutch Exploration and Colonization


In the sixteenth century the United Provinces of the Netherlands rose from the status of a Spanish possession to a great European power. Dutch ships carried goods throughout the world for virtually every European nation, Dutch merchants and bankers made Amsterdam the economic center of Europe, and the Dutch navy was a power to be reckoned with. The Dutch empire was built on industry and trade, and Dutch merchants were remarkably pragmatic in political and economic matters. As a result, Dutch power grew more rapidly than English or French and, when Holland's power had peaked, it did not decline as precipitously as did Spain's. These same traits have helped make the Netherlands one of the world's most prosperous and egalitarian nations, a country that remains an economic powerhouse today.


When Charles V of Spain was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, among his holdings was the territory of the Netherlands, which he had inherited through his paternal grandmother, Mary of Burgundy. Apparently this arrangement did not sit well with the Dutch who, by century's end, had successfully freed themselves from Spanish domination and had become a formidable military and economic power.

Dutch success was due to a number of political, economic, and military factors. Politically, the Dutch were the only European nation at that time with a republican government, rather than an absolute monarchy. This gave each citizen a greater stake in the nation's success, and a greater responsibility for helping the country to do well. This also gave more power to the Dutch merchants, whose shrewd business sense and pragmatism led them to a position of prominence in Europe. The success of Dutch merchants provided ample tax revenues from which the Dutch government could wage war, protect its borders, establish colonies, and care for its citizens. It also provided a large supply of money for lending at favorable interest rates, which, in turn, helped the Dutch government finance its activities when tax revenues were not sufficient. These three factors reinforced each other and enabled the Netherlands to achieve a prominence that belied its relatively small size and population.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Europe was in a nearly constant state of war. Alliances developed and shifted continually between England, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and smaller states as the European nations first built themselves and then jockeyed for power and dominance. The Dutch and English fought three wars before allying against a French-Spanish force trying to reunite the Netherlands with Spain. Other alliances were made and broken over the years as nations sought the most advantageous situation for themselves in the shifting European political scene.

Against this backdrop the Dutch were busy defending their borders and carefully building their trade empire. Sturdy Dutch merchant ships carried most of Europe's trade, even trading with their enemy, the Spanish, if the potential profit outweighed their risks (and, ironically, helping deplete Spain's treasury, which helped contribute to Spain's downfall). As Dutch merchants and shipbuilders grew more confident in their respective crafts, Dutch ships began to sail further afield, and the Dutch saw economic advantage in establishing their own colonies, rather than simply carrying goods for others.

Although the Dutch colonial empire did not come close to matching the scope of English, French, or Spanish possessions, Dutch colonies were carefully selected and tenaciously defended. After abandoning their North American colonies (in what is now New York), the Dutch established outposts in the Caribbean, South America (what is now Suriname), South Africa, and what is now Indonesia. Holland also established a trading center in Japan, one of only a few European nations to do so. Between 1598 and 1605, 150 Dutch ships sailed to the Caribbean each year. Another 25 ships carried goods to and from Africa, 20 left for Brazil, and 10 plied trade routes to the East Indies. Some of these ships served Dutch colonies, some the colonies of other nations. All added to Dutch wealth and power.


The Dutch were not explorers in the same sense as other European nations. Unlike England, Portugal, and Spain, they were not prone to sailing forth on voyages of discovery, planting their flag wherever they set foot, and claiming lands for the Dutch crown. They were, at heart, shrewd and pragmatic businessmen, expanding cautiously and carefully, reluctant to commit themselves to the large investment a colony entailed unless the potential financial gain warranted the risk. This is not to say that every single Dutch move was carefully considered and weighed, but in general the Dutch sailed for profit and not for glory. This caution left an indelible mark on Dutch colonies, Dutch power, and the current Dutch nation.

