Category Archives: Netherlands

Exotic Tulips

We had a fun morning with the tulips!

And now we have more poffertjes! Yummy! They go well with tulips 🙂

We painted a tulip in Delft at the Royal Delft factory after lessons with one of the master painters!

Then we bought some more pottery 🙂

Today, tulips are readily available in a rainbow of colours – yet once they were considered priceless rarities. Introduced to the Netherlands from Turkey in the late 16th century, tulips were avidly collected and studied by botanists, connoisseurs, artists, and intellectuals. They rapidly became a coveted luxury item, and their vividly striped blooms feature prominently in flower paintings of the 17th century.

In 17th century Netherlands, a country rapidly expanding its wealth and trade networks, the newly wealthy merchants collected novel and exotic plants in the same way they collected furnishings from Batavia and china from Japan. Tulips were a newish luxury product. Many more people could afford luxuries – and tulips were seen as beautiful, exotic and redolent of the good taste and learning displayed by well-educated members of the merchant class.

At first, 17th century scholars and connoisseurs freely exchanged unusual specimens of tulips amongst themselves. One of their leaders was the pioneering botanist Carolus Clusius, who established an important botanical garden at the University of Leiden during the 1590s.

The Hortus botanicus of Leiden is the oldest botanical garden of the Netherlands, and one of the oldest in the world.

Clusius also had a private garden at Leiden, and it was here that he planted his own collection of tulip bulbs. At that time, tulips, which originally hailed from the Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges in central Asia, and had already been cultivated by besotted gardeners in the Ottoman Empire for decades, were rare and exotic newcomers to Western Europe. They were hard to get hold of, and quickly became desired by other scholars besides Clusius.

Clusius devoted a large proportion of his final years to studying tulips. He was especially interested in understanding how and why, from one year to the next, a particular bulb could suddenly ‘break’. This meant that, inexplicably, it would go from producing blooms of a single colour to flowers boasting beautiful feathery or flame-like patterns involving more than one hue.

Much later, during the 19th Century, it was discovered that this striated effect was actually the result of a virus. But, in the 17th Century, this was still not understood, and so, strangely enough, diseased tulips, emblazoned with distinctive patterns, became more prized than healthy ones in the Dutch Republic. Dutch botanists competed to breed ever more beautiful hybrid varieties, known as ‘cultivars’.

In the early 17th Century, these cultivars began to be exchanged among a growing network of gentlemen scholars, who swapped cuttings, seeds and bulbs both within the Netherlands and internationally. The scholars started getting requests from people they didn’t know, so they started trading for money. Because tulips were bought and sold as bulbs, buyers had to trust that they were getting what they had paid for.

Prices rose because tulips were still rare and they were hard to cultivate in a way that brought out the popular striped or speckled petals. People paid a high price for them as people still pay a high price for something that is generally considered valuable, and for which the next person might pay even more.

Prices could be high, but mostly they weren’t. The most expensive tulips cost around 5,000 guilders (the price of a well-appointed house), but most tulips were far cheaper. The top buyers generally came from the wealthy merchant class and were well able to afford the bulbs.

Two of the most prized tulip varieties were the Semper Augustus, which was red with white striations; and the Viceroy, red with yellow flaming. Both of these costly tulips appear in Ambrosius Bosschaert’s Flowers in a Glass Vase of 1614.

Detail from Ambrosius the Elder Bosschaert, Flowers in a Glass Vase, 1609–10 showing tulips ‘Semper Augustus’ (left) and ‘Viceroy’ (right)
Detail from Paulus Theodorus van Brussel, Flowers in a Vase, 1792

Many of the people who bought tulips also bought paintings or collected rarities like shells. As a result of the trade with far-flung places and the introduction of exotica, Dutch artists of the 17th century became renowned for being greatly concerned with a ‘close scrutiny of the natural world’. This, combined with their preoccupation with perspective and the study of light, provided the basic elements of still life painting. The term had come into general usage in mid-century, still life being the carefully composed portrayal of inanimate objects. Living creatures were allowable as long as they were incidental to the main theme.

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder
A Still Life of Flowers in a Wan-Li Vase on a Ledge with further Flowers, Shells and a Butterfly, 1609-10

The earliest examples of still life were the popular floral paintings. There’s such a casual looseness to the arrangements of Dutch flower paintings of the Golden Age that it seems as if the artist has just been out into the garden, grabbed a handful of blooms and plonked them in a vase. The stems twist and loop, flowers are tumbling out of the picture, there’s a fly on the rose, and a bug in the carnation. Yet the artful spontaneity is anything but: these are meticulously formed images, painted over months or years, and the journey of the flowers from their places of origin to the vase in which they are displayed is even more arduous.

Osaias Beert the Elder
Flowers in a Serpentine Vase, about 1615
Simon Pietersz Verelst
Flowers still life

Middelburg, Utrecht and Amsterdam were the main centres for flower painting, a genre that was highly regarded and well paid. The artists, although portraying genuine flowers, depicted them in impossible arrangements: blooms from all four seasons were shown at once, reflecting the studio practice of painting individual flowers, in season, as studies for future reference. Flowers were accurately detailed without the overlapping that would happen naturally in a vase arrangement. Another artifice, in the 1620s, was the image of a snail, or butterfly flying in the background, which referred to the soul, freed after death.

Detail from Paulus Theodorus van Brussel, Flowers in a Vase, 1792 (left) and detail from Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, A Still Life of Flowers in a Wan-Li Vase, 1609-10 (right)
Detail from Jacob van Walscapelle, Flowers in a Glass Vase, about 1670 (left) and detail from Ambrosius the Elder Bosschaert, Flowers in a Glass Vase, 1609–10 (right)

Flowers were ciphers for spring but there was also an evolving symbolism in the language of flowers that was accessible to contemporary viewers: the Madonna lily, for instance, was an attribute of the Virgin Mary, the white iris a symbol of her purity and the rose, her love. A daisy meant charity, a buttercup the unmarried state, and the sunflower represented the love of God, or sometimes, earthly love. Some artists presented their work as so-called ‘niche’ paintings (in emulation of Trompe L’Oeil Roman murals), which emphasised the symmetrical aspect of the arrangement. An excellent example is the Middelburg painter Ambrosius Bosschaert’s Vase of Flowers of 1620 whose Wan Li Vase refers to oriental travel, and fallen flower-head to decay and transience; the flower, however, is a carnation – the symbol for resurrection and eternal life.

Jan van Huysum
Glass Vase with Flowers with a Poppy and a Finch Nest, about 1720-21
Rachel Ruysch
Flower still life

Hyacinths were popular too!

Jan van Huysum
Flowers in a Terracotta Vase,

From antiquity, hyacinths grew wild in the eastern Mediterranean and in Asia Minor, and were prized for their deep blue colour and heady perfume. Like the tulip, hyacinths were first imported into Western Europe in the mid 16th century, but for much of the 17th century, interest in them was eclipsed by the Dutch infatuation with tulips. In 1600, the botanical garden in Leiden recorded only a few varieties of hyacinth. Most were single varieties, with a few widely spaced florets along a single stem.

Detail from Osaias Beert the Elder, ‘Flowers in a Porcelain Wan-Li Vase’, about 1615

The earliest double hyacinths – bearing fuller and more profuse florets – were described in 1612, but not until the end of the century did Dutch breeders start to develop them in earnest. By the early 18th century, hyacinths had surpassed tulips in popularity and were available in a range of colours, including purple, red, white and pink. Yellow hyacinths were developed slightly later, probably in the 1760s. By the end of the century, over two thousand varieties of hyacinths were grown in the Netherlands, mostly in the area around Haarlem.

Detail from Jan van Huysum, Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, 1736-7

Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of French King Louis XV from 1745 until her death in 1764, was a keen devotee of these fragrant blooms and her influence as a trendsetter did much to ensure their popularity. She ordered the gardens at Versailles to be planted with hundreds of Dutch hyacinths, and in the winter had them forced on glasses to fill the palace with their sweet scent.

Pirates on the Duyfken

Little bears are sailing on the Duyfken, the replica of the Dutch ship Duyfken, that reached the Australian coast in 1606 under the command of Willem Janszoon, in the first historically recorded European voyage to Australia.

In 1995, a group of passionate people formed the Duyfken 1606 Replica Foundation in Fremantle, Western Australia. A full size reproduction of the Duyfken was built by the Foundation jointly with the Maritime Museum of Western Australia. In January 1997, His Royal Dutch Highness Prince Willem Alexander laid the keel of the Duyfken at the building shed erected in front of the Maritime Museum. The building site was open to the public, which gave the West Australian people a great insight into the “ancient” ship building techniques.

The Duyfken sails off Fremantle, July 1999.

On Sunday 24th January 1999, the Duyfken Replica was launched in Fremantle, an event witnessed by 7000 people. On 10 July 1999, the Duyfken raised its sails for the first time and made its first journey in West Australian waters. She then undertook goodwill tours to Sydney, Queensland, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, South Africa, and finally Texel in the Netherlands, where the original ship sailed from. While in the Netherlands, the floor of the hold was replaced by antique Dutch bricks.

400 year-old bricks
Samples of spices carried by the original Duyfken

The original ship comes from a time when ship designs were not recorded on paper; a ship’s design was evolved in the master shipwright’s head, and ships were shaped largely by eye.

The Duyfken Replica was built as a project in experimental archaeology. She was built in the same way that the original ship would have been built, an undertaking which has been a huge leap in the dark for 20th century shipwrights who have been trained in a very different tradition. Like the original Duyfken, the replica was built plank-first, with no frames to predetermine the shape of the hull. The oak timbers which form the outer plank shell, some of them more than 100mm thick, were bent to shape by heating over open fires until they become plastic. This was done by shipwrights working entirely by eye. Learning the technique was very difficult and some valuable oak planks were burned, but the shipwrights succeeded. They have become skilful at the ancient practice of plank-first construction, and have produced a very beautiful ship.

Plank-first was the ancient way of building a planked vessel. Planked boats developed from dugout canoes, through the addition of a row of planks (called a strake by shipwrights), then more strakes, gradually introducing the need for some framing structure to help hold the planks together and to make rigid the shape of the plank shell. Above a certain size, some transverse struts or beams were necessary. The sequence in which these structural elements were put into the vessel during plank-first construction largely reflects the sequence in which they were invented, because the development from simple dugout canoe to large planked ship was incremental.

This cannon was cast especially for the Duyfken in Fremantle where the ship was built.

In plank-first ship-building the planks can be attached to each other by a range of methods: edge dowelling, tenons, skew nails, stitching, sewing, fastenings through overlaps and temporary cleats were all used. Some techniques were suitable for the construction of relatively large ships. Some were very labour intensive, some less so, and some of those techniques are still used today.

The hull is made from European oak from Latvia

The hull was built as a shell of planks, the shape more or less sculpted by eye, plank by plank, following a plan in the master shipwright’s head. Sophisticated hull shapes were possible, indeed likely, in maritime-oriented cultures. However, traditional plank-first methods made it virtually impossible to precisely follow a hull shape specified in scaled plans.

Frame-first construction is quite different. A skeleton of frames is erected first and the planks are then fitted to that skeleton. The shapes of the frames can be derived from plans.

By the time of the Renaissance and the European Age of Discovery, frame-first construction was used for building large ships in Italy, Spain and Portugal. It has been claimed that frame-first construction made it possible to develop large, sturdy ships, suitable for voyages of discovery and for carrying enough artillery to inspire trade with the local population for valuable spices, silks and metals. Why the sequence in which the components of a ship are assembled should make that possible is not explained.

The figureheads represent the winged-hat god Mercury. Port side was for fortune at war and starboard, fortune in sailing.

As the Renaissance spread north, frame-first technology spread to northern Europe, where it replaced lapstrake construction in which planks overlap one another and are fastened together through that overlap. Replacement of lapstrake was probably necessary for the successful building of large armed ships. Henry VIII brought Portuguese shipwrights to England to teach his shipwrights, and this might be seen as the inevitable diffusion of a superior technology.

But the Dutch were not influenced by this new fad for frame-first construction, and the Dutch were far and away the most successful builders and operators of merchant shipping at the time. They invented their own economical way of changing from overlapping planks without abandoning the plank-first tradition in which their ships were conceived and shaped by eye.

When the elements of a Dutch nation first coalesced, and began a war of independence against the Spanish monarchy in the 1570s, the people of the Netherlands owned more shipping tonnage than any other nation in Europe, something like six times as much as the English. The Spanish, who they were at war with, could not ban Dutch ships from their own ports, because they would have starved without the flow of grain in Dutch ships from Baltic ports.

Letters and reports from that time and on through the 17th century, show that the English and Spanish, amongst others, regarded Dutch ships as superior in many respects. Dutch ships were fast relative to cargo capacity, economically built, shallow-drafted yet good sailers, requiring relatively few crew and they were more likely to survive a grounding, not because they were structurally superior, but because their shape was better. A letter probably written by the merchant Pedro Lopez de Soto in 1631 or ’32, and translated by Paulo Monteiro, talks of their superiority. He wrote:

‘I arrive at the conclusion that the Flemish nation has understood better than any other, maritime matters, and that they practice them with much more perfection than any other (nation), and they go with their ships all over the world and to places where ours cannot navigate because of the great storms there are in those regions, and the Turks from Argal and Zale, practicing piracy on the coasts of Italy and Spain, will not use anything other than Flemish ships …’

With no plans and only a few sketches to guide the work, builders relied on research and computer modelling to arrive at an accurate reproduction of the Duyfken. The construction team had to learn 16th century techniques, such as bending planks by fire. They have done a remarkable job!

Duyfken Replica at sea

In 2002 the Netherlands celebrated the 400th anniversary of the VOC, the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie. The Duyfken participated in the celebrations during the spring and summer of 2002, having arrived in the Netherlands in April 2002. Commemoration activities included a memorial ceremony in the Ridderzaal (The Knights’ Hall) in the parliamentary building in The Hague, and festivities in the six VOC port cities of Amsterdam, Delft, Enkhuizen, Hoorn, Middelburg and Rotterdam, as well as on the island of Texel.

