Littell's Living Age/Volume 159/Issue 2054/The Rise and Fall of Amsterdam
In a ground plan of Amsterdam, as it appeared in the beginning of the thirteenth century, the hook of land in front of the town facing the Y is called Groote Gods Huisland.
As the flag of some European power, floating from a rude fort, proclaimed to the bold navigator of the fifteenth century that the land he coveted already had an owner, so this title appears to claim Amsterdam from the first moment it is discovered in history as a city belonging to the Kingdom of Heaven.
How it failed to fulfil its calling I propose to tell.
From one of those vast forests where the ancient Germans dimly sought the All-Father, a tribe emerged into the marsh land at the mouth of the Rhine. Gladdened by the sight of its rich pastures, they called it Bet-auw, good meadow. Converted to the Christian faith by missionaries of their own race from England and France, the precious seed was kept alive, and in the thirteenth century still more freely sown by the institutions of the Beguines and Beghards, by the Lollards and the Franciscans, and by the Brothers of the Common Lot. These societies, mystical and communistic, sprang from the people, sympathized with the poor, prayed with them, preached to them, nursed them when sick, and taught their children.
Certain "humble and holy men of heart" exercised considerable influence over this popular faith, purifying and elevating it. Such an one was John Ruysbroek]], prior of Grünthal, who numbered among his disciples Tauler and Gerard Groot. The latter, animated by the sight of the brotherhood at Grünthal, instituted at Zwolle the society known as the Brothers of the Common Lot.
This fraternal union was as like as circumstances would permit to the apostolic pattern. The brothers obtained a simple livelihood, partly by manual labor, partly by friendly gifts, but they never begged. What they thus obtained or possessed was held in common. Their brother-houses and schools were soon found in most of the chief cities of the Netherlands. In that of Zwolle lived the venerated author of "The Imitation," whose long life was spent in quiet work as a Brother of the Common Lot.
Besides teaching their children the brothers labored incessantly to enlighten the people by short sermons. Each city had its preacher. Giesebert Dou of Amsterdam is mentioned by Thomas à Kempis in connection with Gerhard and Florentius, the founders of the society, and he doubtless preached on the same theme as his companions. What that theme was we can have no doubt when we learn that the ignorant of those days spoke of "Jesus" as "the God of the Beguines" Ruysbroek is described as "mystical but practical," such were his disciples in the Netherlands.
In the life of John Wessel, a disciple of Thomas à Kempis, we see how the Brothers of the Common Lot prepared the way for the Reformation; but what manifests that fact still more is that nowhere, not even in Germany itself, did that movement receive a better welcome than among the people whose minds these brothers had formed. The Reformation made its way at once throughout the Netherlands, and it was the Dutch who most frequently recruited its advanced guards and forlorn hopes.
Before the twelfth century, Amsterdam has no history. But during that period, as well as in the previous century, a series of irruptions of the North Sea turned Lake Flevo into the Zuyder Zee. The treasures of the ocean were thus opened up to the inhabitants of the village of Amstelredam. It is an old saying that "Amsterdam was built on the backbone - of a herring."
Nature and man — blind, cruel ,greedy — these were the twin foes with which the Netherlanders had to fight. As the ancient people they so much resemble, they were "burnt with fire, but not consumed."
From the obscure background of mediæval history we behold emerge, like the phantasms of half-finished dreams, scenes in which a portion is photographed more vividly than anything we see when awake, but of which we know not the beginning, and which ends as abruptly as it began.
Thus, in 1258, the Amsterdammers appear, making common cause with the people of Kemmerland, Friesland, and Waterland, who had risen against their nobles, declaring that they would expel them from the country and raze their castles. The Lord of Amstel consents to lead his people against Utrecht, where the revolution is accomplished. But they are defeated in besieging Haarlem, and the insurrection seems to collapse.
Next comes a story of turbulence and bloodshed. The murder of Count Floris V. is a favorite subject of the Dutch drama. In this disloyal deed, Gysbrecht, lord of the Amstel, plays a leading part, and as a result loses his rights over Amsterdam, which reverted to the counts of Holland.
This family, "hard-fighting, hard-drinking, crusading, freebooting," were very popular, and under their ægis Amsterdam developed its municipal liberties, and grew slowly in wealth and importance. But the male line dying out, there came a time of civil commotion, the contending parties taking the quaint titles of Kabbeljaws and Hoeks. The Kabbeljaws, or cod-fish, were the people; the Hoeks, or hooks, the nobles, who caught the people and used them to their own advantage. Amsterdam appears to have sided with the Kabbeljaws.
This struggle went on for a hundred years, and we may measure the sadness of heart it produced by the fact that it was during the latter part of its continuance — the first half of the fifteenth century — that most of the cloistral establishments of Amsterdam were founded. But in the midst of the misery brought about by this civil strife the Brothers of the Common Lot, in harmony with all the traditions of Netherland religion, were teaching the people, and setting before them the example of a life founded on the doctrine of Jesus Christ.
No one, not even those who suffer most, ever rightly estimates the discontent which exists in any society founded upon injustice. Luther himself, though by birth a man of the people, had no conception of its extent in his own Germany. Thus notwithstanding the rout of the peasantry at Frankenhausen, the Anabaptist movement went on in Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, and above all in the Netherlands. Jan Trypmacker, its leader in the Netherlands, in 1530, had a great following in Amsterdam, and was there arrested, sent to the Hague, and beheaded. Alter him arose Jan Mathysen, who appointed twelve missionaries, all of whom appear from their names to have been Dutchmen.