Dutch aims in colonizing new territories were primarily commercial: maximize profit and minimize financial risk. Unlike the English in North America and (later) in South Africa, they had little interest in establishing colonies with a high degree of political autonomy. Instead, their preference was to establish colonial governments that would help organize the efforts of the native populations and the colonists so that the colonies could ship raw materials back to the Netherlands on a regular and continuing basis. This, however, helped make the Dutch poor colonial masters, as they tended to place great demands on Dutch colonists and native populations. At the same time, the Dutch tended to demolish the existing tribal or political structure, ruling almost entirely with Dutch nationals. This combination tended to not only anger the native populations, but also left them in a disadvantaged position when Dutch colonial rule ended. This is most obvious in Indonesia, which, since Dutch rule ended in the mid-twentieth century, has been subject to an endless succession of corrupt governments.

Unlike the Spanish, the Dutch did expect their colonies to produce goods on a relatively sustainable basis, and the Dutch colonists expected that a great deal of hard work would be involved. In addition, the Dutch were never as adamantly religious as the Spanish, and religious proselytizing and conversion was not a primary focus of Dutch overseas efforts. So, although the Dutch were not ideal colonial masters, they were better than the Spanish, and they did not plunder their possessions as the Spanish did.

The Dutch focus on commerce led to huge revenues that poured into the Dutch economy and government coffers, and in a short period of time the Netherlands was one of the wealthiest nations in Europe. In addition to carrying cargo for most European nations, the Dutch also imported raw materials, turning them into finished goods that were subsequently exported at a tidy profit. And Holland's role in trade helped make Amsterdam one of Europe's financial centers, further adding to Dutch revenue.

All of this income enabled them to fortify their borders and hire foreign mercenaries to protect against the attempted depredations of their neighbors. With all their shipbuilding experience, the Dutch shipyards built an impressive navy that helped with national defense, escorted Dutch merchant vessels, and protected Dutch colonies from foreign incursions. For a time the Dutch navy was the world's most powerful, and the Dutch army was more than adequate to defend its borders against any European power. There is little doubt that none of this would have been possible without the steady stream of revenue from Dutch commerce, including that from its overseas possessions.

Although Dutch military power was rarely sufficient to dominate European politics, it was enough to guarantee the nation's security against both land and sea attack by any great power. And, as all the great powers of the time discovered, the Netherlands's entry into a contest was often sufficient to tip the balance of power against its foes. This gave the Netherlands political "muscle" that was belied by its small size and population.

As their overt political and military power was eclipsed by that of England and France, the Dutch seem to have settled (not entirely willingly) into a different role in European politics. Although the term "power broker" is not entirely apt, it is also not entirely inappropriate because Dutch involvement in any close issue could be sufficient to decide the matter. From this, the Dutch seem to have grown into a philosophy of judicious international involvement which, in conjunction with their still-considerable economic might, gives them a continuing prominent role in many international organizations, including NATO and the United Nations.

As noted above, the Dutch tended to manage their colonies for long-term profitability rather than short-term gain. Part of this no doubt stemmed from their having established colonies largely in areas that did not appear to have great mineral wealth, but in which spices or tropical hardwoods could be harvested. This forced them to manage their resources with an eye towards some degree of sustainability, for if they harvested every single spice plant, their revenue source would disappear. In turn, this assured the Dutch a long-term source of income, and this income helped cushion the Dutch when they were militarily overtaken by other great European powers. This is also one of the reasons that the Netherlands remains economically strong and politically influential to this day.

Finally, all of these events had a distinct impact on the Dutch people, which still reverberates. The Netherlands remains one of the most egalitarian and affluent nations on Earth, and still wields what seems a disproportionate amount of influence in European and world affairs. A great deal of this stems from the Dutch policy of engagement with foreign nations, either through treaties, membership in international organizations, or foreign aid. All of this helps to make the Netherlands a very cosmopolitan nation in which a large number of citizens have an active interest in world affairs.

In summary, the Dutch left their shores to establish the trade and commerce that helped make them a respected European power. Dutch traders were more interested in financial return than exploration or national glory, so they were as happy to be ferrying French trade goods as they were establishing their own colonies, and their explorations were never as extensive as those of other European powers. As colonial masters, they were better than some and not as good as others, but they left their colonies largely unready for self-rule. As a result, though the Netherlands remains economically and politically strong today, its former colonies have not fared as well.


Further Reading

Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. New York: Random House, 1987.

Manchester, William. A World Lit Only by Fire: Portrait of an Age. Little, Brown, 1992.