Fishing and Seafaring in Holland

Holland has long been a seafaring nation. Since the early centuries of Germanic tribalism, to the mid-16th century flourishing of the Dutch golden age and the more modern eras of international naval trade beyond, the low countries of the North Sea coast in Western Europe have always been indelibly surrounded by a life at sea.

Today, Rotterdam remains perhaps the most famous port town on the continent, perhaps even in the world. By 1970 the port was handling nearly 130 million tonnes of international trade goods a year, all coming into Europe from countries across the globe. It was also the first continental port to equip itself to handle container shipping, placing it at the forefront of modern trade between Europe and the international community.

However, the prominence of the shipping ports on the Dutch coast is not simply a modern phenomenon. Since the height of the country’s imperial power in the so called Dutch Golden Age, Rotterdam was actually one of the smaller ports in Holland’s shipping arsenal, while the major towns of Amsterdam, Middelburg and Delft had stronger connections to the trade routes on the northern seaboard, which during the 17th century was wholly unrivalled throughout the world.

But it’s often forgotten that Holland’s rise to dominance in global shipping and trade in the 1700s would not have been possible without a concomitant rise to dominance in the shipbuilding and manufacturing industries too. While Germany and the port towns of the Med had dominated cargo vessel manufacturing in the 1600s, by the turn of the century Dutch shipbuilders had well and truly taken over.

Not only did Holland’s marine architects perfect the dominant hulk vessel designs that were, up until then, the largest and most cost effective mode of naval goods transportation in the world, but they also made significant improvements to their designs and building process. By employing more and more technological manufacturing aids like pulleys, winches and cranes, along with the latest advancements of the 17th century industrial boom (the sawmill for example), Dutch shipbuilders quickly became known for their superior vessels, quick manufacturing process and dominance in the trade.

Holland’s ability to secure its place as the world’s leading trade centre in the decades leading up to the 1660s was a direct result of its dominance in the domestic European shipbuilding and goods transportation industries. In particular, the timber trade industry came almost entirely under the control of Dutch ports, which had allowed merchants from Scandinavia and elsewhere to transport more and heavier wood with the aid of their improved transportation vessels. By assuming control of a material so integral to the production of marine vessels at the time, Holland’s industries had become self-sustaining, just as they had been self-creating.

With such strong foundations the trade legacy is a legacy that has unsurprisingly lasted in Holland. Today Rotterdam remains the 9th largest port in the world and the largest port in Europe by far. It handles more than 11,000,000 tonnes of shipping every year and more container vessels than any other port town on the continent.

But it’s not only trade that Holland has flourished in over the years, and the Dutch seafaring tradition has incorporated a number of other industries that have proved just as central to the character of this low land country.

Perhaps most notably, fishing has always provided economic lifeblood to many of the seaboard dwellers in the Low Countries. In Holland the industry was also central to the region’s Renaissance rise to prominence, and provides another example of the superiority of Dutch ship building. Vessels like the herring buss, which was developed in the post-medieval period in Europe, was perfected in the 16th century by Dutch shipbuilders and subsequently used to help establish a Dutch fishing monopoly in the North Sea region until at least 1700.

During this period, the Dutch merchant navy was so strong that regular expeditions of up to 500 fishing vessels would depart from Holland’s ports under the protection of the Dutch military navy, which prevented English ships from attacking the fishermen, who they believed were overstepping their boundaries by venturing so far into the North Sea.

Today Holland’s fishing industry continues to thrive and the country has indicated its devotion to sustainable practices by endorsing plans drafted by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), Greenpeace and the North Sea Foundation (NSF). Today most all fish processed in Holland receives stamps of approval that indicate its origins in sustainable fishing regions, while fisheries are regulated closely by governmental bodies to ensure quotas are met and proper practices adhered to.

Holland’s enduring place on the forefront of international trade may be just a shadow of the global and imperial dominance that the country held during its Golden Age in the 17th century, but it remains nonetheless a testimony to the geographical suitability of this region and the industrious character of its people in the sphere of seafaring.