Origin of the Dutch Empire
The Netherlands was formed by the loose federation of Seventeen Provinces in northwestern Europe. Its inhabitants are referred to as the Dutch. These provinces were inherited and directly ruled by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and the King of Spain (known as Carlos I) during 1543. In 1566, Eighty Years’ War broke out, which was the result of Protestant Dutch revolt against the rule of Roman Catholic Spain. The war for independence was later led by William of Orange. In 1581, independence was declared, as stated in the Act of Abjuration.
Right to Trade with Overseas Territories
Interestingly, the revolt resulted in the Treaty of Antwerp in 1609, through which the Netherlands was granted the right to trade with overseas territories controlled by the Spanish Empire under certain conditions. Moreover, the Dutch could also engage in trade with other countries (such as East Indies) and conclude treaties with them. It is another matter that, till 1648, Spain did not recognize the independence of the Netherlands, though the Antwerp treaty led to a Twelve Years’ Truce.
During the Spanish rule, coastal provinces such as Zeeland and Holland had been important hubs to maintain European maritime trade network. The geographical location of these provinces made the markets of Scotland, France, Germany, England and the Baltic easily accessible. But later, war with Spain led to the migration of many traders and financiers from Antwerp, major city of Flanders, to Amsterdam, an important Dutch city. Thereafter, this city became the leading center of shopping, shipping and banking. Enough capital in the hands of the Dutch led to their trade expansion. In 1590, the Dutch ships began their trade with Brazil and the Dutch Gold Coast of Africa towards the Indian Ocean. This further led to a lucrative trade in spices.
Trade Conflict with the Portuguese
In 1594, the Compagnie Van Verre was founded in Amsterdam, with the aim of sending 2 fleets of ship to the famous spice islands of Maluku. In 1596, the first fleet sailed and returned in 1597, with a pepper cargo covering the expenses of the voyage. A second voyage undertaken in 1598-1599 brought 400% profit to its investors. Success of these two voyages led to the establishment of the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch West India Company for trade purposes.
The rising shipping, navigation and exploration skills of the Dutch, and increasing maritime trade, brought the Dutch in direct competition with the Portuguese. It gave rise to a rivalry between the two, as the established trade routes of Portugal were now shared by the Dutch. In 1580, the King of Portugal, Sebastian I, died. This led to the Battle of Alcacer Quibir, after which the Portuguese crown began to be shared with Spain under the “Iberian Union”. This gave an excuse to the Dutch to attack overseas Portuguese possessions, as an extension of the Eighty Years’ War at home to shake off the Spanish rule. From 1602 onwards, the conflict primarily involved the Dutch companies invading Portuguese colonies in the Americas, Africa, India and the Far East.
Emergence of Netherlands as a Colonial Power
Between the 17th and 20th centuries, the Dutch acquired control of many overseas territories, and developed a successful colonial empire covering major parts of the world. The Dutch East India company (VOC) colonized a large number of countries around the world, especially in the Eastern Hemisphere. Some examples are given below:
Japan: The Dutch trade with Japan revolved around import of silver goods from the country, and passing on knowledge of medicine, mathematics and science to the Japanese in return. The trade was conducted from the island of Deshima, near the present location of Nagasaki.
Indonesia: Being rich in resources, Indonesia was a major part of the Dutch East Indies, and provided many coveted goods to the Dutch. The Dutch established a base at Batavia (now known as Jakarta) for this purpose.
South Africa: In the 17th-century, the Dutch started establishing settlements near the Cape of Good Hope. This area served as an important point for ships to stop and replenish supplies on route to the Dutch East Indies. Slowly, other people of French and German origin also started arriving and settling in these parts. This group of white Europeans evolved into a separate ethnic group called Afrikaners or ‘Boers’. Those who engaged in agriculture needed slaves for farm work, who were either imported or enslaved from local tribes.
Transvaal and Orange Free State: By 1795, the Dutch influence waned in the light of influx of the British and the end of slavery. This forced the Afrikaners to migrate further into the northern and the eastern territories in the interior of Africa. After initial struggle with the natives, they managed to wrest control of some land and established states like Transvaal and Orange Free State.
Other areas that were colonized by the Dutch included parts of India, Formosa (present-day Taiwan), Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), Iran and Malaysia.
The Dutch West India Company (WIC) was founded in 1621 and established the following colonies:
New York City: Explorer Henry Hudson conquered many important areas on the east coast of North America, such as present-day New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut, and proclaimed it as “New Netherlands”. It became an important trading post for purchasing fur from Native Americans. In 1626, the Dutch established a port called New Amsterdam, after purchasing the island of Manhattan from Native Americans. They were ousted in 1664 by the British, who named it New York, which is today the leading financial center in the world.
Suriname: Suriname was given as a consolation prize to the Dutch by the British in return for surrendering control over New Amsterdam. Known as Dutch Guiana, it subsequently became a profitable site for plantations for the Dutch, and remained under Dutch control till 1975.
Caribbean Islands: Several islands in the Caribbean Sea still remain under some kind of Dutch control to this day. These include names such as Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Saba and St. Eustatius.
The northeastern parts of Brazil and Guyana also remained under Dutch control for several years, before being wrested by other colonial powers.
Decline of the Dutch Empire
The profitability of the two Dutch companies started declining with time. WIC was dissolved in 1791, and its colonies in Suriname and Caribbean areas were brought under the direct control of the state. By 1800, VOC was also liquidated, and its possessions in Dutch East Indies were nationalized by the state. Parts of the Dutch Empire were governed by the Dutch Republic (1581-1795) and the Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815 onward). However, the Dutch Empire had to constantly fight other resurgent colonial powers, such as England, France, Spain and Portugal, to protect its expansive territory around the world. Moreover, unlike other imperial powers, the number of Dutch natives who were willing to travel to and settle in distant territories remained low. This weakened the position of the Dutch Empire. By the 19th-century, it started losing possessions to other countries in wars. By the 20th-century, colonies such as Suriname and East Indies gained their independence.