Holland’s Golden Age



The expansion of trade and the importance of commerce in 17th century Europe is best reflected in the wealth and power of the United Netherlands. The Dutch people, numbering barely 1.5 million, thrived behind the earthen walls that protected their small country from the North sea. The Netherlands had been a manufacturing center since the Middle Ages, and in the middle of the 16th century, Antwerp served as the commercial hub of northern Europe.

The revolt against Spanish control that broke out in 1568 cast a pall over the provinces and threatened to end their prosperity. Agriculture declined as the countryside became a battlefield; when the Dutch rebels blockaded the Scheldt River, grass grew in Antwerp’s deserted streets. The United Netherlands, a federation of the seven northern provinces, emerged from the crucible of revolution stronger than ever before and maintained its position as Europe’s greatest maritime nation throughout the 17th century.

Basis of Dutch prosperity

though threatened by savage storms that crashed against its dikes, Holland owned everything it had to the sea. Dutchmen dominated the fishing industry, braving the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans in search of herring, cod, and whale. Holland’s merchant fleet, which totaled more ships than the rest of Europe combined, not only monopolized Europe’s coastal trade but also predominated in the commercial routes of the seven seas.

The Dutch stock market in 17th century

Its shipyards provided the ships for its own merchants and those of its rivals as well.  Dutch merchants were also the prominent wholesalers of Europe. Amsterdam served as the nerve centre of this activity. Its bank, chartered in 1602, became the primary bank of deposit and the financial centre for merchants from all over the continent. The Amsterdam stock exchange, reorganized in 1611, operated as a clearinghouse for stocks, commodities, and loans.

The Dutch Empire

The emergence of Holland as an imperial power coincided with the revolt against Spain (1568 – 1609). The Dutch armies were no match for the Spanish pikemen, but the Sea Beggars formed the nucleus of a growing navy that stymied Spanish attacks. Although the fleet began as a defensive force, Dutch men-of-war soon took the fight to their enemies and in the process carved out an empire.

Dutch East India Company

The Dutch served as agents for the Portuguese spice trade until the 1590s, when Philip II excluded them from Iberian ports. Unable to function as middlemen, The Dutch went to the source of supply. In the last years of the century, several expeditions sailed expeditions sailed to the east Indies.  Despite heavy losses they returned with profitable cargoes. In order to organize these expeditions, the Estates General issued a charter authorizing formation of the Dutch east India Company (1602).

The Dutch merchant Jacob Mathieusen and his wife

It proved to be the most successful joint-stock venture of the age. The charter granted the company exclusive rights to trade under the Dutch flag in far east. Its prerogatives included included the right to erect trading posts, administer justice, enter into commercial agreements with native governments, and even to make war and peace. capital for the enterprise was raised by public sale of stock. real control of the company remained in the hands of seventeen directors, who were the leading merchants of the United Provinces. By controlling the company, the bank, the stock exchange, and the Estates General, they formed the ruling oligarchy of the United Netherlands.

Conquest of the East Indies

Having obtained a monopoly of Dutch trade, the East India Company began a concerted effort to seize Portugal’s eastern empire. The conquest was largely achieved during the administration of governor-general Jan Pieterszoon Coen, who founded a Dutch capital at Batavia (1619) on the island of Java and systematically drove the Portuguese from every outpost in the Malay Archipelago.

The statue of  Jan Pieterszoon Coen

He also planted a colony on Formosa, which was maintained from 1624 to 1661, and promoted trade with the Japanese. Coen’s successors captured Malacca (1641) and Ceylon (1658) and founded Cape Colony, on the southern tip of Africa, as a refitting station (1651).

The Dutch in the western hemisphere

The Spanish and Portuguese possessions in the Western Hemisphere were not immune from Dutch incursions. The Dutch west India Company was chartered in 1621 on the same lines as its eastern counterpart.  Its agents attacked Brazil in 1624 and brought most of the coast under its control until 1645, when a revolt forced them to relinquish all of the territory except Surinam.

Batavia 1681

At the same time, West India Company seized Tobago, Curacao and saint Eustatius in the 1630s and from these bases dominated carrying trade in the Caribbean. Further north, the Dutch founded a colony at the mouth of the Hudson River in 1615. New Netherlands eventually extended from the site of modern Albany southward into Long Island and into New Jersey. The area was ceded to the English in 1664 and renamed New York.

The Governor Peter Stuyvesant, in 1664, standing among residents of New Amsterdam

Decline of The Netherlands

The commercial interests of France and England clashed with the monopolistic pretensions of the Dutch. In the latter half of 17th century, Holland was drawn into a series of wars with its imperial rivals. Its large merchant marine was vulnerable and lucrative target and suffered heavy losses during this conflicts. However, the ultimate cause of its decline lay in the fact that during the 18th century both the French and the English could mobilize far greater resources for the overseas enterprises.

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