The Netherlands is one of the smallest countries of the world. Even today, it has a population of only 16 million, a number slightly larger than that of the more populous metropolises of this planet. Despite its tiny size and miniscule population, the Dutch have been a major force in global affairs and have influenced the lives of millions of people in far away lands. Most of this global influence occurred in the seventeenth century, when the Dutch people strode the world stage and made enormous contributions to trade, commerce, art and social life.
It was a short period, very specifically from 1584 to 1702 that saw Dutch achievements in art, culture, trade, commerce and economics surpass those of the rest of the world. However a terrible blemish, in the form of the slave trade, also existed in the middle of this phenomenal grandeur. The Dutch commenced trading in humans captured from Africa, in the early 1600s and became the most successful slave traders in Europe by 1650.
Their taking up of the slave trade led to the enslavement of thousands of Africans, while giving them enormous profits. The end of the seventeenth century saw a surprisingly sharp decline in all areas of Dutch endeavour and while The Netherlands is even today a rich, responsible and socially progressive state, it has never again scaled the heights it did during those years. The seventeenth century is appropriately known as the Dutch Golden Age.
Historians and researchers have investigated and analysed this localised phenomenon in great detail and tried to understand the reasons behind this short period of enormous effulgence. One of the major reasons for the Dutch to achieve this position of global pre eminence was their prowess as sailors and their mastery over the seas. Dutchmen sailed across the globe in their wooden ships controlling huge amounts of trade and establishing colonies in regions as far away as Indonesia.
It is the objective of this research assignment to investigate the sea going prowess and mercantile domination of the Dutch sailors and gauge the extent of its contribution towards the magnificent achievements that occurred in areas of commerce, economics, art, culture, education and social liberalism in the Dutch provinces, during the Dutch Golden Age. The researcher has used a number of sources from texts, journals and magazines, available both in hard copy and online. Liberal use of on line libraries has enabled access to a significant amount of reading material, all of which as been listed in the bibliography.
Special mention needs to be made of the book “An embarrassment of Riches” authored by Simon Schama of Columbia University. The book has attained an almost mythical reputation in The Netherlands and is valuable not just for the information it contains but also for its insights into the psyche of the Dutch people. 1. The Dutch Revolution Strange as it may appear, the Dutch state, called the United Provinces, came into being only half a century before the commencement of the Golden Age.
These areas comprised of provinces inhabited by the Dutch people and had been under the domination of Spain, for ages. However, as conflicts arose between Calvinism, which had become dominant in the area, and the Catholic faith of the kings of Spain, the clash between opposing religions grew into the war for Dutch independence. Practically all the provinces of the area formed a loose structure and entered the conflict. The region entered a phase of long drawn attrition that lasted for eighty years.
This period was marked by violent wars, executions and brutal oppression by the Spanish as well as counter attacks and terrorist strikes by the Dutch. Finally, on June 5, 1648, fireworks and bonfires in all the towns of the United Provinces celebrated the victory of the Dutch in their war of independence. The evolution of the Dutch Revolt and the emergence of an independent sovereign republic were a unique series of events. It was the first and only revolt in the early modern period to lead to the formation of a new political entity.
Moreover, the outcome was not the intention of the rebels and for a long time they had to pretend they were not rebels at all. From their point of view it was the inflexibility of Philip II that forced them to invent a new identity while at the same time claiming they were defending traditional liberties and ancient customs. So it was that the peoples of the United Provinces in an attempt to return to the old ways became radical revolutionaries and in the name of tradition spawned something very new, something very different–an independent, secular, decentralized, bourgeois republic.
The war thus united the peoples of several small states into one nation and inculcated in them the qualities of cooperative working and the ability to survive long periods of hardship and uncertainty, as well as a culture of equality. The new leaders of the Dutch state were merchants and Protestants. Historians feel that the aggression generated by the war led to the development of a strong, mercantile economy. The desire for commercial success began pushing the Dutch people towards trade and their weapon for this was their mastery over the sea.
2. Dutch Seamen and Domination of World Trade The Dutch had been seafarers since the fourteen hundreds but came into their own as masters of the sea only in the 17th century. The Dutch East India Company came into being in 1602 and went on to become the world’s largest business enterprise, riding on the spice trade that brought enormous profits to company and to the country. The highest rewards came from the trade in spices, the most coveted product of the East Indies.
Spices such as black pepper, cloves and cinnamon helped preserve and make palatable the dreary food of an age whose only other means of food preservation were pickling and salting. The lure of spices became as strong as the lure of gold; in the greedy struggle for East Indian resources in such places as Batavia and Ceylon, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and eventually English traders killed one another and any of the local population who stood in their way. Rather than see prices go down or leave something for a competitor, they burned down plantations, deported entire villages and turned the natives into virtual slaves.