Duyfken in Enkhuizen, Netherlands, June 2002

The little yacht Duyfken which explored the Australian coast in 1606 was not the only Dutch vessel with that name to visit the Indies. The list of ships that went to the East at the end of the 16th and in the 17th and 18th century, shows that there were seven vessels named Duyfken, plus a White Duyfken and a Duif. It was a common name for a small vessel that accompanied the larger cargo-carriers in a fleet, and may have been a biblical allusion to Noah’s dove sent out to search for new land or her use as a carrier of mail similar to a carrier pigeon.

Duyfken means little dove or little bird in Dutch.

It has long been thought that the Duyfken which reached the Australian shore, and the Duyfken of the first fleet of the Dutch, which sailed to the Indies in 1595, was one and the same ship. However, archival research shows that the departure and arrival dates of the fleets and the ships reveal that this cannot be the case. Confusion is understandable because we now know that the Duyfken of the first fleet was renamed Overijssel after her first voyage. An account in German of the second voyage of the Duyfken (now named Overijssel), in the fleet under command of Van Neck in 1598 reads in translation:

…stayed together the following [ship], to wit the ship Overijssel, which one sometimes named Duyfken or Daublein [German word for little Dove], and which was the small yacht [of the fleet], and the ship Hollandia and the ship Mauritius

Thus the Duyfken that visited Australia was the second vessel named Duyfken.

A 19th century illustration depicting the Duyfken in the Gulf of Carpentaria. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

The first fleet of the Dutch sailed to the Indies on 2 April 1595. It was a small fleet of four ships, equipped by the Compagnie van Verre (Company from Far) of Amsterdam consisting of the three merchantmen Mauritius, Hollandia and Amsterdam, accompanied by a small pinas that was named Duyfken. This yacht was built in May 1594 in Amsterdam at a shipyard called Uylenburg. This first voyage which lasted two years was long and difficult and during the voyage many lives were lost. The fleet returned to the Netherlands on 11 August, 1597.

Following the return of the fleet, the Duyfken was renamed Overijssel and this vessel sailed to the Indies on 1 May 1598 in the fleet of Admiral Van Neck, which was equipped by the Oude Oost-Indische Compagnie (Old East India Company).

Why was Duyfken renamed Overijssel? When van Neck’s fleet sailed, it consisted of eight ships, seven of which were named after a province or a city of the Netherlands, and one was called the Mauritius, the name of the Prince Stadtholder of the United Provinces of the Netherlands. It is possible that the Duyfken was recruited for the fleet and renamed Overijssel to fit this policy. Van Neck’s fleet departed from Bantam for the Netherlands on 12 January 1599, and arrived at Texel island on 19 July of the same year.

The Return to Amsterdam of the Second Expedition to the East Indies, 19 July 1599, by Hendrik Cornelisz Vroom, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

The Overijssel departed Texel on 21 December 1599 on her third and last voyage. She arrived at Bantam on 1 September 1600. After sailing in the Indies, the Overijssel left for the Netherlands on 9 September 1601, arriving at Texel again in June 1602.

However, more than a year earlier, on 23 April 1601, another yacht named Duyfken departed from Texel arriving at Bantam on 26 December 1601. This is almost certainly the Duyfken that was to sail to Australia in 1606.

A third Duyfken left the Netherlands on 29 December 1611 (she ran aground and was lost near Surat in 1617), but by this time the second Duyfken had already been lost in 1608 off Ternate, one of the Molucca’s Spice Islands.

We know that the first Duyfken was built in 1594, if we assume that the second and third Duyfken were built in the same year as they set sail to the Indies for the first time, then all three ships reached an age of about 8 years before they were lost, abandoned or fell into disuse.

On April 23, 1601, a large fleet of thirteen ships under command of Admiral Jacob van Heemskerck left Texel and set sail for the Indies. Part of the fleet was a smaller fleet of five ships under command of Admiral Wolfert Harmensz, consisting of the ships Gelderland, Utrecht, Wachter, Zeeland and the Duyfken, the last captained by Willem Cornelisz Schouten. It was the first time that this Duyfken sailed for the Indies.

Wolfert Harmensz’s so-called Moluccan (Maluku) Fleet was equipped by the Oude Oost-Indische Compagnie and had cost 224,601 guilders. This was one of the so called Voorcompagnien (pre-companies), which were the predecessors of the VOC, or Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, the United East India Company. The Voorcompagnien equipped the ships for the Indies before the VOC was founded in 1602. After the foundation of the VOC, other companies were no longer allowed to sail for the Indies.

This Duyfken left the Netherlands before and returned after the founding of the VOC. The fact that the Duyfken was built and equipped at a time of transition from the pre-companies to the VOC makes it complicated to find information about her in the archives.

The directors of the Oude Oost-Indische Compagnie, which had equipped Harmensz’s Maluku Fleet had been very specific in their “instruction for our fleet of five ships, destined under command of Admiral Wolffert Hermenssen [Harmensz] to the Islands of the Moluccas, and Banda”. The fleet was to set sail straight to Bantam, Java to get information about the affairs of the Dutch at Banda and Maluku. After having done this the ships were to sail eastward to either Jurtan, Tubon or Bali to buy rice, cotton and other fabrics, and other goods that could be of use in Maluku.

Subsequently, the Admiral, with the ship Gelderland and the ship Wachter, was to set sail to Ternate, and the Vice-admiral with the ships Zeeland and Utrecht was to set sail to Ambon and Banda. They were to stay as long together as was possible, depending of the winds.

Concerning the Duyfken the instruction is even more specific:

Concerning the yacht called tile Duyffgen [sic], [she] should stay with those [two] ships from which she could sail in the easiest way to the other [two] ships in order to bring news and to sail to Banda, and if there is apparently more cargo of nuts than the ships are able to take in, and to sail with it to Ternate. And if possible the same yacht should sail back from Ternate to Banda to bring the news on the Ternate trade to Banda in this way.
And in case at Ternate for some reason there won’t be enough [crop], the same yacht should go to Ternate with the cargo of nuts…

On 20 April 1602 the VOC directors discussed the matter of the ships equipped by the Oude Oost-Indische Compagnie. It is obviously that they wanted to buy the smaller yachts, but exactly from whom, and why only the smaller yachts are mentioned, is not clear.

The Duyfken arrived back in the Netherlands in February 1603 after having left the Indies on 25 August 1602 with the ships Gelderland and Zeeland under Admiral Wolfert Harmensz.

The Duyfken was bought by the VOC sometime before October 1603. A bookkeepers journal from this early period of the Amsterdam Chamber has survived.

The Duyfken, now under Captain Willem Jansz, set sail again for the Indies on 18 December 1603. This time she was part of a fleet under command of Admiral Steven van der Haghen, aboard the ship Geunieerde Provincien. Van der Haghen’s fleet of twelve ships was the first fleet fully equipped by the VOC. The ships were heavily armed and it was obvious that they were not meant only for trade, they were ordered to attack the Portuguese where possible, but it was only after opening the secret instructions on the open sea Admiral Van der Haghen knew fully the bellicose intentions of the Company. Announcement of these instructions brought upheaval amongst the crew, most of whom had not mustered to fight.

The directors of the VOC had instructed Steven van der Haghen that he should leave the four yachts Delft, Medenblick, Enkhuysen and Duyfken, or at least three of them, in the Indies for at least three years, “to sail from one place to another and to act as be instructed by the upper-merchants who stay there”. According to this, there appears good reason to believe that the voyage of the Duyfken for the discovery of New Guinea was ordered by Steven van der Haghen. As he left almost immediately for Holland in October 1605, the responsibility for its execution would devolve to someone else. At that time the headquarters of the Dutch in the Indies was at Ambon, and Frederik de Houtman had been appointed Governor.

Portrait of Willem Janszoon, by Jeremias Falck Blaeu, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

In 1605, the yacht Duyfken with Captain Willem Janszoon was placed at the disposal of Govemor de Houtman by Admiral Steven van der Haghen. De Houtman gave orders for the expedition to the so-called “southern lands” to Captain Willem Janszoon, “but as Janszoon had to obtain some very necessary provisions and ship’s stores before he could sail”, De Houtman sent him to Bantam with orders to the VOC agent Jan Willem Verschoor, asking him to assist the captain.

We do not know the exact movements of the Duyfken directly from the Dutch records, only from the English Captain Saris of the English East India Company at Bantam. The sources do not mention the exact dates of the voyage of the Duyfken to Australia or her return. According to Saris’ quotation they left on 18 November 1605 and were back in June 1606. Several contemporary 17th century documents in Dutch refer to the voyage of the Duyfken, the Captain Willem Janszoon and second officer Jan Lodewijck Roossengin, including the “Instruction to Commander Abel Jansen Tasman” written in 1644.

But the most important document is the copy of the Duyfken Chart which was found in 1933 in Vienna. The chart is extremely informative, as it shows the whole course of the vessel from Banda on the outward and the homeward voyages; it shows that the Duyfken visited the Kei and the Aru Islands, it shows the actual landfall on the coast of Australia, and it locates the position of Cape Keerweer where the Duyfken turned back to Banda. The legend on the map reads: “This map shows the route taken by the yacht Duifien (sic) on the outward as well as on the return voyage when she visited the countries east of Banda up to New Guinea”.

The chart of the Duyfken, 1606
A map of the possible route taken by the Duyfken on its journey to Australia

From the chart it is easy to locate the point where the Duyfken made her first landfall: the Pennefather River, about 150 kilometres south of the tip of present-day Cape York, on the western side. The copies of the original chart place the Pennefather River, named by the Dutch ‘R. met het Bosch’ (River with the bush), at 11°48’S. This represents an error of less than half a degree, or about 50 kilometres, which is quite accurate considering the rudimentary instruments and methods for determining latitude and longitude at sea in the Duyfken’s time.

It’s still possible to ascertain what the little yacht found at the Pennefather River, because it has changed little since 1606! A sandy spit covers part of the entrance to an inlet half a kilometre wide that broadens to tidal flats stretching a few kilometres inland. The vegetation is a mix of scrub and casuarinas. In March, the heat and humidity of the wet season may have abated, but the atmosphere was still decidedly tropical.

From the Pennefather, the Duyfken headed south. Some 40 kilometres down the coast, at 12°8’ (actually 12°34’), she rounded what Matthew Flinders named Duyfken Point in her honour in 1802. She then entered Vliege Bay, ‘vliege’ meaning flies, suggesting the first European encounter with these ubiquitous Aussie insects 🙂

Janszoon and his men charted Vliege Bay, then continued south. They entered another bay 10 kilometres down the coast. Here they marked their chart ‘Dubbel Rev’ (Double River). This section of coast was characterised by low cliffs and particularly shallow water. The Duyfken kept well out to sea (10 kilometres or more in places) while her boats explored inshore. On his chart Janszoon also marked ‘R. Vis’ (Fish River, now known as the Archer) suggesting they’d enjoyed a good catch, possibly of barramundi.

The Duyfken then sailed another 35 kilometres down the coast to a point on their charts marked as ‘Cabo Keerweer’ (Cape Turn-about). Janszoon has it at 13°40’ (it actually extends from around 13°50’ to 14°). It’s more of a small outlet for the Kirke River than a cape, but it was certainly a significant point for Janszoon.

While there’s no first-hand account of what happened at Cape Keerweer, a surprising amount of information comes from the descendants of people who were there. Since the 1970s researchers have been recording the oral histories of Wik elders, keepers of the stories of the Dutch visit in 1606.

Gladys Nunkatiapin told Kevin Gilbert for his book Living Black in 1978:

One day the first six white men came to this country. They crossed the river and met our people. They took one young woman back across the river. Her husband go and say, ‘Let her go, give her back’. No one spoke the language; they could only use signs. The husband came back and said to our people, ‘Help me get my wife back.’ so the husband and tribesmen went back across the river and made signs. The white men wouldn’t let her go. The husband pulled the white man into the river and choked him. I think that’s when it all started.

Jack Spear Karntin told Dr Peter Sutton his version in 1986:

If the Dutchmen had behaved properly, [the Aboriginals] would not have killed them. But they detained their wives…
The rest of the boats came from way out to sea, from well out to sea off Thewena [Cape Keerweer].
From there they wrongly blamed [the Aboriginals] on the south side [of the river mouth], they shot them with guns as they lay sleeping, bang bang bang bang bang bang bang! But they were innocent! Yes!

The Englishman John Saris noted:

The Flemmings’ [Dutch] Pinnasse which went upon discovery for Nova Ginny, were returned to Banda [in the Moluccas], having found the island: but in sending their men on shoare to intreate for Trade, there were nine of them killed by the Heathens.

If that number is correct, Janszoon may have lost nearly half his crew (which probably numbered 20). Yet he didn’t turn and run for home. He headed back along the coast and continued his exploration north of the Pennefather River.

His chart clearly shows the indentation of what is now the Wenlock River and Port Musgrave. It was here that Janszoon again ran into difficulties with the locals. Later explorer Jan Carstenszoon recorded on 11 May 1623:

‘In the afternoon we sailed past a large river (which the men of the Duifken went up with a boat in 1606, and where one of them was killed by the arrows of the blacks)’.

Still Janszoon and the Duyfken pressed on. They passed the western side of what is now the Endeavour Strait, just a few kilometres from the tip of the Australian continent at Cape York. Janszoon charted ‘de Hooghe Eylandt’ (the High Island, later named Prince of Wales Island by Cook), at the Strait’s entrance but went no further. At that time of year he may have experienced strong headwinds and currents that prevented him from making any further progress to the east.

As he gazed at the Strait, he had sufficient belief that the land he’d explored to the south was part of New Guinea to the north. He described it as such on his chart, but didn’t go so far as to connect the two. Not having sighted a coastline, he left the space and the question of an actual connection open.

Soon the unwittingly famous Duyfken was heading west, back to a Dutch base at Banda, where she arrived in June 1606. Her voyage was significant in its own right but it also marked the beginning of an extraordinary period of Australian exploration. Over the next 36 years Dutch voyages charted nearly three-quarters of the Australian coastline. For the first time in history, the island continent took its place on the maps of the world.

