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Amsterdam's Origins

The earliest inhabitants of what is now The Netherlands were three tribal groups who settled the marshy deltas of the Low Countries in the dawn of recorded history. They were the Belgae of the southern regions; the Batavii, who settled in the area of the Great Rivers; and the fiercely independent Frisii, who took up residence along the northern coast. Each tribe posed a challenge to Julius Caesar when he came calling in the 1st century b.c., but the Romans managed, after prolonged and effective objections from the locals, to get both the Belgae and the Batavii to knuckle under.

After the demise of the Roman Empire, the Frisians were still going strong. They repelled the next wave of would-be conquerors in the 5th century, when hordes of Saxons and Franks over-ran the Romano-Batavians. Although many northern European peoples embraced Christianity by the late 5th century, it was not until the late 8th century that the Frisians abandoned their pagan gods, and then only when the mighty Charlemagne, king of the Franks and ruler of the Carolingian Empire, compelled them to in a massive show of force.

Good for Business

By the 13th and 14th centuries, the nobility were busy building the castles and fortified manor houses throughout The Netherlands. Meanwhile the Catholic hierarchy grew both powerful and wealthy; the bishops of Maastricht and Utrecht played key roles in politics, and they preserved their legacy by erecting splendid cathedrals, abbeys, and monasteries.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, Holland’s position at the mouths of three great west European rivers made it a focal point in power struggles. The House of Burgundy became the first major feudal power in the Low Countries, consolidating its hold on the region by acquiring fiefdoms one by one through the various means of marriage, inheritance, and military force. Its day soon passed, however, and the Austrian Habsburg emperor Maximilian acquired the Low Countries from the Burgundians by much the same means.

Amsterdam began its rise to commercial prosperity in 1323, when Floris VI, the Count of Holland, established the city as one of two toll points for the import of beer from Hamburg. The city’s powerful merchants established guilds of craftsmen and put ships to sea to catch North Sea herring. Soon they had expanded into trading salted Baltic herring; Norwegian salted and dried cod, and cod-liver oil; German beer and salt; linen and woolen cloth from the Low Countries and England; Russian furs and candle wax; Polish grain and flour; and Swedish timber and iron.

Wars of Religion

Dutch citizens began to embrace the Protestant church at the same time that the Low Countries came under the rule of Charles V, the Catholic Habsburg emperor and king of Spain in 1506. Then known as the Spanish Netherlands, the country became a pressure point and fulcrum for the shifting political scene caused by the Reformation right across Europe. The rigorous doctrines of John Calvin and his firm belief in the separation of church and state began to take root in the country’s psyche.

When Charles relinquished the Spanish throne to his son Philip II in 1555, the days darkened for the Dutch. As an ardent Catholic, Philip was determined to defeat the Reformation and set out to hunt heretics throughout his empire. He dispatched the infamous Duke of Alba to the Low Countries to carry out the Inquisition’s “death to heretics” edict. The Dutch resented Philip’s intrusion into their affairs and began a resistance movement, led by William of Orange, Count of Holland. Known as William the Silent, he declared: “I cannot approve of princes attempting to control the conscience of their subjects and wanting to rob them of the liberty of faith.”

Only those towns that declined to join the ensuing fight were spared destruction when the Spanish invaded in 1568. Spanish armies marched inexorably through Holland, besting the defenses of each city to which they laid siege, with few exceptions. In an ingenious if desperate move in 1574, William of Orange saved Leiden by flooding the province, allowing his ships to sail right up to the city’s walls.

This victory galvanized the Dutch in fighting for their independence. In 1579, the Dutch nobles formed the Union of Utrecht, in which they agreed to fight together in a united front. Although the union was devised solely to win the battle against Spain, consolidation inevitably occurred and by the turn of the 17th century, the seven northern provinces of what had been the Spanish Netherlands was declared the Republic of the Seven Provinces.

The struggle with Spain continued until 1648, but a new, prosperous era was soon to be ushered in.

The Golden Age

Over the first 50 to 75 years of the 17th century, that legendary Dutch entrepreneurial talent came into its own. These years have since become known as the Golden Age. It seemed every business venture the Dutch initiated during this time turned a profit and that each of their many expeditions to the unknown places of the world resulted in a new jewel in the Dutch trading empire. Colonies and trade were established to provide the luxury-hungry merchants at home with new delights, such as fresh ginger from Java, foxtails from America, fine porcelain from China, and flower bulbs from Turkey that produced big, bright, waxy flowers and grew quite readily in Holland’s sandy soil—tulips.

The Netherlands was getting rich and Amsterdam soon grew into one of the world’s wealthiest cities. In 1602, traders from each of the major cities in the Republic of the Seven Provinces set up the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (V.O.C.), the United East India Company, which was granted a monopoly on trade in the east. It was wildly successful and established the Dutch presence in the Spice Islands (Indonesia), Goa, South Africa, and China.

This is the period that saw the planning and developing of the Canal Ring  around the old heart of Amsterdam. The three great canals that form a concentric belt around the city center were years in the planning and construction, but were needed urgently as the original streets were overcrowded and disease-ridden thanks to the never-ceasing flow of immigrants into the city. Today Keizersgracht, Prinsengracht, and Herengracht stand as proud reminders of this great time of development, lined with mansions built by the nouveau riche of the Dutch Golden Age. Visit Het Grachtenhuis  to learn how the canals were constructed.

