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The Republic of the Seven United Provinces

By Kor

The Dutch Republic was, by 1700, one of the more recent additions to European politics. It had come into being in a revolt against Spanish rule over the various territories of the Netherlands, and had since 1568 transformed into a decentralised federal republic where practically only foreign affairs and military matters were decided on in common. But this did not hamper the growth of the young country; during the 17th century, the republic grew to be the strongest economy of Europe with the highest wages and the highest living standards in the world. The city of Amsterdam, in the territory of Holland, became the most important trading port of Europe until 1750, when it was slowly replaced by London. During the 18th century, the economy started stagnating, but by 1800 the average wages were still higher than in the United Kingdom (although this was more of a disadvantage than an advantage by then). In this article, the development of this fascinating country will be examined, with specific attention to the 18th century, but with some very brief flashbacks where necessary.

The Economy

An important aspect of the global economy of early modern history was distribution, as it is to this day. Trade typically took place over sea or waterways, because travel over land could often be dangerous, expensive and slow in comparison. What was needed, therefore, was a good port of call where merchant shippers could drop off their wares, after which they would be distributed to places where they could be sold. Until 1600, having replaced Venice in the first half of the 16th century, Antwerp took that spot. It was located near two of Western Europe's most important waterways, namely the Rhine and the Meuse, and so could supply both Germany and France by river. However, when the Dutch revolt broke out and Antwerp was held by the Spanish (after they successfully recaptured the city in 1585), the rebels blockaded all trade to the port. A new port was found in Amsterdam, a city swelled by refugees from Antwerp and the rest of modern day Belgium, who already were established traders and knew their way around the world. They combined well with Holland's already existant trade with the Baltic, where they traded their own dairy products for grain, and France and Portugal, where they traded for salt, which they used to salt and preserve fish, which was also traded. This trading network, especially when coupled with a booming bank and finance sector in the same city, quickly became the most prominent port in Europe. The Dutch civilian fleet was soon larger than the rest of Europe's civilian ships combined.

The industrial section of the republic started looking further abroad even before 1600. Driving the Portuguese out of much of modern day Indonesia, they created a new fortress and settlement at Batavia, the old Sunda Kelapa (Jakarta), which they used to trade with neighbouring countries and princes. They also had trading settlements in India, Ceylon, South Africa, North America (New Amsterdam, later renamed New York and exchanged with the British for Surinam) and in Japan, where they held a European trading monopoly, acquired through much grovelling. In the Americas the Dutch were fairly prominent slave traders, and remained so until the mid-19th century. The government did not organise this trade directly, but granted monopolies to companies to undertake affairs - even politics - in their name. These companies were the United East India Company (VOC) and West India Company (WIC). The Dutch economy required more manpower than the country itself could offer. Both military and fleet (navy as well as civilian) were bolstered by unrivalled amounts of immigrants, mostly from Germany, Denmark, France, and the British Isles. Some were wealthy, but the vast majority were poor and ended up in the slums of Amsterdam or as deckhands on ships. In both cases, survival rates were relatively low.

International Relations

From the final quarter of the 17th century on, the Dutch had, under stadholder William III, later also King of England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, practised an aggressive foreign policy aimed at limiting French influence. Louis XIV, the so-called 'Sun-king', was expanding his territories and doing so with armies larger than those any other European state could raise. The Dutch Republic fronted a few alliances, notably including Austria and Prussia and after 1688 also the British Isles, which fought French expansion to a standstill, made all countries involved barely avoid bankruptcy, and were responsible for the deaths of thousands of men and women (1672-78; 1688-97; 1701-14). They could not prevent a French Bourbon (the family of Louis XIV) ascend the throne of Spain and create a potentially powerful alliance. However, with Spain being in serious decline this threat never amounted to very much. A new war was fought in the middle of the century, namely the Austrian Succession War (1740-48), but with no major gains and effectively preserving the status quo. The Dutch afterwards turned to a policy of neutrality to avoid such expensive wars in future.


As mentioned above, the background of the republic was federal. Each of the Seven Provinces had wide-ranging powers over their inhabitants. A common policy was followed, for example permitting catholics to practice religion for a price, and always allowing freedom of thought. Freedom of press was similarly unrivalled in the rest of Europe, with - in the province Holland - even jews, like Spinoza, being able to publish theological tracts. Utrecht was an exception in that it had forbidden jews from even being in its provincial limits. Under the influence of Enlightenment thinking, many Dutch intellectuals developed a revolutionary urge to remove the oligarchic element of the republic and replace it with a more national and democratic state. A revolution in 1747 had no long-ranging effects, but after the American Revolution hopes were revived and after much polarisation a civil war broke out in 1787. The revolt, although initially successful, particularly in the economic and political centre of the country, was suppressed shortly after, but only through intervention by the Prussian army. The Dutch revolutionaries fled to France, which had supported them because they were deemed to be anti-British.

Having been granted pensions in France, thousands of Dutch men and women waited. In 1789, the French revolution started and proved a turning point. The new republic declared war on the 'tyrants' of Europe, including the stadholder of Holland, and invaded. After changing tides, the Dutch Republic was finally 'liberated' by a Franco-Dutch army fighting against Austrian, British, Prussian and Dutch forces in 1795. A new country was established, the Batavian Republic. This was not a federal republic but an actual nation state with democratic principles. These were upheld in the country's first 1798 constitution. Unfortunately, when Napoleon came to power in France, he disapproved of republics and in 1806 changed the country into a kingdom, the Kingdom of Holland, under his own brother Louis. A country with a unique history of republicanism had been transformed into a kingdom for centuries to come.


A variety of sources was used, primarily consisting of the following:
Algemene geschiedenis der Nederlanden
Hans Blom & Emiel Lamberts, Geschiedenis van de Nederlanden
Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall
Joost van Roosendaal, Bataven! Nederlandse vluchtelingen in Frankrijk 1787-1795
Olaf van Nimwegen, De Republiek der Verenigde Nederlanden als grote mogendheid. Buitenlandse politiek en oorlogvoering in de eerste helft van de achttiende eeuw en in het bijzonder tijdens de Oostenrijkse Successieoorlog (1740-1748)

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