Double hemispherical world map showing results of early explorative voyages in Australian and New Zealand waters, 1648. (National Library of Australia. Map RM 3451.)

It’s unlikely pirates boarded the original Duyfken, but little pirates had fun exploring the replica 🙂

In the captain’s cabin
Finding treasure 🙂
Giving sailing instructions 🙂

And they have explored the Duyfken replica just in time!

Apparently in September 2012 the Western Australian Government committed funds for 10 years to see the Duyfken stay in Perth, but that has already changed. In January this year, Premier Mark McGowan said the Government would not be renewing the annual grant of $160,000 for staff, from April this year, giving the Duyfken 1606 Replica Foundation only three months notice, and would not be renewing the annual grant of $125,000 for maintenance from 2021. The Government needs all the money it can get hold off to finance the incredibly inefficient government departments it has under its umbrella and to keep throwing money at rescuing failed projects rather than address the competency level in the same departments.

The Duyfken Replica was courted by the Netherlands earlier this decade when the Queensland and WA governments were deciding its future. Duyfken 1606 Replica Foundation chief executive Peter Bowman said the Foundation would have to once again look at the Netherlands if its finances could not be assured in WA. That would be a bit far for little bears to travel but then the Netherlands has bear-size poffertjes!

Poffertjes at De Vier Pilaren, Stadhouderskade 11, Amsterdam

Spice Chaser

Duyfken Replica at sea

Little bears are aboard the Duyfken 🙂 the replica of the VOC Duyfken that reached the coast of Australia in 1606 and charted 300km of the coast around the Cape York Peninsula.

The Duyfken was one of the first Dutch ships to get to the Spice Islands to load spices. The VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie), or Dutch East India Company in English, was after the exotic cloves and nutmeg of the Moluccas, as the “Spice Islands” of Indonesia were then known.

Map of the Moluccas

Amsterdam was the centre of the international trade in the exotic luxuries of the Americas, India and the “Spice Islands”. The Amsterdam stock exchange, founded in 1602, was the world’s first, created by the VOC for dealing in its own stocks and bonds. The VOC was the first-ever trading company with a permanent share capital. This joint stock company attracted huge wealth in initial capitalization from over 1,800 investors, most of whom were merchants and other wealthy middle-class citizens, and the speculation on the fluctuating value of these shares relied on the success or failure of the company’s ships in bringing spices back to Europe from the Far East.

The first great global corporation, the VOC, was by the late 17th century the most powerful and richest company in the world. Its private fleet boasted nearly 150 merchant ships and 40 giant warships. At the height of its power, it employed nearly 50,000 people worldwide—seamen, artisans, stevedores, labourers, clerks and builders. The company was involved in a multitude of commercial activities, such as construction, sugar refining, cloth manufacturing, tobacco curing, weaving, glass making, distilling, brewing and other industries related to its global business enterprises. The payroll also included a 10,000-man private army.

The VOC, one of the foundations of Dutch prosperity and with its mighty fleet a key force propelling the young republic to look to the world for commerce, held a virtual monopoly over the global spice supply. It achieved this in a bloody struggle at the dawn of the Age of Heroic Commerce. Ironically, the company’s wealth was founded on a system and on values imposed in Indonesia that ran counter to the liberal and tolerant culture of many of its shareholders. Furthermore, its rise to global supremacy as a state monopoly, and its contribution to the artistic and cultural flourishing of the Dutch Republic, was founded on the ruthless strategy of a man whose character was entirely at odds with the character of his nation.

Sailing as part of Peter Verhoef’s expedition, and witness to what he termed the “Vile Bandanese Treachery of 1609”, was a junior trader named Jan Pieterszoon Coen. The Bandanese uprising and resistance to the VOC, he believed, had been sponsored by perfidious English agents and furthered by the untrustworthy nature of the Bandanese. Coen was destined for historical greatness and, some would argue, infamy. More than a decade later, as the governor general of the VOC’s enterprise in the East Indies, Coen would see to it that such disrespect for his company did not go unpunished.

The spices of the East Indies came from a variety of sources. Nutmeg and mace grow together on the same tree, a shiny-leaved evergreen that can reach a height of nearly twenty metres. The fruit is yellow and peach-like and bursts open when fully ripe, exposing a small brown nut encased in a red membrane. The meat of the nut is the nutmeg and the red membrane, after being dried in the sun until brown, is the mace.

Nutmeg tree and its fruits
Nutmeg seed

Cloves are the unopened flowers of the clove trees which blanket hillsides with their reddish new-growth leaves. The pink buds are harvested by hand and dried in the sun. A mature tree yields upwards of fifteen kilograms of dried buds per year.

Cloves tree

Pepper comes from a dark-leaved climbing vine, whose berries grow in clusters of as many as fifty. Picked unripe and green, the berries dry black in the sun. White pepper is derived from fully ripened red berries.

Pepper vine

The aromatic inner bark of the cinnamon and cassia trees is cut off the branches and dried in the sun until it rolls up.

Cinnamon tree

The bulbous root of a narrow perennial with leaves like grass yields ginger, historically eaten fresh in the East but dried and ground for shipment to Western markets.

Ginger plant

Bright yellow turmeric is likewise derived from a rhizome of a plant in the ginger family, and other exotic spices also have their prosaic origin in plants that grew historically in Indonesia.

Turmeric plantation
Turmeric powder and roots

These well-known spices were used as primary ingredients in medicines, perfumes and food flavourings, as an aid to digestion and as a preservative of meat. Their aromatic properties were so powerful that minute amounts masked foul odours and enlivened otherwise monotonous cuisine. Their odour disguised the stench of crowded cities and the reek of slightly rotten salted meats. These spices were so valuable that they doubled as currency, and people killed for them. A single pouch of some spices could be exchanged for a small herd of cattle or sheep, or offered as a fabulous wedding dowry.

Spices were presented as gifts to kings, demanded as tribute by conquering generals and graciously received by popes as their due. The Roman Emperor Tiberius complained of the drain on the empire’s resources that resulted from paying for “exotic Asian products”. In AD 408 King Alaric of the invading Goths demanded three thousand pounds of pepper as payment for not plundering Rome. Nutmeg and ginger were even believed to ward off the plague. For centuries, gold and silver flowed east while dried and powdered plant matter flowed west.

In 17th century Europe fashionable and well-off households possessed ornate spice graters and storage canisters, as well as small silver plates specially designed to serve spice cake and candied spiced fruit. Gentlemen and ladies wore pomanders loaded with spices and perfume blends to ward off infectious diseases and disguise body odours. An orange or apple might be punctured with dozens of cloves and left to scent a room of hanging clothes. Cloves were especially popular as breath fresheners; in ancient Han China a rule of the imperial court dictated that supplicants and courtiers must chew cloves to sweeten their breath before speaking to the emperor.

Apothecaries and physicians prescribed a melange of spices to ward off a variety of both minor and serious ailments. Nutmeg was reputed to stifle coughs and improve memory; pepper cured common colds, improved eyesight and reduced liver pains; cloves were a remedy against earache; tamarind was efficacious against the plague. Last, but certainly not least, it was widely rumoured that many spices, including nutmeg, mace and ginger, were aphrodisiacs. Not surprisingly, demand for these spices had long outstripped supply, and their prices frequently put them out of reach of all but the wealthy, except on special occasions. “The art of their various uses was common among civilized peoples,” writes historian J. Innes Miller in The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire, “in their homes, their temples, their public ceremonial, and in the seasoning of their food and wine. A peculiar attribute was their medicinal power. That they were dried and of small bulk made them easy of transport, and their rarity a form of royal treasure.”

For centuries, most people who used cloves, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and ginger, and even most of those who trafficked in them, had no idea where these spices originated or how they grew. Most of what the purchasers and users “knew” about these aromatic and astringent seeds, berries, roots and barks was myth and fantasy. The famous Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder described the adventurous methods by which spices were believed to be transported from distant lands—lands that he himself had never visited: “They bring spices over vast seas on rafts which have no rudders to steer them or oars to push . . . or sails or other aids to navigation but instead only the spirit of man and human courage . . . These winds drive them on a straight course, and from gulf to gulf. Now cinnamon is the chief object of their journey, and they say that these merchant sailors take almost five years before they return, and that many perish.”

The journey along the trade routes running east and west from the spiceries was long and arduous. The most desirable spices originated in two of the remotest island clusters of the Far East. The Indonesian archipelago, which ranges southeast from mainland Asia, is the largest archipelago in the world and comprises thirteen thousand islands, spattered like stars in the night sky, over roughly five thousand square kilometres of water. Bordering the equator, the archipelago has a climate that is hot and humid, and its soil is fertile due to frequent volcanic activity. The islands of Java and Sumatra, in the west of the archipelago, produced pepper (of all spices the greatest in demand), ginger, cinnamon and resinous camphor and were well positioned to dominate the spice trade through control over both the Malacca and Sunda straits. The second spice region in the archipelago was the famed Moluccas. Only five of these small islands had the soil and climatic conditions required to grow cloves. All were clustered together west of the giant island Halmahera and were dominated by sultanates on two islands, Ternate and Tidore. Hundreds of kilometres to the south, in the lonely expanse of the Banda Sea, were the tiny Banda Islands, the sole home of the elusive nutmeg tree.

The commerce in spices dates back to before the recorded history of the area, preceding the arrival of the first European ships by two thousand years. Javanese, Malay and Chinese ships were frequent visitors to the early, remote marketplaces where local spices were exchanged for rice, cotton, silk, coins, porcelain or beads in an ancient and intricate web of commerce. The demand inspired merchants to create elaborate trade routes that wound their way through these mostly tiny islands by sea and over land. Spices found their way to the great trading centres of Sumatra and Java, changed hands and then wended their way to India, where they were passed on to Hindu merchants who resold them to Arab merchants, who in turn took them west across the Indian Ocean to Egypt and the Middle East, and eventually north to the rim of the Mediterranean. There, Alexandria was the first great trading emporium for this lucrative commerce; centuries later, commercial power in the region shifted to Constantinople. And, of course, each time the goods traded hands, the prices increased as successive merchants took their profits and successive governments took their taxes and tariffs. By the time the spices reached Europe, what could be had for a basket of rice or a few pieces of cloth on the Banda Islands might be worth a small fortune in silver.

For hundreds of years during the Middle Ages, the spice trade in the West was dominated by the city-state of Venice. Venetian merchants shut out all others from the marketplaces in Alexandria, and then Constantinople, where the Arab merchants offered their exotic wares for sale while concealing what they knew of their origin. In 1453, however, in a devastating siege, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks and was sacked by the invading army, ending what remained of the Byzantine Empire. The fall of Constantinople placed the spice trade entirely in the hands of the Ottomans, who soon raised taxes and increased tariffs to virtually shut off the spice supply to “infidel” Europe.

During the late 15th century, however, the Portuguese discovered a sea route to the East by pushing south along the coast of Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope, conquering numerous east African cities and founding the colony of Goa on the western coast of India in 1510. A few years later Portuguese adventurers seized cities in Indonesia, where they constructed fortified settlements to dominate and control the local spice trade. Soon Portugal was one of the richest nations in Europe, boasting a complex trade network that extended around the world. But in its very success was the kernel of Portugal’s downfall: the nation had a population of only two million, and the Eastern spice trade, with its continuous wars, shipwrecks and deaths from disease, took a heavy toll on Portugal’s small population of males. To keep the enterprise running, Portugal hired foreign sailors, who soon shared the knowledge of this astonishing wealth. Others also wanted a share of the spice trade.

Map of the East Indies

Beginning in 1519, in one of the greatest voyages of all time, a Spanish expedition led by the disaffected Portuguese nobleman Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the world by sailing around South America, crossing the Pacific Ocean and establishing a Spanish presence in the Spice Islands. Despite their quarrelling, the Spanish and Portuguese reaped great profits by monopolizing the spice trade in Europe for decades. In the mid-sixteenth century, dynastic politics in Europe resulted in Charles V, the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, inheriting the throne of Spain as well as the dukedom of Burgundy and the provinces in the north, roughly in the region of today’s Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. In 1549 these provinces became an independent state under the emperor’s rule. When he abdicated the throne in 1555 to devote his life to the church, he divided this vast and unwieldy empire between his brother, Ferdinand, and his son, Philip. While Ferdinand retained control of the old Holy Roman Empire, Philip became king of Spain and the newly created Spanish Netherlands. The powerful chartered cities of this region were vital to the prosperity of the Spanish Crown. In 1580 Philip annexed Portugal, uniting the competing nations under one monarchy and one spice monopoly.

The Protestant reformation interrupted this cosy arrangement. In 1567 King Philip sent the ruthless Duke of Alva and an army of Spanish soldiers to the Netherlands to put down a revolt and collect a new series of taxes on the cities of the Lowlands. On February 16, 1568, the Inquisition declared that all three million citizens of the Netherlands, apart from a few exceptions, were heretics and were therefore condemned to death. Now Philip ordered Alva to carry out the Inquisition’s sentence. The cities of the Lowlands, chafing under their financial burden, Alva’s brutal massacre and the execution of thousands of citizens by rope, fire and sword, rose in revolt. Declaring the Spanish to be “cruel, bloodthirsty, foreign oppressors,” they coalesced around the leadership of William III of Orange. Since Spanish rule was strongest in the southern Netherlands, most leading merchants and capital fled north during the conflict, as economic and religious refugees from Spanish and Catholic rule.

Little Puffles and Honey in Amsterdam

The prime beneficiary of this movement of wealth and knowledge was the city of Amsterdam. For decades in the late 16th century, Spanish and rebel armies clashed inconclusively, effectively shutting down the port of Antwerp, and with it Portuguese commercial access to northern Europe. Amsterdam merchants began sailing to Lisbon to acquire spices until 1595, when King Philip shut down Lisbon, and thus closed Europe’s spice centre, to merchants from the Netherlands. This closure gave the merchants of what was becoming one of the greatest trading centres of northern Europe the incentive to launch their own voyages to the East.

