When Tiny Holland Ruled The World

(Note: The majority of the information, especially the numbers I give, come from a book I once read called “Day of Empire” by Amy Chua. The book is truly fascinating and if you are at all interested in history, I recommend you check it out.)


The Dutch are famous for many things — windmills, cheese, tulips, Van Gogh, Rembrandt — but what most people don’t know (or have forgotten) is the fact that the Dutch once presided over the worlds greatest maritime trading empire, the immediate predecessor of Great Britain’s, during the “Dutch Golden Age”.

The Dutch rose from a backwater to the most powerful country on the planet in a few short years. How did this tiny country — current population 17 million — triumph over its much larger rivals?

Humble Beginnings

Like most of the empires before it, very few people could have predicted that this very humble corner of Europe would rise to such prominence. Before 1200, Holland and some of the other low-lying regions of the Netherlands were practically, and sometimes literally, under water. Even to this day 27 percent of the country, and 60 percent of the population, is below sea level.

Starting in the 13th century, the major cities of Holland, including Amsterdam and Rotterdam, were reclaimed from the sea with the construction of dams, dikes, and drainage systems. Although the windmill was not invented in Holland (early versions existed in Persia), the Dutch perfected the technology, using wind power to pump water to safer areas.

Nonetheless, as late as 1350, Holland was not a significant force in Europe, largely dependent on subsistence farming. Unlike Spain and France, who were ruled by strong monarchies, government in the Low Countries was local and decentralised.

Random picture of me ice skating in Amsterdam — something has to break up this text!

In terms of religious tolerance, the Low Countries were unremarkable. As throughout the rest of Europe, the bubonic plague (1340’s), which killed between 30 and 60 percent of Europe’s population, was blamed on many things — the unfavourable alignment of the planets, the sins of the world, but particularly on the Jews.

Even when the plague passed, the few Jews left in the Low Countries were persecuted. Just like in France and England, Jews in the Netherlands were forced to wear identifying yellow patches, as opposed to the pointy red hates they were forced to wear in Germany.

The Rise of the Dutch

To really understand how it was possible for this tiny country (about the size of Tennessee) to rise to global dominance, you have to also understand the context of their time.

For most of the 16th century, the Low Countries were part of the Hapsburg Empire, which stretched from Spain to Austria.

In 1519, Charles V was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor. He then became ruler of most of Europe as well as large colonial possessions, over 4 million square kilometres in total.

Charles V

Charles V was born in Ghent, and he was sympathetic to the Dutch. They received unrestricted trading rights and came to control a majority of the world’s trading volume.

On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther nailed a paper to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany containing his 95 Theses, starting the Protestant Reformation.

This event would (violently) tear Europe apart. The result was that Protestantism flourished in the north, while Catholicism spread in the south.

The Netherlands were not immune to these events, fighting broke out between both factions. The situation became dire when Charles V abdicated his claim on the Netherlands to his son Phillip II.

Enter Phillip

Phillip II was born and raised in Spain, spoke no Dutch, and openly disliked the Low Countries. He was also a fervent Catholic, and he made it his divine mission to stop the expansion of Protestantism.

Phillip demanded absolute loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church and appointed Catholic, non-Dutch speaking governors in many cities in the Netherlands. Unrest started to spread among the Protestants and William the Silent of Orange started a rebellion in the northern provinces.

Phillip responded by sending 10,000 troops to destroy the rebellion, led by the Spanish Duke of Alva. He was described as especially fanatical in his disdain for the Protestant heresy.

When Alva arrived in the Netherlands, he promptly convened a tribunal (nicknamed “The Council of Blood”), and proceeded to execute one thousand Dutch. He also levied heavy new taxes. This prompted a heavy revolts in 1572, and Alva responded by destroying Haarlem and massacring the people.

In 1576, angry, starving Spanish troops, whom were unpaid by the financially strained Phillip II, left the rebellious north for the prosperous south, where they plundered Antwerp and slaughtered around 7,000 citizens.

The Spaniards were not messing around.

This incident became known as the “Spanish Fury”. Although the massacre occurred in the south, the impact was far greater in the north where it was captured in detail by contemporary artists and poets, becoming part of the Netherlands’ national birth story.

The incident united the northern and southern provinces in signing the Pacification of Ghent, where they agreed to set aside their differences and drive out the Spanish. The Pacification proved short-lived. In 1579, the southern provinces re-declared their loyalty to Philipp II, Spain, and the Catholic Church.


The northern provinces then proclaimed their autonomy and their right to religious freedom. Two years later, they enacted the Oath of Abjuration, a declaration of independence.

After that, the seven northern provinces became the United Provinces of the Netherlands, while the ten southern provinces remained part of Spain.

(Note: The country today known as the Kingdom of the Netherlands is often called Holland, even by the Dutch. Technically, Holland only refers to the Netherlands two most economically important provinces, North and South Holland, which include the major cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. I try to use the correct term when I can, but even I sometimes mix up their names — It gets even more confusing when you get into historical Holland and the United Provinces)

Phillip II had no intention of admitting defeat. He actually put a bounty of 25,000 gold coins on the head of William the Silent and sent more troops to subdue the north.

