Monday, May 7, 2012

Remembering the Dutch Empire

The Netherlands was once thought of mostly as a quaint little country of idyllic scenes. Windmills, wooden shoes and tulips. Today, sadly, it is probably best known for prostitution and marijuana bars. It is not usually thought of as an imperial power. Yet, the Netherlands was indeed once the center of a great maritime empire that stretched all around the world. The Dutch were roughly third out of the gate in the game of colonial expansion and, focusing mostly on trade and business rather than conquest and territorial acquisition, they were also extremely successful. At one time or another there was not an inhabited continent in the world that did not have a Dutch foothold on it or at least some tenuous connection to the Netherlands. Australia, for instance, was never a Dutch possession, yet they were the first to map the coastline and this explains why so many surrounding areas, from Tasmania to New Zealand, have Dutch names. In fact, before it acquired its present name, Australia was originally known as New Holland. There were Dutch settlements in North America, the Caribbean Sea, South America, Africa, India, Southeast Asia and even a special Dutch connection to Japan.

The Dutch Republic, under the guidance of the Princes of Orange, prospered rapidly after winning independence from Spain and Amsterdam became a center of international trade, ship building, navigation and finance as well as being a cultural center as well. Their first voyages to the Spice Islands of the East Indies proved so fantastically successful that Dutch merchants, explorers and privateers quickly outdid each other in daring to make their own fortunes. In 1614 the Dutch established the colony of New Netherland on the east coast of North America, originally intended as an outpost for fur trading. They established friendly relations with the Native Americans and purchased all the land they claimed, though later on there would be disputes over the nature of these transactions since American Indians lacked the European concept of buying or selling exclusive ownership. Nonetheless, this was not a case of conquerors brutalizing primitive peoples. The Dutch made a conscious effort to do everything fairly and legally in accepted business deals. The Dutch colony was famously cosmopolitan, free and tolerant. Slavery did exist but even slaves had certain rights no one could violate. In 1667 New Netherland was conquered by the English and renamed New York (in honor of the Duke of York, later King James II) but the Dutch presence remained strong and even today the flag of New York City bears the traditional Dutch colors of orange, white and blue.

A number of islands were gained in the Caribbean, most of which remain associated with the Netherlands still today, all of them very successful, versatile and prosperous. The Netherlands also controlled vast tracts of modern northern Brazil and the north coast of South America. This was during the same time when Dutch privateers reaped huge rewards by preying on Spanish and Portuguese ships carrying silver and gold mined in the Americas back to Europe. However, this position did not last long and the Dutch holdings on the South American mainland were eventually reduced to Dutch Guiana (aka Suriname today). This area had been conquered from the English in the same war in which the Dutch lost New York. Dutch Guiana was a successful colony and, it is worth pointing out, when independence was at hand in the 20th Century everyone who was able (about a third of the entire population) fled the colony (most going to The Netherlands) rather than live under an independent republican government. These people proved far-sighted for “Suriname” has proven an utter failure as an independent republic, quickly falling into the typical cycle of coups, socialist dictatorship and poverty.

Across the South Atlantic, as most know, Dutch settlers also established themselves at the southern tip of Africa. With great courage and industriousness they built a thriving little colony which was confiscated by the British during the Napoleonic Wars, like many Dutch colonies were. Unlike some others, South Africa was not returned. However, the rugged Dutch farmers moved north to establish their own farming communities (and eventually republics) and over the centuries became their own rather unique group of people. Still, their Dutch roots remain evident even today and, although not free from all criticism, the industrious Dutch settlers laid the foundation for what became, eventually, the first (and only) country in Africa to achieve the prosperity of “First World” countries.

Dutch troops on Formosa
In the distant past The Netherlands held numerous trading posts on the Indian subcontinent, took in the coast of Sri Lanka/Ceylon and in East Asia gained control of Formosa/Taiwan and exclusive rights to operate in certain areas of Japan. The Portuguese had been the first to deal with the Japanese but the local warlords became alarmed by the Catholic missionaries they brought and so began to favor the Dutch who agreed to stick to trade and doing business and keep their religion to themselves. Formosa was a different story. The Dutch worked to convert the natives to Christianity while also establishing sugar and rice plantations and putting an end to native practices such as abortion and public nudity. The Dutch successfully defended the island from Chinese and Spanish attacks and as well as developing local industry established a lucrative trade with China and Japan. Eventually, the Dutch presence was removed by a combination of the forces of the Ming Dynasty and local rebels. The Netherlands, for a time, allied with the Qing Empire that overthrew the Ming but, ultimately, had to abandon their influence on the island altogether.