The first Duyfken was built around 1595 in the Netherlands, a fast, lightly-armed ship intended for small valuable cargoes – of spice! The Duyfken was selected as the jacht, or scout, for the “Moluccan Fleet” sailing to the Spice Islands. On Christmas day 1601, the five ships of the Moluccan Fleet reached Bantam (Banten), Java and encountered a blockading fleet of Portuguese ships totalling eight galleons and twenty-two galleys. The Dutch engaged the Portuguese fleet in intermittent battle until they drove it away on New Years day. The undisputed dominance of the Iberians (Portuguese and Spanish) in the Spice Trade to Europe was now over.

Frank Talen on the Duyfken

Frank Talen is one of the many dedicated Duyfken volunteers, the son of Dutch immigrants to Australia.

This is one of Frank’s poems, that he shares with passengers that sail aboard the Duyfken.

Spice Chaser, by Frank Talen

the VOC jacht Duyfken
Hew for me an oaken tree
and stretch it on the ground;
and launch me on the Zuyder Zee,
I’m for the Indies bound.
Lay the keel from stem to heel
and raise her decks above
and step the masts and set them fast
to fly my little dove.
With hempen ropes to stay our hopes,
to rig her shrouds and sails,
spread wide her wings before the winds
to fly from gusts and gales.
With guns to arm and fend off harm,
with food and drink in store,
with our brave crew will sail the blue
till we’re again on shore.
But at the start how leaps my heart
as Holland falls astern!
Oh family dear, God soothe your fear
and pray for my return.
Then set our course by nature’s force
to turn around the Cape,
through Zanzibar and Nicobar
to trace the ocean’s shape.
By swiftly faring trade winds bearing
for Banda and Ternate,
we’ll fill our hold with spice and gold,
with cloves and nootmuskaat.

Amsterdam Story

Centraal Station
Amsterdam Centraal Station


The area around Amsterdam Centraal was the beating heart of Amsterdam at the start of its golden age. In place of the crenellated Victorian-era towers of the train station (designed by the architect Pierre Cuypers and opened in 1889) was the harbour itself, a thicket of wooden spikes and sailcloth, constantly alive with pumping, hauling, swabbing, jibing, trimming, augering, sawing, climbing, crawling and cursing. Thus the ships of the harbour would have come right up where they would have nudged little Puffles and Honey’s backsides 🙂 Ouch!

Amsterdam Centraal Station, photo c. 1890 to 1905.
Amsterdam Centraal Station, photo c. 1890 to 1905.

The bridge in front of Amsterdam Centraal was the connecting point between the harbour and city, and as of late August 1602 became the financial district: the de facto stock exchange where shares in the VOC were bought and sold.

Founded in 1602, the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) flourished and survived for two centuries. The company, a combination of commercial organisations in various cities of Holland and Zeeland, traded both in Asia and between Asia and Europe. It was the first public company to issue negotiable shares and it developed into one of the biggest and most powerful trading and shipping concerns. The VOC ran its own shipyards, the largest being in Amsterdam. This spectacular trade with Asia made the Dutch Republic the world’s key commercial hub.

Founded in 1602, the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) flourished and survived for two centuries. The company, a combination of commercial organisations in various cities of Holland and Zeeland, traded both in Asia and between Asia and Europe. It was the first public company to issue negotiable shares and it developed into one of the biggest and most powerful trading and shipping concerns. The VOC ran its own shipyards, the largest being in Amsterdam. This spectacular trade with Asia made the Dutch Republic the world’s key commercial hub.
Apotheosis of the Dutch East India Company (Allegory of the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce of the VOC), Nicolaas Verkolje, 1702 – 1746

Amsterdam Impressions

If you wonder around Amsterdam’s fabled canals, especially the Prinsengracht, the outermost central canal, which was specifically designated for commerce, you’ll notice that a lot of the gabled brick buildings that line them have shuttered windows right in the middle of each story. These were warehouses. Indeed, in a sense the whole city became a warehouse. A trader kept his office on the ground floor of his house, the room that connected to the street. His family lived behind. And the upper floors were packed with whatever goods he dealt in. If you turn your gaze upward, you will see a beam jutting right out from the top of each canal house, with a metal hook hanging down from it. Hoist beams are still used, though mostly for moving furniture. In the 17th century, you worked a rope and pulley to haul your crates of goods to the upper floors. Particularly in the case of spices, being able to store quantities kept prices from fluctuating widely which was good for everybody. In 1625, warehouses in the Netherlands contained almost 2 million kg of pepper. The year after, there were nearly 3 million kg of pepper, not to mention warehouses filled with cinnamon, stockfish, tea, whale oil, sugar, salt, soap, sail cloth, silk, beer, tobacco and other goods!

Amsterdam Impressions

Anyone mentioning the Canal Ring probably thinks of the three canals which are so easily listed in alphabetical and topographical sequence: Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht (gracht is the Dutch word for canal). But in fact the area also includes the Nieuwe Herengracht, Nieuwe Keizersgracht and Nieuwe Prinsengracht (all three to the east of the Amstel), the Singel and the seven transverse canals. The whole area covers some 160 hectares. The total length of these canals is 14 kilometres, crossed by no fewer than 80 bridges! The first phase of the construction was realised from 1610, and the second after 1660.

Amsterdam in all its glory. The map shows how the expanded canal ring gave the city a wide harbour front. Towards the west, the Jordaan district was built, an area of cheaper housing for the working classes. Here the narrow streets and canals follow the line of the original fields, with their drains and ditches.
Amsterdam in all its glory. The map shows how the expanded canal ring gave the city a wide harbour front. Towards the west, the Jordaan district was built, an area of cheaper housing for the working classes. Here the narrow streets and canals follow the line of the original fields, with their drains and ditches.

The city was experiencing its Golden Age in economic, political and cultural terms. The city authorities thus decided to accord the new area an appearance suitable for a rich and powerful trading city. The stately naming of the three main canals was also part of this. The grandeur could be found mainly along the Herengracht (Patricians’ Canal or Lord’s Canal) and Keizersgracht (Emperor Canal). These unusually wide canals with fashionable homes were intended mainly for the prosperous merchants. Industriousness, by contrast, could be found in the transverse streets where shopkeepers were based, as well as on the Singel and Prinsengracht.

The ‘Golden Bend’ in the Herengracht, Amsterdam, Seen from the East, Gerrit Adriaensz. Berckheyde, 1671 - 1672
The ‘Golden Bend’ in the Herengracht, Amsterdam, Seen from the East, Gerrit Adriaensz. Berckheyde, 1671 – 1672

Amsterdam’s canal ring, when completed, was the greatest urban feat of the age, a model for cities from England to Sweden. Peter the Great set himself up in the city for a time, studying the engineering and urban planning techniques and then put them to practice in constructing St Petersburg, which was likewise built on marshland. For four centuries Amsterdam’s canal ring has been a wonder, worthy of tourism and imitation, for reasons that UNESCO identified when in 2010 it named the district a World Heritage site: “It is a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering, town planning and a rational program of construction and bourgeois architecture”. In other words, the reason early modern Europeans marveled at Amsterdam’s golden age urban core was that it served people, extraordinarily well. And the people it served were not princes or popes, but merchants and tradesmen.

Amsterdam Canal Ring
Amsterdam Canal Ring

In the family of European capitals, Amsterdam is one of the younger siblings. Even if we set aside Romulus and Remus, archaeological evidence suggests that Rome started with herders and farmers settling the cluster of hills around the Tiber around 900 BCE. Athens goes back staggeringly further than that, into the Neolithic predawn. Amsterdam, by contrast, with its inhospitable geographic position discouraging human settlement, began life circa 1100 CE, when, in an effort to stop the sea from remaking the shoreline every year, a few hundred farmers set to heaping up earthen dikes along the edge of the marshy wilderness they had chosen to call home.

Early humans, in their migratory roaming, sensibly stepped around the whole corner of Europe known as the Low Countries. What is today Netherlands, is one vast river delta. Three of Northern Europe’s largest rivers – the Rhine (12th largest in Europe – begins in southeastern Swiss Alps, forms part of Franco-German border, flows through Germany and empties into the North Sea in Netherlands), the Meuse (oldest river in the world – begins in France and flowing through Belgium before reaching the North Sea) and the Scheldt (begins in Northern France and flows through western Belgium and southwestern Netherlands) – having swept down from the Swiss Alps, rolled across German plains and twisted through Northern France and the forests of the Ardennes in Belgium, reach here to meet the sea.

Starting around 1100 CE, the early inhabitants of what became the province of Holland began to interfere with nature and set off a never-ending struggle against nature, one that continues today. This – the water, the perils, the bravery, the absurdity of the geographic position and the development of complex communal organizations to cope with the situation – explains much of Amsterdam’s history and provides a backdrop for the development of liberalism.

Sometime after the year 1200, in order to control flooding, the inhabitants of a region of marshy soil at a juncture of two bodies of water, build a dam on the Amstel river. The dam would ever after mark the center of the city, and it gave the community a name: Amstelredamme. Perched on the far northwestern flank of the continent, soaked by rains, beaten by winds, ravaged by tidal currents, it was destined to remain a distinctly minor urban hub, home to farmers who grew barley and rye to make their porridge and bread and to fishermen who caught pike, eel and carp in the marshy inlets, all of them living in wooden huts with straw roofs and clay floors sloped to let rainwater flow through rather than puddle. Even among other cities of the Dutch provinces it was a, well, backwater. In part because of the rivers connecting Germany and central Europe to the North Sea, other cities had long-held a certain strategic importance. Utrecht was the bishopric of the region; Nijmegen and Maastricht to the east had been population centers since the Roman era.

But in the year 1345 a miraculous change overtook Amsterdam. The adjective should be taken literally, for on a frigid Tuesday night before Palm Sunday in that year, the ordinary circumstance of an old man quietly dying at home took a strange turn. Shortly after the man was given the sacrament of Holy Communion, he vomited, and the women who were attending him were confounded to see that the Eucharist reemerged from his mouth whole. They threw the vomit on the fire, presumably reasoning that flames offered the least sacrilegious way of disposing of its holy contents, but the wafer did not burn. The town’s clergymen processed to the church bearing the wondrous wafer – which seemingly behaved with a supernaturalness akin to the body of Christ that Catholics believed the Eucharist to be – and a miracle was declared. An imposing church was built on the site of the man’s house, and when it later burned to the ground, not once but twice, and each time the wafer survived the fire, the “miracle of Amsterdam” became a medieval phenomenon.

Map of Europe, 1400
Map of Europe, 1400

If you were to look at a typical map of Europe circa 1400, you would probably find it traversed by inexplicable meandering lines, which in turn would probably be the most intelligible thing about the map to a person of the time – for holy pilgrimages held more meaning than latitude and longitude (the latter of which of course did not exist then). People did not go on the Grand Tour, they didn’t see the sights or travel for the experience of foreignness. They sought out holy places in search of relief for their suffering and forgiveness of their sins. The rocky hillroads of Wales were dotted with markers guiding the way to Shrewsbury and Llandderfel. The shrine of the murdered saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury was the obvious goal of English pilgrims. People believed that walking prescribed routes to Jerusalem and the holy city of Santiago de Compostela absolved virtually any sin.

The miracle of Amsterdam put the city on the map. Thousands came from all over the continent, bearing their sick. According to one story, the city’s popularity ratcheted up to another level following a celebrity cure: Maximilian of Austria, the ailing son of the Holy Roman emperor (Frederick III) and himself a future emperor (from 1508 to 1519), arrived at the shrine as a pilgrim in 1489 and was healed. Through marriage of his son Philip the Handsome to the eventual queen Joanna of Castile in 1498, Maximilian helped to establish the Habsburg dynasty in Spain which allowed his grandson Charles to hold the throne of both Leon-Castille and Arangon, thus making Charles V the first de jure King of Spain. Since his father Philip died in 1506, Charles succeeded Maximilian as Holy Roman emperor in 1519 and thus ruled both the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish Empire simultaneously.

Amsterdam Impressions

Amsterdam grew up around its miracle. Its first canals were dug – to control the ever shifting waters, channeling them into navigable courses, turning a threat to advantage. The still-tiny city, hemmed in from the forbidding sea by its dikes and its dams, filled with religious professionals. The city’s original, modest church, dating from 1306, was rebuilt in 1369 as a lavish, three-aisled Gothic structure and named for St Nicholas. Just four decades later, with the population growing and the number of religious tourists continuing to swell, another parish church was built on the dam in the city centre. It was called, with Dutch practicality, the New Church, whereupon the St Nicholas Church was called (and today is formally known as) the Old Church.

Amsterdam Nieuwe Kerk” (New Church)
Amsterdam Nieuwe Kerk” (New Church)
Amsterdam Oude Kerk (Old Church)
Amsterdam Oude Kerk (Old Church)

That was only the beginning. A certified miracle in medieval Europe brought on the equivalent of a gold rush. Religious professionals of every stripe flocked to Amsterdam. In little more than a century, no fewer than nineteen monasteries and convents set up shop inside the city, with two others just outside the walls.

In one of those odd twists of history that defy fiction, the site of the miracle – what was once one of Europe holiest spots – is today the home of a hypercheesy tourist attraction called the Amsterdam Dungeon. While the names of the streets in the center of Amsterdam linked with the rise in Catholic piety (Monk Street, Paternoster Alley, Prayer Without End) happen to be in the red light district today. The ‘blood’ in Blood Street does not refer to a street crime, but to the blood of Jesus. Surely few patrons of the prostitute windows in the area realize (or care) that the name of the alley called Kreupelsteeg refers to the crippled pilgrims who came this way, their hearts filled with hope and desperation and prayer – looking for, you might say, a different kind of transcendence.

Talking about Amsterdam’s central red light district, De Wallen, it is a sort of alternate universe Disneyland, noisy and with a certain ragged cheer, visited not only by drunken male tourists, but also couples strolling arm in arm and even families. But not little bears! The city has between 5000 and 7500 licensed prostitutes in a given year, most working in street side windows, the rest in authorized brothels, and if you are nervous and confused as to how to engage a prostitute in the red light district, you can ask one of the police officers on the beat for help! Prostitution is legal and regulated (only EU citizens can prostitute themselves, since, as with any other job, a work permit is required).