The social war broke out in Amsterdam the same year that it did in Munster. Finding public opinion in its favor, its leader, Van Geelen, determined to seize the city. All was kept quiet until the very evening designed for the attempt, when the attention of the magistrates was called to three small pieces of artillery placed so as to command the windows of the Guildhall. While hesitating what to do, the Anabaptists appeared, forty strong, and the magistrates only saved themselves by rapid flight. The signal for the general uprising was to be the tolling of the Guildhall bell, but the insurgents being unable to find the rope, this hitch in the programme ensured the ruin of the revolt. A drunken Schout's officer had unwittingly hidden it among the stools. Thus the night passed away without any movement on the part of the people, giving the magistrates time to arrange their plans. Notwithstanding this, the insurgents at first carried everything before them, but they were at last surrounded, and driven off the dam into the Guildhall. Here they fought desperately, but their leaders being killed, they were finally overpowered. The prisoners were put to death with revolting barbarity; while yet living their hearts were cut out and thrown in their faces, their bodies quartered and hung on the town gates, and their heads placed on stakes.
This episode shows clearly that there was a widespread discontent throughout the city. Amsterdam was governed by a senate of thirty-six burghers. Each senator enjoyed his position for life, originally by election of the freemen of the city; but from the sixteenth century the vacancies were filled up by the Senate itself or by some authority for the time being more powerful. Thus the government of Amsterdam was a close oligarchy. Had it continued as it was up to the end of the war of independence — Catholic — it would in all probability have rivalled that of Venice, in a rule of mystery and terror. One of the most picturesque objects in Amsterdam was the Herring-packers' Tower. Here persons suspected of heresy were confined, and given short shrift, being thrown out at night, tied hands and feet, into the Y.
It was owing to the orthodox character of the magistracy that Amsterdam escaped almost scot-free during the War of Independence, being permitted to purchase immunity from a Spanish garrison by payment of two hundred thousand guilders. Every effort to induce the city to join the patriots failed, and when at last the magistrates began to treat, they offered terms such as would have enabled them as St. Aldegonde puts it, "to govern the governor." In the end the patriots were obliged to agree to an arrangement by which the exercise of the Catholic religion was alone permitted within the city.
No sooner, however, was the government of Amsterdam cut off from its own party than a popular rising took place, and a revolution was apparently accomplished by one resolute man and four confederates. So in accord, however, were the conspirators with the public sentiment that at the signal of the raising of a hat, the dam was filled with people following a sailor with a flag, who cried, "All ye who love the Prince of Orange, take heart and follow me," After this the Catholic religion was itself proscribed, and Amsterdam became not only Protestant, but Protestant of an ultra type. These facts make it evident that the Amsterdam of the sixteenth century contained a population mostly Protestant, and largely Anabaptist, with a ruling class thoroughly Catholic.
Before the great War of Independence commenced, we hear much of Anabaptism. I believe it to be the secret source of the pertinacity with which the north Hollanders struggled, and certain it is that even at the close of the war it was strong enough to frighten a man like St. Aldegonde into trying to prevent all who professed its tenets from exercising their rights as citizens. But it is evident that during the war its place in popular affection had given way to Calvinism.
No war since the Christian era ever stirred up the devil latent in human nature as this did. The cruelty practised by Philip II. and his myrmidons is so horrible, that the mind refuses to reflect upon it. Fairly to judge the epoch, one should look at the old engravings executed while these hellish deeds were fresh in men's minds. This dark background of horror is the real parent of Calvinism. It was in the lurid glare of the flames in the Place Maubert that Calvinism arose, condemning a world that thus treated its saints to an eternal torment of which their fiery tortures were but a faint image.
A legend of Amsterdam tells of a merchant who came to the city, but do what he would he could not make himself liked. One evening, as he sat moodily alone, a stranger claimed his hospitality, a gentleman of Spanish complexion, with a very fascinating eye. He seemed to know all the merchant's secrets, and promised him that if he would agree to his terms, human sympathy with all the joys of life should be his. He then retired, leaving in the merchant's hands a paper which he was to sign, and forward to a certain place the next morning. The merchant soon found that his visitor was no other than Satan himself. However, he took the night to consider, and by morning had determined to accept the offer. But a very short while elapsed, and the merchant was happily married to the lady be had previously sought in vain; in a few years his table was surrounded by a beautiful family, wealth and honor poured in upon him, and he was welcomed wherever he went.
The temptation which this legend sets forth as occurring to a merchant at Amsterdam, was really that to which the city itself succumbed. Coldly looked upon as one who was a comparative stranger in the new republic, but who yet sought a chief share in its gains, Amsterdam would have probably been more isolated still had she followed the highest aspirations of her people, and been true to her calling as the Groote Gods Huisland. Instead of that, she listened to the great seducer, and received a full but temporary reward.
She at once took the lead in the use the ruling classes of the United Provinces proposed to make of the great position which the faith, the courage, and the awful sacrifice of the people had obtained for them. They had no higher ambition than to become the successors in the abominable traffic of their ancient masters, and to get possession of its profits. All combined to feed this low ambition, and to render it successful.
