Why was the 17th Century Dutch Republic a Success? - One Perspective
Updated: Mar 20
The Dutch Republic or the seven provinces of the northern Netherlands which were practically established by the Union of Utrecht (1579), including Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht and, from 1580, Friesland, distinguished itself from the rest of Europe and became the pre-eminent nation of the continent that formed the present-day Netherlands and contributed to the modern era by equipping revolutionary traits for the time with a relatively tolerant outlook.
The 17th Century witnessed economic prosperity for the Republic in strong part via the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) and almost entirely from seafaring generally that was bolstered by external strife such as the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), which effectively gave it tariff-free trade for half a century as belligerents tussled for supplies. The English Civil War (1642-51) disrupted trade between London and the Caribbean; Spanish exasperation saw the end of Philip I’s embargo on Dutch ships that offset the need for VOC, which started in 1602; and the Venetian-Turk war from 1645 precipitated a Dutch takeover of Venetian navigation in the Levant. Therefore, Europe’s pre-occupation with war helped open Dutch gates across the New World, granting them docks to market and ports from which to consolidate navigation. Although VOC was established in response to international favourability for the relatively stable Dutch, this is not to say that intrinsic properties of the Republic did not play a crucial part in its success. For example, VOC governor-general Pieter Both enjoyed a healthy relationship with the council (raad) because he exerted authority only within the limits of consultation with the raad. Indeed, the Heeren XVII commanded overall control, facilitated by the fact that the governor-general usually came from a class and state with minimum interest in the VOC, and thus at once was relatively neutral and ideally equally affected by the guidance of shareholders he represented. The exciting yet ordered new phenomenon of Dutch trade was indicated by and conducive to a mass market of commodities including nutmeg, one of the ‘rich trades’ as throughout the century VOC held a monopoly over such commodities, nutmeg brutally contained (e.g. execution of natives that did not co-operate, burning of the commodity after harvest to maintain high prices and the deployment of specific squadrons responsible for destroying nutmeg to prevent competition) in Dutch-held Moluccas, allowing VOC to sell it to Europe at an extraordinary gross profit of 60,000% More, in addition to the Fluyt, a ship that maximised crew and cargo carry, the governor-general had access to some 180 maps that displayed optimal routes to Asia, allowing VOC to voyage more efficiently than the Spanish-Portuguese.
Naturally, the exploits of VOC had domestic implications for the Republic. Power gradually centralised at Holland because it was the centre of the new industries given occasion by waves of seafaring paired with the garrisons that had bolstered the economies of the periphery being reduced, especially as peace was finalised with the Spanish come 1651. Cities like Amsterdam grew rapidly in population during the century because they provided urban centres protected from flooding in the prone Netherlands, hence the centralisation of Holland. The employment climate thus shifted – while men on the periphery were utilised as seamen, shipping employment increasing by 50% from 1640s to 1670s, with one in six men in Friesland so employed, domestic industries demanded labour. Cloth output exceeded 135,000 units by 1671 in Leiden, but since it was fine cloth occasioned by VOC monopoly, workers could expect greater earning-power after the 1640s, this was also due to a decreased cost of living as the marginal utility of virtually all appreciated materials plummeted in the cities, where populations surged, house prices and rents naturally fell. In Leiden, rents from 1649-1689 fell by an index of 52 points. Amsterdam grew into the main commercial hub in the 17th century, situated in the middle of the Sound Waterway and France. In 1640s, Dutch ships transported 80% of salt to the Baltic, mainly from France, an increase of 22% from 1580s, while 1640s also saw Dutch merchants deal in over half of the wine exported from France to the Baltics. Why Amsterdam was chosen as the medium represented poor long-term judgement by Spain, whose retaking of the southern Netherlands towards the end of the previous century encouraged an influx of merchant refugees from Antwerp to Amsterdam, hence the greater use of the city in Franco-Baltic trade. In the north of Holland, the competition between domestic agricultural products and food imports plummeted the price of food, on-setting a drop in farm rents by 40% just before the new century compared to 1650. However, this is not to say that agriculture did not continue to play an important economic role. Farmers, forced to assess alternative strategies for market, innovated. In Utrecht, tobacco production trebled in the last quarter of the century, indicative of a diversification of the economy that created more opportunities, giving rise to types of work like the small-holding peasant farmer who could expect economic security for a generation and exploit labour-intensive programmes and thus even gain a greater sense of autonomy.
VOC achieved military success in addition to economic esteem. From 1619, Batavia developed into a naval-military, as well as commercial, powerhouse under Dutch occupation, passing tests of formidability by rendering two attempted sieges of the port by Sultan Agung in 1628/9 failures due to apparently infinite supplies and, due to sufficiently comprehensive control of the region by VOC, hindsight as the sultan’s military stores at Tegal were discovered and destroyed by the Company. Nevertheless, it has been argued that Dutch art from the 17th century depicting adventures at sea is far more impacting than that depicting any battles, so it may be appropriate to note that military success was a means to the end of dominance of the seas, a trait the Dutch seem to have preferred, and thus war had only instrumental value for security to allow the economics discussed above to flourish.