Meanwhile, another industry coincided with the rise of religious worship, contributed equally to the city’s growth, and arguably plays a greater role in its culture today than does religion. For centuries prior to the miracle of Amsterdam, Dutch fishermen had plied coastal waters for the rich, oily, strongly flavoured fish of the species harengus and genus Clupea, aka herring. The fish were caught, hauled ashore, gutted and packed in brine to preserve them. The Dutch had no monopoly on the herring trade – it was a common activity in many different northern European lands and the Dutch for a time were regular customers of Swedish-caught herring.

But roughly around the time that the miracle of the fire-retardant wafer took place in Amsterdam, Dutch fishermen developed an innovation that would transform Europe and, in particular, play a role in the rise of Amsterdam. It was the tiniest of things, and it was probably discovered by accident. Fish such as herring have little pouches in their stomachs called pyloric caeca, which contain enzymes that aid digestion. If, instead of gutting the fish entirely, you leave these pouches, as well as the pancreas, in the brine mixture, the result is fish that keeps for a much longer period of time and, as a bonus, has more flavour.

Dutch herring stand
Dutch herring stand

This discovery gave Dutch fishermen – theoretically at least – the ability to move away from the coastlines and into the deep, icy waters of the North Sea. More or less in the middle of that body of water lay Dogger Bank, a broad and relatively shallow region of sea that held a mother lode, for it was thick with the muscular, silvery bodies of shoaling herring.

But such a journey required a new kind of vessel. In 1416, shipbuilders in the town of Hoorn, to the north of Amsterdam, developed a long, stout, eminently seaworthy boat with bulging sides and a cavernous interior. Along with it came modifications that made it possible to do the gibbing (the technique of gutting and curing herring) aboard the ship. Thus the herring buss – essentially a factory that could plow through rolling seas – came into being. Instead of immediately needing to get caught fish ashore, where they then had to be quickly processed and shipped off, the Dutch boats were able to stay at sea for five weeks or more at a stretch, fishing, gibbing and fishing some more, and when they returned to port their hulls were packed with market ready barrels of cured herring that would last for a year and that, to boot, were tastier than the fish that had been cured in the old manner.

Herring Buss
Herring Buss

Within a few decades, the Dutch had cornered the market. They shipped tons of herring to Poland, to France, up the Rhine into Germany, even as far afield as Russia. At the high point of the industry, fishermen of the province of Holland caught about 200 million herring per year. New wealth came to Amsterdam. And dominance in one field led to success in others. In order to build herring busses, Amsterdam bought timber from Germany and processed it into planks. They city’s sawyers, and later saw mills, produced so efficiently that England’s shipbuilding industry bought processed wood from Amsterdam and the surrounding area. The city’s own shipyards expanded, producing barges for working the region’s rivers as well as seagoing vessels. And the city’s merchants in turn became savvy international traders; they paid top dollar for information about faraway events that they could earn money on and adjusted their cargo accordingly. When harvests in southern Europe failed, the city’s vessels returned from their herring runs to the Baltic port of Danzig laden with rye and wheat, so that Dutch vessels provided Polish grain for tables in Spain and Italy. The ships likewise carried wine from France to the Baltic and brought beer from Germany for Dutch consumption.

While the cities of Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges in the so-called southern Netherlands (today Belgium) were among Europe’s glittering jewels, cornering the refined trades in spices and rare fabrics, their great artists – from Jan van Eyck to Hieronymus Bosch – as fully a part of the Renaissance as Italian masters, Amsterdam came of age by pursuing an altogether rougher market. While the later city would have a high gloss of luxury to it, the late-medieval Amsterdam was still one of rough wooden houses swirling with the acrid smoke of open-pit fireplaces.

Circa 1500, at the high point of Renaissance, as Michelangelo was beginning to work on his David statue and Copernicus was getting serious about astronomy, Amsterdam was both a lively shipping center and one of the most intensely Catholic cities in Europe: a grittily holy place of fish guts and church incense, of bilge, tar, dung, and sour beer; a town of narrow alleys and slanting rainfall, of cursing seamen and scheming abbots.

About 20 years before Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Saxony, Desiderius Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, about 70km south of Amsterdam. The exact year of his birth is debated, with most biographers citing the year as 1466, and although there is no sufficient record confirming this, it is generally believed he was born in Rotterdam. He is known to history as Erasmus of Rotterdam, though he spent only his first four years in the city. He studied in France, Italy and England, and became the great Latin stylist of the Renaissance Church. His fame however came from substance, not style. While he remained an obedient Catholic all his life, Erasmus mounted a sustained assault on the structures of the Catholic Church, insisting that the essence of Christianity was not be found in observance of the sacraments, or in the power of the Vatican, or even in the person of the pope, but in the individual: in the study and awareness of the holy scripture.

Desiderius Erasmus in 1523 as depicted by Hans Holbein the Younger. The Greek and Latin words on the book translate to "The Herculean Labours of Erasmus of Rotterdam".
Desiderius Erasmus in 1523 as depicted by Hans Holbein the Younger. The Greek and Latin words on the book translate to “The Herculean Labours of Erasmus of Rotterdam”.

His brand of Christian humanism – a learned, honest, individual approach to faith – became a sensation in his homeland. The Dutch were, and are, a practical, no-nonsense people, traits that Dutch writers have linked to their involvement with water and the need for a society in which strong individuals cooperate with one another to get things done on their own, as opposed to the medieval model that prevailed elsewhere in Europe, in which a nobleman ruled an estate and serfs. What struck Dutch Christians most deeply was Erasmus’ focus on the application of individual human reason. The Dutch were among the earliest adopters of a new technology – the printed book – and it proved to be an ideal instrument for advancing this new focus on the individual.

Dutch editions of Erasmus’ works were best sellers at bookshops in Amsterdam, Leiden, Antwerp and other cities and became the basis for a whole new curriculum in Dutch schools. Erasmus himself had a term for this new approach to learning, he called it liberal studies. He never intended it to be anything but a means for correcting faults within the Church. But other people felt differently. In 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five These to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, he set off a tidal wave that rolled west and crashed head-on into the medieval town walls of Amsterdam. It was the era in which popes issued business licenses to brothels (from which they then received revenue), openly fathered illegitimate children and were so flagrant in manipulating their power that Sixtus IV appointed an eight-year-old as bishop of Lisbon. As a major centre of Catholic worship, Amsterdam was as steeped in the excesses and corruption that Erasmus railed against as anyplace.

Like other Europeans, Amsterdammers had become fed up with such activity. If Erasmus, the great Dutch theologian who had inspired them, was not willing to take the full step and sever ties with Rome, his German colleague was. Great numbers of Dutch Christians were ready to follow Luther in breaking away from the Church. It all happened in the course of a few years. The Church moved quickly to combat the challenge to its authority. Luther was excommunicated in 1521. Church officials in the Dutch provinces issued orders to city officials to crack down on dissent. The Dutch provinces were also part of the Holy Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Emperor (Charles V) also issued orders along the same lines. The phrase “slap on the wrist” might have been invented to describe Amsterdam’s official crackdown on Protestant dissent. The municipal leaders paid lip service to the commands of higher authority to punish dissent and continued to tolerate a wide variety of nonstandard behaviour in the streets – including behaviours that directly challenged the authority of church and monarchy. At the same time, in 1523, in Brussels, two Augustinian monks who had followed Luther’s teachings that forgiveness of sin is a power not of the Church but of God, were burned at the stake – the first of what would be a long line of Protestant martyrs.

As a trading city, the leaders did not want to disrupt the flow of business. The city was used to things foreign – accents, tastes, beliefs. People made money on differences, so to speak. The Dutch provinces were relatively complacent components of the empire, however they contributed a large percentage of the taxes that kept the empire afloat. The Dutch people had no national identity as such, they related not to a sense of ‘being Dutch’ but rather to their province, seeing themselves as Hollanders or Zeelanders or Friesians.

The geography of the Low Countries ensured that they would develop in a crucially different way from the rest of Europe – a difference that would lead eventually to violent and world-historic upheaval. One of the defining elements of medieval Europe was the top-down structure of society, called the manorial system, which had a lord who oversaw an estate and peasants who worked the land and paid rent in the form of labour or produce. The lord provided protection and served as the court of law for his peasants, so that the manor was a complete economic and political unit. The Dutch provinces did not become manorial, and the reason, as with everything else, related to water. Since much of the land was reclaimed from the sea or bogs, neither Church nor nobility could claim to own it. It was created by communities (hence the Dutch saying “God made the earth, but the Dutch made Holland”). Many Amsterdammers owned land just outside the city, which they farmed or rented out for extra income. Therefore it was individuals at all levels of society who were invested in the land. This situation meant that ordinary Dutchmen were less inclined to adopt the posture of obedience that serfs and peasants elsewhere were forced into. The Dutch of the 16th century were their own bosses.

This independence was a factor in how rapidly the Dutch took to the liberal humanistic approach to renovating Catholicism, and ultimately to the Protestant Reformation. A people largely independent of the main social organisation through which Catholicism dominated became the most eager to bolt from Catholicism.

The lack of fealty together with a theology of independent thinking in a vigorous trading city resulted in a culture of tolerance, through a policy of looking the other way. This has a lot in common with the modern Dutch notion of gedogen, or toleration of illegal activity. The marijuana trade falls under the Dutch classification of gedogen, which means “technically illegal but officially tolerated”. If you want marijuana, you go to a ‘coffee shop’ (as opposed to a café), where you order marijuana and hashish from a menu, and where products may be divided into categories such as Indoor, Outdoor, and Foreign, and from there into varieties with names like Shiva, White Widow, and Elephant. Owners must apply for permits and pay taxes just like any other business owners, even though the product they sell is technically illegal. Marijuana was legalised in 1976, and there is the logic that says it is better to legalize and regulate activity that will happen anyway. No one claims that the approach has been entirely successful.

In the 16th century, tolerance in Amsterdam was more about “putting up with”, a concept born of necessity and practicality. The Dutch notion of tolerance – which would have such a broad influence on history, colouring the thinking of men like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson – would come into its fullest form a century later.

A crisis between the Catholic authorities and the Protestants built up in the ensuing decades, which would give people in various Dutch provinces a national identity and would transform Amsterdam into the most powerful city in the world. But the crisis was not just about religion, it was equally political and economic.

Another event came into play on October 25, 1555, in Brussels. Dozens of European nobles had gathered to witness Charles V, perhaps the most powerful man in the world, whose titles included Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, abdicate the throne in oder to live out his days in the warmth of the Spanish sun. Charles had modeled himself and his reign on ancient Rome (his court followers referred to him as Caesar) and he wanted to orchestrate his departure from the world stage as a kind of classical drama. He would not live long enough to appreciate how well he succeeded.

Allegory on the Abdication of Emperor Charles V in Brussels, Frans Francken (II), c. 1630 - c. 1640
Allegory on the Abdication of Emperor Charles V in Brussels, Frans Francken (II), c. 1630 – c. 1640

Before Charles stood his replacement, his 28-year-old son, Philip, who was about to be known as Philip II and who was about to unleash systematic torture and violence on thousands of people through the Spanish Inquisition. Also present at the gathering was Willem of Nassau, who, through a twist of fate, had become one of the richest noblemen in Europe. When his cousin, René of Châlon, Prince of Orange, died childless in 1544, the eleven-year-old Willem inherited all Châlon’s property, including the title Prince of Orange, on the condition that he receive a Roman Catholic education. Willem’s uncle and Charles had been childhood friends and when 11-year-old Willem inherited all the wealth from his cousin, including large land holdings in France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Low Countries, Charles had him brought to his court at Brussels. The move was not out of kindness to the family, but as a strategic move on the chessboard of Europe. Willem’s German parents had converted to Lutheranism, and Charles wanted to raise the boy himself and so personally take him, and his wealth, out of the play for the Protestants and make it a part of his empire. Willem dutifully grew up Catholic, regal and “Spanish”.

William of Orange, 1580
William of Orange, 1580

As Philip began his reign, he quickly discovered that his adventurous, war-loving father had left vast problems behind. Foremost among these was money. The interest payments on the government’s debt were crippling and Philip had to raise money. The Dutch cities – money producing engines without parallel in Europe – were the only option. Needless to say, the Dutch provinces were less than thrilled with the plan.

In 1559, Philip appointed Willem as governor of the provinces Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. In June, Philip sent Willem to France as part of a delegation of three ‘royal hostages’ to negotiate a peace treaty with Henry II, the King of France, following the Hispano-French war. During a royal hunt in the Chantilly forest, Henry started to speak of the future. Like everyone else, he had taken a liking to Willem, and of all those in King Philip’s delegation, he preferred to discuss the matter with him. What had brought the French and Spanish kings to the negotiating table was the foolishness of the situation, in which two Catholic kingdoms were at war with each other while the faith itself was being undermined across Europe. As the king talked, Willem realised he was speaking of ideas that Philip and his closest advisers were in the process of hatching, which had been kept from him, but about which Henry assumed he knew. The plan was for a full-scale suppression of Protestantism in the Low Countries – in particular Calvinism, which had overtaken Lutheranism in just a few years to become the main threat to the Catholic faith. Under the oak canopy of the forest, the French king prattled on – systematic torture, mass beheadings, an impressive preview of coming attractions – and Willem kept his alarm hidden, pretending he was already aware of the plan, playacting that would result in the nickname history has given him: William the Silent.

Willem became convinced that Philip was ready to take measures against the Dutch provinces that could not be tolerated, and he determined to take action.

In late July 1559, King Philip appeared in Ghent at a meeting of the representatives of all the Dutch provinces to announce that he was leaving the Low Countries, moving his court to Spain, and stationing his soldiers in the provinces for their protection. During an adjournment, the Dutch representatives prepared a response – unless the king withdrew the Spanish soldiers, they would suspend payment of the nine years’ tax. Philip was furious, but he also had no choice. He was desperately short of funds and he had to relent. He needed the money and he needed it at once. Among the surprises to Philip in this affair was a signature that stood out prominently in the formal complaint: Willem, Prince of Orange.

