10 Things You Didn't Know About the Dutch Empire

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The Dutch are curt and outspoken. I can think of no better introduction to their empire than this: “Here are 10 things you didn’t know about the Dutch Empire.” Enjoy!

10. The Dutch Empire is considered to be, by many historians, the precursor to the British, and then American, empires of the 19th and 20th centuries due to the fact that the Dutch had a toehold on four continents (Asia, Africa, North America, South America) by 1630 (!). The global empire that the Dutch established was commercial-based (the world’s oldest stock exchange was established in Amsterdam in 1602), and had a democratic political order on the home front. A good way to remember this point is to group the United Provinces (the official name of the Netherlands during its global empire) with the United Kingdom and United States. See what I did there?

9. The Dutch Empire started out as a small republic struggling to secede from the powerful Empire of Spain. Once the Dutch earned their freedom, 80 years after first initiating a war against Spain, they set up a republic that influenced the American framers immensely, though in an almost entirely negative way (James Madison, in the Federalist Papers, was especially harsh on the Dutch constitution). The republic of the United Provinces was constantly struggling between centralized factions (the Orangists), which wanted a more powerful executive branch, and decentralized factions (the Republicans), which wanted more sovereignty for the states that composed the Dutch republic.

8. One of the Dutch Republic’s stadtholders, William of Orange, ruled the United Kingdom as monarch for 17 years. William of Orange (known as William III in England and William II in Scotland) was responsible for initiating the Glorious Revolution (1688-89) in the United Kingdom, which kicked off, among other things, the political thought of John Locke. William’s father-in-law was a Catholic and ruled the U.K. unpopularly before William, along with his English wife, Mary, decided to launch an invasion from the Netherlands and overthrow his father-in-law in order to reestablish a Protestant-friendly regime. The combined power of the British and Dutch led to end of Irish rebellion and injected renewed vigor into the conflict with Catholic France. Ironically, William’s reign over both countries led to more republicanism in each of them, with the British Parliament gaining power at the expense of the crown, and the Dutch Republicans gaining leverage over the Orangists and their stadtholders.

7. The Netherlands was, truly, a bastion of religious freedom throughout much of its history, including its overseas colonies. The Empire fought wars against numerous Catholic kings, but it had no qualms about fighting Protestants if such a fight had clear benefits for the Republic’s geopolitical goals. This is sometimes made a point of contention because the early modern period was obviously less tolerant of religious difference than today (Mark Koyama, an economic historian, is doing excellent work on religious toleration in the early modern era), but by the time period’s standards, the Netherlands was the most religiously tolerant place on the planet. This religious toleration contributed, of course, to the Dutch Golden Age of art, literature, and science , which ran roughly through the 16th and 17th centuries.

6. The Dutch Empire vied for supremacy with the Portuguese empire, which, beginning in 1580 with the Iberian Union of Spain and Portugal, was a rival Catholic state attempting to establish a global hegemony of its own. The Portuguese were actually the first Europeans to establish trading forts throughout the world, but the aforementioned Iberian Union severely weakened Lisbon’s plans for global hegemony due to the fact that the union made Portugal the junior partner. The Dutch conquered and then established colonial rule at Portuguese colonies on four different continents, and unlike the Portuguese, focused on commercial interests rather than converting the natives to Catholicism and creating a politically connected empire. Because of the commercial nature of the Dutch project, many of the indigenous factions were happy to switch from Portugal to the Netherlands as business partners. And partners they were. Both the Portuguese and the Dutch (as well as the British and French later on) paid rent to local political units on the trading forts they built throughout the world. Such was the nature of power on the world scene before the end of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century.