Portugal lost its independence, and shared the gloomy fate of Spain to which it was annexed. One of the first results was the arrival in Amsterdam of a colony of Portuguese Jews (1593), rich in commercial traditions, wealth, and energy. Next, the continual persecution of the Huguenots drove numbers of the most intelligent and most wealthy among the middle classes of France to take shelter under the ægis of a republic professing their faith, and welcoming foreigners with open arms. It was the same with the many Covenanters and Puritans who under the Stuarts made Amsterdam their city of refuge. Another circumstance that added vastly to its wealth and importance was the final defeat and ruin of the patriotic cause in Antwerp. In the disasters that attended the defence of that city, the rulers of Amsterdam were strongly suspected of preventing the Dutch fleet from properly seconding the efforts of the governor, Marnix of St. Aldegonde. When the end came, many of its traders, and even its literary men, fled to Amsterdam.
The population, in fact, increased so fast that strangers arriving were obliged to take up their abode in the environs in huts and other temporary erections, while new streets were laid out and houses built. Land in the city rose to a preposterous value: as much as a man's foot would cover was said to be worth a ducat of gold. In 1618 the population was estimated at three hundred thousand.
Each city in the United Provinces had its particular branch of trade. The great fisheries of the German Ocean were, of course, common to all the maritime towns and villages, but Amsterdam had the lion's share. The Dutch herring fishery at its zenith employed about six thousand four hundred vessels and one hundred and twelve thousand seamen: eight hundred of these vessels belonged to Amsterdam, where an immense trade was done in salting and packing herrings.
A thousand vessels were employed in the Baltic trade in timber and grain, and Amsterdam in a short time became the granary of the world. Sir Walter Raleigh, in his "Observations touching Trade and Commerce with the Hollander," says "Amsterdam is never without seven hundred thousand quarters of corn, none of it the growth of Holland; a dearth of only one year in any other part of Europe enriches Holland for seven years."
In 1602 the Dutch East India Company was formed. Amboyna and the Moluccas were wrested from the Spaniards, and in a short time the Dutch had factories and fortifications from the Tigris in the Persian Gulf along the coasts and islands of India, as far as Japan. Alliances were formed with several Indian princes on the coast of Ceylon, and they were themselves masters in various districts of Malabar and Coromandel, and of great part of the island of Java. The West India Company was established in 1621. In fifteen years the Dutch had conquered the greater part of Brazil and had fitted out eight hundred trading and war ships at the expense of ninety millions of florins, which immense outlay they had recouped by the capture of five hundred and forty-five Spanish and Portuguese ships.
These trades were the peculiar monopoly of Amsterdam, but she was also greatly advantaged by the general prosperity of the whole province of Holland. On its pastures grazed innumerable herds of fine cattle a Dutch ox would often weigh more than two thousand pounds, and Dutch cows were known to produce two or three calves at a time, Dutch sheep four or five lambs. Butter, cheese, and salted provisions were exported to an incredible amount.
The manufactures were equally famous. Dutch linen was so highly esteemed that Holland gave its name to the fabric.
Supported further by the finest navy in the world — for it is estimated that in the seventeenth century half the shipping of Europe belonged to the Dutch — Amsterdam, with its correspondents every-where, quickly obtained the carrying trade of the world.
To render the working of this great commerce more facile, the Bank of Amsterdam was founded in 1609. In a short time the whole world went to Amsterdam to borrow.
Speculative trade, it has been said, almost seems to have been born at Amsterdam. Let the scarcity of grain be what it might in any of the four quarters of the globe, men could always find plenty in Amsterdam; whatever their wants, they could always supply them in Amsterdam. Its streets were like a perpetual fair.
An Italian describes the city in 1618 as the very image of Venice in its prime. It spread out fan-shaped, its base line on the Y being a long series of quays and docks, backed by tall warehouses of which little could be seen but an occasional gable-roof, so hidden were they by groves of masts (which towards the centre thickened into a forest), by large sails and a complete jungle of huge cranes and draw-bridges. High above the city rose numerous quaint steeples and yet more ancient towers, and Amsterdam's Italian prototype could never have presented a more bewitching picture than when on one of those marvellous nights, not infrequent in Holland, the moon lit up the scene with a light whiter, purer than that of electricity, and of a living beauty the very reverse of electricity's ghastly glare. The black hulls, masts, rigging, and cordage stood out vividly as in a photograph; the beacons cast their ruddy glare into the waters, and at midnight the carillon floated over the city, followed by the striking of innumerable clocks.
Morning broke, and with the dawn began another day's whirl and fret of business. Men, women, children — of all lands, nations, and tongues — were in full activity. The shipwrights' hammers, the creaking of the cranes, the seamen's oaths, the squabbles of the market-place, the gabbling in the schools, the clatter of the sleighs, the chaffering, badgering, bullying, the slave-driving going on without a moment's cessation upon all the' quays, in every warehouse and from every street, proclaimed Amsterdam the mart of the world, the centre of its business.
The head of the Damrak, a short roadstead formed by the mouth of the Amstel, was crossed by a bridge which recalled the Rialto. Here a crowd of men, the most varied in nationality and tradition, were all one in their worship of the presiding genius of the city. The bridge stood in front of its temple. The Exchange was the true centre of the religion of Amsterdam. Hard by were the representatives of the two subsidiary forces in the life of the city — politics and Calvinistic Christianity.
The Stadthuis, an enormous structure, of which the forest of piles necessary for its foundation had cost £100,000 sterling, possessed an interior almost encased in marble — floors, walls, pillars, and ceilings — Versailles cost £800,000, the Escurial £1,000,000, St. Paul's £1,500,000; but the burgher government of Amsterdam spent £3,000,000 on the shrine of their politics, making it the fit emblem of their policy— hard, superficial, and stupidly wasteful. In its vaults were the treasures of their famous bank, to all appearance an infinite hoard of wealth — gold and silver in bars, plate and bags of specie innumerable.