Realising that they could not stand up alone to the Spanish, William responded by offering leadership of the United Provinces to both France And England. They both declined, not wanting to go to war with Spain.

In 1584, William the Silent was assassinated by a Spaniard, Balthazar Gerard. He was caught by the Dutch and tortured to death.

This brings us to the year 1588, with the United Provinces, incapable of even defending themselves. Yet in about 50 years the Dutch republic would become arguably the most powerful country in the world.


How did they, in 50 years, go from being defenceless to being the richest country in the world?

The answer lies in a trait in the Dutch that you can see their modern-day ancestors. They were the most open, liberal, and accepting country in Europe. They became the economic superpower of their time by turning Holland into a haven for entrepreneurial outcasts from the rest of Europe.

There was also an element of luck. War among England, France, and Spain, kept them preoccupied with each other, while draining them financially.

Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries was not a tolerant place. In most places, you shared the religious belief of the monarch or you were put to death. The United Provinces by contrast had no established state church, and you were largely able to practice whatever religion you want, without consequence.

Vermeers “Milkmaid”


In it’s founding charter, the Union of Utrecht (1579) mandated

“Each person shall remain free in his religion and no-one shall be investigated or persecuted because of his religion.”

To be sure, the Dutch Reformed Church always had a privileged status. Nonmembers were officially barred from holding government positions, and other religions could not be openly professed “in public”.

In practice though, leniency triumphed. Local governments were free to choose how strict they wanted to be, and most chose flexibility.

The Dutch Republic’s religious freedom became the talk of Europe. Some were admirers, including Descartes who in 1631 wrote:

“Is there another country where you can enjoy such a perfect liberty… and where the has survived more of the innocence of our forefathers?”

Most foreigners were appalled by what they saw as religious debauchery.

The Dutch did not embrace religious liberalism as a matter of principle though, it was calculated for economic gain. The political leaders found it essential to stimulate immigration.

Even if tolerance was wielded like a weapon, it was incredibly successful. Immigrants came streaming in from all over Europe — Protestants, Huguenots, Lutherans, Quakers, Pilgrims and even Jews flooded into Holland.

The Meagre Company by Frans Hals

Economic explosion

Between roughly 1570 and 1670, while many European cities were stagnating, Amsterdam’s population exploded from 30,000 to 200,000; Leiden’s from 15,000 to 72,000; Rotterdam’s from 7,000 to 45,000; Haarlem’s from 16,000 to 50,000.

It was these immigrants who pushed the United Provinces to global economic prominence for a brief half century.

The economic explosion was fuelled by Jews, and especially Protestants — both fleeing persecution from elsewhere in Europe. These groups made Holland the centre of global trade, finance, and industry.

Holland completely cornered the market on Europe’s luxury trades. In the words of England’s Daniel Defoe the Dutch were “the carriers of the world, the middle persons in trade, the factors and brokers of Europe.”

The Dutch became so successful and rich by trading that in 1598 Spain placed an embargo on all Dutch ships, hoping to cut off Dutch access to colonial products. This proved to be a massive mistake. With more money than ever, the Dutch decided to bypass Spain and Portugal entirely and send their own ships to the East indies (Indonesia) and the Americas.

The two India Companies

They decided to create the Dutch East India Company, the first publicly owned company in history, and later the West India Company. These two companies transformed the Dutch Republic into a world colonial power.

The East India Company could conduct diplomacy, sign treaties, form alliances, maintain troops, install viceroys, and make war. Everyone who worked for the company, whether naval commanders or governors, had to swear allegiance to both the company and the government of the United Provinces.

One of the key differences with the Dutch, as opposed to the Spanish and Portuguese, is that the Dutch were not driven by religious zeal. Very few Dutch missionaries were sent to the East Indies or the Americas.

The sole motive for the Dutch traders was profit. Sweden’s King, Charles X made the point when a Dutch envoy made a comment about freedom of religion, the king pulled a coin from his pocket and declared, “Voilà votre religion (This is your religion)!”


The early 1600s saw a burst of Dutch commercial expansion all over the globe. The Dutch seized the Spice Islands, Jakarta, West Africa, the Caribbean, and northern South America. Meanwhile back in Europe, the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain (1568 to 1648) drew on, with the Dutch being increasingly successful.

Fuelled by the money pouring in, the Dutch adopted a series of military reforms that were soon copied all over Europe. Troops were paid regularly, more powerful weaponry was introduced and ammunition was standardised, and battlefield training and techniques were revolutionised.

By the mid 17th century, the Dutch Republic was

“indisputably the greatest trading nation in the world, with commercial outposts and fortified factories scattered from Archangel to Recife and from New Amsterdam to Nagasaki.” Untold numbers of luxury goods flowed into and through Holland.”

It was around this time that the Dutch became famous throughout Europe for being excessively liberal — socially, morally, politically, and intellectually. Foreign visitors were constantly shocked by the disrespect shown to masters, husbands, and nobles by servants, wives, and commoners.

