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The Dutch Financial Golden Age

The Dutch Financial Golden Age

By Sam Lucas

The rise of the Dutch Republic to a position of scientific, economic, military and cultural pre-eminence during the 17th Century Golden Age is one of the most fascinating events in early modern European history.  During the ‘Gouden Eeuw’, as it is known in the native Dutch language, the provinces of the Northern Netherlands rose from relative obscurity as the poor cousins of the industrious and heavily urbanised southern regions to become the world leader in commercial success.  Colonies and trading posts were established across the globe, ranging from Manhattan in North America to the Cape Colony in South Africa and the Dutch East Indies in Southeast Asia.  By the 1650s the Dutch owned 16,000 merchant ships and the country’s population had increased to two million.   
The glimmering heart of the Dutch Golden Age was Amsterdam, the capital city of the Netherlands and at the time the wealthiest trading city in the world.  It was the centre of a worldwide network of trade; ships set sail from Amsterdam bound for the Baltic Sea, Africa, India, Sri Lanka and Brazil.  The city rapidly became the world’s financial centre, housing the first ever full-time stock exchange and the world’s first central bank. 
The Stock Exchange
Amsterdam’s centrality to world trade and financial activity necessitated the creation of the world’s first stock exchange, set up by the Dutch East India Company in 1602.  The company – often referred to as the VOC after the initials of its Dutch name (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie)– held a monopoly over Dutch trade with Asia for two centuries and was the first ever multinational corporation.  During the Golden Age it became the world’s largest commercial enterprise.  The original Amsterdam Stock Exchange building was built at the Ronkin by Hendrik de Keyzer, and a new exchange building was created at the Beurs van Berlage on the Damrak at the turn of the 19th Century.  The modern day exchange is housed at Bursplein 5.   
The Bank of Amsterdam
While central banking is now a mainstay of world politics and economics, in the early 17th Century Amsterdam was a trailblazer in this financial arena, establishing the world’s first central bank in 1609.  The bank was created to resolve the practical problems created for merchants by the presence of numerous different mints and various foreign coins in the region.  By allowing merchants to set up accounts denominated in a standardised currency, the Exchange Bank pioneered the system of cheques, direct debits and transfers that we take for granted today.  The bank grew increasingly successful throughout the sixteen and seventeen hundreds, becoming an object of admiration for the civilised economic world at the time.  When public confidence eventually fell in 1790, the bank was forced to declare itself insolvent and was eventually closed in 1819.
The East India House
Located in the heart of the city, the Oost-Indisch Huis was once the centre of the economic world.  It was here that the Amsterdam chamber of the Dutch East India Company met to plan and discuss their grip on world trade; and it was here that ships crews were recruited before they set sail across the globe.  In addition to this the collection of maps that were so vital to the company’s success was also stored here.  The building is characterised by an inner courtyard with elegant facades designed in the Amsterdam Renaissance style, and the grand meeting room was recently reconstructed back to its former glory.  Now a part of the University of Amsterdam, the building has been declared a national monument and is one of the few remaining East India Houses in the country.  Also in the centre of the city, the exterior of the West India House can still be seen.  It was at this location in 1625 that the Company’s governors ordered the construction of a fort on the island of Manhattan, laying the foundations for New York City. 
Waterways of Wealth
Amsterdam is criss-crossed by over 100km of canals that flow under 1,500 bridges.  The city’s three main canals – Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht – were dug during the Golden Age and now form part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Brouwersgracht, running through the city centre, served as a site for ships returning from Asia with spices and silks and is lined with warehouses and storage depots that have now been transformed into luxury apartments.  It was also during the Golden Age that Amsterdam’s characteristic cityscape developed.  A large number of extravagant canal houses were built to reflect the new wealth that was pouring into the city.  Among them the Bartolotti House is possibly the most emblematic, with its lavishly decorated façade and Baroque Renaissance gable.                                      
Relax in the Financial District
Having strolled through Amsterdam’s fascinating financial past, it may now be time to rest your feet and enjoy a sumptuous meal and refreshing drink.  The financial heart of Amsterdam is the Damrak, the city’s equivalent of New York’s Wall Street.  Here you can find stylish bars and numerous Argentine steak houses, all offering top class service and traditional South American flavours.  Many of Amsterdam’s modern day bankers also head to two of the city’s thriving social centres: Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein.  Both squares are popular with those seeking relaxation and enjoy themselves in the many small bars, cafes and nightclubs that line the streets, whilst Leidseplein is home to the neo-renaissance Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam’s most famous and admired theatre.                                                               

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