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The Dutch Golden Age

The Dutch Golden AgeA cardinal fact of European history in the seventeenth century is the commanding position taken by the new Dutch republic in commerce, industry, and learning. As fishers, ship-builders, carriers, and traders the Dutch made the seas their own. Their situation upon a deeply indented coast, their central position among the large nations, a natural aptitude for navigation, the preoccupation of other peoples with other interests, and their native enterprise and thrift brought into their hands the bulk of the carrying trade of the world.

It was the desire of the English to divert a larger portion of this trade from Dutch hands to their own that prompted the enactment of the famous navigation laws of the Cromwellian period. Wars were waged for the same purpose, although more or less ineffectually. There was likewise much development of the industries of Holland, notably weaving, and exports filled the ships when they were not needed for the carrying business between foreign countries.

This was the great era, too, of Dutch colonial expansion. Even before the war with Spain, Dutch navigators and traders had visited the Gold Coast of Africa, the East and West Indies, and the coasts of far Cathay. In the first quarter of the seventeenth century there were organized two great trading companies, each formed by combination of a number of smaller ones, which brought to the country vast wealth and broad outlying dominions.

The one was the East India Company, founded in 1602, with a capital of more than six million guilders, subscribed mainly by the merchants of Amsterdam. The other was the West India Company, established in 1621, also largely by Amsterdam capitalists. To the one was granted a monopoly of trade east of the Cape of Good Hope; to the other a monopoly to the west.

The East India Company ended its existence in 1795 in a bankrupt condition. But during its first hundred years it was highly prosperous, paying dividends, mainly from the profits of the spice trade, that averaged more than twenty-one per cent annually. The agents of the company ousted the Portuguese from the East Indies and from portions of India, and planted Dutch sovereignty at the Cape of Good Hope.

In the West achievement was less satisfactory and permanent, mainly because of the lack of emigrants and the keen competition of the English. In the Dutch settlement of Manhattan Island and the Hudson Valley, none the less, the Dutch were enabled to leave a lasting impress upon the history of America.

The role of Holland in the wars and diplomacy of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was out of all proportion to the country's size and population. First in point of time were the wars with England, incident to that country's attempted restriction of the Dutch carrying trade. In the dramatic naval contest of 1652-1653 with Cromwell's Commonwealth the Dutch were defeated, although not until after Admiral van Tromp had raided the Sussex coast and swept the Channel triumphantly with a broom at the top of his mast. The defeat was not decisive, and the proposal of the English that there should be established a political union between the two republics was met with contemptuous refusal.

The war was reopened formally in 1665, although in the previous year there had been acts of hostility on the African and American coasts, among them the capture of New Amsterdam / New Netherland (New York) by the English. The English won some notable naval victories; but inefficient management by Charles II and his ministers, enabled De Ruyter, in 1667, to sail boldly up the Thames to Gravesend, to burn ships of war in the Medway, and to keep London in blockade for some days. The war ended indecisively, with the English smarting under their humiliation.

Before the contest could be resumed, the situation was entirely altered by the aggressions of the King of France, Louis XIV. France, under the Grand Monarch, was now at the zenith of her power, having clearly succeeded Spain as the dominant European nation. Louis was bent not alone upon maintaining the most splendid court in Europe, but also upon the acquisition of territory in every possible direction. England was interested in preventing further French aggrandizement: Holland was even more deeply interested, because it was well understood that the covetous eyes of Louis were turned toward her.

The consequence was that the two nations were precipitated into each other's arms, in common hostility to the French designs. A triple alliance formed by England, Holland, and Sweden in 1668 compelled Louis to give up lands which he had seized in the Spanish Netherlands. But he turned upon Holland, after having detached her allies from her, and there followed a desperate war (1672-1678) in which the fortunes of the little republic were tried as never before. Heroic resistance, coupled with astute diplomacy, brought outside aid, and in the end Louis was compelled to retire with no gains at Dutch expense.

Holland had thrown down the gauntlet to the mightiest nation of continental Europe, and the outcome might have been disastrous had not it curiously come about that, upon the deposition of James II, in 1688, the English people welcomed as their joint sovereigns the Stadholder William III and his wife, Mary, eldest daughter of James. This stroke of fortune brought the undivided strength of England into union with that of Holland and insured the eventual defeat of French ambition.

The War of the Palatinate (1680-1697) was indecisive, but the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713), closed by the Treaty of Utrecht, strengthened the Dutch position even as it extended the British territorial possessons. Here, however, the role of Holland as an important military, diplomatic, and political power was terminated. Their security no longer menaced, the Dutch people turned afresh to trade, industry, and finance; and in the eighteenth century they became the great money-lenders of the world, with Amsterdam as the chief international stock-market.

A very large part of the English national debt fell into the hands of the Dutch, their investments in the securities of France, Spain, Sweden, Russia, and other countries were enormous. Having loaned money to everybody, the republic felt obliged to remain friendly with everybody; for war with any nation would have meant the cutting off of dividends, and the Dutch would have been fought with their own capital.

In consequence, the history of Holland through the eighteenth century became about as prosaic as can be imagined. Its armies were disbanded. Its fleet was allowed to rot in the harbors. Its generals and admirals were pensioned off and sent home to cultivate their vegetable gardens, and their places were taken by diplomats, long-wigged and well provided with funds. Stocks and bonds, coupons and dividends, business, peace at any price - this became the new national creed.

After three-quarters of a century of this sort of thing, however, the country was subjected to the shock of French attack, conquest, and eventual annexation, and its affairs were forced far out of their accustomed channel. What Louis XIV had not succeeded in doing was accomplished by the French Revolutionary armies and by Napoleon.