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  Countries: The Netherlands Historical Overview

By anonymous, Guest Writer


The Dutch have always been a hardy people. Living on land largely reclaimed by the sea with only dikes of dirt and grass holding the ocean back, they have had to be tough to survive. For the most part the Dutch have been a suppressed people, living under either Spanish, French, or Austrian hegemony for several centuries. The great Dutch Rebellion that began in 1568, however, started an independence movement that could not be snuffed out even with some the greatest fleets and armies in the hands of those who would bring the Dutch to heel. The little corner of Europe that the Dutch occupy changed hands many times during the time of Cossacks: European Wars. Belgium was off and on part of the Netherlands and then there was Holland and the separate Spanish and Austrian Netherlands. The United Netherlands states helped clear some of the confusion and it was not until Napoleon that the entire region was straightened out, the lands divided between France proper and a Kingdom of Holland. The area would continue to be jostled later into the nineteenth century.


In 1568, the Dutch rebelled against the Spanish because in that time, the Netherlands belonged to Spain. The Dutch had reasons for rebelling. The most important was that the Spanish wouldn't let the Dutch practice their Protestant religion. They oppressed the Protestants with violence (they were burned) and no Dutchman really liked that.

The first phase in the Dutch rebellion was called the "beeldenstorm", iconoclasm. This meant the demolition of Catholic churches. All statues and images of holy people were cut into pieces. When the Spanish king (Philip II) noticed this he sent Duke Alva with an army to bring the Dutch to obedience. First, this worked. Many important cities (like Amsterdam) didn't fancy war and chose to side with Spain. But then came Willem of Orange. This nobleman organised the rebels and tried to make an army of them. Together with forces from German nobles he fought Alva with success. Willem of Orange also received help from the "Geuzen", "Beggars". This group of Dutch pirates fought the Spanish too, aside from Willem of Orange. The Beggars ruled the rivers and waters in and around the Netherlands. They brought severe damage to the Spanish. Together with the Beggars, Willem of Orange captured many cities in the Netherlands and in present Belgium. At the time Belgium belonged to the Netherlands which was also ruled by the Spanish. However, they didn't rebel. In 1588, this resulted in the creation of a new country, "The Republic of the Seven United Netherlands" (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Friesland, Gelderland, Drenthe, and Overijssel), the first modern republic in the world.


The Netherlands thrived because of trade. Holland became the most powerfull province. This is why many people call the Netherlands, Holland. Amsterdam was situated in Holland and this city became "the warehouse" of Europe. Dutch traders traded grain and wood from the Baltic region; salt, Wine, and olives from the Mediterranean countries. These goods were sold in Amsterdam to various traders from all over Europe. The Dutch became immensely wealthy from such prosperous trade.

Another (very important) source of income was the fishing of herring. "The Dutch fish more gold and silver from the sea, then other nations dig from the ground," CharlesV once said. To make herring last longer, salt was required to pickle the herring. This salt was bought in Spanish and Portuguese ports. The Spanish didn't like this because there was still a war going on between the Netherlands and Spain. So one day, they captured all Dutch ships that were trading and closed the harbour to halt all Dutch ships. This was a severe blow to the economy of the Netherlands. The Dutch really needed salt so they started to get it themselves. First at small islands near Brazil, later in Brazil and on other coasts. The Spanish did everything to stop the Dutch from getting it because South America was largely Spanish and they wanted to cripple the Dutch economy. It didn't help, Dutch ships kept coming. And now not only because of the salt. They also came to fight the Spanish by capturing their ships and colonies. In 1621, the West-Indian Company (WIC) was created to organize these activities. They had two main goals 1) Encourage trade and colonization 2) Capture Spanish ships and colonies (and their allies). This is the start of the Dutch involvement in the "conquest of America".