The treasure-house of Europe, it was the reservoir into which fell the many golden streams which came pouring in from every quarter of the globe.
This wealth gave an enormous impetus to such arts as the traditions and peculiar temperament of the Hollanders most encouraged. Profoundly religious, the soul of the Netherlands people had from very early times found expression in poetry and painting. Amsterdam was the centre of literary life before the war, its inhabitants cultivating their poetic gifts in their famous Guild of the Eglantine. After the fall of Antwerp, its Guilds of the Sweetbrier and the Fig-tree emigrated to the northern city.
From the fostering care of these guilds came a succession of poets and dramatists, touched with the humor and sweetness of our Elizabethan school. Visscher and his two daughters, Hooft, Brederoo, Vondel and Huygens, are among the chief names of the great Amsterdam school of the seventeenth century. The Kalverstraat was the Paternoster Row of old Amsterdam, and the especial haunt of its engravers. Cats, who better perhaps than any other Dutch writer represents the homely wit and proverbial philosophy characteristic of the Dutch middle class, did not belong to Amsterdam. But in the quaint designs on the house-fronts, often punning representations of the owner's name or trade, in the moral sayings and wise saws written on the entablatures, might be seen the genius of Cats, and of a religion which had fallen from the enthusiastic faith of David's Psalms to the didactic philosophy of the Proverbs of Solomon.
The free multiform life of Amsterdam, full of color and poetry, had many attractions for painters. Hither Rembrandt came, in 1630, and fixed himself near the Jews' quarter. Here were heaped treasures which had adorned the Cleopatras and the Messalinas of the ancient world, the spoils which Crusaders had carried home from Syria, and the Venetians from Constantinople, together with all kinds of strange and curious things which the bold seamen of Holland had brought from the four quarters of the globe. Here too were men who had carefully hoarded the intellectual flotsam and jetsam of a dead past: reverend rabbis — wrinkled, furrowed, ghastly — in whom the hereditary acquisitiveness had taken the most interesting of all its forms.
It was in these palmy days that a family of Portuguese Jews gave the world a child who was to be the leader in a revolution more radical than either that of Luther or even Munzer. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632.
Nowhere has the Jew found such consideration as in Amsterdam. If spiritual affinities could prove consanguinity, the people of Amsterdam might claim to be one of the lost tribes. Nowhere was the letter of the Decalogue more generally obeyed; nowhere was the higher teaching of the Mosaic law better carried out: care for the orphan and the widow, provision for the poor and the stranger. There were twelve great hospitals or benevolent institutions in Amsterdam. There were orphanages for boys and for girls, retreats for old men and old women, hospitals for the sick, for lunatics, for lepers, and one where poor travellers could be lodged and entertained for three nights. For the unruly of either sex, there were two separate prisons conducted in a severe but parental manner.
But amidst all this prosperity, all this culture, all this drilling in the rules of frugality, the most striking fact in this great commercial society is its ever-increasing pauperism.
Strongly endowed with the parental instinct, the Amsterdam burghers thought not of such cruelty as the breaking-up of a family because its head had fallen into poverty; so they created, in 1619, an institution which they called "the House of the Poor Families." To enter it a family must have resided six years in Amsterdam; and to prevent fraud it was required to produce several witnesses to the fact. Notwithstanding all these difficulties, the old side of this establishment contained nine hundred families, and the new, sixteen hundred; altogether they numbered no less than ten thousand persons. All round the garden was a gallery where a weekly distribution of victuals was made to the poor.
In addition to this great poorhouse were two others — houses for the rabble — built respectively in 1639 and 1649. Here were distributed every week during winter, irrespective of race or faith, bread, butter, and cheese. Altogether the sum spent in these three articles amounted to six hundred thousand guilders per annum.
The old writer (1675) who gives this account of the house for poor families, says "the numbers in it at present cannot be told, seeing the city is increased nearly one-half;" but if the numbers he states as there in 1616 are compared with the population of Amsterdam in 1618, we find that one in every thirty persons in Amsterdam was a pauper of selected respectability. But outside this class was another which could not satisfy inquiry — a class dear to Rembrandt, who was one of the very few persons, perhaps the only one, who saw this Amsterdam society through and through, and found it pharisaical and thoroughly opposed to the spirit of Jesus Christ. This ragged, wretched, miserable class, to whom Rembrandt devoted more of his work than to any other, cannot be deemed to have been less than four or five times as numerous as the respectable poor.
If this be a fair computation, then it would follow that, at the very time Amsterdam was making its most rapid strides in prosperity, at least one-sixth of its inhabitants were in a state of pauperism, and this we know means also a still wider circle of families on the brink of poverty and living in daily dread of being swallowed into its vortex.
Another proof of the poverty of the masses in Amsterdam, was the existence of a great civic pawnshop — De Lombert. Here the poor could obtain loans, not only on their garments, but upon plate and other household goods, and even on merchandise.
