AT THE TIME of de Graaff’s salute, his fellow-countrymen had already registered and passed the peak of dynamic accomplishment in almost every realm of endeavor—in hydraulic engineering to make their own land habitable, in the longest successful revolt for political independence sustained against the greatest imperial power of the age, in flourishing commerce, business and banking, in maritime enterprise covering the oceans, in the supreme art of the Golden Age of Rembrandt, in everything but government, where they contented themselves with a paralytic system that would not have been tolerated by a primitive island of the Pacific. For all these qualities—positive and negative—the Dutch were the most interesting people in Europe, although few contemporaries would have said so. Except perhaps an American, specifically John Adams, our first envoy to the Netherlands, who wrote to his wife in 1780, shortly after his arrival in Holland, “The country where I am is the greatest curiosity in the world.… I have been here three or four weeks and … I am very much pleased with Holland. It is a singular country. It is like no other. It is all the Effect of Industry, and the Work of Art.… This Nation is not known any where, not even by its Neighbors. The Dutch Language is spoken by none but themselves. Therefore They converse with nobody and nobody converses with them. The English are a great nation, and they despize the Dutch because they are smaller. The French are a greater Nation still, and therefore they despize the Dutch because they are still smaller in comparison to them. But I doubt much whether there is any Nation of Europe more estimable than the Dutch, in Proportion.” Jealousy of the extraordinary Dutch ascendancy in commerce clouded the European view from a similar appreciation.
As the primary ship-builders of Europe, the Dutch had added one more element of mastery in their lifelong contest with water. In prehistoric times when Europe was settled by Germanic tribes advancing from the East, one tribe called the Batavi, whom the Dutch in later centuries came to consider their ancestors, had pushed onward, seeking a secure area of their own, and kept going until they met the sea and could go no further. Here on the wave-flooded, water-soaked edge of Europe, having no other choice, they settled where the ground was too wet and life too difficult for any other group to wish to dispute the territory. By building mounds for the foundation of homes above water level and ramps to let their livestock enter and dikes to hold back the sea, by learning through practice and experiment to put windmills to work as pumps to drain the water eternally seeping from springs and streams and marshes, they put dry ground under their feet. Soon they were able to lift land from the bottom of lakes and swamps to create areas called “polders” for agriculture and habitation. By directing the drained water into ditches, they made canals for transportation. Maintenance of the drainage system required constant attendance and renewal; the work never stopped and was never finished. In a stupendous feat of labor and engineering, a nation succeeded in creating land for itself to live on, doing by the hand of man what only God had done before. If they could match the work of Genesis, they need fear no man nor element of nature and were infused by a sense of accomplishment. A people few in numbers on an insecure footing was enabled to launch a revolt against the rulership of Spain, the greatest empire of the day, and to persevere in a successful war of resistance lasting eighty years, from 1568 to 1648, against an enemy not as far removed as Britain was from the American Colonies, 3,000 miles and an ocean away, but on the same continent, an overland distance from Barcelona to Antwerp of about 900 miles. Eventually winning independence, the Dutch within one generation of autonomy had transformed themselves into the greatest trading nation in the world, holding the commercial center and financial heartbeat of Europe and resting on a seaborne empire that stretched from the Indian Ocean to the Hudson River.
The amazing growth and expansion of Holland was a phenomenon that causes historians to stutter and even caused wonderment to Dutch scholars. Like the draining of the country and the overthrow of the Spanish colossus, it may be a mystery only in the sense that the extreme exertions possible to the human spirit can never be wholly elucidated. Nevertheless, in the Dutch phenomenon some causes are discernible. Partly their rise grew from necessity—the need of a people on the edge of nowhere to find the means of livelihood and survival—and partly it came from the will and energy of a figurative little Napoleon moved to outdo his larger brothers, and partly from the impulse stemming from what they had already achieved.
While the expansion was happening, it was no mystery to the Dutch themselves, who clearly explained what drove them in a petition addressed by the States of Holland in 1548 to their sovereign, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. The petitioners described the unending reclamation work needed to protect the land from the sea by dykes, sluices, millraces, windmills and polders, and the heavy yearly expenditure required. “Moreover,” they wrote, “the said province of Holland contains many dunes, bogs and lakes as well as other barren districts unfit for crops or pasture. Wherefore the inhabitants of the said country in order to make a living for their wives, children and families must maintain themselves by handicrafts and trades, in such wise that they fetch raw materials from foreign lands and re-export the finished products, including diverse sorts of cloth and draperies to many places such as the kingdoms of Spain, Portugal, Germany, Scotland and especially to Denmark, the Baltic, Norway and other like regions whence they return with goods and merchandise from those parts, notably wheat and other grains. Consequently the main business of the country must needs be in shipping and related trades from which a great many people earn their living like merchants, skippers, masters, pilots, sailors, shipwrights and all those connected therewith. These men navigate, import and export all sorts of merchandise hither and yon, and those goods that they bring here, they sell and vend in the Netherlands as in Brabant, Flanders and other neighbouring places.”