However, the crown jewel of the Dutch empire, the largest and most beneficial by far was the Dutch East Indies, which is today Indonesia. Like most of the empire, the first Dutch involvement in the region came in the time of Dutch Republic but the Dutch East Indies was probably more associated with the Kingdom of The Netherlands as the holdings of the Dutch East India Company were not consolidated into a Dutch national colony, the Dutch East Indies, until 1800, not many years before The Netherlands became a monarchy (though even as a republic the Princes of the House of Orange had provided national leadership). The Dutch East Indies was one of the most successful and beneficial colonial enterprises in history, originally benefiting from the spice trade, later from plantations and finally from the exploitation of tremendous oil reserves founded and extracted by the Dutch. For a great deal of time the Dutch presence was very limited and large parts of the archipelago remained effectively independent until the early 20th Century. Still, it was an act of tremendous skill to consider that a country as small as The Netherlands was administrator and protector of an archipelago which stressed across an area of roughly the same length as the entire continent of Europe.

Admiral Maarten Van Tromp
This, as with any empire, required a great deal of military skill. The Netherlands is not often thought of as a military power but in fact the Dutch have a military history in which they can take great pride, able to boast of great innovators on both land and sea. Prince Mauritz van Nassau was a brilliant military commander, one of the great captains of history, to whom many subsequent (and usually more famous) generals owe a debt of gratitude. In gaining their independence the Dutch were ultimately able to triumph over Spain, the greatest military power of that time in western Europe and the Dutch won numerous naval campaigns against the Portuguese, Spanish and the English. Admiral Maarten van Tromp, to cite one example, was a brilliant naval commander who won a crushing victory over the English fleet at the famous battle of The Downs. Victories were won against the Swedes, the French and against numerous native forces in colonial expeditions.

A long period of peace, unfortunately, caused the Dutch to grow complacent whereas previously they had been known for their alert preparedness. As a result, the Nazi invasion in World War II saw The Netherlands Army woefully unprepared and ill-equipped due to a long period of budgetary neglect by the government. Still, the Dutch forces offered spirited resistance and the army was still intact when the government surrendered to spare the urban areas from German air attack. In the Far East, the tiny Dutch submarine force in the East Indies took a painful toll on Japanese shipping when Japan invaded the archipelago. In fact, in those early days, the Dutch submarine flotilla scored more successes than the entire undersea fleet of the United States Navy (whose boats were plagued by malfunctioning torpedoes). Remaining Dutch forces later joined up with the Allied forces under General Douglas MacArthur in his victorious campaign across New Guinea.

Colonial troops in the Dutch East Indies
This was especially crucial as, by and large, for The Netherlands, the East Indies was the Dutch empire and as soon as the war with Japan was over local nationalist revolutionaries struck for independence, knowing The Netherlands, only recently liberated from German rule, was at her weakest point. The rebels were led by the Javanese nationalist Sukarno, a revolutionary who despised the traditional “feudal” ways of his own people as much as he did the Dutch colonial administration. A socialist revolutionary, he nonetheless willingly collaborated with the Japanese occupation forces to help him achieve his goal of power. He preached a deadly, contradictory combination of Marxism, nationalism and Islam. HM Queen Wilhelmina, the grand, determined monarch who had led her people through World War II, was intent on maintaining the empire but also realized that the Kingdom was in a poor state to fight a major war. Dutch agents worked out a compromise by which the Dutch East Indies would become the United States of Indonesia, a self-governing country, fully independent but still part of the Dutch empire with Queen Wilhelmina remaining as sovereign. This should have been a perfectly acceptable solution but the rebels quickly broke the agreement and the Dutch quickly lost patience.

Today, with anti-colonialism still being all the rage, it is popular to cast the Dutch as the villains in this story but it is important to see things from the point of view of someone in The Netherlands or the Dutch minority in Indonesia. They had developed the inter-island trade in the archipelago that benefited everyone. It was they who had discovered the oil reserves and turned them into a profitable enterprise and it was they who had developed the islands far beyond anything they had known before. Now, a new group of radicals was threatening to take it all away. Further, by pouncing the very same year World War II ended, the Dutch felt that they were being kicked while they were down, so to speak, and by people who had allied with their enemies, not only in the East Indies but in Europe as well. They were also all too aware of how these same people had done nothing to alleviate the suffering of the Dutch people in the East Indies who had been kept in horrible conditions in internment camps by the Japanese during the long years of war. Given the racial rhetoric of the revolutionaries, they feared even worse might be in store for them.