Even worse, there were no limits on who could get rich in the Dutch Republic — this shocked their European contemporaries who were used to a far more rigid social hierarchy.

Syndics of the Drapers Guild by Rembrandt

The Dutch also saw an explosion of artistic and intellectual creativity around this time. The painters of this era — Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Jan Steen are among the most famous artists of all time.

Holland didn’t just attract artists though, some of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment wrote or lived there. René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and John Locke, to name just a few.

Were they really a hyper power?

With their maritime and commercial might unrivalled, a fair case could be made that in its heyday, between about 1625 and 1675, the Dutch Republic was a world-dominant power.

The obvious objection is the fact that the Dutch army was not the largest in Europe, although it was the best equipped and professional. Even during the long decline of the Spanish in the 17th century, Spain had more troops than the Dutch, and it would have been nearly impossible for the Dutch to invade and conquer any of its neighbours.

So how strong were they?

To focus on the traditional metrics of the strength of an empire — population, territory, military might — would be to misunderstand how the Dutch triumphed over its rivals.

The Dutch never tried to conquer the European continent like past, and future empires. They dominated Europe with trade not force.

Their empire was small, but it was rich

To be clear though, the Dutch military was world-class. The Dutch navy crushed the once dominant Spanish in 1639.

In 1667 they dealt England the worst naval defeat in their history, and adding insult to injury, the Dutch towed the Royal Charles (flagship of the English navy) back to Holland.

On the commercial side, the Dutch dominance was far greater. According to one estimate, of the approximately 20,000 ships involved in carrying the world’s trade in the mid 17th century, 16,000 of them were Dutch.

By 1670, the Dutch owned more shipping tonnage than England, France, Portugal, Spain and Prussia combined. At its peak, the Dutch navy was greater in size than the French and English navies combined — all the more remarkable when you consider that the population of France alone was 15 times larger than Hollands.

Different Path

The Dutch were the ones who figured out that their was a new way to achieve global dominance in the modern age. Every previous hyper-power in history started by conquering its neighbours, and slowly expanding their borders, while incorporating more and more different people.

The Dutch, like the United States later, used tolerance as a tool to attract the talented and persecuted outcasts of Europe. That immigration created an economic boom that catapulted Holland far beyond its European rivals in terms of wealth. The Dutch then used the wealth to globalize.

Territorial expansion then became much less important. All the resources that an empire needed gold, silver, pepper, spices, sugar, jewellery, and other luxuries could simply be traded for.

The new strategy of world domination was not conquest, but capitalism backed by military force. Although the Dutch had large colonial holdings in some parts of the world, the Dutch “empire” was pretty much a network of trading outposts administered by the West and East India companies.

When you put all of this together, their commercial, financial, and technological might, it is no wonder that Immanuel Wallerstein concluded that the 17th century Dutch Republic attained the “rare” condition of global hegemony.


In 1688, a massive Dutch fleet invaded England. The Dutch troops occupied London, and the stadtholder of the Netherlands, William III or Orange, became king of Britain.

At the time, it seemed that the Dutch were at their pinnacle of power, with their commercial expansion unstoppable. In fact William was the one who sealed the fate of the Dutch Republic.

William III

The Dutch force that arrived in England — 500 ships — was financed primarily by Dutch Jews. After becoming king of England, William brought over his Jewish financiers to continue to provide for his forces, which now included the English army and navy as well.

They were soon followed by many of Hollands skilled workers, scientists and artists, which began a massive exodus of capital, human and financial, from Holland to England.

The Dutch basically exported their tolerance, as well as its most enterprising financiers to England, which then became Europe’s leading naval and commercial power. It wouldn’t be long before England was presiding over the largest empire the world had ever seen.


I’ve spoken about this era with a number of Dutch people, and while they of course are aware of the Dutch Golden Age, I don’t think most of them fully understood just how dominant their ancestors were.

To be honest though, I don’t blame them. Just take a look at any map, and you probably wouldn’t even be able to find the Netherlands unless you already knew where it was, it’s tiny! It takes me longer to get outside of Florida driving, then it does to drive across the whole of the Netherlands!

Nonetheless, I believe the Dutch are one of the few colonial powers that may have done more good than bad — make no mistake, the Dutch did some unspeakable things in their colonies, but if you judge them relative to their European peers, I would say that the Dutch were the most humane of them all.

If you made it this far (3,000 words!) then thank you, I would like to write about more things like this, as opposed to making simple itineraries on places to visit and whatnot. I think there’s enough places where you can find that kind of information, but far fewer places where you can find information like this, that will really change the way you look at a country.

With that said, If you would like to see more content like this, let me know! Also, it wouldn’t hurt if you helped out with sharing and commenting as well

It may seem insignificant to you, but that is the only way for me to know that people are enjoying what I am writing. If you would like to read more articles like this then feel free to check out my personal blog at theunexamined.life.

(Again credit for all of the number presented here go to Amy Chua and her book “Day of Empire”.)