In the marvellously finished interiors of Gerard Dou we see the ease, the comfort, the wealth in which the few lived who drew the prizes in this great commercial lottery. In the best sense their homes were respectable. Luxury is there, but it is restrained, reasonable, unostentatious. They have all that heart could wish, and if there is any desire, the means are there to obtain its gratification. And nothing proves how sweet this life was to those who enjoyed it as the fact that so many masters found it to their profit to follow in the wake of Dou. On the other hand, Rembrandt — who painted the poor as they really were, sad-eyed and dirty, sufferers even when truculent-looking and sullen — had no followers. The rich did not care about these reminders of an ugly fact. If they had pictures of poverty, then tavern interiors, such as Ostade, Teniers, and Jan Steen painted, were the ones most in request — pictures that represented men as bringing it on themselves by vicious and disgusting bestiality.
The Amsterdammers of the seventeenth century were benevolent, cultured, religious, but their consciences were not wounded by this singular distribution of wealth. How should they be when the religion which they professed had for its distinctive tenet the doctrine that God had chosen an elect few to eternal felicity, while the great majority of mankind were under sentence of eternal reprobation? This doctrine, which they heard proclaimed from richly carved pulpits as they sat in due order in their double-galleried synagogues, was entirely in harmony with the material condition of Amsterdam: the one explained and justified the other.
If the Hollander had one tradition more powerful than another, it was patriotism. Yet even this great duty the merchant of Amsterdam was ready to sacrifice on the altar of commerce. On one occasion the stadtholder discovered that the Amsterdam traders were sending arms and ammunition to Antwerp, at the very time it was being besieged by the combined forces of Holland and France. He demanded an inquiry, and one Beyland was charged before the magistrates of Amsterdam with freighting four boats full of powder, muskets, and pikes. The accused not only freely admitted the charge but declared that the merchant of Amsterdam had a right to trade wherever he pleased; adding that if anything was to be gained by trading to hell, he would risk burning his sails. And the magistrates acquitted him on the ground that he had done his duty to his employers.
Never is this freedom from all scruples so manifest as when the ruling classes of Amsterdam had the grandest opportunities, and a sphere Alexander himself might have envied. They grasped at the world, but not fur the noble ambition of conquering it for that kingdom of which they professed themselves members, but simply that they might suck its treasures for their own advantage.
Everything was managed in Amsterdam by corporations. The idea of the sacredness of corporate rights and privileges was firmly planted in the Dutch mind. These numerous bodies were virtually self-elected. An oligarchy ruled in each department. The character of their government is seen in the way the East India Company managed their possessions in the Eastern Archipelago. To secure the monopoly of the spice trade, they caused all the clove-trees to be extirpated, except in Amboyna, the seat of their power, bribing the surrounding princes to enter into league with them to destroy their subjects' property. At one time they gained the exclusive command of the pepper trade. Pepper was immediately raised to eight shillings a pound, one hundred per cent. higher than the Portuguese prices. It is supposed that they made a profit of thirty-eight hundred per cent. on this article alone. English settlers did not scruple to declare that in 1622 the Dutch authorities at Amboyna, in their terror lest foreign intrigue should oust them out of the nest they were robbing, practised tortures worthy of Philip II. and Alva.
To prevent any criticism from the jealousy of the other Dutch ports, the East India Company distributed their stock among the principal towns of the United Provinces, in each of which was a handsomely paid board of directors, possessing the share of the patronage proportioned to the stock they held. Amsterdam kept the supreme direction, for out of these subordinate chambers a board of seventeen directors was chosen, who met for six years at Amsterdam and two at Middleburgh. Thus all the leading capitalists in Holland were directly concerned in the company's affairs.
Instead of enriching their own country and the Asiatic world by opening up a great Oriental trade, the Dutch East India Company thought only of getting the highest possible prices by the exclusion of all competition. Their immense warehouses at Amsterdam, their imposing name, and the mystery ever attached to the East, led to an exaggerated idea of their importance. They worked a trade that could easily have employed several millions with a capital of £542,000. In their most prosperous days, from 1614 - 1730, the number of their ships arriving from India in the course of the year did not average more than fourteen.
This style of doing trade explains the excessively heavy dues that the Amsterdam authorities imposed on every article of traffic. It is asserted that many things paid duty three or four times over. Bread was taxed when the corn came from the mill, and again when the loaves came from the oven. There were taxes on butter, fish, and fruit, while the duties levied on meat, salt, beer, wine, and spirits were as high as one hundred per cent. Rents paid a tax of twenty-five per cent.; in fact, there was scarcely anything that escaped taxation except that which depleted the country of its capital — the speculations of its merchants in the public funds of other nations.
For, owing to the accumulation of capital and the way taxation ate up profits, the Amsterdam merchants put the greater part of their surplus capital into foreign stocks. In fact, the difficulty of finding an advantageous return for money in Holland was so great, that its capitalists preferred to lend vast sums of money to individuals in foreign countries, both regularly as loans at interest and in the shape of goods advanced at long credit.
The result of such an order of things became more and more manifest: the commerce which enriched the few, ruined the many. The cause of the heavy taxation was the necessity of maintaining a great navy to protect the monopolies of the Dutch capitalists, and to pay the interest of the ever-increasing debt, brought about by the disastrous wars into which the United Provinces were forced by the jealousy and cupidity they provoked in their neighbors.
At the end of the War of Independence, Motley tells us that the debt of the United Provinces was funded at six per cent., its interest amounting to two hundred thousand florins. The whole debt may be calculated at a round three and a quarter millions of florins. Now in 1877 it had reached to about nine hundred millions of florins. Thus, while the population had remained stationary, the national debt had in two centuries and three-quarters increased to nearly three hundred times its original size.