A tangible element of the expansion overseas was the ships themselves. Through their grain trade with the Baltic countries, the Dutch had better access than their rivals to the timber of the Baltic, giving them a steady supply of the material for making ships. They used a more efficient design, distinct from that of warships, for cargo ships which could be handled by fewer in crew and which, having no guns, could carry a larger cargo and, through the use of standardized parts, were built more cheaply and quickly and in larger numbers than those of other nations. When Peter the Great determined to achieve sea power for Russia, he came to Holland in 1697 to the dry dock at Zaandam between Zuyder Zee and the North Sea to learn about ship-building. At Zaandam a shallow-draft 250-ton cargo ship called a “flute” cost half as much to build as its counterpart in English shipyards. With simplified rigging, a 200-ton ship could be sailed by ten men, whereas in England a ship of the same size needed a crew of twenty or thirty.
In the 17th century, national energies opened into a period of spectacular enrichment of trade and commercial expansion in which Dutch talents and methods led them to excel and acquire the status of a major power. Cash profits from the flow of new products—spices of the East Indies, cotton of India, tea of China, sugar of the West Indies—enabled the Dutch to lend money to their neighbors. Because of their shipping and financial resources, their alliance became valuable.
The phenomenon of their rise, apart from its specifically Dutch elements, took its impulse from the spirit of the age beginning in the latter decades of the 1500s. The doors of the Middle Ages were opening out into new realms of every kind—freedom of thought, information through printing and, physically, to a wider world. Construction of larger ships allowed merchant-mariners to leave the confines of the Mediterranean and the trade of its familiar shores for the products and materials and unknown peoples in distant lands—cotton, sugar, pepper and spices, tea and coffee, silk and porcelains, all coming to Europe to enrich life and enlarge commerce and initiate industry. Europeans burst from their continent, crossed the Atlantic, entered the Pacific, rounded the Cape of Africa, found the East Indies. The Dutch were soon in the forefront. With their engineering skills adapted to ship-building and having no wide acres at home available for purchase to draw their money into landowning, they invested in maritime ventures, usually in partnership which spread the risk and provided greater capital to equip and man the ships and support the long voyages.
After a first exploratory venture in 1595, the second merchant voyage on the long and hazardous journey to the East Indies sailed in 1598 in an argosy of 22 ships, from which, owing to tempest, disease of the crews, hostile privateers and other dangers of the sea encountered en route, only 14 returned. Yet the cargoes of pepper and spices and Indian objects they brought home more than matched the losses, attracting other investors to enter the competition. In 1601, 65 ships—three times as many as took part in the second venture—set out for the same destination, involving so many competitors that the States General advised amalgamation, and thus was founded, in 1602, the Dutch East India Company, first of the great commercial institutions that were to promote the Netherlands’ rise. With ample capital to underwrite the far-flung argosies, with state-authorized regional monopolies of the trade, the East India Company was followed twenty years later by the Dutch West India Company with an eye on the sugar of Brazil, the silver of Peru and Mexico and expectations of the American fur trade. It was chartered in 1621 with a monopoly of American trade after Henry Hudson, an exploring agent of the Dutch East India Company hired to find a Northeast passage to the Orient, had found instead in the Western Hemisphere a great river equal to the Rhine and had surveyed the American coast from Cape Cod to Virginia. In the same decade, the colony of New Amsterdam was established between the river and the sea, with frontage on both. Proceeds from the two trading companies brought home the riches to enlarge the tax base and provide the government with more money for building and manning more merchant fleets with enlarged scope for expansion. The process was watched resentfully by other nations who, to soothe their envy, endowed the Dutch with a reputation as moneygrubbers. Certainly, moneymaking was a primary national interest and, combined with a strong sense of freedom and independence grown in a long revolt, was the key to the extraordinary Dutch enterprise.
Superior seamanship and superior ships were the means that carried the Dutch to the crest of world trade, taking the lead from Spain, thought to be the greatest sea power of the time, and from England, the self-appointed rival of Dutch enterprise. England’s captains were limited by the nature of their society, which assumed that a gentlemanly landownership, unspoiled by manual or commercial work, was the highest and purest ideal of social life. English sea captains were likely to be volunteers of the nobility with narrow practical experience, if any, while Dutch captains and admirals were more often the sons of salt-sea sailors who had grown up handling the ropes. Dutch Admiral de Ruyter, hero of the 17th century navy, astonished a French officer by taking up a broom to clean his cabin and afterward going out to feed his chickens.
“Enterprisers” of the period, beginning in business as merchants, provided the capital and organization for long-distance trade and for new industries from newly available products—paper for the printing presses, shipyards for larger vessels for the merchant fleets that traveled the ocean routes, manufacture of arms, uniforms, barracks and all the equipment of war. Besides making men rich, the industries justified the mercantile idea—by keeping the poor at work to produce articles for export to bring in a favorable balance of trade and hard money for more ships and more armies. Enterprisers found that the simplest use of profits, as the Dutch soon learned, was in making loans to other enterprisers at interest.
