Awakening of Europe - M. B. Synge

The Dutch at Sea

"To navigate is necessary, to live is not."

Motto of the Hanseatic League.

The Thirty Years' War was over. A general peace had been made, which included most of the nations of Europe. Holland and Spain made peace, too, after long years of fighting, and the King of Spain admitted that Holland was now free—no longer dependent on Spain.

The little country reclaimed from the sea had never been so great before. She made the most of her opportunity, and soon rose to be foremost amid all the nations of Europe. Ever a sea-faring people, it was now to the sea that they again turned. Commerce was almost as necessary to Holland as the religious liberty for which she had fought so long. Since the days when the Beggars of the Sea had taken Brille, and the fireships of Antwerp had helped in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, her sea-power had been rapidly growing. If England had formed an East India Company, Holland had followed her quickly with a Dutch East India Company. And even before the death of Sir Walter Raleigh her ships had outwitted those of England.

"The Hollanders send into France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy," he cried to his king, "with Baltic produce about 2000 merchant ships, and we have none. They traffic into every city and port around about this land with five or six hundred ships, and we into three towns in their country with forty ships."

So the ships of Holland grew and multiplied; they were better and faster than the English; they had ousted the Portuguese from their strong positions in the East. To carry on better their trade with India and the Spice Islands, the Dutch had built themselves a town in the Island of Java. It was like a miniature Amsterdam, with its busy dockyards, its crowded wharfs, its shaded canals, and its huge warehouses. Indeed it was built upon a swamp and called after their old country, Batavia. It soon became the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, and is to-day the centre of the Dutch colonial empire.

Here, at Batavia, they shipped the spices which made their country so wealthy. It is hard to understand how eagerly our forefathers loved these Eastern spices. Ginger, pepper, mace, nutmegs—these were always in great demand, and at feasts in Europe a seat near the spice-box was the seat of honour.

The sale of these spices brought untold wealth into Holland, as they would let no one else sell them. So the Dutch people bought nutmegs at 4d. per lb. in the East to sell them at 3s. per lb. in Europe. Pepper, which cost 2 d. per lb. out there, was sold at nearly 2s. elsewhere.

Not only did they sail to the East, but also to the West. One day a Dutch admiral, Piet Hein, chased some Spanish ships in the Atlantic. They were bringing home to Spain a rich cargo of silver from Mexico, all of which Piet Hein captured.

"Piet Hein. Short is his name.

But great is his fame,

For the silver fleet he's ta'en,"

sang his countrymen as they stored their riches at Amsterdam.

All their riches and merchandise the Dutch stored at Amsterdam. There they built warehouses supported on piles driven into the swampy soil, in which they stowed the treasures of the world, until Amsterdam was the most famous city in Europe.

Not only was Holland teaching the rest of the world the value of the sea, but she was teaching them how to make more of the land. As soon as peace had come to the country the people had begun to reclaim more land for cultivation. They pumped and pumped till they had got a great piece of rich meadow-land from what had been a vast shallow lake of water. The cattle grazing on this land became the finest in Europe; the produce of Dutch dairies found a ready market in foreign countries.

Then, too, their market-gardens were better than any of their neighbours. They cultivated and exported potatoes and turnips nearly a century before England. They discovered the use of clover and improved grasses for fodder.

Keen as they were after profit to be obtained by trade, diligent in working out the resources of their country, they were also distinguished in art, literature, and painting. They had their artists in Rembrandt and Vandyke, their poet in Vondel.

Toward the end of the seventeenth century the Dutch were more famous by land and sea than any other nation in Europe. They were also the first to colonise the Cape of Good Hope, on the site now occupied by Cape Town.