The Dutch Golden Age

400 years ago this year the inhabitants of Amsterdam completed the first canal ring of the city, an industrial and technological feat that was amongst the early signs of its rise to global prominence in the early half of the 17th century. The Netherlands had undergone a series of political and humanitarian upheavals in the 1600s, which saw the displacement of many of southern Holland’s Protestants in the face of Spanish and Hapsburg imperialism in the region. In the late 16th century, from the port town of Antwerp and Holland’s other major cities that gradually fell back into Spain’s Hapsburg fold, thousands of skilled and merchant workers who refused to convert to Catholicism under the Spanish yoke, chose instead to migrate north, to Amsterdam. It was in this hitherto inconsequential port on the North Sea, that the powerhouse of 17th century trade, commerce, culture, philosophy and art was to emerge.

With the influx of swathes of skilled workers fleeing the religious suppression of Catholic Spain, the industrial revolution that had begun to grip Europe as a whole now picked up pace in Amsterdam. By the early century, innovations in transportation (evident in the expansion of the city’s canal systems), milling and fuels were the product of Amsterdam’s thriving intellectual classes, and meant the city was well placed to become the prolific port town that it’s now known as in history.

In 1602 the momentous inauguration of the Dutch East India Company saw the establishment of the world’s first multinational corporation. Based in Amsterdam, the sprawling Dutch merchant navy would import exotic and coveted goods from the orient. Most notably, Holland gained a foothold in Japan. They paid tribute to the ruling Shoguns and quickly secured a monopoly over the sea imports in this part of the world.

Today, the evidence of Amsterdam’s place at the centre of this commercial world empire is still rife throughout the city. As more money poured in, its class divides were restructured and the aristocracy made room for more and more of the merchant class who were making their fortunes on the sea. The gentrified façades of the canal-side houses that still pepper Amsterdam’s downtown and outer central districts are the lingering testimony to a city that was becoming very rich, very rich indeed.

What’s more, Holland was becoming a melting pot of ideas and curiosities. Not only was the intellectual climate of free-speech and religious tolerance appealing to many of Europe’s leading thinkers of the age, but the city’s increased wealth meant higher standards of living and endless opportunities for those looking to escape the imperial grasp of Europe’s other major commercial players – France, Spain and England.

Consequently, it was during the 17th century that many English philosophers moved to Amsterdam, at least for some time, either to lay-low while controversy subsided over their more risky of recent publications, or to forward ideas in the philosophical forums of a city that had positioned itself right on the forefront of modernity.  Other thinkers, like the Jewish-Dutch Baruch Spinoza flourished here, and were able to publish works that were to have incalculable effects on the philosophy of subsequent ages.

In art too, Amsterdam flourished. Most of the painters here still followed the European-wide tradition of baroque painting, but adopted a unique style that incorporated elements of visceral realism and lay subjects that set the Dutch painters apart from the rest. Vermeer and Rembrandt have become the poster-boys of the Dutch Golden Age, but in reality Amsterdam was alive from the 1620s with artists who worked just as voluminously and just as experimentally as they.

In 1648 the lasting Dutch conflicts with Catholic Spain finally came to a head. The so called Eighty Years’ War ended with international recognition of the unified Dutch Republic, giving Amsterdam the diplomatic nod that meant it could now operate as the official centre of commerce for the expanding Dutch East India.

Eventually Holland was also able to lay claim to the major European trading routes, and began fielding a merchant navy of more than one thousand ships into the Mediterranean, Baltic and the North seas. They transported grain and distributed spices that had been bought to Amsterdam by the Dutch East India at great profits. Where militarily the Dutch had traditional lagged behind the imperial powers of European Spain and England, it was now catching up in trade and commerce, expanding its hold across the globe through a network of sea routes and trading connections that not only brought material goods to Amsterdam, but ideas too. Ideas that were to form and mould the city into the cosmopolitan centre of culture it continues as today.

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