England and France began as early as the middle of the seventeenth century to try and get possession of the Dutch trade. In 1651 the English Parliament passed a Navigation Act, the object of which was to exclude the Dutch from the carrying trade of this country; and in 1664 the French government promulgated the tariff arranged by Colbert, a main purpose being to promote French commerce by harassing that of the United Provinces.
Not content with doing it this harm, Louis XIV. in 1672 invaded Holland. A great drought favored his enterprise, so that the French armies easily forded the rivers, and the Dutch cities capitulated without a blow. As Sir William Temple says, in his curious little book, "Observations on the United Provinces, 1693," "In all sieges the hearts of men defend the walls, and not the walls the men."
That the Dutch people had not lost their ancient patriotism was soon manifest, for when Louis XIV., misled by the ease of his triumph, demanded outrageous terms, the people rose, took the power out of the hands of oligarchical factions who ruled in the States-General, and virtually made the Prince of Orange dictator. Under this influence Amsterdam displayed an unwonted heroism, and her people declared that rather than submit to the conqueror they would cut the dykes and lay all the land round the city under water.
Ere long, however, the representatives of wealth again obtain power, and the old hostility between the house of Orange and the government of Amsterdam recommences. It was with the utmost difficulty that the stadtholder, afterwards William III. of England, induced it to consent to his projected effort on behalf of English liberty; and when he was obliged to reside in this country, it took advantage of his absence to usurp his prerogatives.
This perpetual struggle between the stadtholders and the Amsterdam oligarchy is one of the pivots of Dutch history; and a key to that of Amsterdam may be found in the fact that, up to the period of the French Revolution, the common people of Amsterdam always sided with the house of Orange.
A curious example of the jealousy with which the people regarded the acts of the magistracy, and the way they fretted against its authority, is shown in the commotion occasioned in 1696 by the passing of a sumptuary law restraining the magnificence of funerals. The host of lugubrious and pompous personages, the "inviters," the bearers, the torch-bearers, who got their living out of elaborate funeral rites, stirred up the population, spreading the report that the government intended to oblige every one to be buried in a plain deal coffin without a breastplate, and with the city arms sewed upon the winding-sheet. The thought of being thus put nameless into the grave, and stamped as the property of the city of Amsterdam, aroused the populace to a state of violent indignation. Menacing processions were formed, but the soldiers brought out to disperse them had to take flight, and encouraged by their victory the people sacked the houses of those who were believed to have suggested the new law. The rioters were overcome, and their ringleaders hanged in front of the Weighhouse. This curious episode is further characteristic, since it was alleged that the tumult was secretly instigated by the partisans of the stadtholder.
The French invasion of 1672 was to the commerce of Amsterdam as the writing on the wall of the palace of Belshazzar, but the power that chiefly effected its destruction was England.
As when a fainting firm is falling all things seem to combine to accelerate its ruin, so it was with the commerce of Amsterdam during the third quarter of the eighteenth century: 1763 and 1773 were marked by monetary panics, brought on by unlimited stockjobbing, and were followed by many private bankruptcies; 1770-71, by terrific floods and cattle disease.
The Dutch had sacrificed much on the altar of commerce; but they still preserved a certain disinterested admiration of the great deeds of their forefathers, and could not help feeling that their glory lay in the War of Independence and the policy established. When, therefore, the American War of Independence broke out, it was very hard to be told that their national honor was pledged to take sides with the English government in reducing the American colonies to obedience. And yet the treaties of 1716-17 bound them to afford subsidies and troops to England in case of need. The stadtholder called for the observance of the treaty; the States-General refused. The English replied by a denial of the right of the Dutch to convey timber and ships' stores to France, also in sympathy with the colonists. The claim of search was rigorously exercised. Dutch merchantmen were captured, their cargo plundered, and their crews maltreated and forced into the English navy. These proceedings struck more heavily at the trade of Amsterdam than any other city in the United Provinces, and in the States-General the struggle lay between the party she influenced and that affected by the machinations of the English ambassador. In 1778 the latter triumphed, the States-General agreeing that in future no convoy should be granted to ships laden with shipbuilding materials. Thus Amsterdam saw her timber trade destroyed simply to gratify the spite of England, for it was carried on just the same from other ports of the Baltic.
In I780England issued a declaration of war against the United Provinces, and after naming a number of causes of offence, the document concluded with a last and chief article against the burghers of Amsterdam. Instead of taking active measures, the Dutch squandered their time in internal disputes. Supineness and inactivity pervaded every department. A bounty of seventy guilders a head was offered for men, but men were not forthcoming. The powers supposed to be friendly made no effort to save the Dutch. Russia turned against them, and the Swedes and the Danes looked with satisfaction on the profit that would accrue to themselves from the ruin of Dutch commerce.
It was already half-dead. The Weighing-house on the Dam, formerly thronged with business, had only one of its doors occasionally open. No loan could be raised under six per cent., and the Dutch bondholders trembled for a sum of no less than four hundred and fifty millions of guilders in the English funds.
The British fleet swooped down on the Dutch colonies. At St. Eustatius, an island in the West Indies, Admiral Rodney: acted with unexampled rigor, stripping the inhabitants of everything they had, even to their very provisions, seizing their account-books and business papers, and turning them out of their dwellings in a state of destitution. Burke's denunciations of the British commander are still full of indignant fire.
Demerara, Essequibo, Berbice, were all ceded to the English by the Dutch traders, who, in spite of the losses of their country, were able to lend five millions of guilders to the American States. The Yankees at once proved a worse rival than even England, for in 1786 they wrested from the United Provinces a large portion of the trade with China, and, by an illicit traffic carried on between the Dutch West Indian colonies and New York, did the trade of the Hollanders much harm.
