Can history tell us what makes the Dutch so pragmatic?

dutch east india company trading ship

Let's talk about the Dutch golden age


I initially thought that there was something melancholy to calling a time in your country's past "the golden age." As an American with a relatively short national history the term seemed to imply that the best years had come and gone. How sad, right? However Eve pointed out that in the same way you reinforce a child's confidence by telling them how great they are, having an age of excellence gives people a solid source of civic pride. Tangible proof that they as a people have accomplished great things before and can do it again. After reflection, I prefer this narrative, and can see exactly how it's shaped the Dutch culture into the pragmatic free-thinking nation with global reach far beyond it's relative size.  


Their golden age was what's called the early modern period from the 16th-18th centuries when enlightenment thinking was all the rage and countries were just starting to seize colonies. Amsterdam’s museums practically fawn over the these centuries and it's not hard to see why. The country and particularly this city was growing and trading faster than any other in Northern Europe. 


It was in this time that a company of tyrannosaurus-rex proportions was born, and taking a look at it can help us illustrate the truly global reach of The Netherlands. It was named the Dutch East India Company (VoC, the Dutch acronym) for it’s trading route. Even as I write I am still struggling to find a proper modern comparison for it. Walmart, maybe? Let’s do a quick side by side: 

chart comparing walmart and the dutch east india company

I could go on, but you see where I’m going with this. The VoC was a corporation to end all corporations, the first public one in history. When it’s trading fleet left Amsterdam’s port there would be no communication with them for years and thus it’s officers were empowered to act on behalf of the country. Over the course of two centuries it colonized Indonesia, South Africa, parts of India, and New York City (seriously, look it up). It fought wars with Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, Indonesia, Portugal, England, Spain, and the list goes on. And despite all of these completely reprehensible undertakings and rapid expansion it returned dividends to it’s stockholders every year of it’s existence. 


How did the VoC make it's money? 


Fighting wars to monopolize the global spice trade. That's pepper (of the tabletop variety), cinnamon, nutmeg, sandalwood, cloves, and mace. You're probably wondering, as I did, why were these lucrative enough to send ships around the world for? It's because Europe had entered a new age of prosperity where people could afford just enough spices to know what they were missing, and demand was ravenous. Cloves were briefly more valuable than gold. The bottleneck in supply was that spices had to travel over land from Southeast Asia and by the time it got to Europe it had passed through enough hands to make it prohibitively expensive. 


It was thusly that the VoC set sail to cut out the middlemen and go straight to the source. Columbus, by the way, was playing the same game only he took a truly historical and incorrect right turn, much to Native America's great despair. The VoC's monopoly and exorbitant profits allowed it to expand it's fleet to hundreds of ships, it's outposts to almost every continent, and created the first truly global network of trade. And on this tide rose Amsterdam’s defining age of prosperity.


Commerce was King


This golden age and the VoC’s infusion of international flavor and commerce paid for the hundreds of canals that now make up it’s landscape and turned it into the global entrepôt that it is. You have to imagine that putting in canals was the medieval equivalent of putting in highways. Can you picture how many oxen it would take to drag ten tons of brick? Finally, you could replace them with one barge. And the canals and the booming requirement for more storage birthed a class of civil engineers which then necessitated colleges and universal education. It was in this way that Amsterdam developed the first wealthy middle class of Europe. 


As you walk the streets today, you walk upon the same flagstones that were laid during this period. The building across from our apartment (thank you Donna and Chris!) proudly proclaims “Anno 1648,” the year it was built. It has, at the pinnacle of it’s roof, a slender protruding beam with a hook. Why? Because in an effort to accommodate the ballooning population with enough housing on these narrow streets with canal access, they built them high and provided a winch and pulley system to get your goods and furniture up to the top floor. Shockingly, these are still in use today and we saw an odd mix of past and present as hard-hat construction workers in safety orange vests struggled to attach a heavy bag of equipment to an ancient steel hook on a rope descending from a 16th century tile roof. 


From very early on, the Dutch had no time for kings, for commerce was king. They also had little time for organized religion, and their overt tolerance was a reaction to Spain's intolerance. After a war of independence from them, the Dutch legalized all nature of worship. In this sort of environment, art flourished,  Civic decisions for the city were made by business leaders whose primary concern was, no surprise, in facilitating more business. Things that would help it along included strong education, protection of property, and freedom of speech and thought. Now if you'll mix all of this with an expansive Dutch empire in communication with other cultures who had plenty to teach them, you've crafted yourself the beautiful city of Amsterdam and a society of educated, tolerant, and practical people.


So there you have it, Dutch pragmatism and tolerance have historical roots that run back to an age of explosive growth and prosperity. These are the Dutch that we met and got to know oh so briefly in our week here, who are happy, highly educated, interesting, and so respectful of your right to an opinion that you practically have to twist their arm for a recommendation.


We love Amsterdam, and we will most certainly be back!