Willem tried to unite the various provinces in the struggle against Spain; that was his dream. Eventually he succeeded in 1576 – for a short while. That year, when the Spanish soldiers had again not been paid their wages, they went on the rampage in Antwerp, killing and plundering. Even die-hard Spanish supporters withdrew their sympathy. This was the height of the prince’s diplomatic success. In the States General, all seventeen provinces combined against Spain. Willem was the hero of the day, he was welcomed in triumph, even in Antwerp. Yet that unity was short-lived. Three years later, the seventeen provinces broke apart into a Catholic south and a Protestant north. The North continued under the prince of Orange, and the Spanish army launched a new campaign to subdue the secessionist provinces.

More years of religious and political struggle ensued until, on the 26th of May 1578, Amsterdam’s Catholic leadership finally caved in. Technically, it was the day the city became Calvinist, but it might be more pertinent to say it was the day the city became liberal. Ahead was staggering growth, a stock market, a harbour bristling with masts, streets filling with immigrants from all points of the compass, and the separation of the Northern and the Southern Netherlands. Amsterdammers refer to this day as the Alteration.

Two years later, Amsterdam celebrated this rite of passage with a thoroughly medieval ceremony. The ‘princely entry’ had been a staple by which monarchs knitted control and loyalty via pageantry. The last ruler to enter Amsterdam in state had been Charles V. In March of 1580, Willem of Orange resuscitated the tradition, standing on the foredeck of a galley draped with his noble colours (orange has been the Dutch national colour, used for everything from the annual Queen’s Day and King’s Day celebration to the national soccer team’s jerseys, ever since), at the head of a flotilla that entered the harbour and sailed majestically into the city centre. That same year the Spanish king declared him an outlaw.

Dam Square
Dam Square. The town hall built during the 17th century became the royal palace of King Louis Napoleon and later of the Dutch Royal House.
Sandcastle competition, Royal carriage
Sandcastle competition, Royal carriage
Sandcastle competition, Willem of Orange
Sandcastle competition, Willem of Orange

The city’s civic guard, its mayors, and its real nobility – the merchants and shipping magnates – greeted Willem in front of the City Hall, on Dam Square, the spot where the dam had been built that gave Amsterdam its name. In the evening there was a performance of flaming arrows, and, as a climax, a mock battle between two wooden citadels representing the fortresses of the Prince of Orange and the Duke of Alba, which culminated with Alba’s burning to the ground. It may have felt like an armistice celebration, but the fighting was far from over. Eventually history would come to know it as the Eighty Years’ War. The Netherlands’ struggle for independence would carry on through much of its golden age. Willem himself would die four years later, at his headquarters in Delft, from an assassin’s bullet (the supposed bullet holes are still lodged in the wall), after King Philip, with whom he had once cavorted as a boy, offered a financial reward for any good Catholic who could eliminate the man he called the “sole head, author, and abettor of the Revolt”. Willem is the founder of the branch House of Orange-Nassau and the ancestor of the monarchy of the Netherlands.

We’ll skip any details of the war and fast forward to 1648 when despite many misgivings, the Dutch Republic decided to enter the Peace of Westphalia talks. This was a series of peace treaties signed between May and October 1648 in Osnabrück and Münster. These treaties ended the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) in the Holy Roman Empire, and the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) between Spain and the Dutch Republic, with Spain formally recognizing the independence of the Dutch Republic. The treaties involved the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand III, of the House of Habsburg; the Kingdom of Spain; the Kingdom of France; the Swedish Empire; the Dutch Republic; the Princes of the Holy Roman Empire; and sovereigns of the free imperial cities.

On 30 January 1648, Spanish and Dutch representatives signed the Peace of Münster, which was officially ratified in Münster on 15 May 1648. For the Dutch Republic this represented more than just an end to the Eighty Years War, it meant a definitive recognition of national sovereignty. When news of the peace broke, exuberant celebrations were held around the country.

Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster, Bartholomeus van der Helst, 1648
Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster, Bartholomeus van der Helst, 1648

The great cities of the southern Netherlands – Ghent, Bruges, Brussels and especially Antwerp – lost money and influence during the war. After the Spanish soldiers sacked Antwerp in 1576, they laid siege to it in 1580. By the time the siege was over, the city that had once been the center of European finance was a shell. Its wealth, and more importantly its professions – the bankers and merchants and artisans – left by the tens of thousands, in one of history’s great brain drains, and headed to the new power center in the north.

By the 17th century, the Dutch economy was flourishing. The centre of economics had shifted north from Antwerp to Amsterdam, and trade with the West Indies and East Indies brought spices, gold, ivory, silk, porcelain and sugar to the lively port city. The hugely successful East India Company (VOC), established in 1602 and with markets in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and America, employed a significant proportion of the population. Closer to home, the Dutch relied on industries such as fishing, the processing and export of herring, and the production of fine textiles and ceramics. The Dutch economy, based on trade and industry, gave rise to a modern, mostly urban society in contrast with the predominantly rural social structure of the rest of Europe.

The merchants, burghers, traders and government officials – the middle classes – of this modern society developed a seemingly insatiable demand for paintings and decorative arts to fill their homes, often as status symbols. An English visitor to Amsterdam observed in 1640. “As for the art off Painting and the affection off the People to Pictures, none other goe beyond them … all in general striving to adorne their houses, especially the outer or street roome, with costly pieces… Such is the generall Notion, enclination and delight that these Countrie Natives have for paintings”.

While the Dutch society generated an environment that encouraged a thriving arts industry, Dutch painting of the 17th century reflects that society with an accuracy rarely equalled in any other period. The people, the interiors, the country and the city sights are recorded so completely that the paintings provide us with a window to a world that existed over 300 years ago.

Dutch painting of the 17th century is often referred to as the Golden Age of Dutch art. It was the age of Rembrandt van Rijn, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer. These great artists are household names, but behind them is an extraordinary number of artists of exceptional quality, painting in such diverse areas as portraiture, landscape, seascape, genre, still life, flower pieces, cherries 🙂 and architectural interiors. This varied and energetic artistic tradition flourished in the particular political, economic and religious conditions that defined the unique phenomenon of the Netherlands in the 17th century.

The specific political and economic conditions created an art market and conditions of patronage unique in Europe at that time. Living in a republic, the citizens and not the nobility were in charge. In contrast to the rest of Europe, where the church, wealthy cardinals and the aristocracy were the major patrons of the arts, in the Netherlands the growing upper and middle classes bought paintings on an unprecedented scale. In particular the urban governing class of each city – the mayor, city councillors, leading merchants and manufacturers, known as the “regents” – commissioned works and were the subject of a great many portraits.

The Dutch Republic relied on trade by sea for its exceptional wealth, had naval wars with Britain and other nations during the period, and was criss-crossed by rivers and canals. The genre of maritime painting was enormously popular, and taken to new heights in the period by Dutch artists.

"Het IJ at Amsterdam with the Frigate 'De Ploeg' ", Ludolf Bakhuysen, 1680 - 1708
“Het IJ at Amsterdam with the Frigate ‘De Ploeg’ “, Ludolf Bakhuysen, 1680 – 1708

The importance of Dutch exploration and trade emerges from portraits celebrating individuals involved in these fields, while the organisation of urban society in the Republic of Netherlands is reflected in portraits of groups or individuals in connection with their position or work. Portraits of silversmiths, ship builders, preachers and doctors were produced alongside portraits of the more powerful magistrates, signalling the uniquely democratic nature of this society. So the nature of 17th century Dutch society is found in the portraits of the very people who created it – the burghers, local government officials, the explorers and the traders, expressing both their individual and corporate identity.

The Wardens of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, Known as ‘The Syndics’, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, 1662
The Wardens of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, Known as ‘The Syndics’, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, 1662

The word ‘genre’, originally a French word, in the context of 17th century Dutch art, refers to ‘scenes of everyday life’. No society had focused on itself, painting scenes of domestic life, interiors and tavern scenes, to the extent that the Dutch did in the 17th century. Scenes of daily life had been painted before, but not for their own sake – more often they were used to illustrate a moral or an allegory, or the cycle of the seasons. Dutch genre painters, and the public with its intense demand for these works, were fascinated with their own world. These paintings celebrated the textures and colours of the possessions which they valued – their tiles, pewter, glass, carpets and the clothing they wore.

A Mother Delousing her Child’s Hair, Known as ‘A Mother’s Duty’, Pieter de Hooch, c. 1658 - c. 1660
A Mother Delousing her Child’s Hair, Known as ‘A Mother’s Duty’, Pieter de Hooch, c. 1658 – c. 1660

The 17th century was also the time of the tulipmania. While tulips were introduced in the Netherlands in the 16th century, the tulip’s popularity reached unprecedented, even excessive, heights, in the 1630s. This gave rise to a veritable tulipmania, which held many Dutchmen in its grip in 1636 and 1637. If the flower had initially roused largely scientific interest, from around 1630 on tulips became attractive financially. Tulips and tulip bulbs were bought and sold actively, frantically in fact, and this trade deteriorated into speculation in 1637. Countless people jumped on the bandwagon buying options they could pay later, some even putting up their homes as collateral. The market crashed suddenly in February 1637; prices plummeted and many investors were left penniless.

In the course of the 17th century, special vases were even designed for tulips. They were usually round with small spouted openings on the top; sometimes the vases had more extravagant shapes. Each opening could hold only a single flower. The full bunches of tulips found nowadays were unimaginable in earlier times.

Flower pyramid of Delft earthenware. Delft, c. 1700
Flower pyramid of Delft earthenware. Delft, c. 1700
Floral Still Life, Hans Bollongier, 163
Floral Still Life, Hans Bollongier, 163

Amsterdam is famous for one thing (besides canals, cannabis cafes and prostitutes): the tattered, ancient, much-misunderstood word liberalism. Amsterdam is by most accounts the most liberal place on earth. It is often laughably liberal or shake-your-head-in-disbelief liberal. In this instance liberal is synonymous with free, open and permissive.

Liberal comes from liber, the Latin word for free, which also underlies liberty, libertarian, and libertine. Liberal is one of those words that through history have been mercilessly pulled in various directions. A difficulty that the word suffers today is that it has seemingly opposite meanings in the US and Europe. That is because its root meaning – free – can apply to different things. The 19th century Europeans who took to using liberalism as a term for their politics were businessmen who wanted freedom from tariffs – that is, limited government involvement in public affairs. In the US, it was more vigorously and specifically applied to social causes and individual freedoms and so meant more government involvement to enforce those freedoms. The free-market platform of the Dutch Liberal Party would thus be considered more or less the opposite of liberal in the American context.

Add the -ism to the word and it becomes something broader still, an umbrella of grand ideas each of which ties to other, no less grand concepts. What all uses of liberalism go back to is the centrality of the individual. The word describes our break with the Middle Ages and from the philosophy that has knowledge and power centered on received wisdom from the Church and the monarchy.

A remarkable number of forces came together in Amsterdam in the century or so beginning in the late 1500s that would spawn a new way of thinking about people and their relationship to one another and the state. The story of the city’s golden age is one of history’s classics, on the same level with the classical period of ancient Greece. The city’s rise was so sudden, it startled even those living through it. The elements and individuals that constituted it are iconic, but more than that they are linked: there are natural tendons connecting the founding of the world’s first stock market, the development of secular art with Rembrandt and his contemporaries, the crafting of a groundbreaking official policy of tolerance, the fostering of an atmosphere of intellectual freedom that brought thinkers from all over Europe and that created the world’s most dynamic publishing center, and the physical transformation of the city: the digging of Amsterdam’s famous canals.

Underlying all these various breakthroughs – conceptual or physical – is the unleashing of the individual, which has its origins in the Protestant Reformation and the first wave of scientific experimentation and which relates as well to Amsterdam’s geographic and social conditions. These ingredients went to make up a new kind of place: a breeding ground for liberalism.

These forces coalesced in the mind of a young Amsterdam Jew of the 17th century. Probably more than any other major philosopher, Baruch Spinoza is looked to as a guide by serious thinkers today: theologians, computer scientists, philosophers, people who dare to grapple with the really big questions. Just as Shakespeare could only have emerged at his time – after the English language had absorbed the Latin of the High Middle Ages, the medieval French of the Norman invasion and other influences that made it so richly expressive – so too Spinoza’s revolutionary philosophy, which has influenced modern political thought, ethics and theology, could arise only in the Amsterdam of the late 17th century, after the city had forged its principles of tolerance, of the placement of secular powers over church powers and of the first truly modern free-trading culture. Spinoza took part in the philosophical debates that raged in the coffee shops and bookstores, he was fascinated by public anatomical demonstrations, by the sight of the bending lines of fluyts and yachts beating sail from the harbor toward all points of the globe, by the idea of popular representation. All of this was boiled, condensed and distilled into his philosophy and from there, and other sources, it made its way into the wider world.

Baruch Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza

The breadth and importance of Spinoza’s work was not fully realized until many years after his death. By laying the groundwork for the 18th century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism, including modern conceptions of the self and, arguably, the universe, he came to be considered one of the great rationalists of 17th century philosophy. His magnum opus, the posthumous Ethics, in which he opposed Descartes’s mind–body dualism, has earned him recognition as one of Western philosophy’s most important thinkers.

Amsterdam’s prosperity declined during the 18th and early 19th centuries. The wars of the Dutch Republic with England and France took their toll on Amsterdam. During the Napoleonic Wars, Amsterdam’s significance reached its lowest point, with Holland being absorbed into the French Empire. However, the later establishment of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815 marked a turning point.

A Cherry Vendor at the Door, Abraham van Strij (I), 1816
A Cherry Vendor at the Door, Abraham van Strij (I), 1816

The end of the 19th century is sometimes called Amsterdam’s second Golden Age. Rijksmuseum (1885), Stedelijk Museum (1895), the Centraal Station (1889) and the Concertgebouw (1888) were built. Also built was the Stelling van Amsterdam, a unique ring of 42 forts and land that could be inundated to defend the city against an attack.



