Chapter 7 - The new Venice in Amsterdam



    The tragedy of the Netherlands, and perhaps the lesson for our own United States today, is that its oligarchical future was built over the ashes of a destroyed humanist past. The home of Jan Van Eyck, the Brethren of the Common Life, and Erasmus, it is often said that the Florentine Renaissance had more of an impact on the Low Countries than anywhere else outside of Italy. How did the Venetians turn this place of great culture into the new seat of Empire? The answer is terror ̶̶ almost 100 years of war, Inquisition and barbarism beyond anything people today can imagine. History is too often presented as if it did not contain real human beings. To understand what happened in the Netherlands, one must first understand what was done to the Dutch and Flemish people.1 

    In the 1520s, the Netherlands, which then included what are today Belgium and Luxembourg, were under Spanish-Hapsburg rule. The first public burning of a Protestant heretic occurred in 1523, and by the 1530s hundreds were being executed. In 1567 the infamous Duke of Alva arrived with 10,000 Spanish troops, both to enforce the Inquisition, and to impose a regime of massive economic looting to extract money which the Spanish Crown owed to its Fugger creditors. Alva created a royal tribunal known as the Council of Blood which over a six year span executed more than 12,000 people. In addition to the executions, Alva conducted military campaigns to subjugate the Dutch people. In his campaign of 1572 major cities such as Mechlin, Zutphen and Haarlem were captured, looted and burnt to the ground, with the populations either exterminated or delivered over to rape and torture. In the Spanish Fury of 1576, the Netherlands’ premier city Antwerp was occupied, and over 8,000 civilians were slaughtered, with hacked, mutilated, naked, and burnt bodies left lying in the streets. 

    There were two responses to this carnage. The Dutch leader William the Silent led a war of national liberation against the Spanish. His supporters included Dutch Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists, and his policy was one of religious toleration.2 But at the same time, the population was being driven insane by the decades of the Spanish horrors, creating a recruiting ground for the radical Calvinists. Friends of Venice, Phillipe du Plessis-Mornay and Hubert Languet, were both very active in the Netherlands during this period. After William’s assassination by a Jesuit agent in 1584, all hope for an ecumenical peace evaporated. William's death resulted in the rapid ascendancy of the most rabid of the Calvinists, including his son Maurice of Nassau. The forces of the Calvinists and the House of Orange merged, and their rallying cry became the Union of "Kerk en Oranje" (Church and Orange). This is the grouping which would bring the Netherlands into a military alliance with Paolo Sarpi’s Venice by 1610. This is the same grouping which in 1621 created the Dutch West India Company, and seized control of much of the African slave trade from the Spanish and Portuguese.


Creating the new Venice


    In the 26 years between the murder of William the Silent and the establishment of the Dutch-Venetian alliance, a new generation came to power in the Netherlands. With this new leadership, the hope for a Dutch republic ended, and the Netherlands was taken in a new direction, increasingly steered by the economic and financial colossus emerging in Amsterdam. Prior to the Dutch Wars of Liberation, Amsterdam had been a moderately successful commercial city for centuries, trading in herring, wool and other commodities. After the Spanish occupation of Antwerp in 1585, Amsterdam would become the new financial capital of the nation.

    Earlier, during the mid-sixteenth century, Antwerp had been the financial and banking center of all northern Europe, and even rivaled Venice, Genoa, and Augsburg as the pre-eminent financial center in all of Europe. Antwerp was the "money market of the world” ̶ "the "Venice of the North" ̶ and 5000 merchants from every nation had their representatives at the Bourse (stock exchange). The Venetian-controlled German House of Fugger, together with the Genoese banks, were the dominant foreign financial interests in the city.

    After the destruction of Antwerp, thousands of people fled north, and many of Antwerp’s bankers, speculators, and merchants relocated to Amsterdam. These emigrants included Jan de Wael, Jacob Poppin, and Isaac Le Maire, all of whom would play a major role in the founding of the Dutch East India Company. The creation of the financial center in Amsterdam also entailed the emergence of a new elite. Of the 10 wealthiest families in Amsterdam in 1550, none remained among the 10 wealthiest by 1600.

