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European History/The Dutch Republic after the golden era


Hi Marc.

Bit of a long story.

I was born inside the British Empire, and have lived most of my life inside the UK.

When I was young I was struck by, (and completely puzzled by) Dean Acheson's claim that Great Britain had lost an Empire and had not yet found a role.

What I feel now is that Britain is facing two crises: the later stages of the loss of empire Acheson was talking about, and the technological revolution currently affecting the whole world. I came across an essay by Ephraim Lipson, author of The Economic History of England, on the early years of machinery in Britain in the 18th Century, particularly in the wool trade. His descriptions of (for example) twelve-year-old children working 14-hour night shifts had echoes in current news reports of homeless people holding down full-time jobs in London today. One poignant example I read recently was a man who sleeps in a park, but keeps a gym membership so he can shave and shower every morning to look smart for work.

Lipson talks about 18th Century British capitalists becoming hugely wealthy, today our media run stories of the rich eating gold leaf in the form of dessert decorations and edible hamburger wrapping.

So I decided to look at other examples of nations that have lost empires and/or found themselves faced with overwhelming technological change. In particular it struck me that the Netherlands had gone through a similar process: they used windmills to power machinery and built a world-wide empire, but their industries were outclassed by British water-powered and steam-powered machines, while Britain took over the Dutch colony at the southern tip of Africa, and went on to 'rule the waves'.

So here's my question, my problem. I'd like to find out what happened in the Netherlands when things started to go wrong. When they were at the stage we're facing now. I'm not a student, so this is for practical reasons rather than academic ones. I'd like to make sense of what's happening around me, and get a 'heads up' on what might happen next. I've looked into Tulipomania a little, but everything else I've found seems too general for my interests. Can you recommend anying I could read about the Netherlands in decline? And are there other national stories you think might be relevant? France after Napoleon, for instance, or Spain and Portugal when they lost control of their empires.

Hi Martin,

I'll be glad to try to help with your question, which as you know relates to some complex issues.

I think it's fair to say that there is a consensus among historians that the UK is almost a unique example of a country that successfully transitioned from empire to a compact state. Acheson's comment may have been justified when he said it, but it seems less so now. Without presuming to educate you on British history, I would note that the UK managed to relatively peacefully shed a vast empire, physically and economically rebuild a country damaged by warfare, and to forge a prosperous, democratic welfare state - all within about 20 years. This achievement compares favorably to other countries that have lost empires, such as Spain (which became impoverished and weak), France (which endured multiple revolutions), Russia (which experienced chaos for a decade after the dissolution of the USSR and which is now under essentially autocratic rule - though they're happy about it), and Rome (which became weak through over-extension). So, while I appreciate that the UK may have residual challenges from the loss of empire, I would suggest that it's doing fairly well relative to other examples.

You're right, of course, that the world is struggling with technological change. However, it's difficult to judge whether this era is experiencing more profound change than epochs in the past. Difficult to judge because we're living through it and don't have the benefit of historical perspective. Personally, for what it's worth, I don't agree that any of today's innovations are comparable in impact to the introduction of steam power in the 18th century, or railroads in the 19th, or automobiles, powered flight, and the internet, in the 20th. Of course the true impact of the internet is yet unknown.

Regarding the Dutch Empire, I acknowledge your premise that technological change played a role in its decline. I enthusiastically agree with your implication that the specific technological change regarded British naval advancements. That is, I believe (and this is not an unorthodox view) that the Dutch Empire declined as a direct result of the strengthening of the Royal Navy. The tipping point may have been when the British ousted the Dutch from New Netherland in North America, renaming it New York, in 1664. Equally significantly, a Dutch monarch became king of England in 1688. My main point is that the Anglo-Dutch Wars ended with England winning because of naval superiority. Yet, ironically, England would shortly afterward be ruled by a Dutchman. In any case, thereafter, although The Netherlands retained some colonies, they lost several important ones during the wars with England. Without them, and without further expansion, the Dutch Empire stagnated and then dissipated. In my view, this was not a result of technological change (apart from the aforesaid naval aspect) but because of economic and political issues. The technological changes that affected The Netherlands were also part of life throughout western Europe and North America. I don't feel that the Dutch were more adversely affected by technological change compared to other places.

For books, I recommend THE DUTCH SEABORNE EMPIRE by C.R. Boxer, which is a brief, older account but which remains helpful. The most authoritative account (and surely the longest) is Jonathan Israel's THE DUTCH REPUBLIC. I have not read it but the author is a noted expert in his field, the book has been well-reviewed by his peers, and the book is part of Oxford History of Early Modern Europe, which I trust, and other volumes of which I've read with profit.

I'm hesitant to compare the Dutch loss of empire with that of any other country - and I would say the same about other nations. However, I do think that the closest analogies are (as you mentioned) the Spanish and Portuguese experience, and that of Carthage. Each of these built an empire that was dependent on naval power. Each of these empires ended when their naval power was eclipsed by another. (It's possible to quibble with Carthage being an "empire," but for our purposes it's appropriate). So, I would commend any of these to your study.

I hope that this is helpful, Martin!  

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Marc Aperio


I'm comfortable with each period of European history. I will be glad to respond to any question, and promise a clear, accurate, and simple reply. My personal interests include Medieval Europe, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and Nazi Germany.


I've studied history for nealy 20 years. I'm currently volunteering in the US and European history categories.

My newest book WE NEED TO TALK: 27 DIALOGUES ON RACE IN AMERICA is available in the Amazon Kindle store. Also the author of AMERICAN REVOLUTION 2016: RATIONALE AND AIMS FOR RADICAL CHANGE

BA History (High Honors)

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