In 1782 the Whigs came into power, but although it had ever been a maxim of their policy to cultivate the Dutch alliance, they could not refrain from pressing to the utmost the prostrate representatives of a rival commerce, refusing to restore the places taken from the Dutch during the war, or to grant any compensation for their losses. And their ally, France, signed the preliminaries of peace without the sanction or knowledge of the United Provinces. On being remonstrated with, the French ambassador replied: "Each power must study its own interests, and those of France require peace."
The eagles now arrived to share the prey. Austria began to harass the United Provinces with all sorts of demands, even to the extent of opening the Scheldt. The States had no sooner bought peace at the price of nine million and a half guilders, than, in 1787, Prussia invaded the country. Amsterdam was the last city to hold out, but she was compelled to capitulate and accept the Prussian terms.
This miserable condition of a great commercial city was pleasing in the sight of her rivals, and there was not one dissentient voice in the British House of Commons to the address expressing admiring approbation at the rapid success of the Prussian arms.
In Amsterdam, decay and dissolution was apparent in all directions. Each year saw the East India Company fall deeper and deeper into debt; the West India Company was on the verge of bankruptcy, and was dissolved at the expiration of its charter. The ships employed in the Greenland whale fishery had diminished from one hundred and twenty in 1770 to sixty-nine in 1781. The money of the Bank of Amsterdam suffered so great a depreciation that from a premium of three to five per cent. it sank to one-half below par, and there was such a demand for specie as seriously to shake its credit.
Yet such was the individual wealth still possessed by Dutch capitalists, that in the midst of all these disasters they were able to lend the king of Prussia five millions of guilders, and to buy two millions of acres of land of the American Congress for three million seven hundred and fifty thousand guilders.
Governments built on the predominance of a class are only safe as long as they are successful. The people of the northern Netherlands were as ready in the eighteenth century to accept the doctrines of the French Revolution as their ancestors had been to receive those of the Anabaptists. The committees formed to organize a national insurrection found a popular response beyond their expectation. Amsterdam was the focus of the revolution. Arrangements were made with General Pichegru for the concurrent help of French troops, and the Jews were bribed to embarrass the monetary transactions of the stadtholder, who was now numbered with the incubus from which the country desired to be free.
The elements combined, as they have so often done in the Netherlands, to favor the revolution. The winter of 1794 is known as the French winter, for the ice, daily increasing, enabled their armies to march into the heart of the country. Utrecht was taken, and the stadtholder embarked at Scheveningen.
The magistrates of Amsterdam lingered on, and only resigned when the alternative was offered of safety of person and property on the one hand, or certain massacre on the other, and the Revolution was at once proclaimed from the Weighhouse, in front of which a pole bearing a rude resemblance to a tall palm-tree and surmounted by a cap of Liberty, was erected, around which the children of the poor danced. The Dam, the ancient forum of Amsterdam, was filled with an excited populace almost delirious with joy. The roofs and balconies of the houses and of the Niewe Kerk and the windows of the Stadthuis were lined with spectators, who had gathered to watch the Revolutionary army defile through the city.
The Revolution flew through the United Provinces, and that famous name was soon merged in that of the Batavian Republic. The millenarian day-dream faded almost as soon as it was born, for the French in Holland acted in accordance with their historical character as deliverers. Their conduct outside the cities is described as atrocious; in Amsterdam they were quartered on the people, and terrorized the trembling households compelled to receive them as guests.
Amsterdam was now a mere satellite of Paris, and followed its destinies. When Bonaparte made himself emperor, the Batavian Republic was changed into the kingdom of Holland, and the ruler of France appointed his brother Louis to be its king. A very near relative of the writer was held up as a child of six or seven years of age to see the master of the king of Holland pass, surrounded by his guards, across the Dam. The picture of the emperor crouching at the bottom of his carriage, his great head dropped between his shoulders, with lowering brow, pallid face, and watchful eyes, passing rapidly through a sullen and silent crowd, is that of the foreign tyrant, who, in spite of all his armies and all his fame, is made to feel the hatred of a people he has tied like a captive horde to his conquering car. That moment marked the lowest point in the fall of Amsterdam. The veriest dolt on the Dam must have felt that Amsterdam was in chains.
And now the iron entered her soul; regiments from all the armies in Europe marched through her streets, and were quartered on her people, who for some years lived in an atmosphere of constant fear and anxiety. Now it was the French who were masters, now the Orange party, now the Allies. If the French, then there were spies during the day and sudden arrests in the dead of the night; if the national party, no one dared appear without an Orange rosette; if the Allies, then possibly a red-eyed Cossack sat in the house and called loudly for "snaps." Every morning there was the clatter of cavalry exercising their horses up and down the streets, or the noise of the infantry going through their drill. Every evening the tambour was beaten in all the quarters of the town. And the worst was that all these soldiers were foreign, and represented the fact that the liberties of Amsterdam were no longer their own, but depended upon whosoever came forth victorious in the struggle.
As to their natural defenders, they were lost in the armies that followed the rival commanders, and possessed no more liberty than the pin or screw of some infernal machine. Some lay stiff and stark on the icy plains of Russia, some were driven into German rivers by Austrian and Prussian bayonets, many lay pierced by French bullets on the field of Waterloo.