Piet Hein

Piet Hein started sailing for the WIC in 1623. He had a fleet under his command and received various assignments from the commanders in the Netherlands. Piet Hein captured many forts on the west coast of Africa and helped with the capture of Brasilia from the Portuguese. He became a national hero when he captured the Spanish silver fleet. Spain annually sent a fleet full with silver and other products, from their colonies in South America, to their homeland. These fleets were very well defended--almost impossible to capture. The Spanish didn't break tradition and in 1628 another fleet boarded from Vera Cruz. It was set to go to Havana where it should join other ships to cross the Atlantic. Piet Hein was ordered to keep an eye on this fleet and, if possible, capture it. Due to weather circumstances the ships in the silver fleet drift away from each other. Piet Hein ordered one of his ships to change flags and take part in the convoy. Nobody noticed it until the admiral, don Juan Benavidas, spotted the strange sails. The Dutch get away as fast as they could and informed Piet Hein that the fleet could be captured easily. Lots of passengers and their luggage were on board of the Spanish ships and they hindered the soldiers and movement of the cannons. Six September, Benavidas saw Piet Hein's ships coming and blocking his route to Havana. The only thing the Spanish admiral could do was flee to Matanzas Bay and transport the silver by land to Havana. But the large Spanish galleons stranded in the bay, in a very bad position. The galleons were unable to fire at the advancing Dutch fleet. And so, without a shot fired, Piet Hein captured this fleet. The silver and other product aboard had a total value of 12 million guilders (that is 5 million dollars). An immense amount at that time.

New Holland

The Dutch traded with Brazil since its discovery. Suddenly, when Portugal "allied" with Spain, Brazil became a hostile area because Brazil was Portuguese. That made it possible to capture it. The Netherlands could profit from the production of sugar and brasil (wood for painting).

The first attempt to take Brazil was in 1624. After a harsh battle, Salvador was taken from Portugal. But this was only temporary. A Spanish fleet came to help the Portuguese and re-established their command. After many battles and the continuous blocking of Brazilian harbours by ships of the WIC, the Dutch finally settled on land. Within years, large parts of Brazil were colonized, including Pernambuco, Paraiba and Itamaraca. The colony was called "New Holland".

The commanders of the WIC were looking for a good governor to rule "New Holland". They chose Johan Mourits, family from Willem of Orange. Mourits soon proved to be an excellent leader. He stimulated the production of sugar and wood, tried to make contacts with the native Indians, and improved the relationship with the conquered Portuguese. New Holland thrived and "large" cities were built, like Recife and Mouritsstad.
Dutch Church
Fraternization took place between the Dutch and Portuguese because of parties and games. The Spanish didn't like the growing influence of the Netherlands in South America, nor did the Portuguese in their homeland. They decided to make an armada and kick out the Dutch intruders. This attempt ended in total failure. More then a thousand men already died because of diseases. The Dutch easily smashed the rest.

This battle was won, but the war continued. Peace with at least the Portuguese was established when Portugal decided to break connections with Spain. But this peace didn't last long when Portuguese forts on the west coast were taken by the Netherlands. After Maurits resigned and returned to his house in The Hague, it didn't go well in Brazil. The Portuguese rebelled with success and the WIC finally lost New Holland in 1654.

New Netherlands

The discoveries made by Hudson (an Englishman in Dutch service), were the driving force for the WIC to settle in North America. Dutch citizens and farmers moved to a place the WIC called "New Netherlands". This included today's states of New York and New Jersey. Manhattan was bought from the Indians in 1625 for only 60 guilders (20 dollars). On this island, New Amsterdam was founded.

Making a living in the New Netherlands wasn't easy. Contacts with the native Indian weren't good. Also the European crops (grain) didn't grow well. Fortunately, the Indians taught the Dutch growing corn. The Dutch earned some money by trading skins of beavers.

The already tested Dutchmen were faced with another challenge by dealing with the new governor, Peter Stuyvesant. This uncongenial man was hired by the WIC to make a real colony out of the New Netherlands. First of all, he seemed to do nothing good but soon people respected him. He paved the roads and made a real Dutch town out of New Amsterdam. More Dutch villages followed. Many names of quarters and streets in New York were made by the Dutch and changed by the English later. Harlem=Haarlem (Dutch town), Brooklyn=Breukelen (Dutch town). Wallstreet=Walstraat. Long Island=Lange Eiland.

The Dutch claimed more and more land in the States and that irritated the English. The English were convinced that it was their colony and couldn't allow the Dutch to take more strategic spots. After the second English war (the English call it the second Dutch war), the New Netherlands were given to the English in 1667 at the peace treaty of Breda. In exchange, the Dutch received Surinam, which they already claimed. The adventure in North America had come to an end.


The capture of Surinam from the English, and the recognition of that at the treaty of Breda, was the work of the province of Zeeland. On February 26, 1667, seven ships full of soldiers arrived at the English fort at Paramaribo. The goal was to capture Surinam and deal a severe blow to the English. Byam, the English commander, prepared his troops but as soon as the Dutch landed he surrendered. The captured English soldiers were treated well and in no time they cooperated with the Dutch. The English farmers didn't worry because they saw the bright side of it. A French fleet was approaching so they could use some defense from the Netherlands. Crijnssen, the new Dutch commander, ordered the ships in the harbour to change their flags to the Union Jack. Also the flag on the fort was English. This resulted in many English trade ships (with slaves on board) arriving, which could be easily captured.

