Jan Steen, Drawing lesson
The drawing lesson, Jan Steen

The Dutch Republic in the early seventeenth century

Society and economy

The United Provinces was a small, prosperous, highly urbanized country. The state tolerated many different religions.
The Dutch had large merchant and shipping fleets. In 1670, about ten per cent of Dutch adult males were sailors; - the Dutch had more ships than England, France, Germany, Portugal, Scotland, and Spain combined.
Dutch fishermen caught vast quantities of herring, particularly in the North Sea fishing grounds. On purpose-built ships called buizen ("busses") the fish were gutted, salted and barreled. Other faster ships - ventjagers ("sale-hunters") - sailed out to meet the buizen, so that the catch could be transferred and delivered to market quickly while the large, slow buizen returned to the fishing ground to catch still more fish.


There was continual friction between the Dutch and British, because the Dutch built ships more cheaply, then fished in British waters and delivered their wares to ports more efficiently. Privateers sailing from Dunkirk attacked Dutch fishing ships, but it was only when war with France and England in the second half of the seventeenth century destroyed their markets that the Dutch fishing trade declined.
Dutch vessels were very important in the carrying trade. Western Europe's major source of timber was the wooded southern shore of the Baltic - the most important port being Danzig. Dutch vessels moved almost all the timber in the seventeenth century, but the English were also concerned in the trade. Both the Dutch and the English depended on Baltic timber for shipbuilding, and the wars and diplomacy with Sweden and Denmark revolved around these countries' need to guarantee freedom of timber supplies through the Baltic Sound.
The Dutch exploited the the wind-powered saw-mill (invented 1596) to turn timber into lumber more efficiently than their rivals.
The Dutch built ships more cheaply, more quickly and better than did any of their rivals.
The Dutch fluyts could carry more freight with less crew, and so their rates were two-thirds or half those of England (the closest rival). Only in the long-haul trade to the East Indies and the New World (where the large, unarmed fluyt could not be used) could the English carriers compete.

So efficient was Dutch shipbuilding that France, Sweden, and Denmark had their warships built there.

Dutch ships also carried exports of cloth manufactured in the Netherlands (Leiden and Amsterdam were the largest centers).

Dutch religious tolerance attracted skilled workers, many of whom came to work in the new draperies - light cloths that increasingly replaced expensive high-quality woolen cloth.

Until the middle of the seventeenth century, Dutch ships were also major carriers of grain from the plains of Poland. The decline after this date was due to increased agricultural production in Western Europe. The Dutch were at the forefront of this "agricultural revolution".
Dutch agricultural output had increased in part because of land reclamation. During the first half of the seventeenth century, the Dutch drained large areas of land.
Dutch polder
The dikes were earthen walls, sometimes reinforced with wood, and covered with grass. The "polder mills" were used to pump surplus water from low lying fields. Maintenance of these extensive systems required community effort and helped the Dutch become the best hydraulic engineers of the day.
[The story of the the little Dutch boy putting his fist in the dike to prevent a flood was invented by a romantic nineteenth-century American authoress and has no foundation either in truth or in Dutch folklore.]


The Netherlands were also at the forefront of agricultural innovation. Instead of periodically leaving land fallow, the Dutch rotated crops (turnips, peas, and clover alternating with grain). This enabled them to sustain high levels of production without exhausting the land. Alternation of "fodder crops" with grain also allowed the farmer to keep more livestock and use their manure to fertilize the land, so winning both ways. Despite its highly efficient agriculture, the Netherlands still had to import some grain, so densely was it populated.
By excluding the Dutch from Spanish and Portuguese ports, the Spanish crown forced the Dutch to exploit new sources of raw materials and discover new markets for their goods. The Dutch sold Polish grain directly to the Ottoman Empire, and traded profitably in the Caribbean and South America.
Another necessity that the Dutch turned into a virtue was the shortage of land. In other Western European countries the wealthy bought large estates, but unable to do this, the Dutch invested in trade, insurance, and banking.
The Dutch founded two important trading companies: - the Dutch East India Company (1602), and the Dutch West India Company (1621). The East India Company commenced with a capital of 6 1/2 million florins in 1602, and rapidly instituted a system whereby contributors could not withdraw capital but could trade their shares freely. In practice, only the large investors decided where and how the Company should trade. Tea, coffee, and spices were its most important commodities.
The Dutch West India Company almost immediately came into conflict with Spain. It captured Bahia (Brazil) in 1625 but lost the colony almost immediately. Continual warfare consumed most of its profits from the trade in slaves, sugar, gold, and ivory. The chief source of the West India Company's dividends was raiding Spanish shipping; in 1628, the year that Piet Heyn seized the Spanish treasure fleet, the Company paid a dividend of 50%.