In 1609, a memorable year, the Hudson River was discovered and the Bank of Amsterdam, the heart that pumped the bloodstream of Dutch commerce, was founded. Introducing new methods of regulating the exchange of foreign currencies and of minting coins of fixed weight and value and of allowing checks to be drawn on the Bank to provide credit and loans and of assuring the reliability of deposit, the Bank soon attracted a flow of money from every country, while its florins became the most desired currency. The regular listing of prices on the stock market printed and distributed by the Bank was an innovation for which the world may—or may not—thank Amsterdam.
In 1648, when the Dutch gained independence from Spain, they had risen to riches and power despite the energies absorbed in the prolonged revolt and the damages suffered to war-torn countryside and cities and the impoverishment caused by expenditure on arms and armies and by the emigration of so many men of substance. Through extraordinary enterprise and force of necessity and confidence gained in their ordeal, they had expanded their commerce and shipping until they had more than half the trade of Europe in their hands, and had access to ports on every foreign shore from the East Indies to Africa, from Brazil to the Caribbean and to New Amsterdam in North America. In the Ottoman Empire they had a concession to trade throughout Turkish dominions given by the Turks as a slap at Spain, which had beaten them at the Battle of Lepanto. More than three-quarters of the world’s carrying trade in timber and grain from the Baltic, salt from France, fabrics from their own cities, spices from the East and sugar from the West Indieswas shipped in Dutch bottoms. By the time of independence in 1648, they were, according to historians’ estimate, the greatest trading nation in the world. They were said to have 10,000 ships at sea, carrying an international traffic estimated at a thousand million francs a year, a figure doubtless exaggerated by foreign mariners to shame their own governments into stronger competition.
Around 1634, eight years after they bought the island of Manhattan from the Indians, the Dutch entered the Caribbean with the capture of St. Eustatius and St. Maarten and of Curaçao and Surinam on the Spanish Main. Sugar was a treasure greater than the spices, attracting the eager predators of every nation. The sudden delight of sweetening on the tongue as a regular article of diet and sweetener of other foods raised high the real-estate value of the West Indies. Nations came rushing, each to seize the coveted prize of an island where the tall canes grew. Planters became rich. In later years, William Pitt, as Prime Minister, saw, when driving through Weymouth, a planter’s carriage with horses and fittings handsomer than his own. “Sugar, eh? All that from sugar!” Pitt exclaimed on being told the owner was a West Indian planter.
The heavy canes had to be cut, carted to mills, subjected to double and treble sets of rollers—worked, of course, by hand—to extract the juice, which was transferred to boilers for reduction to crystals, refined through several boilings for whitening and packed in molds to shape the loaves, or left dark for the unrefined product, then finally shipped to waiting markets. Because the local Caribs of the region sickened and died in the labor of the plantations, sturdier black labor was brought from Africa, forming in itself the lucrative slave trade.
In the midst of their extraordinary maritime and business enterprise, the Dutch were engaged in an upheaval against the rule of Spain, causing, it might be thought, one or the other, either economic expansion or revolutionary energy, to have weakened the other. Instead, both developments moved ahead parallel with one another.
The Revolt of the Netherlands was not a movement of national sentiment, which hardly existed, nor of political ideology. Although the issue partook initially of the 16th century’s general conflict of Protestant versus Catholic erupting out of the breakaway of the reformed church from Rome, the motivating sentiment in the Netherlands was hatred of Spanish tyranny. Forces and events in the eighty-year struggle were a turmoil of infighting among sects and parties, of deals and overtures to foreign states, of mounting oppression by the Spanish rulers that augmented popular hatred to a frenzy and, in a deeply fragmented state, linked the fragments together in a common will for independence.
Having been swept up by the Reformation, especially by Calvinism, its most fanatic sect, the Dutch of the northern provinces, as the years went on, adopted Protestant reform with an intensity of conviction as stern as that of the Scots under John Knox. The southern provinces bordering France and the Hapsburg Holy Roman Empire remained faithfully Catholic, hardening the divisions in the country. The Protestants were as rigid and unbending in their absolute refusal to return to the Catholic rite as was their monarch Philip II of Spain in his determination to restore them to the Roman fold.
When edicts issued by Margaret of Parma, Philip’s half-sister and Regent and acting Governor of the Netherlands, forbade Protestant ritual in the churches and the public speaking of self-appointed Protestant preachers, the prohibitions lit a fire of indignant protest and active resistance. A petition to the King to cancel the edicts only confirmed Philip in his determination to tear heresy out by the roots and erect in its place a pillar of authority based on a firm foundation of royal absolutism. But it takes two—one to impose and one to acquiesce—to make authority function. Philip’s subjects in the Netherlands were not prepared for the second role. In 1566, when their petition to the King went unanswered, they went on a rampage of desecration in the churches, smashing images and relics seen as the symbols of a despised idolatry. Led by a League of Nobles, staunch Protestants, which with unusual solidarity included members from every province although they clung as ever to individual conflicting opinions and separate working classes, the movement ignited agitation in the towns and among the industrial masses raising signals of national rebellion. When a band of 400 nobles marched in a body to the Regent’s palace in Brussels to demand a stop to the Inquisition employed against the resisters, they evoked the sneer of an unsympathetic Count Barlaimont as “a bunch of beggars,” immediately adopted as a proud title. At the League’s banquet, members wore beggars’ gray with beggars’ wooden cups hanging around their necks, and the name thereafter honored their fight for freedom from Spain and afforded seamen the opportunity of calling themselves Beggars of the Sea for the pleasure of rubbing the noses of Spanish and English opponents in the fact that they were anything but that.