Holland was becoming a refuge for persecuted groups. The Pilgrim Fathers stayed in Leiden for a dozen years before embarking for America from Delfshaven in Rotterdam in 1620, Sephardic Jews fled the oppressive Spanish and welcomed the tolerance of the Dutch, and refugees straggled in from France and Portugal. William of Orange had created a climate of tolerance in The Netherlands that attracted talented newcomers who contributed a great deal to the expanding economic, social, artistic, and intellectual climate of the country.

Golden Age Holland can be compared to Classical Greece and Renaissance Italy for the great flowering of wealth and culture that transformed society. “There is perhaps no other example of a complete and highly original civilization springing up in so short a time in so small a territory,” wrote the British historian Simon Schama.

The End of the Golden Age

However, the country’s luck was soon to change. The Dutch call 1672 the Rampjaar (Year of Disaster). France, under Louis XIV, invaded the United Provinces by land and the English attacked by sea. This war (1672–78) and the later War of the Spanish Succession (1701–13) drained both Holland’s wealth and morale. The buccaneering, can-do, go-anywhere spirit of traders, artists, and writers began to ebb, replaced by conservatism and closed horizons.

Dutch in the English Lexicon

The 17th-century Dutch got up English noses by competing for maritime trade and, in 1667, by sailing boldly up the Medway near London and trashing the English fleet. So the English added verbal abuse to their arsenal. That’s why we have “Dutch courage” (alcohol-induced courage), “Dutch treat” (you pay for yourself), “going Dutch” (everybody pays their share), and “double Dutch” (gibberish). Americans were kinder to their Revolutionary War supporters, speaking of “beating the Dutch” (doing something remarkable).

Revolutionary France invaded Holland in 1794, capturing Amsterdam and establishing the Batavian Republic in 1795, headed by the pro-French Dutch Patriots. Napoleon brought the short-lived republic to an end in 1806 by setting up his brother, Louis Napoleon, as king of the Netherlands, and installed him in a palace that had been Amsterdam’s Town Hall. Louis did such a good job of representing the interests of his new subjects that in 1810 Napoleon deposed him and brought the Netherlands formally into the empire.

When the Dutch recalled the House of Orange in 1814, it was to fill the role of king in a constitutional monarchy. The monarch was yet another William of Orange; however, because his reign was to be a fresh start, the Dutch started numbering their Williams all over again (which makes for a very confusing history). However, it was not until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 that Napoleon was finally defeated and sent into exile.

In 1831 the Low Countries split entirely, with the southern provinces forming Belgium. The rest of the 19th century saw social reforms, an influx of Jews from Antwerp, who formed the backbone of the diamond-cutting industry in Amsterdam, and the building of more canals, waterways, and railway lines.

Modern Times

As the storm clouds gathered across Europe with the advent of World War I, The Netherlands escaped the worst ravages by maintaining strict neutrality. Holland shared in the wealth as Europe’s condition improved after the war, but conditions were very bad during the 1930s, when widespread unemployment in Amsterdam brought on by the worldwide Great Depression caused the government to use the army in 1934 to control the unruly masses.

During World War II, Nazi troops invaded the country in 1940. An estimated 104,000 of Holland’s 140,000 Jews were murdered, Rotterdam sustained heavy bombings, and the rest of the country suffered terribly at the hands of its invaders. The Dutch operated one of the most effective underground movements in Europe, which became an important factor in the liberation in 1945. Among those murdered in the Nazi terror was a teenage girl who came to symbolize many other victims of the Holocaust: Anne Frank (1929–45).

In the 1960s, Amsterdam was a hotbed of political and cultural radicalism. Hippies trailing clouds of marijuana smoke took over the Dam and camped out in the Vondelpark and in front of Centraal Station. Radical political activity, which began with “happenings” staged by a group known as the Provos, continued and intensified. In 1966, the Provos were behind the protests that disrupted the wedding of Princess Beatrix to German Claus von Amsberg in the Westerkerk; they threw smoke bombs and fighting broke out between protesters and police. The Provos disbanded in 1967, but many of their principles were adopted by the Kabouters (this translates into English as “Green Gnomes,” a hardline anarchist group that won several seats on the city council before fading into obscurity).

The Provos and Kabouters had long advocated environmental programs such as prohibiting all motor vehicles from the city. They persuaded authorities to provide 20,000 white-painted bicycles free for citizens’ use—this scheme was abandoned when most of the bicycles were stolen, to reappear in freshly painted colors as “private” property. But some of their other ideas very nearly came to fruition. In 1992, Amsterdam’s populace voted to create a traffic-free zone in the center city, but this has yet to be realized.

The Dutch as Giants

Maybe it’s nature’s way of compensating for their country being challenged size wise, but the Dutch are tall. The average man is 1.8m (6 ft.) and the average woman is 1.7m (5 ft., 7 in.), which in both cases is 5cm (2 in.) more than the European average. Not only that, but a government study showed that the average height of the Dutch increases by 1.5cm ( 1/2 in.) every decade.

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