A large portion of the wealth of the Dutch came through the slave trade between Africa and America as Dutch traders captured thousands of slaves and shipped them to America to power the building of the American settlements. Amsterdam became the trading capital of the slave trade, much like it is the center of the flower business today, acting as an auction centre and helping to manage the slave trade, with up to 10,000 slaving vessels frequenting the port. The Dutch also came to dominate trade between European countries because of their strategic location on a crossing of horizontal and vertical trade routes.
Dutch traders shipped wine from France and Portugal to the Baltic and returned with grain meant for the Mediterranean countries. 4. The Effect of the Sea Trade on Dutch life The riches that came ino the hands of this small nation because of the astonishing trading success was truly spectacular. While Schama writes of “such a glut of salmon that servants refused to eat it more than twice a week” Koningsberger is equally explicit of the bounties that streamed into the small country. Another popular Far Eastern product was porcelain.
In the first half of the 17th Century, the Dutch imported and shipped on to the rest of Europe more than three million pieces of Chinese porcelain. Tobacco was as popular then as now-it was first brought from the West Indies and the Americas in the 1500s- Other products, added a cosmopolitan touch of luxury to the homes of the merchants who had gambled fortunes to import them: besides porcelain there were fine silk and\ satin fabrics, rare woods, and Turkish carpets (used as rugs, wall hangings or tablecloths).
The influx of riches coupled with the predominance of bourgeois trader class ensured that, unlike other European states, even the poor ate well. The Netherlands was not a dietary democracy, much less a culinary utopia… But it was at least a society in which the “unfortunate” poor (as distinct from able-bodied vagrants) were supplied with fare meant to approximate to the diet of the more fortunate rather than stigmatize their wretchedness with a regimen of didactic meanness The flourishing mercantile trade led to a number of developments that fuelled the achievements of the Dutch Golden Age.
• The prosperous trade produced a large and wealthy merchant class. • The success of commercial enterprise on a large scale led to the formation of a stock exchange in the early 1600s, a full 100 years before a similar organization made its appearance in London. • The Protestant religion practiced by the Dutch, along with the availability of wealth led to the establishment of a number of universities and to the spread of education, liberalism, tolerance and an appreciation of art and culture.
These universities attracted talent from all over the world and the accumulation of scientific talented to a number of important inventions and discoveries in the realm of science. For example, the French philosopher Rene Descartes made the university town of Leiden his home for many years. • The wealth from the sea going trade also brought attention, and financial backing and sponsorship for the visual arts, literature and science. • The inputs received from other countries was absorbed and put to good use by the Dutch because of their advancement in education and consequent appreciation for artistic excellence.
In the first half of the 17th Century, the Dutch imported and shipped on to the rest of Europe more than three million pieces of Chinese porcelain. The interest in porcelain led to the creation of the famous Delft Blue pottery industry, which still thrives. By 1700 Delft Blue pottery makers had become so proficient that they were exporting pieces of mixed Oriental and Dutch design back to Japan. • The commercial success of private citizens led to extensive purchase of paintings, thought to be objects of aesthetic pleasure and commercial value because of their portability and possibility of resale.
“The painting profession offered a more attractive and prosperous life than ever before. In some towns the demand for pictures was such that there were more painters working in the community than there were bakers or butchers. ” • Large-scale patronage of artists led to the flourishing of a breathtaking period in world Art history, peopled by men of exceptional genius like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van der Heyden, Van Mieris and others. 5. Summary and Conclusion
A number of factors obviously worked in tandem to produce the outburst of creativity, education and liberalism and the flowering of art, culture, and literature in Holland in the seventeenth century. The all-embracing nature of the Protestant religion, the effect of the Reformation, the mental and emotional strength provided by decades of conflict and oppression and the rise of an educated middle class may well have been among the causal factors hat led to the emergence of the Dutch people as the world’s foremost citizens in the seventeenth century.
While there is truth in these statements, it is also evident that the striking developments in Dutch society owed their genesis to the affluence brought about by the spectacular success of the Dutch mercantile trade. The money that came through the sea trade became instrumental in funding education and in creating a strong broad based patronage for the arts. Education and the encouragement of science and literature led to the spread of liberalism and infused the tolerance that until today is a distinguishing feature of Dutch society.
The end of the Golden Age came as suddenly as its beginning. The English were also a strong sea power and had become the main trading competitors of the Dutch. The battle for supremacy at sea raged for years in the seventeenth century. As the English slowly wrested control of the seas from the Dutch, their domination of world trade gradually fell and their economic decline began in the early 1700s. A school of thought feels that political reasons stemming from the ascension of William III to the throne of England brought about the demise of the Dutch Golden Age.
While there is some truth in this assertion, the fact remains that the Dutch commercial success came from their dominance of the seas and this dominance started ebbing with the growth of English control of global mercantile activity. The slow decline in wealth accretion led to apathy and stagnation and matched the fall in the country’s artistic and literary output. As such, it is quite evident that while a number of social, political and religious factors worked in tandem to create the Dutch Golden Age, the main reason behind its happening was Dutch mercantile strength, the elimination of which led to its abrupt decline.
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