More was needed to organize revolt. In 1568, an impetuous and reckless expedition launched by Louis of Nassau against the authorities of the northern city of Groningen thrust into the action a decisive figure. He was Louis’ brother, William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, who was to emerge as one of history’s heroes under the name of William the Silent. Orange was a small principality in the South of France to which the Counts of Nassau held title. William was Stadtholder and Commander-in-Chief of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht by appointment of the late Emperor. When Louis’ rebellious assault was easily broken and Louis himself later killed, William inherited the movement of revolt. He infused the will and the vigor that would keep the struggle against tyranny going until the goal of an independent Netherlands was won eighty years after Louis of Nassau had lighted the sparks. Before that could happen, both Spanish tyranny and Dutch revolt intensified.
In the first years, King Philip’s answer to the outbreaks was to send the ruthless Duke of Alva with 10,000 men, to compel obedience by a reign of terror. Alva’s method was massacre in the towns, persecution of Protestants for heresy and creation of a special court, called the Council of Blood, which in the course of its operations held 12,000 trials, convicted 9,000 offenders and executed or banished more than 1,000. Nobles who were leaders in the revolt were beheaded, eighteen in one day in the market square of Brussels. Estates were confiscated, scores fled the country and everywhere rose the dread of the Inquisition, as distinct from secular persecution, being established in the Netherlands. To make sure that he made everyone of all classes an insurgent, Alva imposed a tax of a tenth on the sale of every article and a hundredth part of every income. The hated “Tenth Penny” did more to spur the revolt than all the atrocities.
The ruler, Philip II—that “odious personage,” as Motley, classic historian of the revolt, cannot refrain in his Protestant Victorian rectitude from calling him—was himself too narrow and rigid to recognize as rebellion the trouble he was stirring up for himself; Philip could think only in terms of being ordained by God to root out Protestantism, and he rejected any consideration that might suggest an obstacle in the way of this task. A small thrill of triumph inspirited the Dutch at the first success of the revolt when, in 1572, a piratical force of the Sea Beggars captured the fortified port of Den Briel, at the mouth of the Meuse, where it controlled the entry to navigation of the river.
Extreme Calvinist partisans, arising from the early persecution of Protestants, and forming wild and fėrocious bands of expert seamen, the Sea Beggars served the revolt by harassing Spanish shipping, while their activities added to the internal feuds of regions and factions.
The inveterate separatism and mutual jealousies of the cities and provinces of the Low Countries, in which each feared the advantages and influence that might be gained by its neighbor, could have permanently frustrated any united resistance to Spain if the struggle had not found a dynamic leader in William of Orange. By perseverance in what seemed a hopeless struggle, by remaining unshaken under every adversity or disappointment, by overriding the incessant contention of the provinces, by maintaining the single aim of union, by organizing his compatriots with political sagacity, William, though sometimes shifting ground and not always straightforward in his maneuvers, and mainly by strength of character, came to focus and personify the revolt. If it had carried a banner, it would have borne his words “It is not necessary to hope in order to persevere.”
In 1574, the year after Den Briel, the heroic defense of Leyden against a Spanish siege rallied every city and citizen around the standard of revolt. Surrounded by lakes and laced by streams and canals of the lower Rhine, Leyden was a beautiful and prosperous cloth-manufacturing city on the rich soil of the Rhine delta called the Garden of Holland.
The weapon against Leyden was starvation. Alva had gone, but his successor tightened the siege until not a stray chicken nor a leaf of lettuce could get in. For seven months the enfeebled inhabitants subsisted on boiled leaves and roots and dried fish skins and on chaff from old threshings of wheat. When an occasional dog was slaughtered to feed the watch, the carcass might be torn apart in bleeding pieces and devoured raw. Disease stalked as always in the footsteps of famine, adding to the sick and wounded. In their extremity the inhabitants faced annihilation or surrender.
It was then they turned water, their old antagonist, into their weapon and ally. William of Orange proposed opening the dikes of the Meuse and Yssel and the rivers crossing the area between them and Leyden to flush out the besiegers and lay a shallow lake that would allow flat-bottomed scows and barges to sail over the land with provisions for the beleaguered city. Because of the potential damage of a flood to crops, the consent of landholders and farmers had to be gained. Messengers were sent on the dangerous mission through the lines to reach and return with their agreement. Daily more gaunt and feeble, no one in Leyden called for surrender. Meeting in Rotterdam, the States General rejected Spanish terms and accepted the proposal of William of Orange to open the dikes. They ordered 200 flat-bottomed barges and scows to be collected at Rotterdam and at Delft and other river ports, and to be loaded with arms and provisions. The boats also carried what proved essential for the relief, “a small but terrific” band of 800 grim-faced Sea Beggars, hideously scarred by the livid wounds of old battles.