The Museumplein is the public space between the three major museums – the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Stedelijk Museum – and the concert hall Concertgebouw. The area was the location of the International Colonial and Export Exhibition in 1883. The Museumplein was reconstructed after a design by the Swedish/Danish landscape architect Sven-Ingvar Andersson in 1999. In the winter, the pond can be transformed into an artificial ice skating area.

Today it was the location for a pleasant stroll to admire the Baubles Parade, a mosaic exhibition…

Amsterdam Impressions

Amsterdam Impressions

Amsterdam Impressions

Amsterdam Impressions

Amsterdam Impressions

Amsterdam Impressions

Amsterdam Impressions

We couldn’t leave Amsterdam without another visit to our favourite place, De Vier Pilaren, Stadhouderskade 11, for our favourite desert, poffertjes!

Amsterdam Impressions

Amsterdam Impressions

We LOVED Amsterdam, definitely a very beary place!

Dutch Mecca

Dutch Mecca

This time, little Puffles and Honey are right at the centre of the action and at the centre of the Rijksmuseum! And everyone else, very politely, moved out of the way! Make way, make way, little bears are out to play!

Besides allowing visitors to take photos, the Rijksmuseum has made available some 172,000 high-resolution images for download via its Rijksstudio webplatform, with plans to add another 40,000 images per year until the entire collection of one million works is available. You can use the images to create other works, so next, Puffles and Honey will be in The Night Watch painting 🙂

Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, Known as the ‘Night Watch’, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 1642
Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, Known as the ‘Night Watch’, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 1642

The Rijksmuseum was founded in The Hague in 1800 as the National Art Gallery and moved to Amsterdam in 1808, where it was first located in the Royal Palace and later in the Trippenhuis. It received its present name in 1815 from the Dutch King Willem I. The Trippenhuis turned out to be unsuitable as a museum and the historical objects were split between the Mauritshuis in The Hague, and the Paviljoen Welgelegen in Haarlem, while more suitable accommodation was sorted out.

In 1863, there was a design contest for a new building for the Rijksmuseum, but none of the submissions was considered to be of sufficient quality. Pierre Cuypers also participated in the contest and his submission reached the second place. In 1876 a new contest was held and this time Pierre Cuypers won. The design was a combination of gothic and renaissance elements. The construction began on 1 October 1876. On both the inside and the outside, the building was richly decorated with references to Dutch art history. Another contest was held for these decorations. The winners were B. van Hove and J.F. Vermeylen for the sculptures, G. Sturm for the tile tableaus and painting and W.F. Dixon for the stained glass. The museum was opened at its new location on 13 July 1885, in the presence of members of the Dutch royal family.

When it was first unveiled in 1885, it was regarded with horror. Cuypers’ choice of a highly decorated mixed Gothic/Renaissance style proved controversial. The enemies’ view was that the result was far too Gothic, which meant also far too Catholic – how Catholic with its stain glass windows … its resemblance to a cathedral. The decoration depicts an extraordinary range of historical and emblematic subjects, as well as artists and artisans, and its various materials, scope and prominence vividly illustrate two things. Most obviously, it demonstrates Cuypers’ belief that different forms of art should be united in their service to architecture; concerned at the lack of skilled craftsmen at this time, Cuypers opened the Quellinus School of Applied Arts in 1879. But more generally it was an outward and visible statement of the redefinition of the Netherlands as a nation, in which groups like the Catholics themselves (however much others might demur) were now integrated.

Glass gallery
Stained glass gallery, W.F. Dixon
Glass gallery
Stained glass gallery, W.F. Dixon

If you look high up on the right side of the museumplein entrance, you can see the architect Pierre Cuypers looking furtively around the corner – I’m a Catholic in a Protestant world. Have I got away with it?

Pierre Cuypers looking furtively around the corner
Pierre Cuypers looking furtively around the corner

The Rijksmuseum houses the largest collection of Dutch artwork, with many treasures from the country’s 17th century Golden Age and beyond. The museum has on display 8,000 objects of art and history, from their total collection of 1 million objects from the years 1200 – 2000, among which are some masterpieces by Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer. The unique position Rijksmuseum has gained in the world throughout the centuries, comes not only from the possession of these many masterpieces but also from the collections of antique objects of Dutch culture, of prints, of drawings and of classic photography.

In December 2003, the main building of the museum closed for a major renovation. During this renovation, about 400 objects from the collection were on display in the ‘fragment building’ (or Philips Wing), including Rembrandt’s The Night Watch and other 17th century masterpieces.

The restoration and renovation of the Rijksmuseum was based on a design by Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz. The renovation would have initially taken five years, but was delayed and eventually took almost ten years to complete, at a cost of €375 million.

The tortuous story of the renovation of the Rijksmuseum is too long and tedious to revisit here, involving unbelievably mad negotiations with the Dutch cycling lobby (who have preserved their right to freewheel across the main atrium of the building, at least until – as the local black joke goes – the first Japanese tourist is mown down); several million euros spent diverting tracts of the sea, not to mention moving a couple of canals to enable below-sea-level expansion; and protracted arguments with the architects from Spain. So protracted, indeed, that at certain times in the past decade some have feared a second outbreak of Dutch-Hispanic animosity: another Eighty Years’ War.

After the renovations to the main building were complete, all 400 works were moved back from the Philips Wing. The same group of art handlers who had removed The Night Watch more than a decade earlier, when the Rijksmuseum was closed for renovation, had been rehired for the occasion – all of them working for different companies, some in different jobs. Rembrandt’s painting was winched through the roof of Cuypers’s 19th-century architectural masterpiece and it was hung in pride of place in the newly restored Night Watch Gallery.

On 13 April 2013 the main building was reopened by Queen Beatrix.

During the ten years, from 2003 to 2013, the museum has been reimagined and reinvented. The 19th century building’s red-brick exterior, which resembles a fairy-tale castle, has been restored but left intact.


Dutch Mecca

Inside, twin central courtyards that had been gradually filled with extra floors as the museum grew over the years have been reclaimed. The clutter has been stripped away to let natural light flood into the center of the museum. Despite reopening the courtyard, the museum preserved as much exhibition space as before by reclaiming some areas which had been used for offices.


From hand-painted details on every pillar, to newly laid mosaic floors and stained glass windows, to revitalizing the displays themselves, every part of the museum has been restored or rethought. Every single one of the 8,000 artifacts and pieces of art on display is in a different spot — with one exception: The Night Watch itself. The floors are now organized chronologically by era, the displays have been crafted to integrate artwork with artifacts that tell the story of the country’s history and culture at the same time. The relationship between different art objects is used to tell the story of the Netherlands. Before the renovation there was one room for paintings, a room for glass, a room for silver, and so on, while in the new museum, you take a walk through the period. The intention is to create a feeling for beauty of Dutch art and a feeling for the time. The displays were arranged by French designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte, who also helped design the interior of the Louvre in Paris.

Visitors approach Rembrandt’s painting through the cathedral-like entrance hall, filled with jewel-toned stained glass and extravagant wall decorations, and the restored Gallery of Honor, home to the Rijksmuseum’s collection of 17th century works.

Gallery of Honour
Gallery of Honour
Gallery of Honor
Gallery of Honor

The Gallery of Honour is an extended corridor directed towards a clear focal point: the Night Watch Gallery. The Gallery of Honor is a kind of basilica that ends not with a Christian display, but a civilian display: Rembrandt’s Night Watch. The symbolism is that there is no one king that has the power, that the Netherlands is a country where an early republic decided a group of people would have power in their hands. On view in the side alcoves are masterpieces by the great artists of the seventeenth century. Framing the alcoves are cast iron beams inscribed with the names of the famous painters of the age. Semi-circular wall sections above display the coats of arms of the eleven provinces of the Netherlands and their respective capital cities. In the original building, the side alcoves were screened off with heavy curtains that served – akin to a church – to draw visitors towards the ‘high altar’ of The Night Watch at the end. This shows how important this painting is to the Dutch nation. It is THE national treasure. And there’s another hint as to just how well-loved the priceless painting is on the floor beneath it: the outline of a trap door. The Night Watch is the only picture in the gallery to have its own “escape slide”, designed in 1934, to allow it to be swiftly moved out of danger in case of fire, or other threats.

The Gallery of Honor is a who’s who of Dutch masters, from landscape masters to portraitists. Highlights include Vermeer’s delicate, quiet “Milkmaid”, in which the act of pouring milk becomes an almost religious act; as well as larger and more raucous works like Steen’s ” The Merry Family” and Frans Hals’s “The Merry Drinker”.

The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1660
The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1660
The Merry Family, Jan Havicksz Steen, 1668
The Merry Family, Jan Havicksz Steen, 1668
A Militiaman Holding a Berkemeyer, Known as the ‘Merry Drinker’, Frans Hals, c. 1628 - c. 1630
A Militiaman Holding a Berkemeyer, Known as the ‘Merry Drinker’, Frans Hals, c. 1628 – c. 1630

And of course it includes paintings and sketches by Rembrandt, including several self-portraits and masterpieces such as one of his most-loved works, “The Jewish Bride” (1669), which shows a tender couple lightly touching.

Self-portrait, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, c. 1628
Self-portrait, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, c. 1628
Isaac and Rebecca, Known as ‘The Jewish Bride’, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, c. 1665 - c. 1669
Isaac and Rebecca, Known as ‘The Jewish Bride’, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, c. 1665 – c. 1669

In the two antechambers, located to the left and right of the museum’s Night Watch Gallery, are two artworks featuring complex patterns with more than 47,000 thousand hand-painted black stars on a white background, inspired by the by the original 19th century decorative wall and ceiling paintings designed by Pierre Cuypers. They are the work of Richard Wright, the British Turner Prize-winning artist, and they will be a permanent feature, unlike the artist’s earlier paintings, which are often short-lived, only surviving the length of an exhibition and then painted over.

Giant ceiling painting featuring more than 47,000 black stars
Seeing stars … Richard Wright with his ceiling painting at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam
Seeing stars … Richard Wright with his ceiling painting at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

The Night Watch Gallery was specially designed to showcase Rembrandt’s famous civic guard portrait – a painting that has gone down in history as marking the turning point in his career and as the superlative example of his creative genius. The sculpture in this gallery, which includes several gilded female figures – known as ‘caryatids’ – surmounting the columns that support the vault, allude to Rembrandt’s masterly depiction of light and dark. The frieze commemorates key moments in Rembrandt’s life. The painting’s placement reflects Dutch history, a crowning achievement of the Golden Age when the Netherlands was a major naval power and Amsterdam was one of the world’s most influential and wealthy cities.

Night Watch Gallery
Night Watch Gallery
Model of the William Rex, Cornelis Moesman, Adriaen de Vriend, 1698 – This model shows the appearance of a Dutch warship in the late 17th century. It was made at the dockyards of Vlissingen (Flushing), where real warships were also built. These would have been more than twelve times larger than this model. This ship has 74 guns. The model was displayed in the council chamber of the Admiralty of Zeeland in Middelburg.

The room of the ship models also displays the stern of HMS Royal Charles which was captured in the Raid on the Medway, and the Hartog plate.

Stern carving from the Royal Charles, Anonymous, c. 1660
Stern carving from the Royal Charles, Anonymous, c. 1660. These arms of King Charles II of England once adorned the stern transom, or ‘counter’, of the English flagship the Royal Charles. The vessel was captured by Dutch forces in 1667 at its home port of Chatham, near London, and towed over the North Sea to the Netherlands, where it was scrapped. The counter decoration was preserved to commemorate this extraordinary Dutch triumph and England’s defeat.

In keeping with the ethos of the new-look museum, The Night Watch is surrounded by other militia portraits of the era, giving the piece context but also showing just how innovative Rembrandt’s work was. In the same gallery are Militiamen of the Company of Captain Roelof Bicker and Lieutenant Jan Michielsz Blaeuw (Officers and other Marksmen of the VIII District in Amsterdam before the De Haan Brewery at the Corner of the Lastaadje) by Bartholomeus van der Helst (1639) and Militia Company of District XI under the Command of Captain Reynier Reael, Known as ‘The Meagre Company’ by Frans Hals and Pieter Codde (1637). A commission for a civic guard portrait was rarely granted to a painter from outside the city. Quite exceptionally, Frans Hals – from Haarlem – was asked to paint this group portrait. However, he soon found himself at odds with the guardsmen, and the Amsterdam painter Pieter Codde had to step in to finish the seven figures on the right. Known for his small-scale, very smoothly and finely executed works, Codde nevertheless imitated Hals’s loose style as best he could.

The most frequently produced professional group portraits of the time represent officers of civil militia companies. With origins in the 15th century, these organisations of male citizens, commanded by members of the urban elite, helped patrol and defend their cities. To this end, each company had the right to carry firearms. All men who could afford the dues served in these civic guards. In the 17th century, companies were still mobilised in times of peril, but they rarely performed actual military services. They continued to fulfill significant social functions in their neighbourhoods, where they met in company halls, most of them decorated with portraits and insignia related to the militia’s history and privileges. The portraits of these companies, or rather their officers, are different from the professional guild portraits, as militia members could have any type of respectable job. Militia portraits could be more celebratory, even swaggering, in keeping with the guards’ military and festive roles.

Rembrandt’s largest painting (4.35m wide and 3.79m high), the Night Watch of 1642, represents an Amsterdam company in a ceremonial role, gathering for a procession. It was one of six group portraits painted between 1639 and 1645 of militia companies that shared a prestigious, recently expanded assembly hall, Kloveniersdoelen. The decoration of this social space, opposite the street from the shooting range, constituted the most significant public commission in Amsterdam before the new town hall. The central man in The Night Watch is Captain Frans Banning Cocq (1605 – 1655). His family album records the painting’s theme: the captain summons his lieutenant… to order his company of citizens to march. Banning Cocq indeed has his mouth open and hand extended in a speaking gesture. The shadow of his hand significantly falls onto the golden costume of his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch. Both men stride ahead, and the company is starting to follow. Behind them, the company’s colours are carried by the ensign, Jan Visscher Cornelissen. Strikingly, the caption in Banning Cocq’s album focuses on the painting’s momentary action, rather than its portrait status. The remarkable hierarchy of portrayal, with its emphasis on the captain and the lieutenant, led later observers to believe that the other 14 sitters had been dissatisfied, but Rembrandt was paid full price, each sitter paying a share depending on his prominence in the painting. The myth does indicate Rembrandt’s departure from the militia portrait norm, in which the highest officers stand out but never condemn the others to oblivion. Rembrandt subordinated the likeness to a central action that expresses the ceremonial function of the civic guard. The nuanced pattern of light and dark unifies the company, in a pictorial metaphor for its harmony. His masterful use of light reveals that indeed Rembrandt is the Shakespeare of painting. Like Shakespeare he breaks all the rules and what breaks through the surface is the profound, unruly, raucous sense of humanity. He is the painter of human beings.

