History & Culture of the Netherlands Through the Golden Age and Modern Times

History & Culture of the Netherlands Through the Golden Age and Modern Times
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Famous geographer Hendrick Willem van Loon called the Netherlands “a swamp on the banks of the North Sea that later became an empire.” The people of Holland (another name for the Netherlands) are industrious and persistent, so we’ll see how they live up to van Loon’s historical statements.

The Geography

Map of The Netherlands (Dark Green) and the EU (light green)

The location of the Netherlands is everything. It is small and at one time, was just a low and remote place on the edge of a continent. There are three rivers that run through it before emptying into the North Sea: the Rhine, the Scheldt, and the Maas. (The Maas begins in France and they call it the Meuse.) Why does this matter?

It makes all the difference. In ancient times, much of the land from 2 to 16 feet (.60 to 4.9 meters) was below water. People had a daily challenge from encroaching water all round them. To tame and hold back the tides they built a series of dunes, sea walls and embankments called dikes. Nature was their taskmaster for centuries because a single flood could wipe out entire towns, sweeping people and possessions out to sea with the power of thundering rivers and tides.

Do you know the story about the boy who found a leak in a dike and put his finger in the hole to plug it? He stayed there all night until farmers found him and plugged the hole. His courage and persistence is a symbol to the Dutch people who lived in flood-prone Netherlands.

The clever Dutch used the power of windmills to pump water off the land and channel it back into concrete dams and out to sea. They became experts at designing ways to reclaim the land from the sea; almost two-thirds of the country’s main population was below sea level.


A polder near Zoetermeer, Netherlands

“God created the world but the Dutch created Holland.” -Dutch Saying

The drained areas of land they created used the near magic of polders. Thousands of years ago, the settlers built their dwellings on terpens—large earthen mounds. For more protection against storms and the sea, they constructed dikes connected by long roadways, joining the terps together.

Many of the polders (dikes) surrounded the low areas. They still needed additional draining to reclaim and dry the land, so windmills pumped water higher and higher into canals that carried the water to sea in channels. The Netherlands became associated with windmills as part of their history.

An ambitious government project completed in 1932 finished an 18 mile-long dike (29-kilometer) enclosing the Zuider Zee, a long arm reaching into the North Sea. The dike actually created a freshwater lake fed by the Ijssel River. It reclaimed some half million acres of land.

A devastating flood overcame the project in 1953, killing almost 2,000 people. Following that, the ambitious Delta Project started in 1958 and was finished in 1986. The delta area was rearranged around the Rhine and other rivers. Massive sea dams and a system of dikes and bridges created a network of locks for seaport access to the sea.

Millions of people live in this productive farm area and dairy meadow-lands, and tulip and hyacinth bulb farms thrive in these fields.

The Golden Age

Many centuries of conflict with its European neighbors, both religious and otherwise, took place with regularity. That is until the little kingdom of seven of Netherland’s provinces was held together under the Union of Utrecht in 1579—who declared independence from Spain and eventually achieved that in 1648. The Princes of Orange held shifting control but the Dutch Republic became an important world empire despite its limited resources and emerged as a center of banking and international finance.

Being intimate with the sea, the Dutch entered into colonialism and also created monopoly trading rights with lands in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. In the 1600s, the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch West India Company (VOC; Verenigde Oost-indische Compagnie) organized expanded trade and good relations with overseas companies. The administrative abilities of the Dutch, coupled with neutrality and a reputation for fairness allowed them access to Japan, India and other nations, and became a highly profitable enterprise for 200 years.

From the sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century the Dutch enjoyed power and prosperity all over the world.

Cartography and Art

Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam with Renaissance Pilaster

Mapmaking or cartography skills meant Dutch maps were second to none. Maps were emblems of empire. Success abroad meant success at home and the patronage of businessmen and other wealthy citizens allowed for innovation in art. Dutch painters created pictures of stunning magnificence—generally the subjects of the paintings are commonplace scenes, ordinary people going about the business of their lives.


With all the international influence, the Dutch became the most tolerant of all in Europe. The country became a safe haven and refuge for those under political and religious oppression. It is said that the Puritans spent ten years in Leyden, but sailed to America because their children were becoming more Dutch than English and they wanted to spread the word of God.

Around 1700, a third of the population lived in towns of ten thousand people and more. Twenty towns of that size or more contributed to the republic. To compare, in England, there were only eleven. This means that the Dutch were markedly urban and the concentration was in connecting these urban centers, making these sophisticated elite, who had a great impact on society and the mercantile community.

These “regents” as they were called, dominated the city as bourgeois—the middle class—but the noble families kept reign on the countryside and towns, often serving in the Dutch army.

Decline of Dutch Power

Many times the Dutch have overcome the growing influence of other European counties and their kings or despots. The shrewd people negotiated an alliance with both Sweden and England to stand against the powerful Louis XIV, King of France. Angered, he sent troops, but the desperate Dutch flooded much of the country making it impenetrable to French armies. The country ruined and the economy derailed, they won a concession to rebuild. What followed though was two centuries of warfare.

In the nineteenth century, the Netherlands became increasingly stable and prosperous only to be cut short by World Wars I and II, despite its neutrality.

The famous story of Anne Frank and her Jewish family, who hid away in a secret passage in a multi-storied house for two years against the Nazis during World War II, is well documented in Anne’s diary and preserved at the Anne Frank Museum in in the center of Amsterdam at Prinsengracht 263-267.

People and Culture

Holland is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. In Europe, only Monaco and Malta have a greater number of people per square mile. Each “ring city” plays an important part in their culture. Amsterdam located on the Amstel River is the constitutional capital and a busy commercial port that specializes in international trade.

Rotterdam is the world’s busiest seaport. In the Rhine delta region, this is where freight traffic converges from the oceans.

The Hague is the seat of the Dutch government where the reigning monarch lives. It is also site of the United Nations International Court of Justice—resolving conflicts among nations as alternative to war—the brainchild of Dutch law professor Tobias M.C. Asser (1838-1913).

Even though Holland has a monarch and a royal family (largely symbolic), the country is a democracy with a constitutional government directed by a prime minister and a parliament called the States-General.

Daily Life

In the city, people ride bicycles. taking advantage of the flat lands. Cycling is as important as baseball is in the Americas. The Dutch are close-knit family people and they share leisure activities, celebrate holidays such as Queen’s Day, attend fairs and markets, and play “football”—what Americans refer to as soccer.

The scarce land means farms are small, averaing about 35 acres (14 hectares) in size. They have high-quality fresh produce, grow millions of fresh flowers shipped to every country in the world, and are leaders in the cheese industry. And wooden shoes? They were worn by workers in the countryside, but not so much today.