Indeed, in 1629, the Dutch enjoyed strategic primacy as Frederik Hendrik won ‘s-Hertogenbosch from Spain, removing the Spanish threat, and giving lustre to the mercenaries. The relatively peaceful conditions after 1629 had the Athenaeum of Amsterdam become an ‘Illustrious School’ that played an integral part in the cultural development of the Republic by preparing boys for university, and by the 1640s, Leiden had the largest protestant university in the world, and was prestigious for including figures such as Descartes and the most famous poets of the day, a training ground for culture. The University of Leyden was founded on Calvinist principles of free truth-seeking and national unity, so much so that Dutch universities tended to move from orthodoxy through the century to learning in general, with national unity scored in their all being platforms for debate on Cartesian philosophy. This is why historian Johann Huizinga argued that the Reformed Church played a role of form, rather than substance on the new culture. More, up to 50% of the student population was foreign-born in the first half of the 17th century. This is a mark of the Republic's tolerance, with only its own universities having an international outlook in Europe at this time, and testament to the argument that it was its intrinsic properties which were owed for its success.
However, it is inaccurate to argue that domestic success was fraught from a particularly liberal attitude. “Middle-class citizenship was perceived as an active participation in the civic community, the poor were supposed to remain passive” (Maarten Prak). It seems that a key characteristic of Dutch society was the birth of the bourgeoise, with city citizenship a growing privilege, and the middle classes accruing power. For example, the critically important VOC had an investment portfolio of almost three million guilders in Amsterdam alone, giving shareholders a strong influence over the running of a major institution; the already-mentioned merchants like those from Antwerp also necessarily played an important part in the economic prosperity of Dutch society, so it seems that the notion of individual pursuit became important. Yet such is worthless without the discipline of sailors who were essential to the success for overseas trade and protection; Tasman was stripped of his rank in 1648 after a failed attack on the Spanish, with drunkenness and rowdiness with his own men. Collectively, sailors were expected to rise early and follow quite a strict routine, in part religiously based e.g. revolving around prayers. Indeed, the Navy and VOC became formidable in the global perception in part from a reputation for uprightness. These intrinsic properties applied to domestic society, too. In 1679, there was social protest against the abuse of servants in Holland; at Leiden, excessive partying and drinking were not tolerated even by students, while von Haller remarked that it was common to leave one’s door unlocked there for days absent. Why was society like this? The presence of order was conspicuous in the form of community citizen policing, most notably the night-watch. In Amsterdam in 1660s, 300 armed burghers watched over the town each night, deterring and detecting crime, with nearby gaols for custody. While all towns had a civic militia, it generally played a minimal role; towards the end of the century, the sheriff’s team in Amsterdam consisted of less than twenty people, making the civic militia akin to an institution like CSI today, operative in only the most serious cases. Therefore, I argue that the Republic was not propelled in its domestic success by particularly liberal traits, but conservative values like community coherence but lack of interference to achieve it. Such an approach had significant added advantages like the relatively low rates of domestic abuse and gender inequality, as noted by Leti, who argued that women were free from husband coercion e.g. to visit anywhere they pleased; and, as noted, intolerance toward the exploitation of servants. More, it was common for tradesmen and professionals to interact in the Civic Guards, sharing culture and education as by-products and often forging friendships, thus maintaining economic inequality, while integrating classes – indeed, it was expected that the poor be supported via benevolence of the wealthier, which mostly occurred through collection boxes and welfare provision occasioned by Sunday services and right of citizenship, respectively. These examples support the argument that conservatism was at the heart of Dutch society. Perhaps this was best exemplified in evidence of merit e.g. of Ruyter, who came from an unprivileged background to command the Navy, coincidentally also becoming one of those benevolent guardians of the poor who ethically reduced pressure on the state. However, to even begin to argue that Dutch society was not the land of milk and honey on equality opportunity and meritocracy would be insultingly superfluous: of course, effectively an aristocracy and patriarchy remained. Agreeing with Huizinga, my argument is simply that, compared to the tyrannical monarchy that was the alternative of the day, the Dutch Republic was by far the most favourable.
In the VOC and its implications and the conservatism of society, I have argued for two key components for Dutch Republic success in the 17th century, omitting some potentially equally important factors in the limits of this essay, such as the Reformed Church/Calvinism – to which VOC, for example, was subject - Dutch regents, the stadholderates and art/architecture. It is also important to note that success was neither consistent nor linear, with major setbacks, perhaps most notably around 1620 and 1670, two periods wherein the economy slowed. But as I have tried to show, the Dutch Republic persevered throughout the century to accredit itself with a Golden Age on, for the time, almost all fronts. In retrospect, it is questionable as to the extent to which the intrinsic/extrinsic problem is appropriate, especially as it is impossible to state for sure whether any reason for success was mostly within or outside. It is better to conclude that a balance of the two was crucial for success at all in the Republic, but considering the opportunities other and arguably more systematically governed countries had, notably Spain and France, the Dutch played their hands admirably well and liberty (a word through which we should not study the vast majority of the past anyway) and domestic order/peace were given more substantial justice by them than any other in Europe at that time.