    No time was lost in creating a new maritime/financial capital in Amsterdam. In 1594 the Dutch "Long Distance Company" was founded, beginning trade with Asia. In 1600 the first Dutch ships reached Japan. In 1601 the East India Company (VOC) was founded. Its founder Johan van Oldenbarneveldt said: "The great East India Company, with 4 years of hard work public and private, I have helped establish, in order to inflict damage on the Spanish and Portuguese." In 1605 the Dutch began their takeover of Indonesia, which they would not relinquish for almost 350 years. 1606 saw the first known voyage of Dutch slave ships. In 1608 the New Bourse was opened in Amsterdam, to replace the Antwerp exchange. In 1609 the Bank of Amsterdam (Wisselbank) was founded, modeled on the practices of the Bank of Venice. Later that same year the Treaty of Antwerp was signed, whereby the Spanish officially recognized Dutch independence. It was Venice that had the distinction of being the first government in Europe to recognize Dutch independence, and it was Venice that was the first government to which the Dutch sent an ambassador.

VOC – the United East India Company

    The Dutch East India Company created the greatest maritime empire the world had ever seen, and it was not until the late 18th century that the British East India Company surpassed it. The VOC dominated Asia trade for almost 2 centuries. To compare, consider that between 1602 to 1795, the VOC sent 4,785 ships to Asia, and carried more than 2.5 million tons of Asian goods. During the same period, the British East India Company sent 2,650 ships, and carried only 500,000 tons of goods. The Dutch began their empire by either destroying or taking over almost all of the Portuguese colonies in Asia. From there, they moved on to seizing new ones. The Christian Dutch methods were beyond brutal. In 1621, for example, the natives of the Island of Band refused to give the Dutch a nutmeg monopoly. In response the VOC Governor General Jan Pieterszoon gave orders to kill the entire native population. The order was carried out, the population was exterminated, and slaves brought in to work the Dutch plantations.

    As already reported earlier in this work, this was a private empire. The colonies, the military fortresses, the slaves, and all of the loot extracted, belonged to the VOC and its investors, not to the Dutch government. The VOC had its own army and navy. All of the military personnel were recruited and armed by the VOC and served under VOC command.

    The VOC made Batavia (today’s Jakarta) the capital of their Asian empire, headed by a Governor-General and assisted by a "Council of the Indies." All of the Dutch eastern colonies were ruled from Batavia, except for those in Persia, India, Ceylon, and South Africa, which received orders directly from the VOC, itself, in Amsterdam.

The Bank & the Bourse


    The New Bourse (exchange) opened in Amsterdam in 1608, and the Bank of Amsterdam (Wisselbank) followed the next year. The Wisselbank was, like the Bank of Venice, a privately owned public bank; i.e., it had a monopoly on all exchange of specie, and trade in precious metals; it was a clearinghouse for bills of exchange; and it handled the debt of the Dutch government. It was public in the sense that it assumed the sovereign power to dictate financial policies, and those policies became the nation's policies. The Bank's directors had offices in City Hall, and its money was kept in the city vault. The security of its holdings established the new "bank money" as the center of the city's securities trading. This, combined with the international trade in hard currency (specie), made Amsterdam the world's largest international securities market (including VOC company paper and municipal bonds). The most popular of the securities investments was the national debt.

    But it was privately owned! And, as in Venice, this arrangement represented the handing over of sovereign control over economic and monetary policy to an oligarchical elite. In effect the financial oligarchy simply swallowed the sovereign institutions of government.

    The Amsterdam Bourse was modeled directly on the earlier Antwerp Bourse. As was to be the relationship between the London Stock Exchange and the British East India Company a century later, the initial activity of the Bourse was centered in speculation on the shares of the VOC. After 1612 a secondary market was created, for shares and futures, and capitalization of the VOC became permanent.

    The trading in financial securities, which took place at the Bourse, created the first modern stock exchange, and by the mid-1600s, the Amsterdam Bourse was described as the "place where the whole world trades."3 During the 17th century there was a famous boast about the Amsterdam Bourse which was printed on plaques, posters, and medallions:

Ephesus fame was her temple

Tyre her market and port

Babylon her masonry walls

Memphis her pyramids

Rome her empire

All the world praises me


    By 1621 all of the institutions of the modern oligarchical state were in place in the Netherlands. If you look at what was created, in terms of the institutions, the accumulation of capital, and the capability to deploy that capital on behalf of the Empire, the scope of the accomplishment is actually breathtaking. The practices of the Bank, the Bourse, and the VOC, were all Venetian in origin, but the sheer size and power of the new financial, political, and military capabilities involved was beyond anything seen before.