Every great change in Europe vibrated through the homes of Amsterdam. When the empire began to fall the French inhabitants left the city in droves, the houses of those who sympathized with them were sacked, and the prisons forced open. Several pitiable objects were brought forth from the prisons under the Amstel-sluis.
The 18th of June, 1815, was a day of great excitement in Amsterdam. The news of the various changes at Waterloo were signalled across the Netherlands from steeple to steeple. The signal in Amsterdam was continually changing according to the fortunes of the day, and when at last the Dutch flag remained flying, the people wrung each other's hands, crying with delight, Oranje boven! Oranje boven!
The historical family, the only symbol Holland possesses of national unity, returned; and Amsterdam entered on its third and present phase, that of being simply the largest city in the kingdom of Holland. In this character its history has been quite uneventful. It is in the highest degree improbable it will regain the place it once held in Europe; there are signs that as a wealth-making community Amsterdam is slowly but steadily sinking. While Bremerhafen and Antwerp are rapidly gaining ground commercially, Amsterdam lags behind. The slow rate at which the Dutch network of railways is being completed and the water-ways improved, is said to be the cause. The construction of a canal to the Helder in 1819, and another to Ymuiden in 1858, have done something to help Amsterdam to keep its own ; but unless steps are taken to place it in easy communication with the Rhine, it will some day be as Venice.
Thus the city claimed as Groote Gods Huisland has failed to win its crown. Instead of taking that moral position in Europe to which she was called, and which would certainly have been hers had she not listened to the tempter's voice, Amsterdam chose material wealth, and sought to be the commercial metropolis of the earth, rather than a city from whence the laws of justice and truth should go forth to the nations. I shall be told that it is idle to speculate on what might have been ; but if the moral position of the United Provinces at the close of the War of Independence and the stirrings of the European conscience during the last three centuries be considered, no one can doubt that there was a rôle for a State which made moral ends its primary object, and that the United Provinces for every reason was called to occupy it. Had its people been left to follow unbiassed the national conscience, there is reason to believe that the United Provinces would have become the holy land of Europe, and their chief city an ideal Jerusalem.
But such a glorious destiny was not to be that of Amsterdam; on the contrary, she has existed only to be a beacon and a warning to those who now occupy her position, and may perhaps be said to have her opportunity. But when will the Church learn the doctrine of Christ, and the discipline to which all who profess themselves his followers must submit? It was a true word which the Padre Curci is said to have uttered to Pius IX. The pope complained that the Padre never came to the Vatican. "Your Holiness," he replied, "has too much money; when you have none I will come every day."
Nowhere on earth has religious liberty longer prevailed, nor the pulpit received more honor than in Amsterdam; but we may look in vain for a man touched with the spirit of the prophets of the Italian republics, men of the mould of Francis and Savonarola. So little, indeed, have the churches of Amsterdam done in stemming the tide of her worldliness, that in gathering the materials for this sketch we have hardly found anything that made it necessary to notice their existence. In 1749, in the full tide of the Methodist revival in England, a similar movement, attended by the same phenomena, broke out in the Dutch Church; but the spirit of respectability and ecclesiastical order soon extinguished the flame. Thus the history of Amsterdam religion is that of the city: the two are inextricably bound together and share the same fate.
If we were disposed to make merry over that fate we might well do so. For a caustic glance at the present religious life of Amsterdam, we commend our readers to a humorous description of a modern Sunday evening service in one of its churches, a comfortable building, where a few scattered groups of respectable persons were found reclining on well-padded seats covered with velvet, and enlightened by two gas-burners apiece, while they listened to an admirable discourse from the text, "Godliness is profitable for the life that now is."
The legend to which we referred in an earlier part of this paper, had a happier termination than might have been expected. When the Amsterdam merchant was in the full enjoyment of domestic bliss and social prosperity, the archangel Gabriel took pity on him, counting him the most miserable man on earth. "Who will go," he asked, "and deliver this wretched mortal?" A young angel volunteered, and, descending to earth, made his way through the streets of Amsterdam to the merchant's house. For the first time since his marriage its owner was alone, his wife and children being in the country. With his usual hospitality he welcomed the visitor, and entered into conversation with him. The angel soon pierced the outer husk of the merchant's happiness, and compelled him to realize the woe to which he was hastening. The night was passed in anguish, and as soon as it was light the merchant sought a priest to whom he might confess his sin, and learn if it was past forgiveness. The angel followed him to the church, and took the place of the confessor. "My son," he asked, "has the tempter kept his part of the bargain?" The merchant admitted that he had. "Then," said the angel, "I know of no way of escape unless you are willing to give up all you have received through his means." The sacrifice was made, and the angel priest pronounced the absolution.
The merchant returned to his home, to learn that his wife and children were smitten by the plague. He hastened to the spot, though well aware his presence would be of no avail. All his family were swept away but an only boy. Over this child he pondered and wept, but in a year he too had fled to paradise. Business, always so prosperous, began to decay from the moment the angel left him. All the elements, all the chances, seemed to combine to bring about its ruin. Quickly his friends forsook him, and a childless, bankrupt man, he left his comfortable home for a cloister. But his soul was at liberty, and had he possessed that power of renewing his earthly life which a society has, he might on earth have emulated his angel-friend.
Is it too much to expect that in that city, so long devoted to the worship of Mammon, and which has been so heavily punished, some heaven-sent messenger may yet come to awake its slumbering conscience, calling on Amsterdam to fulfil the highest aims of her ancient people, and to be the leader in a new Christian society which shall make the principles of the Sermon on the Mount its guide, rather than those of the market and the exchange?