Two small, spotlit girls and a helmeted youth stride to the right, against the company’s flow, and their divergent path marks their allusive significance. The most prominent maiden has a fowl suspended from her belt, a curious ornament to her brocaded dress. Its noticeable claw refers to the company’s traditional emblem of a claw. The helmeted character fires a musket, to the surprise of the guardsman between the captain and the lieutenant. That officer’s restraining gesture evokes the company’s rules governing the exercise of its muskets: unlike the rogue figure, the company officers know when to wield their arms. Rembrandt visualised the company’s command of musketry by letting two officers handle weapons: at left one primes his musket, and at right another blows the pan after firing. Together with the central firing, these actions demonstrate the firearm’s use. Arms drill was a highly developed practice, elucidated in a manual first published in 1607 and illustrated by Jacques de Gheyn II. Rembrandt may have referred to its prints as he painted the figures wielding muskets, for their poses conform strikingly with those in the illustrations.

By structuring The Night Watch as one action in the company’s history and by articulating its tradition and rights, Rembrandt blended the conventions of portraiture and history painting. The Night Watch seems an almost deliberate synthesis of the two genres that formed the backbone of his career. The painting also has a theatrical look.

For much of its existence, the painting was coated with a “dark varnish” which gave the incorrect impression that it depicted a night scene, leading to the name by which it is now commonly known. This varnish was removed only in the 1940s.

In 1715, upon its removal from the Kloveniersdoelen to the Amsterdam Town Hall, the painting was trimmed on all four sides. This was done, presumably, to fit the painting between two columns and was a common practice before the 19th century. This alteration resulted in the loss of two characters on the left side of the painting, the top of the arch, the balustrade, and the edge of the step. This balustrade and step were key visual tools used by Rembrandt to give the painting a forward motion. A 17th century copy of the painting by Gerrit Lundens at the National Gallery, London shows the original composition.

For all things Rembrandt, one must go to the Rembrandt House Museum.

Rembrandt House Museum
Rembrandt House Museum

Rembrandt van Rijn was born on 15 July 1606 in Leiden. His family was quite well-to-do; his father was a miller and his mother was a baker’s daughter. Religion is a central theme in Rembrandt’s paintings and the religiously fraught period in which he lived makes his faith a matter of interest. His mother was Roman Catholic, and his father belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church. While his work reveals deep Christian faith, there is no evidence that Rembrandt formally belonged to any church, although he had five of his children christened in Dutch Reformed churches in Amsterdam: four in the Oude Kerk (Old Church) and one, Titus, in the Zuiderkerk (Southern Church). Titus is the only child who survived, and Rembrandt outlived him by a year.

As a boy he attended Latin school and was enrolled at the University of Leiden, although according to a contemporary he had a greater inclination towards painting; he was soon apprenticed to a Leiden history painter, Jacob van Swanenburgh, with whom he spent three years. After a brief but important apprenticeship of six months with the painter Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, Rembrandt stayed a few months with Jacob Pynas and then started his own workshop. Rembrandt opened a studio in Leiden in 1624 or 1625, which he shared with friend and colleague Jan Lievens. In 1627, Rembrandt began to accept students.

In 1629 Rembrandt was discovered by the statesman Constantijn Huygens, the father of Christiaan Huygens (the Dutch mathematician and physicist), who procured for Rembrandt important commissions from the court of The Hague. As a result of this connection, Prince Frederik Hendrik continued to purchase paintings from Rembrandt until 1646. In a letter to Huygens, Rembrandt offered the only surviving explanation of what he sought to achieve through his art: the greatest and most natural movement, translated from de meeste en de natuurlijkste beweegelijkheid. The word “beweechgelickhijt” is also argued to mean “emotion” or “motive.” Whether this refers to objectives, material or otherwise, is open to interpretation; either way, critics have drawn particular attention to the way Rembrandt seamlessly melded the earthly and spiritual.

Rembrandt van Rijn - Saskia van Uylenburgh, 1635
Rembrandt van Rijn – Saskia van Uylenburgh, 1635. In the course of her life she was his model for some of his paintings, drawings and etchings.

At the end of 1631 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam, then rapidly expanding as the new business capital of the Netherlands, and began to practice as a professional portraitist for the first time, with great success. He initially stayed with an art dealer, Hendrick van Uylenburgh, and in 1634, married Hendrick’s cousin, Saskia van Uylenburgh. Saskia came from a good family: her father had been a lawyer and the burgemeester (mayor) of Leeuwarden. In the same year, Rembrandt became a burgess of Amsterdam and a member of the local guild of painters.

When Rembrandt signed on the dotted line to buy the large, impressive town house in the smart Breestraat area of Amsterdam, it seemed life could not get any better. It was 1639 and his work was celebrated throughout the city. He earned good money, but the purchase price of 13,000 guilders was still an enormous sum for the day and he arranged to pay it off in installments.

Rembrandt lived and worked in this house at Jodenbreestraat 4 between 1639 and 1658. His own work and that of other artists hung on the walls, as he also worked as an art dealer. He used a large, airy room chosen for its unchanging light as his studio and here produced many of his finest works, aided by assistants preparing paints and canvases. Today, the house is a museum devoted to recreating his life within its walls and celebrating his art – many of the fine etchings he created here are on display and the museum offers etching demonstrations and etching workshops. The studio is set up as he might well have had it, as are rooms such as his bedroom and a refined anteroom where he received clients as a dealer.

Rembrandt House Museum, Studio
Rembrandt House Museum, Studio
Rembrandt House Museum, Collection Room
Rembrandt House Museum, Collection Room

Rembrandt House Museum

Rembrandt House Museum
Rembrandt House Museum
Rembrandt House Museum, Bedroom
Rembrandt House Museum

Rembrandt House Museum

Rembrandt House Museum
Rembrandt House Museum
Rembrandt House Museum, Bedroom
Rembrandt House Museum

During the 16th and 17th century in the Netherlands, closet-beds were very small indeed. Lying down was associated with death, and therefore sleeping was done in a half-upright position. These closet-beds held two people, and beneath them were often drawers “rolkoetsen” that pulled out and provided beds for the children.

Rembrandt House Museum, Bedroom
Rembrandt House Museum, Bedroom

Sadly, Rembrandt’s fortunes turned. His beloved wife, Saskia, died prematurely in 1642, probably from tuberculosis. She was only 29 years old. Defeated partly by poor money management, Rembrandt slid into bankruptcy. Rembrandt had lived beyond his means, buying art (including bidding up his own work), prints (often used in his paintings), and rarities, which probably caused a court arrangement to avoid his bankruptcy in 1656, by selling most of his paintings and large collection of antiquities. The sale list survives and gives us a good insight into Rembrandt’s collections, which apart from Old Master paintings and drawings included busts of the Roman Emperors, suits of Japanese armor among many objects from Asia, and collections of natural history and minerals. The prices realized in the sales in 1657 and 1658 were disappointing forcing Rembrandt to sell his house and his printing-press and move to more modest accommodation on the Rozengracht in 1660. The authorities and his creditors were generally accommodating to him, except for the Amsterdam painters’ guild, which introduced a new rule that no one in Rembrandt’s circumstances could trade as a painter. To get around this, Hendrickje and Titus set up a business as art dealers in 1660, with Rembrandt as an employee.

For the next 200 years, his former grand home was occupied by a succession of families. In the early 1900s it was purchased by the City of Amsterdam and opened as a museum in 1911. Work to restore the house to its original 17th century glory was not completed until the late 1990s. Researchers used his own paintings together with the sale list from the auctions as their main source of information.

Such a big day! We’re going back to rest in our big open bed, we don’t want to sit in a box!

Rembrandt House Museum

Dutch Bloemencorso-Zundert

We’re still working up to the post of our Amsterdam and Dutch impressions (it is coming and before Christmas 🙂 ) but this afternoon we have discovered another Dutch event. We missed it since we were still at home, as the parade takes place on the first Sunday of September.


Bloemencorso Zundert is the largest flower parade in the world entirely made by volunteers. The floats are large artworks made of steel wire, cardboard, papier-mâché and flowers. In the Bloemencorso Zundert, only dahlias are used to decorate the objects and it takes thousands of them just to cover one float.

The huge floats are made by twenty different hamlets and each of them consists of hundreds of builders, aged 1 to 100, who are all equally crazy about the bloemencorso. The older members of the hamlet are often responsible for planting and growing the dahlias, while the younger ones build the float in large temporary tents that are built exclusively for the event.

Plenty of photos on the web from the parade, these are a few we have selected:
















This is the official website for the parade, in Dutch. They are already planning for next year!

Market Day in Delft

Market Day in Delft

It’s Thursday and it’s market day in Delft. There’s antiques, bric-à-brac and books, as well as food.

Market Day in Delft

Chocolate, lollies and licorice…

Market Day in Delft


Market Day in Delft


Market Day in Delft

This is as close as we got to herring, eel and other fishy Dutch delicacies…

Market Day in Delft

Delft is primarily known for its historic town centre with canals, and now with Honey’s shoe floating around, for Delft Blue pottery where we had a beary royal experience, for the Delft University of Technology and its renowed engineering and science courses, for the painter Vermeer and the scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek, and for its association with the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange-Nassau.


This is the most famous cityscape of the Dutch Golden Age. The interplay of light and shade, the impressive cloudy sky and the subtle reflections in the water make this painting an absolute masterpiece. We are looking at Delft from the south. There is hardly a breath of wind and the city has an air of tranquillity. Vermeer reflected this tranquillity in his composition, by making three horizontal strips: water, city and sky. He also painted the buildings a bit neater than they actually were.

You can take a guided art history tour through the painting on Kees Kaldenbach’s website:

Vermeer was a Dutch painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. He was a moderately successful provincial genre painter in his lifetime. He seems never to have been particularly wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death, perhaps because he produced relatively few paintings. Vermeer worked slowly and with great care, using bright colours and sometimes expensive pigments, with a preference for lapis lazuli and Indian yellow. He is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.

However, most everyone would be familiar with another of his paintings, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, which we saw at the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Tracy Chevalier’s novel Girl with a Pearl Earring and the film of the same name (2003) are named after the painting; they present a fictional account of its creation by Vermeer and his relationship with the (equally fictional) model. Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth playing the lead roles also made the movie memorable.

The movie did get some things right, such as the fact that Vermeer and his wife Catharina, at some point moved in with her mother, Maria Thins, who lived in a rather spacious house at Oude Langendijk. Here Vermeer lived for the rest of his life, producing paintings in the front room on the second floor. He and Catharina had 15 children, four of whom died before they were baptised. His family obligations with so many children may have taken up much of his time. He was also acting as both an art-dealer and inn-keeper in running the family businesses and he spent time serving as head of the Guild of Saint Luke, a trade association for painters in Delft. All these commitments plus his extraordinary precision as a painter may have limited his output. In addition, Vermeer never had any pupils and therefore there was no school of Vermeer.

In all probablity, Maria Thins’ dwelling stood on the corner of two streets, the Oude Langendijk and the narrow ally Molenpoort (present day Jozefstraat). At the end of the Molenpoort there was a wooden gate which served to stop cattle which had escaped from the Beestenmarkt. The site of Vermeer’s house is now occupied by the 19th-century Maria van Jesse church building. A commemorative plaque, an initiative of the Dutch art historian and Vermeer expert Kees Kaldenbach, signals the place for today’s curious.

A Beary Royal Experience

Vermeer painted mostly domestic interior scenes. Almost all his paintings are apparently set in two smallish rooms in his house in Delft; they show the same furniture and decorations in various arrangements and they often portray the same people, mostly women.

Recognized during his lifetime in Delft and The Hague, his modest celebrity gave way to obscurity after his death; he was barely mentioned in Arnold Houbraken’s major source book on 17th-century Dutch painting (Grand Theatre of Dutch Painters and Women Artists), and was thus omitted from subsequent surveys of Dutch art for nearly two centuries. In the 19th century, Vermeer was rediscovered by Gustav Friedrich Waagen and Théophile Thoré-Bürger, who published an essay attributing sixty-six pictures to him, although only thirty-four paintings are universally attributed to him today. Since that time, Vermeer’s reputation has grown, and he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age.

In December 1675, Vermeer died after a short illness. He was buried in the Protestant Old Church on 15 December 1675. His wife Catharina attributed his death to the stress of financial pressures. The collapse of the art market damaged Vermeer’s business as both a painter and an art dealer. She, having to raise 11 children, asked the High Court to relieve her of debts owed to Vermeer’s creditors. The Dutch microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who worked for the city council as a surveyor, was appointed trustee. The house, with eight rooms on the first floor, was filled with paintings, drawings, clothes, chairs, and beds. In his atelier, there were two chairs, two painter’s easels, three palettes, ten canvases, a desk, an oak pull table, a small wooden cupboard with drawers and “rummage not worthy being itemized”. Nineteen of Vermeer’s paintings were bequeathed to Catharina and her mother. The widow sold two more paintings to Hendrick van Buyten in order to pay off a substantial debt for delivered bread.

With the market gone for the day, and all the fishy fish packed away, the little bears have come out to try safer Dutch delicacies – bitterballen, kaasstengels and mini kiploempia’s with a little cherry beer 🙂

Market Day in Delft

Market Day in Delft

And to finish, a little cherry cake 🙂

Market Day in Delft

We need a lot more sustenance than this to tackle the House of Orange-Nassau!