In August, 1574, the order for breaking the dikes was issued. It was not just a matter of poking holes in the walls. Openings wide enough for the barges to pass through had to be breached under the not very efficient fire of the surrounding Spanish garrisons. Their weapons were the primitive muzzle-loading muskets of the 16th century, which after every discharge had to be reloaded with powder carried in bags around the soldiers’ necks. The Sea Beggars countered the attacks with their accustomed ferocity, and forced abandonment of the forts, driving the soldiers into the open where in growing alarm they watched the rising water creeping toward their feet. A northwest wind blowing for three days drove the waters in greater depth toward Leyden, providing an avenue for the barges. Slowly the relief force advanced overland, lake by lake, smashing dikes as they came until they had penetrated within five miles of the goal. The work took weeks while the people of Leyden starved and died. At that point, a contrary east wind rose to blow the water back, leaving the surface too shallow to be sailed. For their last advance, the boats had to be pushed and pulled over the mud flats while the city’s emaciated people waited in agony of expectation.
Fearing that their retreat could be cut off, the Spaniards had abandoned their fortified posts and, under continued assault by the Sea Beggars, they could not prevent the rescuers’ approach. Through mud the awkward amphibian procession crawled like a turtle out of water nearer to the beleaguered city. Aided this time by a fresh wind, the strange fleet was blown forward to within a few hundred yards of the walls. The crews, jumping out, carried the scows through the shallows over the final distance. A last Spanish garrison was overcome in a brisk fight. The boats were pushed triumphantly up to the quays, and dripping crews threw loaves of bread to the citizens on shore weeping with joy at their deliverance. Leyden, with 6,000 dead of starvation and disease and its population reduced by a third, was saved from surrender. Hollow-eyed survivors crowded into the Cathedral for a thanksgiving service. To honor the city’s steadfastness, William of Orange offered it a choice of relief from taxes during the lucrative annual fair or the establishment of a university. The burghers in hardheaded calculation chose the university, on the ground that taxes could come or go depending on politics, but a university, once established, would permanently benefit their city. Since that day, one of Europe’s greatest halls of learning stands as the gift of the scarred Sea Beggars and the flat-bottomed scows of Leyden.
Spanish pride, trampled at Leyden, was compensated by the fearful sack in 1576 of Antwerp, the bustling and prosperous port at the mouth of the Scheldt, which served the trade, in and out, of all northern Europe. The sack was precipitated by a mutiny of Spanish troops who had not received their promised pay for 22 months. Philip II, having transferred the cost of the war into a huge debt owed to the merchants and magnates of Spain, had declared his exchequer in bankruptcy in 1575 and had received a dispensation from the Pope permitting him to revoke all promises or commitments “lest he should be ruined by usury while combating the heretics.” With his customary lack of sense, the richest monarch of his time applied the dispensation to non-payment of his army on the theory that, as he was God’s instrument for crushing heresy, whatever he did, whether or not wise, was right. Like most of Philip’s policy judgments, it turned against himself. The mutineers in their rage set fire to every street in the wealthiest quarter of Antwerp as they broke into the city, not forgetting to fall on their knees in a prayer to the Virgin to bless their enterprise. It is a peculiar habit of Christianity to conceive the most compassionate and forgiving divinities and use them to sponsor atrocity. In the conquest of Mexico, Spanish priests carrying banners of Christ blessed the conquistadors as they marched to the torture and murder of natives in the country. In Antwerp, the mutineers killed every citizen who crossed their path or stood in a doorway, indiscriminately striking down aged householders, young women with infants, fellow-Catholic priests and monks or foreign merchants. In an orgy of pillage lasting three days, they ransacked every warehouse, shop and residence, accumulating money, silver, jewels and fine furniture to untold value, horribly torturing anyone suspected of concealing his wealth, leaving thousands dead and an increased abhorrence of the Spaniards in the surrounding “obedient” provinces. The immediate result was the most damaging to Spain that could have occurred—a movement toward confederation of the provinces, not firm or permanent but enough to mark the beginning of the end for the governing power.
Constant bickering between French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings, between Catholics and Protestants, between the maritime and inland provinces, between nobles and commoners, between Amsterdam in its hegemony and everyone else had so far prevented common action in the revolt. Netherlanders were now beginning to realize that they must join forces if they were ever to expel the Spaniards. Persuaded of the necessity, William of Orange had initiated a series of letters to the Councils of the provincial states proposing a general peace among them to achieve their mutual purpose. Negotiations were already under way at Ghent. Four days after the “Spanish Fury,” as the sack of Antwerp came to be known, the deputies of nine states brought to birth a treaty or pact called the Pacification of Ghent, pledging them to maintain peace among themselves and devote their lives and goods to delivering their country from the Spaniards and foreign oppressors. As in the case of the assembly almost 200 years later of the thirteen American Colonies, hitherto always at odds, in their first intercolonial Congress, joint action by the Dutch rebels was the one thing that the rulers could not overcome, and had confidently believed would never take place. In America the British, too, by their own actions, were to commit the outrages, by the Boston Port Bill and the Coercive Acts, that brought the fractious Colonies together.
