The Dutch in America

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

Following Columbus’s discovery of the New World, Spain enjoyed more than a century of great power, both within Europe and in North America. France enjoyed a century of power, but by 1750, it appeared the Netherlands may have the best hope of finding sustainable profits from an American investment. The Dutch experience with navigation coupled with a cheerful tolerance of others set the Netherlands up for success in North America.

A print of New Amsterdam

The story of the Dutch in America, however, begins with a look at Spain and France.

The Decline of Spain

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Spanish conquistadors were sending great quantities of gold and silver from America back to Spain. This pipeline took Spain from being a junior member of the European family to being a world power in the 16th and 17th centuries. At the same time, however, the influx of gold and silver was like too much of a good thing. It was like having five birthday cakes in a row or consuming five jars of cookies at one sitting. It was so good that it ended up poisoning the Spanish economy. As the supply of American wealth flowed into the Spanish system, the demand of Spaniards to buy with it drove prices all across Europe up by anywhere from 300 to 500 percent.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Meanwhile, the Spanish crown lavished its portion of the new American wealth on military adventures to prop up its commitments in other places, such as in the Netherlands, which Spain ruled, but which was now erupting in a bitterly fought revolt, which lasted for decades. The Dutch uprising turned into Spain’s bleeding ulcer. In the end, no matter how much gold and silver was lavished on it, the Spanish were compelled to grant the Dutch conditional independence in 1609, so that it was all for nothing.

As an added annoyance, the gold and silver of America had to make a perilous transit across the Atlantic to get to Spain. This transportation meant that other European adventurers were swift to pick off the Spanish treasure fleets at their most vulnerable, in mid-ocean. By the mid-1600s, Spain had spent away much of its American gold mine, and had lost the commanding influence it had enjoyed for a century in European affairs.

The Dutch Discover Independence

Once out from under the thumb of Spain, the loose confederation of seven Dutch provinces, which made up the Netherlands, found itself saddled with some of the soggiest and most unproductive land in Europe. They also had to deal with the debris of a 40-year-long struggle for independence scattered all around them.

A ship of the Dutch East India company
The Dutch East India Company sponsored the first Dutch foray to America.

Nevertheless, the long acquaintance of the Dutch with the sea allowed them, since they had so little to produce of their own, to turn into the great sea-borne carriers of other nations’ goods. In so doing, the Dutch merchant marine not only profited from the carrying trade, but also ventured into maritime insurance, and from there, into banking and finance.

Within half a century of Dutch independence, Amsterdam had become the financial capital of Europe. Once the Spanish yoke was off their necks, the Dutch wasted no time in plunging into expansion across the Atlantic. As in so many other cases, though, it was not the government, but a private franchisee—the Dutch East India Company—who sponsored the first Dutch foray to America.

The Dutch East India Company

Hiring the veteran English navigator Henry Hudson, the Dutch wanted to bypass as quickly as possible the tedium of exploration and settlement, and to find as swiftly as possible the long-sought Northwest Passage to the Pacific. Initially, Hudson seemed just the man to do it. His exploratory voyage for the Dutch East India Company identified a broad, navigable river—which today still bears Hudson’s name—which looked as though it was quite capable of crossing a continent.

A painting of Henrik Hudson entering New York harbor
Henry Hudson entering the New York harbor in 1609 by Edward Moran (1829–1901)  

Big as the Hudson River was, though, it only led deeper and deeper and deeper into the interior of this incredibly vast continent of North America. In the end, the Dutch abandoned their dreams of the Pacific for what turned out to be a more immediately lucrative share of the fur trade with the Iroquois, who preferred to steer the fur trade to the Dutch, because the Dutch were willing to sell the Iroquois firearms to use on the Iroquois enemies, the French.

The Dutch established their first trading post, in what became the colony of New Netherland, up the Hudson River at Fort Nassau. Then, in 1625, they added a base on the Atlantic coast at the southern tip of Manhattan Island, which they called New Amsterdam. Unlike the French, the Dutch allowed no supernatural considerations—no desire to convert the Indians—to stand in the way of commercial success.

(c1650)(1685 reprint) New Netherland map
New Netherlands by Nicolaes Visscher II (c.1650)

A Happy Dutch Colony

Although the Dutch were religiously committed to Reform Protestantism,  or Calvinism, the settlers of New Netherland were also committed to making profits. They cheerfully turned blind eyes to anyone of any persuasion or nationality who wished to join them in making New Netherland a commercial success.

Not only did the Dutch raise no eyebrow about immigrants from France, Germany, and England, but they also quietly ignored the assemblies of French Jews, English Quakers and Presbyterians, and German Lutherans in their midst. One observer in 1644 claimed that one could hear 18 different languages being spoken on the streets of New Amsterdam.

The colony of New Netherland was also a happier place for women. Unlike many other places in Europe in the 1600s, Dutch women could own property in their own names even while married, could make their own contracts, and could conduct their own businesses.

Limits of Success

The one thing the New Netherland colony was not was a commercial success. By 1660, it had recruited only 5,000 settlers, and the West India Company, the commercial successor to the East India Company, had to tempt new settlement by offering to every entrepreneur who brought 50 settlers with them the title of “Patroon” and sizeable land grants along the Hudson River. At home in Amsterdam, the Dutch tended to look on New Amsterdam as little more than a convenient supply port for Dutch ships raiding the Spanish in the Caribbean. Neither the Dutch nor the French came close to the success of the Spaniards in America.

From the lecture series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition, taught by multiple professors.

Images courtesy of: Private collectioninstitution QS:P195,Q768717 [Public domain] via Wikimedia commons
By Edward Moran – RAHWSWctzaI2Mg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=344646 By Thomas Quine [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)] via Wikimedia Commons By Nicolaes Visscher Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33114