What a leap it is from those perfumed English lords to the stout, tough burghers of Haarlem, The Hague, and Amsterdam! It is a unique world behind the dykes, a world of water rather than land, a life of ships and commercial ventures rather than of courts and chivalry. There is hardly anything more startling in economic history than the rise of the Dutch to world power, or more comforting in cultural history than the way in which this wealth so soon graduated into art.
The United Provinces had some three million population in 1600. Only half of it tilled the land; by 1623 half of it lived in cities, and much of the land was owned by urban landlords who trusted that commercial profits could be deodorized by putting them into the soil. Even in agriculture Dutch energy and skill had taken the lead in Europe; new dykes and dams were ever reclaiming “polders” from the sea; canals fertilized farms and trade; intensive horticulture complemented extensive stockbreeding; and Dutch engineers in the late sixteenth century brought the windmill to perfection just as Dutch painters were bringing it into art. Half of industry was still handicraft, but in mining and treating metals, weaving cloth, refining sugar, brewing beer it was advancing to a larger, less happy, more remunerative scale. Every year 1,500 “doggers”—two-masted fishing vessels—sailed from Dutch ports to snare herring. Shipbuilding was a major industry. During the truce with Spain (1609–21) the Netherlands sent out 16,000 vessels, averaging fifty-seven tons, with crews totaling 160,000 men—more than England, Spain, and France combined.82
Anxious for trade outlets and raw materials, Dutch captains explored uncharted seas. In 1584 Dutch merchants established themselves at Archangel, and advanced against the Arctic ice in a vain effort to find a “Northeast Passage” to China and thereby win a prize of 25,000 florins offered by the government of Holland. Dutch names on modern maps of the Spitsbergen Archipelago recall the voyages in which Willem Barents lost his life during a winter on the ice of Novaya Zemlya (1697). In 1593 the adventurous Dutch sailed into the rivers of the Guinea Gold Coast of Africa, made friends with the natives, and inaugurated a busy trade.
Till 1581 Dutch merchants had bought Oriental products on the docks of Lisbon to resell them in northern Europe. But in that year Philip II, having conquered Portugal, forbade trade with the Dutch, who thereupon decided to make their own voyages to India and the Far East. Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal, or their descendants, were well informed about Portuguese trading posts in the East, and the Dutch profited from this knowledge.83 In 1590 Dutch merchantmen, even during the war with Spain, passed through the Straits of Gibraltar; soon they were trading with Italy, then with the Arabs, sturdily ignoring religious differences. They made their way to Constantinople, signed a treaty with the Sultan, sold goods to both the Turks and their enemies the Persians, and moved on to India. In 1595 Cornells de Houtman led a Dutch expedition around the Cape of Good Hope and via Madagascar to the East Indies; by 1602 sixty-five Dutch ships had made the return voyage to India. In 1601 the Dutch East India Company was organized, with a capital of 6,600,000 florins—forty-four times more than the English East India Company, formed three months before.84 In 1610 Dutch merchants opened trade with Japan, in 1613 with Siam; in 1615 they secured control of the Moluccas, in 1623 of Formosa. In one generation they conquered an empire of islands, and they ruled it from their Java capital, Jakarta, which they named Batavia. In that generation the company returned an average of 22 per cent annually to its shareholders. Pepper was imported from the “Spice” Islands and sold in Europe for ten times the price paid to the native producers.85
Taking the planet for their province, the Dutch sent ships to seek a Northwest Passage to China. In 1609 they hired an English captain, Henry Hudson, to explore the Hudson River. Twelve years later they organized the Dutch West India Company. In 1623 they established the colony of New Netherland, comprising the present states of Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. In 1626 they bought “New Amsterdam” (Manhattan) from the Indians for trinkets valued at twenty-four dollars. They were rapidly clearing and developing these lands when their North American possessions fell as a prize of war into English hands (1664). Similar Dutch acquisitions in South America were surrendered to the Spanish and the Portuguese; only Surinam remained, as Dutch Guiana.
Despite these losses, the Dutch Empire shared abundantly with Dutch trade in Europe to give the merchants of Holland a financial base for their political power, their splendid homes, and their patronage of art. During the first half of the seventeenth century the United Provinces held the commercial leadership of Europe, and their wealth per capita was greater than that of any other country in the world. Raleigh was dismayed by the superiority of the Dutch to the English in living standards and business enterprise.86 A Venetian ambassador (1618) thought that every Hollander was in comfortable circumstances, but he had probably little acquaintance with the lower classes, whose poverty Rembrandt knew so well. “Millionaires” were numerous in Holland; some of them made fortunes by selling shoddy materials to the Dutch army and navy defending Holland;87 and such men labored zealously to prevent the outbreak of peace.88
Most Dutch wealth was in the province of Holland, whose commerce, from the neighboring sea, was many times greater than that of the other northern provinces. Several towns in Holland had a prosperous bourgeoisie—Rotterdam, The Hague, Haarlem, Utrecht—but none could rival Amsterdam. The growth of its population tells the tale: 75,000 in 1590, 300,000 in 1620. Merchants, craftsmen, and bankers had flocked to it from war-ravaged Antwerp. After 1576 the Jews of Antwerp transferred to Amsterdam their financial activities, their commerce, their jewel industry—the diamond cutters of Amsterdam still lead the world. The merchant rulers of the city allowed considerable religious freedom, for only in this way could trade be encouraged with peoples of diverse faiths. The Bank of Amsterdam, founded in 1609, was in this age the strongest financial institution in Europe. Dutch currency was sought and trusted everywhere.