In the Netherlands, the pact of Ghent was embedded in a maze of contracts and conditions defining the rights and duties, geographical, commercial and especially religious, of each city and province and the terms which the new Spanish Governor, Don John of Austria, half-brother of Philip, should be required to accept before meeting the States General, for he was on his way with that intention. It is odd that so soon after pledging to expel the Spaniard, the Dutch should be dealing with him, but at a time when a powerful mystique of royalty endowed every monarchy with absolutism. the Dutch were not yet ready to make the outright challenge nor had they the military means to do so. They lapsed, in the period immediately following the Pacification of Ghent, into such a welter of sectional rivalries and struggles over the dominance of the old versus the reformed religion and of local and foreign combinations and defections as amounted almost to civil war—and made a scrap of paper out of the supposed Pacification. Out of this strife and confusion, a movement for a “closer union” than had been achieved at Ghent took form, spurred by the fear of a separatist union by the northern provinces.
Under these pressures, deputies met in 1579 at Utrecht, the central city from whose tall Domkerk tower fifty cities could be seen, and a view as far as Rotterdam, now the largest harbor in the world. Although the assembled body agreed that they would thereafter “be as one province,” the Union of Utrecht that resulted did not tighten the pact of Ghent, but on the contrary, because of the intractable religious issue, established the conditions that were so sorrowfully to split the emerging nation. The northerners did indeed form a union of the seven provinces that make a ring around the Zuyder Zee, the great inland sea of the north. With four inland and three along the coast of the North Sea, these seven as the United Provinces were to become the Dutch State. In response, the Catholic provinces of South Holland with the cities of Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent formed a union of their own that virtually seceded and was eventually to become with some adjustment of boundaries the separate state of Belgium. The consequence, in precluding united nationhood for a people so capable, was grave. Had they not split, and had they retained a larger territorial base and a greater population, they might have become masters of Europe if they had had the will for conquest—which they did not—and if the strength of unity had not been lost through religious dispute, whose intramural fights are always the most passionate and venomous of any. If they lost the mastery of Europe, they gained at this hour the mastery at last of their own country.
Through all the machinations and labyrinths of agreements and disagreements by the Dutch cities and parties, the one great motivator of nationhood, a clear call for independence, was missing. The Calvinist party, with its strong emphasis on individual rights, pressed for an expression of purpose from the States General, the only remaining body of native government. Assembled at The Hague in 1581, it passed the momentous resolution called the Oath of Abjuration that was the Dutch Declaration of Independence. Stating that Philip II had violated the compact and duty of a ruler to deal justly with his subjects and give them good not bad government, and that he had therefore forfeited his rights of sovereignty, the delegates claimed the inherent right of subjects to withdraw their allegiance and to depose an oppressive and tyrannical sovereign, since no other means remained to them of preserving their liberties. This has a familiar ring: a bell sounding 200 years before Americans heard the same summons.
If Thomas Jefferson thought his authorship of the American Declaration of Independence was his proudest work, as the inscription on his tombstone indicates, he might have spared a thought to the Dutch proclamation of 1581, which anticipated his argument two centuries earlier in almost identical terms. This is not to suggest that Jefferson plagiarized America’s most important document, but rather that men’s instinct for liberty, and belief in the people’s right to depose a ruler who has governed unjustly, travels in deep common channels.
To confirm the break with Spain, all magistrates and officials were required to abjure the oath of allegiance individually and personally, which caused much anguish to those nurtured in lifelong obedience to a crown. The forswearing so worked on the feelings of a councilor of Friesland that in taking the Oath of Abjuration he suffered a heart attack or stroke of some kind, fell to the floor and expired on the spot.
Continued obdurate Dutch resistance was draining Philip’s resources and, even more, his patience. Thinking to collapse the revolt at one stroke, he put a price of 25,000 golden crowns or approximately 75,000 guilders, a large fortune, on the head of William of Orange, dead or alive, together with a set of other rewards and pardons—and found a taker. Entering by treachery, the assassin, Balthazar Gérard, in 1584 killed William with a pistol shot on the staircase of his house in Delft.
The Dutch record at this time, it must be acknowledged, seems politically foolish to a point that defies common sense. Because they believed they could never throw off Spanish sovereignty except under the aegis of some other potent European monarch, they went about offering their sovereignty to a variety of princely candidates, even including Elizabeth, Queen of England, whose autocratic nature was anything but a secret and would be likely to fulfill the worst Dutch expectations.
The obvious candidate for King, while he was alive, the Netherland’s own Prince of Orange, did not possess the advantages of other sovereigns in military strength or in money. Elizabeth, herself embroiled in Catholic disaffection and intrigue and putative rebellion at home, was too clever to get caught in more of the same trouble abroad, and did not accept the offer.