In the period that followed Surinam was made Dutch. Paramaribo became a real town and lots of products were made and sold to traders. Surinam thrived mostly because of the slaves. Some slaves, who escaped, attacked Dutch villages. These slaves called themselves "marrons". In 1712, they rebelled together with the French (the Netherlands was at war with the French at that time) under Cassard. Cassard plundered Surinam and demolished several plantations.

After a crisis at the stock exchange in Amsterdam, Surinam became a poor country. But the Dutch influences remained. Surinam became partly independent in 1954 but still has strong connections with the Netherlands. In Surinam, people still speak Dutch.

The Caribbean

Most of the islands the Dutch captured in the Caribbean Sea still belong to the Netherlands today. Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao and other islands were colonized to set up plantations and make salt. These islands were situated in a very turbulent area. Pirates and Boekaniers made the sea unsafe so the Dutch islands needed protection. Many warships were sent to this area to defend the Dutch inhabitants. When the Netherlands was at war with France, Spain, and England it was very easy to strike at the colonies they had in the Caribbean area. And so they did many times.

The American war for independence had an enormous positive effect on the Dutch colonies here. As the Netherlands were neutral, all of the trade was done on the Dutch islands. Big money was made in that time because the Americans bought many ammunition and weapons in St. Eustasius (one of the Dutch islands). The selling of goods to America irritated the English. They saw it as a violation of the Dutch neutrality. When the Dutch governor (De Graaf) fired a salute of 15 cannons to greet a ship that carried the "Great Union Flag" the English declared war, the fourth English war had broken out… The American still claim this incident is the first recognition of the United States as sovereign by another sovereign state.


The Dutch people were to enjoy a turbulent two decades after the collapse of the revolt led against the Austrians in 1790. The so-called Austrian Netherlands was quickly overrun in the early 1790s by the invading armies of the French republic. The northern half of Belgium-Netherlands, the United Provinces, declared war against the French republic only to be quickly defeated. The Dutch hierarchy fled to England to join in exile hundreds of aristocrats, ruling elites, and other famous persons from many other European nations fleeing the advance of the revolution. A dummy satellite republic was established, the Batavian Republic, while the rest of Belgium and some of the southern portions of the Netherlands were annexed as sovereign departments of France. The government changed hands several times before Napoleon created the Kingdom of Holland in 1805, making Louis Bonaparte, his brother, king. His reign lasted only five years before he came to odds with Napoleon and the kingdom was abolished. Napoleon then melded Holland entirely into France. Not until after the fall of Napoleon was peace restored under William VI, Prince of Orange, and then only for fifteen years before the Belgians revolted.

The peoples cooperated well enough with their French masters, as much as one can with a bayonet to one's back. French troops garrisoned forts and cities throughout the Netherlands to keep an eye on the people and the Dutch and Belgian soldiers in French service. The administration did what it could to meet Napoleon's expectations, especially during the years of the Consulate, before the Kingdom of Holland was created. Napoleon was planning on invading England and his naval plans were ambitious in the extreme requiring literally thousands of vessels. Early on the Dutch fleet was stripped to skeleton status to appease Napoleon. Dutch ports of all sizes were building transports and escort ships for Napoleon's fleet around the clock with the local French naval prefects making further and harsher demands every day. By and large the people were left to keep to themselves, however. French occupation was not as brutal as in Iberia or Eastern Europe and the people enjoyed the benefits of the Code Napoleon.

Throughout the Napoleonic Wars, Dutch and Belgian troops served in the legions of Napoleon. Some nine regiments of infantry were under French service circa 1810. In 1815, the Dutch and Belgian troops served with the Allied seventh coalition. They involved in the Waterloo campaign and were present at the Battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo, most serving in the 2nd and 3rd Dutch-Belgian Divisions of I Corps which was under the Prince of Orange. The Dutch-Belgians lost over 3,400 casualties during the Waterloo campaign and fought with distinction. The Battle of Waterloo took place in Belgium where one can still tour the battle site today. The role of the people and lands of the Netherlands cannot be underestimated throughout the Napoleonic Wars and the previous centuries.

July 28, 2002

Article written and submitted by anonymous

Introduction & Epilogue by Gregory H. Volbrecht, Cherub Marechal

Special acknowledgement for The Napoleonic Sourcebook, by Philip J. Haythornthwaite


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