    As in Venice, and later in London, an oligarchical system produces an oligarchical culture. The Dutch Empire, based on looting, speculation, and slavery was no exception. By 1630 almost all of the wealthier classes were involved in the East India trade, or finance speculation, or both, and by 1650 the Netherlands had been transformed largely into a rentier economy. Anyone who has ever visited Amsterdam’s Riksmuseum, cannot help but be struck by the observation that most of the paintings that are contemporary with Rembrandt are horrible ̶ romantic/stoic cartoons of petty oligarchs and Regents. Rembrandt, who knew the evil within which he existed, spent most of his adult life being persecuted by the Dutch establishment.

    Huge mansions and villas were constructed for the Dutch elite on the banks of the river Vecht. Constantin Huygens, an agent of the House of Orange, wrote his most famous poem, Batavia’s Temple, celebrating the new mansion he was building. This was truly a recreation of the Venetian oligarchy, just as, centuries later, the plantation owners of the American South would try to recreate the world of the English gentry. Perhaps the best description of this decayed corrupt culture is presented (admiringly) in Bernard de Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees:

"What made that contemptible spot of earth so considerable among the powers of Europe has been
their political wisdom in postponing everything to merchandise and navigation... In pictures and marble
they are profuse; in their buildings and gardens they are extravagant to folly. In other countries you
meet with stately courts and palaces which nobody can expect in a commonwealth, but in all Europe
you shall find no private buildings so sumptuously magnificent as a great many of the merchants' and
other gentlemen's houses are in Amsterdam and in some of the great cities of that small province.
"

Oldenbarneveldt & Grotius

    Much has been written, and many praises have been sung, about the “republican” nature of the Dutch Empire. Most of this incompetent and idiotic foolishness points to two periods in Dutch history, the government of Johan van Oldenbarneveldt from 1587 to 1618, and the government of Johann De Witt from 1653 to 1672. Once again, these historical lies result from the inability of the historians to distinguish between a society governed by the principles of Empire and a sovereign Commonwealth.

    As the Advocate of Holland for more than 30 years, Oldenbarneveldt was the most powerful political official in the Netherlands. He was the founder of the Dutch East India Company, and it was under his leadership that the Venetian system was recreated in Amsterdam. In 1613 Oldenbarneveldt named his protege, Hugo Grotius, to the post of Pensionary of Holland, the second most powerful political post in the government. It was under the leadership of Oldenbarneveldt and Grotius that the Dutch Empire was created, and the alliance with Venice was realized. Oldenbarneveldt went so far as to send his own son as the first Dutch ambassador to Venice.

    The problem came on the eve of the Thirty Years War, in 1618, as the Netherlands's 12 year truce with Spain was about to expire. Oldenbarneveldt wanted to extend the truce. Venice wanted European wide war. The Venetians provoked a conflict between Oldenbarneveldt and the House of Orange, which ultimately resulted in a military takeover by Maurice of Nassau, the arrest and execution of Oldenbarneveldt and the imprisonment of Grotius. Standard histories attribute the downfall of Oldenbarneveldt to his opposition to the radical Calvinists. This is known as the Remonstrant controversy (the Arminius vs. Gomarus theological conflict). The truth is, Venice wanted the Orangist War Party in power.4 Oldenbarneveldt's ouster was indispensable if Venice's plans for European War were to proceed. After Oldenbarneveldt's downfall, the Dutch Stadholder Maurice seized absolute power, signed a military alliance with Venice, and reopened the war with Spain.

Hobbesian Freedom


    For the next thirty-two years the Netherlands was under the direct rule of the House of Orange, but in 1650 the Stadtholder (essentially Prince) William II died at a young age, with no successors. This initiated a 21 year period of civilian rule that came to be known as "True Freedom." This period is synonymous with the name Johan DeWitt, who from 1653 to 1672 served as the Grand Pensionary of Holland, and who, together with his brother Cornelis, effectively ran the Dutch government.

    Many historians proclaim the DeWitt era as the model of Dutch republicanism, some even going so far as to see in it a precursor of the United States. Before one loses all bearings on reality, it is worth reminding one’s self that it was under the DeWitts that the Dutch Empire reached the zenith of its power, including almost complete control of the African slave trade.