The assassination of William failed to fulfill Philip’s purpose, for William had imbued the revolt with a life of its own. When, however, Antwerp was taken by Philip’s Governor of the Netherlands, the Duke of Parma, giving Spain a strategic opening to the Channel coast across from Britain, this stroke invited unexpected assistance. It awoke Britain to the thought that it might be more in her interest, instead of wasting strength in endless inconclusive war with the Dutch, to aid them against Spain, whose intention to invade Britain caused constant anxiety. This became acute when the Duke of Parma, Philip’s designated successor to rule the Netherlands, recaptured Antwerp, giving him a major port and an excellent naval base across the Channel, directly opposite the mouth of the Thames.
Unlike most rulers who fear change because it is change, the Queen of England, bold and canny Elizabeth I, was willing to reverse the ancient enmity and offer alliance to the Netherland rebels. In 1585, she sent an expeditionary force of 8,000 under her favorite, the Earl of Leicester, to help the rebels withstand Parma’s advance. Vainglorious, ambitious and bullheaded, Leicester was not a well-chosen agent. Given the position of Governor General of the Netherlands, which the Dutch in their undue respect for foreign aid accepted, the more deeply, as they thought, to engage Elizabeth, Leicester intervened in Dutch Councils and followed his own idea of strategy without regard for the client’s concerns. When he issued an edict against trading with the enemy, a normal contemporary practice, he committed the unforgivable sin: interference with their trade was a thing the Dutch would not permit. The vaunted alliance fell apart in mutual blame and Leicester departed unlamented. His errors and failures have been overshadowed in history by the more romantic and memorable reputation of his lieutenant, the poet Sir Philip Sidney. Mortally wounded at the Battle of Zutphen, he handed a cup of water to a no less wounded comrade with the memorable last words, “Thy necessity is yet greater than mine.” Other than an immortal line for literature, nothing much came of the English intervention except indirectly to precipitate one of the turning points of European history. By arousing the anger of Philip II, it planted in his one-track mind a design to break up the Anglo-Dutch alliance, destroy the English and strike the final blow against heresy.
The blow was to be delivered at sea by a huge naval armada followed by invasion, which Philip set about organizing with insistent ineptitude in every aspect of command, strategy and supply. He chose as commander an admiral, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who had never commanded in war at sea before and who was to sail to seas unknown to him, with no prearranged port for refuge in case of need, and dependent for success upon a plan of junction with Parma’s forces in the Netherlands with whom it was planned to invade England. Blockaded by the Dutch, Parma’s troops were never able to meet the rendezvous. Philip’s great galleons, battered by heavy storms and by the British Navy, were sunk and scattered off the Hebrides. With half their crews lost to winds and waves and enemy guns and lack of food, the crippled Armada, forced to take the long cold way around Scotland and the west of Ireland, slunk home on a miserable and disheveled voyage, trailing no clouds of glory or conquest, but only the long shadows of defeat. The resounding failure of Philip’s naval enterprise marked the end of Spain’s primacy in European power politics, never afterward to be retrieved.
Wrapped in his single-mindedness, Philip did not give up, but threw what means Spain had left into the suppression of the Dutch, whom he found newly strengthened by their empire of commerce. Philip himself proved mortal and died in 1598, ten weary years after the Armada, and after completing the Escorial for his mausoleum, the greatest royal tomb since the pyramids. His unrelenting crusade against Protestantism, which had kept him continuously engaged in the religious wars of 16th century Europe, drained what offensive strength Spain had left for action against the Dutch, now grown rich and prosperous in the halls of business and markets of trade. Philip’s own demise took the heart out of Spain’s effort to maintain her rule. With Philip’s death on the brink of the 17th century, the great century of the Netherlands’ Golden Age began. Significantly the mark of new greatness was made in America where history’s winds, moving westward, were about to blow.
In 1609, an English navigator in the service of the Dutch East India Company discovered the Hudson River. In that same memorable year of the birth of the Bank of Amsterdam, Spain agreed to a twelve-year truce which acknowledged in practice the independence of the union of the seven United Provinces of the Netherlands. The spectacle of grand and imperial Spain being brought to a truce by a webfooted republic newly established among the monarchies impressed the older powers. They now began to reckon the former Beggars of the Sea as a factor in the European game with whom it was desirable to be allied. It impressed the Dutch themselves, who at last were ready to face the climax of their effort. After the truce expired, Spain fitfully continued the war without decisive results and finally let go. In 1648, at the Treaty of Westphalia, when the European powers brought to an end the general European conflict of the Thirty Years’ War, the most extensive and destructive of any before 1914, the signatories, including Spain, formally recognized the long-embattled independence of the United Provinces of the Dutch Republic. The articles were signed at the preliminary treaty of Münster, with the Spanish delegates placing their hands on a crucifix and the Dutch delegates holding up two fingers pointed heavenward. Burghers of the city formed two lines of an honor guard as the Dutch delegates marched to the Council chamber while cannon boomed in the medieval streets to celebrate the hour. It was the mid-point of the 17th century, a year before the high noon of royal absolutism felt the shadow of the executioner’s axe as it severed the head of King Charles I of England.