General Simon Hendrik Spoor
No, enough was enough and The Netherlands launched a major military operation to regain control of Indonesia under General Simon Hendrik Spoor. Once again, the Dutch military forces surprised those who underestimated them, defeating the republican rebels in virtually every engagement, at one point even capturing Sukarno and taking him prisoner. It was then, with the royal forces on the cusp of total victory, that The Netherlands was cruelly and shamefully stabbed in the back by what should have been her ally; the United States of America. President Harry Truman and his Secretary of State Dean Acheson (who would later go on to hand half of Korea over to one of the most brutal communist regimes in history) essentially forced The Netherlands to give up her empire by threatening to cut off the vital aid the country was receiving through the Marshall Plan to rebuild in the wake of the Second World War. The Dutch were thus forced to recognize the complete independence of a republican United States of Indonesia, minus Netherlands New Guinea, which remained in Dutch hands for slightly longer. In the wake of World War II, the world was divided between the United States and the Soviet Union and the United States hoped that by taking up the anti-colonialist cause she could win new countries to her side. It seldom worked out that way.

The fall of the Dutch empire was terrible, for all concerned, if one looks at the situation honestly. Tens of thousands were killed, millions displaced, many minorities were persecuted (even those who had supported the revolution), Dutch colonists, many of whom had lived in the Indies for generations, had their property seized and were deported, en masse, back to The Netherlands (causing a considerable short-term economic burden on the already hard pressed population). Also for the Indonesians themselves, their ancient local monarchies were torn down and many people died in coup attempts and in-fighting between factions ranging from strident communists to Islamists. It brought no freedom to the people nor any economic improvement as the revolutionary leaders had promised. Things would eventually get somewhat better, but it was a long, difficult process with many rebellions and ongoing guerilla warfare along the way by more strident Marxists and Islamic radicals. Sukarno eventually established what amounted to a military dictatorship and threatened neighboring Malaysia and Brunei. Realizing all too late what a mistake they had made, the United States even undertook clandestine efforts to remove Sukarno but these were unsuccessful. U.S. foreign aid was withdrawn and poverty skyrocketed.

Since that time The Netherlands itself has remained one of the most stable, free and consistently prosperous countries in the world. The remaining Dutch islands in the Caribbean also have an above average per capita income for their region and enjoy a high standard of living based mostly on the energy and tourism industries. The same cannot be said for the colonies which broke away from the Dutch Crown to embrace republicanism. In Suriname the economy went down hill fast since independence and has never really recovered to any level of sustained prosperity. Indonesia has known corruption, rebellion, poverty, extremism and in most recent years has gained notoriety by the effort to take over the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, the failure of which has been seized on by terrorists as a justification for their acts of gruesome violence around the world. However you look at it, the situation since the republic has not been an improvement over the era of the Dutch empire. As with any people, over such a period of time, mistakes were made and there are dark spots on the record. On the whole, however, the Dutch have a great deal more to be proud of than otherwise and have displayed in every corner of the world the tenacity, creativity and industriousness that make up some of the best aspects of the character of the people of the Kingdom of The Netherlands.


  1. Very good article. The Dutch and Portuguese empires are especially interesting due to those countries being so small in comparison to the other imperial powers. Great read, thank you.

  2. Biggest mistake the US made on the post WWII era was liquidating the European empires, those empires were far more friendly than their successor states were during the Cold War.

  3. US deliberately liquidated them to secure its place as "the only" great power.

  4. Maybe I missed something, but can you clarify the difference between the Netherlands fighting for independence from Spain, and the Indonesians fighting for independence from the Netherlands. Both independence movements are based on the idea which we currently call "self determination" and the fact that communication and competent rule is nearly impossible from a large distance (especially if there is a significant difference in culture and language)? What good is having a monarchy if its half a world away?

    1. You really did miss something. This article was about the Dutch colonial empire not the Dutch war for independence from Spain. A fight for independence is a fight for independence, if you're only looking at the general aspect then there's no difference. And no difference from East Timor wanting independence from Indonesia. Of course, The Netherlands did not turn into an impoverished military dictatorship after breaking away from Spain either.

      The East Indies monarchy was not half a world away. They had their own local monarchies which the Dutch left intact but which the revolutionaries overthrew. And a monarchy can work perfectly well half a world away just as it does in Australia and New Zealand.

    2. A large issue with Indonesia today is that with the destruction of colonial culture and the Dutch establishments, the only thing left to hold this massive island chain together is a common political system. Religions, languages, even societal structures are wildly varied between some of the outlying regions where male-dominated tribal practices are still the norm and others where radical islam is the norm and yet still others that are effectively modern, metropolitan and very much 'model' cities in some senses.

      Had the transition been less violent and more measured it would have been possible to create compromises as well as checks and balances rather than leaving some disgruntled marxists to try and inherit as much colonial legacy as they could.

  5. You forgot the most famous and important Admiral, Lieutenant-Admiral-General Michiel de Ruyter. De Ruyter is most famous for his role in the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th century. He fought the English and French and scored several major victories against them, the best known probably being the Raid on the Medway.

    1. I certainly did not forget the great admiral de Ruyter but this article was about the Dutch empire, not a history of Dutch naval victories and I could not name every great sailor The Nrtherlands has produced.


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