    Actually, it is in this era of the DeWitt brothers, that we see the real model for the modern oligarchical state. This is the period of Micanzio’s Mersenne Circle, and if there was one place on the planet where the oligarchical scientific and political theories of that Circle had their greatest impact, it was in the Netherlands of the DeWitts. The works of Descartes were spreading like wildfire through the Dutch universities, and Johann DeWitt went so far as to actually personally publish an edition of Descartes’ La Geometric, with an introduction written by himself. DeWitt also authored perhaps the first major work on demographics and insurance. His Value of Life Annuities in Proportion to Redeemable Bonds, pioneered the concept of calculating the value of a human life, as determined by the mathematical expectation of dying.5

    Guiding the philosophy and policies of the Dutch state, during this period, was a second set of brothers, Johann and Pieter de la Court. They were very close personally to the DeWitts, and they authored numerous works, including Interest of Holland, Political Balance, and Political Discourses. After Johann’s death in 1660, Pieter became the leading influence in DeWitt's government. The De la Courts were total products of the Mersenne curriculum. In Political Balance they write, "Descartes and Hobbes show the way to the theory that should occupy mankind, as he was and not as the old-fashioned professors chose to see him." In the Political Discourses, they say, "The natural state is the Hobbesian unrestrained state of nature; the best state exists where the unreasonable passions are most restrained. That is the democratic republic." That pessimistic view of the human condition is further underscored by Johann, who wrote, "Only in the private, inner, domestic circle can one rest from the struggle of an antagonistic world." Johann was a passionate admirer of both Venice and Genoa, and he said "Unqualified and mean persons should have nothing to do with government and administration which must be reserved for qualified people alone.

    The de la Court brothers envisioned a "civic republic" based on the extreme Hobbesian view of individual passions. Each individual can be viewed as an atom impelled by passion through the void of society. Order is achieved by controlling the continual collisions that occur between such heteronomic individuals. What is remarkable, if not surprising, is the coherence between Sarpi's philosophical empiricism, and the development of a Hobbesian social theory based on individual passions and property rights. Man exists in an atomistic universe of material objects, and he defines himself by his possession of those objects.

    The DeWitts ultimately met the same fate as Oldenbarneveldt at the hands of the House of Orange, but only naiveté or deliberate fraud could lead one to profess their Empire as a forerunner of the American republic.

The Empire


    When the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648, the Dutch Empire was the greatest power in the world, and Amsterdam was the financial capital of Europe. The Dutch dominated the African slave trade. They had a stranglehold on international trade in specie, sugar, spices, and furs, and in the 1640s and 1650s, they finished off the Portuguese in Asia. In 1641 the Dutch established a monopoly on trade with Japan which lasted until 1853, and in 1661 Portugal submitted to a treaty granting the Dutch complete free trade, and the right of Dutch citizens to settle in any Portuguese territory.

    The imperial apex came with the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667), which ended in the defeat of England, and with the Dutch fleet sailing up the Thames. From the flagship of that fleet, the Dutch dictated the terms of the peace treaty.

    The Dutch Empire seemed invincible, but in reality, a much more powerful evil was soon to arise.

    In 1672, a coalition of European nations combined to attack the Netherlands. The Dutch suffered a devastating and total defeat, with the French armies of Louis XIV occupying whole sections of their country. Dutch historians refer to 1672 as the "Year of Disaster." The defeat led to the collapse of the DeWitt government, and the execution of the two brothers. The House of Orange was returned to power, in the form of the young Prince William III, but the geographical and military vulnerabilities of the Netherlands were exposed for all to see.

    Once the war was settled, and the House of Orange consolidated its position, Venetian networks on both sides of the North Sea, began to plot the next, more powerful, phase of Empire. This would entail not another Dutch war against England, but rather the complete takeover of the British Isles and the merger of England into a new joint Anglo-Dutch Empire. In 1678 a marriage was arranged between the Dutch Prince William and Mary, the daughter of King James II, and the first in line of succession to the English throne. The very next year Henry Sidney was at William’s court in the The Hague, offering him the English throne and asking him to invade England and seize the government. Sidney returned to the Hague as the English Ambassador in 1681, and during the next few years, the negotiations for a Dutch takeover continued and intensified. Then came 1688, and the Anglo-Dutch Empire was born.


1 See Friedrich Schiller's History of the Revolt of the Netherlands

2 As seen in the 1579 Union of Utrecht, which at William’s insistence. contained a clause (Article 13) guaranteeing liberty of conscience in religious worship, and prohibiting the persecution of anyone for religious reasons.

3 This revolution in financial practices which took place at the Bourse will be examined more thoroughly in Chapter 9

4 This is explicit in a letter sent by Paolo Sarpi to Isaac Casaubon, praising the outcome of the Council of Dort, where the final decree condemned Oldenbarneveldt’s Arminian allies, and supported the position of the Orangist Gomarists.

5 The Life and Times of John DeWitt, by Robert Barnwell, Pudney & Russell, New York, 1856