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.
th 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|
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|
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|
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|
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.
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.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
US deliberately liquidated them to secure its place as "the only" great power.ReplyDelete
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?ReplyDelete
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.Delete
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.
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.Delete
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.
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.ReplyDelete
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.Delete