To start with, let’s look at the statistics. Between 1600 and 1800, somewhere around ten thousand European ships sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to Persia, India, Indonesia, China and Japan. Half of these came from Holland. Of the vessels that sailed from the North Sea to the Baltic Sea, two-thirds flew the Dutch tricolor. Another feather in the cap of Dutch business acumen was the 45 per cent market share they acquired in the slave trade. In the years 1625-1650, merchants from Holland and Zeeland bought around eighty-five thousand Africans and although about fifteen thousand of these died during the voyage, huge profits were made in the Americas on those who survived. At that moment in time, Holland owned seventeen hundred ships, more than the fleets of France and England put together. It should also be borne in mind that the Dutch fluyt ship could be manned by fewer sailors than ships from other countries, making for a much higher profit per ship.
Holland was responsible for sixty per cent of the Gross National Product of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands; and within the province of Holland, Amsterdam accounted for the lion’s share. Holland imported rye, wood, iron, and copper from the Baltic region and exported herring, beer, butter, cheese, textile, wine, salt, citrus fruits, and spices. It got the last four items from Southern Europe and their own colonies. The Hollanders imported coal from England; ivory and gold from the Ivory and Gold Coasts of Africa; cinnamon from present-day Sri Lanka; porcelain, silk, and cotton from Asia; coffee from Brazil; tropical hardwood, maize, and sugar from the Antilles; tobacco and hides from New Netherland (the present American states of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut). Smoked eel from the lakes of Holland were taken to the London fish market.
Amsterdam was what was called a storage harbor, which meant that it was one big warehouse. Because of the enormous amount of goods stored, the prices were more stable than anywhere else. Between 1450 and 1630, population growth caused the price of grain to rise in Europe; this happened very gradually in Holland while elsewhere the prices shot up. These circumstances made the town on the Amstel an attractive place to start a business and consequently it grew more rapidly than any other single European town up to then. In 1514 there were eleven thousand inhabitants; when the truce with Spain was concluded in 1609 there were five times as many; and when the peace was signed in 1648, the number of people living in Amsterdam had tripled. After 1700 the population leveled off at two hundred and twenty thousand. One in eight Dutch people then lived in Amsterdam, which, according to the poet Joost van den Vondel ‘like an empress wore the crown of Europe’.
Constantinople, Paris, London and Naples were larger, but Amsterdam was richer. Because of its trading position, there was money in abundance and industry flourished. The town harbored numerous specialist trades and crafts, too many to enumerate. But one group in particular deserves mention: the instrument makers. They systematically strove to improve existing instruments and invented the microscope, telescope, and the pendulum clock. With the help of these instruments, Dutch scholars described light refraction and discovered its wave character, detected bacteria for the first time, constructed a calculating machine, and invented color printing.
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