While they had been pursuing the expulsion of Spain, the Dutch conducted a cultural life of great fertility. Although their governors were a stiff and conservative company, not, one would suppose, liberal in their sympathies, the cultural atmosphere was liberal and tolerant, allowing freedom of practice to Jews and to a variety of Christian sects, and known for hospitality to refugees fleeing bigotry and persecution abroad. The most notable of the refugees were the English dissidents, seeking religious freedom, who at the turn of the century settled in Leyden and twenty years later embarked on the voyage, carrying its great burden of the future, that in 1620 ended at Plymouth Rock. Another fruitful group were the Jewish émigrés from Spain and Portugal bringing the parents of Spinoza, born in Amsterdam in 1632.
Attracted to the Netherlands by its luxuriant publishing activity, the most vigorous on the Continent, European writers and scholars, whose works were blocked by censorship at home, came to find in the Netherlands willing publishers and distribution in Latin to an international readership. So it was that the Dutch press had the honor to issue one of the world’s most significant books, by a Frenchman who preferred to live in Holland for twenty years rather than at home under the reign of Louis XIII: Descartes’ Discours de la Méthode was issued in Leyden in 1637. Others of the most significant figures in European culture pursued their careers in Holland, although sometimes arousing the antagonism of colleagues. Baruch Spinoza, philosopher of humane religion, was a native of Amsterdam and though expelled as a Jew from his own synagogue for heretical views, he remained to live and publish his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in his native land. Antony van Leeuwenhoek, developer of the microscope, pursued his scientific work in his native Delft. Grotius of Delft, a Dutchman himself, formulated in Mare Liberum for all time the principle of freedom of the seas and in his De Jure Belli ac Pacis produced one of the most influential works on public law ever written. It had to be published in Paris in 1625, when he suffered a jail term instigated by private enemies. The renowned scholar Pierre Bayle, exponent of a rational skepticism in religion, whose works propounded his view that popular religious beliefs were based on human credulity rather than on reason and reality, was not a philosopher agreeable to an authoritarian Catholic regime. Forced to leave France, he came to Holland where he was given a chair and stipend in Rotterdam at the Ecole Illustre, established by the city to provide working shelter for refugee scholars. His famous Dictionnaire, a one-man encyclopedia published in Rotterdam in 1697, illustrated his explanations of natural phenomena and, though banned in its first edition in France, became a source and inspiration for Diderot and the French Encyclopedists. In this welcome to Bayle, Rotterdam gave a home to a man who expressed a supreme statement of tolerance. Remarking the loyalty of religious minorities to the Dutch State, as long as they were allowed freedom of conscience, he suggested that “an ideal society would extend its protection to all religions, and that since most theological problems are incapable of proof, man should pray for those he cannot convince rather than oppress them.”* In these words Bayle antedates our First Amendment. Dutch rulers were unusual in that while enjoying security of position and comfort, they fostered a society that harbored the unorthodox. American Puritans of New England, whom the experience of real hardship had taught nothing of gentleness toward their fellowman but the reverse, formed in contrast a bigoted and punishing ruling group.
Owing to the tolerance of Dutch society, no large body of emigrants felt driven to find new homes in New Amsterdam, except merchants rich enough to support settlements of at least fifty colonists, who received land grants from the West India Company, becoming the patroons of the region. In the absence of a large rooted Dutch settlement, Peter Stuyvesant could not find enough men willing to form an army for defense when the English were to come in 1664 to capture the area and name it New York.
Was it the nourishing freedom of Dutch society that gave rise in the mid 17th century to the glory of the Golden Age of painting in the appearance of both Rembrandt, the master of humanity, and Vermeer, the exponent of serene perfection? At the same time flourished the vivid portraitists Frans Hals and Van Dyck, and the portrayers of domestic scenes, Jan Steen, Ter Borch and de Hooch, and the landscape enchanters of leafy forests and sailboats riding the canals, Ruysdael and Hobbema. If the world cannot explain the Golden Age, it can only be grateful.
In its events, the Golden Age was not peaceful but filled with the bloodshed and alarms of invasion and war. The army of Louis XIV stormed over the frontier in 1672 in a wave of brutality called the French Fury, reminiscent of the Spanish reign of terror. The French penetrated to Utrecht in the center of the country and this time, too, the Dutch fell back on the weapon of water, opening the sluices to flood the land. At the same time, England renewed naval war in an effort, promoted by her own merchants, to destroy Dutch naval and commercial competition by force. The last of three such wars ended in the Treaty of Westminster of 1674, which set rules for the conduct of neutral trade that were to be a serpent’s nest of future trouble.
Troublesome as they were to be, they could not obscure the great political initiator of the Golden Age, the winning of the Netherlands’ sovereignty and independence in 1648. In that act at Münster, the Dutch vindicated the struggle for political liberty that was to pass in the next century to the Americans.
*His prescription, like other wise counsels, was to be mocked by his fate. Tolerance was no more agreeable to the French Huguenot refugees than to the Catholics. The influence of the refugees made it necessary for him to resign his chair, though he continued to live and to publish in Holland.