5. The Dutch presence in Africa led to two major developments: the Xhosa Wars in southern Africa and the Dutch Gold Coast. The Xhosa Wars were a series of six wars that began in 1779 and lasted until 1879. The first Dutch fort was built in 1652 at present-day Cape Town as a stopping point for the Dutch’s supply route to the East Indies. The Dutch, who took a Portuguese fort from the area before building their own, traded with the locals and paid rent as was customary for about 125 years. The catalyst for the wars was a combination of European settlers encroaching on territories defined as Xhosa by various treaties the Dutch had signed with local polities and increased British activity in the area. The British were all too happy to contribute to Dutch-Xhosa tensions, and the Xhosa were all too happy to have a competitor to the Dutch in the region (so as to keep the Dutch a bit more honest in commercial affairs). The Dutch fought the first three (of six) Xhosa Wars, with the result being an uneasy peace between both sides. When the British arrived on the scene and replaced Dutch power, the Xhosa were eventually expelled from the fertile regions of conflict and forced to sign treaties acknowledging subservience to London. The Dutch Gold Coast played out in much the same way. The gold coast, located in west Africa, was peppered by Portuguese forts that the Dutch burned down and rebuilt in their own image. A period of 260 years of peace and commercial activity between the Dutch and their local business partners (the Fante confederacy) followed, before the British arrived on the scene and caused chaos by allying with a rival of the Fante. Today, that same gold coast is known as Ghana and almost all of its inhabitants are fluent in English.

4. The American Revolution was a global affair, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that it served as a catalyst for a fourth war between the United Kingdom and the United Provinces. In the process, the Dutch Empire lost its relatively large colony of Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) to the British Empire, which, although it lost its most lucrative colonies in North America, was able to acquire some territorial gains elsewhere in the world. The Dutch had conquered a Portuguese fort at Ceylon and came to lord over almost the entire island thanks to local political intrigue. Many non-European polities viewed European power as an avenue to enhance their own standing in their part of the world by using the Europeans against their enemies. Thus the Dutch (and later the British and French) found themselves allying with a local polity only to find themselves dragged into their ostensible ally’s wars. This is how Europe came to claim - claim, not govern - much of the world and why some ethnic groups govern over others in multi-ethnic, post-colonial states today.

3. The Dutch Empire in North America was a little different than its presence elsewhere in the world, as the Dutch found themselves in immediate competition with the British, French, and Swedish. This competition meant that the Dutch couldn’t buy their love from indigenous factions the way they could in Asia and Africa, and as a result Dutch claims in the region went unacknowledged unless the Dutch might could back them up. The Dutch managed to found, and defend, New Netherlands beginning in 1625, but by the 1660s the Dutch North American project had to be abandoned and all of its territory was seized by the British after the Second Anglo-Dutch War (fought in 1665-67). If you’ll remember, the Glorious Revolution, which put a Dutch aristocrat on the throne of the United Kingdom, didn’t occur until 1688, so tension between the United Kingdom and the United Provinces was so bad that wars were fought, making William of Orange’s invasion and subsequent, largely successful reign, all that more amazing.

2. Dutch Brazil ended up looking more like Dutch North America than Dutch efforts in Asia and Africa. Brazil was a Portuguese colony rather than a patchwork of forts spreading across the East Indies trade routes, so when the Dutch seized Portuguese possessions during its secessionist war with Spain, they found it difficult to govern their newly acquired Brazilian territories because there were Portuguese-speaking inhabitants living in them. The Dutch were loathe to cede their Brazilian territory back to Portugal, but the difficulties of governing a hostile populace made this cession to Portugal less bitter. Dutch Brazil is sometimes attributed by Brazilian historians as the seed of Brazilian nationalism. Because the Portuguese in Brazil resisted Dutch governance by rallying around their cultural differences with the Dutch, the logic of these historians leads to a distinct Brazilian sense of identity beginning to take root and eventually flower.

1. Though wars with the United Kingdom weakened the Dutch Empire significantly, it wasn’t until the French conquests of the Napoleonic Wars that brought an official end to the Dutch Empire. The Netherlands was one of the first targets of Napoleon’s radically-minded military, and the French killed the Dutch Empire in 1795 with the establishment of the puppet government of the Batavian Republic. The Dutch Empire lived on in the form of the Dutch East Indies until 1945, when Indonesia declared its independence, and it was never able to achieve the form it had in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Further thoughts

My favorite contemporary Dutch thinker is Edwin van de Haar. Here is his website. A political theorist by trade, Dr. van de Haar does an excellent job of using history to inform his theories on contemporary international relations. Do yourself a favor and add him to your reading lists.

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