Anywhere else in the world and these stark contradictions would be hard to comprehend, but in Amsterdam things somehow seem to make more sense. It is a city that was founded more than 800 years ago on commerce, thus bringing numerous sailors who had time to spare between voyages. They sought thrills from the sex trade and when they woke up the next morning realising their sins churches offered a chance for their souls to be cleansed. Priests made a fortune selling these indulgences.
Oude Kerk is Amsterdam’s oldest surviving building (dating to 1306) and features an impressive organ, as well as tombstones for famous Amsterdammers, including Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh. Over the years that following years, many more churches would be built not least during in the 17th century when Amsterdam was quite simply the wealthiest capital in the world and the leading centre for diamonds and finance. Westerkerk, for example, was built for rich Protestants to a design by Hendrick de Keyser.
The Dutch Golden Age began when trading rival Antwerp was re-taken by Spain in the late 16th century, prompting merchants and artisans to move to Amsterdam, and lasted until Louis XIV of France invaded the Low Countries. During this brief period, Rembrandt painted, the city’s canals were built and it became the biggest maritime power the world over.
I began my historical exploration of Amsterdam in Dam square, the very spot where the city was founded in 1270. Major demonstrations are held here and, like London’s Trafalgar square is the spot where tourists gather surrounded by pigeons and cafes. One side is dominated by the Royal Palace, which originally completed in 1665 as a town hall. Built during the Dutch Golden Age the architect Jacob van Campen spared no expense on the elaborate design.
Amsterdam was soon surrounded by a vast city wall, of which little trace survives – most of the structure was pulled down as the city needed to be expanded and the threat of attack subsided. But if you head over to Nieuwmarkt on the east side of the city there is a fascinating building, now used as a cafe, called De Waag, which means weighing house. It was built in 1488 and was originally a gate in the city walls.
The Protestant reformation also had a big impact on Amsterdam and for more than 200 years it was illegal for anyone to be a Catholic. The Oude Kerk, like other religious establishments in the city, was converted to the new branch of the Christian faith, but ‘hidden’ churches sprung up for those who wanted to remain following the old order.
Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder looks today like any other canal-side house, but it was here in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age that 200 Catholic worshippers would turn out every Sunday in defiance of the Calvinists. Reading the English translation – ‘Our Dear Lord in the Attic’ – explains where the services were held. It is today a museum, where you can experience a powerful organ and fine (recently-restored) interiors.
In the late 16th century Amsterdam was boosted by the growth of the Jewish community – many of whom arrived here having fled religious persecution in Belgium. They brought valuable business skills, not least in the diamond trade, and they knew of trade routes to the West and East Indies, which would become invaluable.
Amsterdam’s tightly defined walled city was bursting at the seams and so the swamp surrounding it was drained allowing more homes to be built. This entailed digging out the network of canals that enchant locals and visitors alike today, and since 2010 have been a Unesco World Heritage Site. They truly are the life and soul of the city, whether you rattling along the towpaths of a bike, gliding over the water on a boat or merely relaxing on the terraces of a cafe.
And in building the rings of canals, vast plots of land for constructing water-side properties were created. Owners were taxed according to the width of their homes, so those that wanted to impress had wide frontages and those that needed to be more cost conscious were more conservative. Herengracht is where Amsterdam’s wealthiest people moved once the waterways were completed, while at the other end of the scale Prinsengracht was where smaller properties could be found, as well as warehouses. The Brouwersgracht was called the brewer’s canal on account of the breweries that originally lined its banks.
To make the best use of space in properties, the staircases inside were built to be very narrow. They were (and remain) challenging enough for people to themselves climb, but when carrying building materials or furniture near impossible to ascend. Walking around the city today you therefore see traces of pulleys on the front of properties from where goods could be hauled up using cranes. Some buildings tilt forward to preserve them in case wind blew in the opposite direction and loads smacked into the masonry. Pulleys are no longer allowed to be used for fear of the old buildings collapsing, but there have been sightings of them carrying flat screen televisions and other bulky items in recent years.
That Amsterdam became the richest city in the world in the 17th century was to a large extent down to a means of commerce that had never been seen before in world history. The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602 as the first ever multinational corporation and the first company to issue tradeable stock allowing it to trade a wider pool of investors, rather than individual merchants working on their own to back specific, risky voyages. It was given a 21-year monopoly on the Dutch spice trade (something it wrestled from the Portuguese, using knowledge gained from its Jewish inhabitants who had moved from Portugal), establishing its capital in modern-day Jakarta and then going on to acquire additional ports as trading bases. Stock was traded at the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, which is the oldest in the world (it was merged with the Paris and Brussels stock exchanges in 2000).Some has suggested the Company was the most power corporation ever to exist and had more than 50,000 employees. It boasted quasi-governmental powers, with its own private army, the ability to negotiate treaties and mint coins, as well establish colonies. The Company was the first group to discover Western Australia and founded the Cape settlement in modern day South Africa in 1652.
Visible signs of the Company’s wealth can be seen in its 1606 headquarters at Oost-Indisch Huis (East India House) at a water-side spot on the Kloveniersburgwal canal in central Amsterdam. The structure, which is today used by the University of Amsterdam, features a fascade in Amsterdam Renaissance style, Tuscan-style pilasters and an impressive inner courtyard. Company meetings were held here, ship crews were recruited in the building and the Company’s vast archives were also kept in the structure.
In its latter years, the East India Company became weighed down by corruption. But given the scale of operations, the scale of its failure was masked. Following Napoleon’s invasion of the Netherlands in 1795, an investigation was ordered and it was dissolved in 1800. The Company’s territories became the Dutch East Indies, which in the 20th century would be granted independence as the Republic of Indonesia.
The success of the East India Company did however inspire the creation of the West India Company in 1621, which became instrumental in the Dutch colonisation of the Americas and was the founder of New York. But financial success came as a cost as over the course of 150 years, some half a million slaves were transported from West Africa to work as forced labour in plantations in the Caribbean.
Golden Age for art
Although the Dutch Golden Age is perhaps most associated with trading success, it should not be forgotten that this period was also highly influential for the art produced. Rembrandt van Rijin was perhaps the most famous, running the Netherlands’ largest painting studio between 1639 and 1658 from a three-storey canal house. The place he lived and worked is now a museum where you can see his former studio, as well as a selection of paintings displayed. But just as the Dutch East India Company came to an abrupt end, Rembrandt’s success came crashing down. He was unable to pay his mortgage and was forced out of the house into cheaper digs, as well as also needing to sell his artworks and household items.
The Dutch Golden Age may have disappeared long ago, but in exploring Amsterdam’s canals, art galleries, churches and other wonderful buildings, this period of history today feels very much alive.