The Great Tulip Mania, 1636-37

Not all Dutch investment was solid and sensible. Tulips were introduced from Ottoman Turkey and grown in the Netherlands during the early seventeenth century. The beautiful flowers served as an extravagant display of wealth and taste for prosperous Dutch burghers. Suddenly in 1634-35, there was an explosion in demand and prices soared. Particularly rare and beautiful bulbs fetched thousands of florins, and speculators invested in "tulip futures" - buying the flowers before they had even grown in the fields. The speculative bubble burst abruptly; prices began to fall and investors were left holding worthless assets bought with borrowed money.
To restore some sort of stability, a government commission finally ruled that any contract could be terminated by paying 3.5% of the purchase price.


There was some poverty in the Netherlands despite its overall prosperity, but the Netherlands did have a system of civic poor relief and charitable institutions that was the envy of Europe. The old, the insane, the sick, disabled, and orphans were all supported and put to useful work wherever possible. The system was - of course - also one of social control and its dependents were given religious instruction and subjected to discipline. Nevertheless, perhaps as many of ten per cent of the larger cities' inhabitants benefited directly from the system.

Rembrandt, Beggars receiving alms (1648)

To maintain local order, Dutch towns raised civic militias from the ranks of the modestly wealthy (shopkeepers, lumber dealers). Militia officers were often closely related to local government officials. The Civic militias were not usually of any political importance, but in 1672 their decision to side with the populace and against those members of the elite willing to capitulate to France, was crucial.
The government of Dutch towns was drawn from a small rich elite. The vroedschap (city council) and regents were usually selected from the richest merchants. As the century progressed, investment income grew to be more important than direct profits from trade for many powerful families.


The government of the United Provinces was decentralized. Each province controlled its own internal affairs. Within each province the towns were also largely self-governing. Only foreign policy, the army and some religious matters were controlled by the provinces jointly.
Holland was the richest and most powerful province. It was ruled by the States of Holland, a body composed of the delegates of eighteen towns; a delegation of the nobility also had a vote.

Amsterdam was the richest town in Holland and played a dominant role in the States.

The States met four times a year, but there was a permanent official known as the Pensionary. (Until 1618 he was known as the Advocate). Because the Pensionary formulated and implemented policies (as well as resolving disputes between the various delegates) he became very influential. This was especially true because although the Pensionary was theoretically elected for five years, in practice he was tenured for life.

Important Pensionaries (Advocates) of Holland

Jan van Oldenbarnevelt 1586-1618
John de Witt 1653-1672
Caspar Fagel 1672-1688
Antonie Heinsius 1689-1720


The other provinces were also ruled by States, though they tended to be less powerful than Holland's and more influenced by local noblemen.
In 1579 in the Union of Utrecht, the sovereign provinces had allied together to fight Spain; the States-General was the institution to which each province sent its representatives to decide on common policy. Each province had to consent if the States General's decision was to bind it.
The States-General met at The Hague and decided how much each province should contribute in taxes - largely needed to maintain the army and fortresses holding back the Spanish. On average, Holland contributed about 60% of the country's budget - half of that coming from Amsterdam.

Amsterdam town hall

Each province handled the levying of taxation in its own way, and there was no central currency. There was also no uniformity in laws, no common judiciary and no supreme court of appeal. The army was united under the command of a Captain-General, but each province tended to regard the regiments that it paid as its own. The Navy was also decentralized and divided into regional components. Even the Dutch East India and West India companies divided into separate "chambers" spread among different towns.
At a time when the pressures of war led the rest of Europe to absolutism and centralization, the United Provinces remained decentralized, with very few bureaucrats and strict supervision of the military. A vibrant economy enabled the United Provinces to wage war successfully for long periods without any of the mechanisms of central control needed to extract wealth from rigid agrarian economies.


"[In Holland] a merchant oligarchy, closely tied by maritime trade and based in a compact region, controlled government for the province, and more often than not for the entire Republic… Perhaps only in Holland and a few other commercial centers does Marx's observation about the state being a committee for the common affairs of the bourgeoisie really square with political realities" (Downing).


Each province also appointed a stadholder - a lieutenant to supervise public order and justice. From the earliest days of the United Provinces, this office (and very often that of the Captain-General of the army) was held in most provinces by a member of the Orange Family. The House of Orange was the only one holding the title of "Prince" and William the Silent (assassinated 1584) was widely regarded as the father of the nation because of his heroic role in the struggle against the Spanish.


[Not all offspring and marriages are shown]

The power of the stadholder tended to be greater in time of war than of peace, and the "Orangist" faction was therefore the war faction. William II tried to unite the army, orthodox Calvinists, hawkish merchants and the anti-Spanish populace in a bid to increase the stadholder's power. His main opposition lay in Holland where the oligarchy wanted the peace, toleration, and weak government so conducive to profitable trade. His son, William III, later made a more discrete attempt along similar lines when the French had become the threatening power. Neither attempt was wholly successful - the balance of power between stadholder and Holland's regents was always an issue during the seventeenth century.


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