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Rouen Chronicles: Amsterdam – 1965

March 5, 2014
Amsterdam - Summer, 1965

Amsterdam – Summer, 1965

Amsterdam…

A half century ago. June 1965. Well almost. Frank K. Kappler II and I drove into town in an Austin Mini and stayed for several days. We were roommates in Rouen, France for St. Lawrence University’s first Junior Year Abroad program (1964-1965). Rouen is that Norman commercial city where Joan of Arc was fried to a crisp by her British captors on May 30, 1431 and near where Flaubert’s Madame Bovary found life so boring 400 years later that she opted out for a series of empty affairs.  At the end of the academic year, starting in mid-June, 1965, we took a memorable car trip through parts of Europe, that included a stop in Amsterdam.

I don’t remember where we stayed in Amsterdam and only vaguely recollect what we did: some museums, the Anne Frank house, a little trip to Gouda to see the cheese production there, the Heineken beer factory where they gave out samples, wandering through town, including in the red light district and along the canals. Not much remained really. The canals, the bicycles everywhere come to mind, not much else really. I took some pictures that fifty years later I sometimes look at for fun.

Typical shallow tourist stuff I suppose, enough to stir my curiosity about the place years later. Still, even then, without understanding much, the idea began to percolate that here was a great city with what must have been a fascinating history, which had made a major mark on world history, a place perhaps I’d read about later in more depth some day.

Over the years, my curiosity about Amsterdam would re-emerge, again and again, an interest to learn more about the city – mostly about its past – the 16th and 17th centuries when the Netherlands – then known as the United Provinces – were in their heyday and when the Dutch merchant marine and navy ruled the high seas and Dutch finance, commerce and industry ruled the world. My father, Herb Prince, had something to do with it – he always spoke highly of two peoples – the Italians and the Dutch – and I recall wondering why these particular two peoples? I would guess that he was impressed with their business acumen, as well as their cultural achievements.

Then later, much later, reading Braudel and Wallerstein, Amsterdam – and with it the whole Netherlands – came alive.  I’d been curious about the place, its history, the complex global economic reach it was able to manage – ruthless in its colonies, but generally tolerant at home. Here was the heart and brains of the modern world capitalist economy with all of its modern aspects, shaped and formed to a great extent by the Dutch. About a decade ago, I took the intellectual dive. Since, I’ve studied Dutch history, taught it in classes of Global Political Economy over the years and these days try to get my hands on anything – in English or French – that sheds light on that world and those times, be it fiction or history. The history of the Dutch East Indies Company in particular – one of the most profitable state monopolies of all time, caught my interest both for its efficiency and unparalleled ruthlessness, a worthy model of modern multi-national corporations in many ways.

While there is enough stuff written about Dutch history and the Dutch East Indies Company in particular to get a pretty clear picture of both, still, most the best stuff – and really there is very good material – remains in Dutch and untranslated. I’ve pretty much scoured the English language sources and expect that I’ll continue to do so. In the past months I have read the Dutch colonial classic Max Havelaar by Multatuli (the pen name for Edward Dekker) and now Amsterdam by Russell Shorto, a kind of survey history of key moments in Dutch history. Although Max Havelaar is considered a classic study – if not the classic study – of the corrupt nature of Dutch colonialism in late 19th century, Indonesia – I was somewhat disappointed with the book, perhaps unfairly so. For its time it did shake things up, burst the bubble of the white man’s burden vision of European colonialism, but compared, to let’s say, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or some of the literature of late written by slaves in the American South prior to the Civil War, I found the book somewhat lacking. It wanders hither and yon and while it does expose the corrupt nature of the Dutch colonial venture, frankly it hardly touches the lives of the varied Indonesia people and what they suffered for centuries as their world was integrated into the modern world system at the periphery, the bottom.

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, a much more engaging read, despite its limitations. Shorto has an axe to grind, although he might not say it in the same way I would: he uses the example of the history of Amsterdam to justify neo-liberal capitalism. He emphasizes, minus a few recent moments in Dutch history like the Nazi occupation, the city’s history of tolerance, political and cultural openness.This is true enough.

If one looks at Amsterdam, particularly in light of the values of the late 16th and mid 17th centuries, Amsterdam shines through as a beacon of liberal political, economic and cultural liberalism whose values would spread both the Great Britain in the late 17th century and to the American revolutionaries of late 18th. But then cities that for a fleeting moment find themselves essentially in the center of the world capitalist economy – either Amsterdam, London, New York – have many of the same characteristics.

The impact that the likes of Grotius, Spinoza had on John Locke, Thomas Jefferson was, as Shorto notes, profound. But then for all its social pioneering, Amsterdam’s democracy remained very much in the confines of the bourgeoisie. Democracy was meant for property owners, businessmen and financiers with little or no role for the middle professional, working classes and the poor. This might help explain why, at least in part, that the Dutch masses were willing to turn upon their civil leaders with a fury and vengeance of some force – as was the fate of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, the genius behind the formation of the Dutch East Indies Company, beheaded in 1619 or the murders (and dismemberment) of the DeWitt brothers, among the United Provinces’ most astute politicians some half a century later. Undoubtedly, the DeWitts were anti-monarchist republicans, but their vision of democracy did not include the participation of the Dutch masses.

Both Dutch history itself and the sketches of some of the key people involved are clearly told. As is true of many small nations having to constantly look over their shoulders to see what larger regional powers are up to, Dutch history is very complicated and in the end is a lot more than simply Dutch history, but a part of regional history that involves Belgium, Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain interacting in a tangle of never-ending alliances, collapses of those alliances, antagonisms, etc. British-Dutch relations are a classic example: periods of mutual respect peppered by a series of 17th century wars. Shorto probes that period as well as anyone.

His descriptions of Spinoza and John Locke, if not exactly the stuff of academics, is a worthy introduction to the thinking of both and the probable impact that living in Amsterdam at the height of its wealth and glory had on them. If there is a criticism of his description of the 17th century Dutch, it is his failure to elaborate on the crimes, the utter ruthlessness of Dutch colonialism and the degree to which the wealth of the city he so admires was based in large measure on its exploitation of the Third World, the periphery of the world economy, which Amsterdam was one of the main architects. As I read about the achievements of 17th century Amsterdam my mind seemed to continually wander to late 19th and early 20th century Brussels, King Leopold and the rape of the Congo.

Same goes Shorto’s treatment of the period of the Nazi occupation.  Not exactly the Netherland’s finest moment, despite the fact that the Dutch are now making films about young resistance fighters who stood up against Nazi oppression (the few that did) and were imprisoned, tortured and killed for their efforts. One would think that there isn’t much left to say about Anne Frank’s life, but Shorto finds one of her neighbors, Frieda Menco, well-known Dutch human rights activist, from Amsterdam’s Jewish Community. Menco was a playmate of Anne Frank’s; they were together in Auschwitz where Frank perished and Menco somehow survived.

Finally there was one passage that struck me as curious. Towards the end of the book there are a few pages about the impact the `Provo’ movement, an anarchist-like youth (mostly) movement to protest some of the emptiness in prosperous post-World War Two Dutch life through a series of `provocative’ but most symbolic acts. In many ways the `Provo’ movement preceded the emergence of the hippies in the USA and like movements worldwide. Among Provo activities – scrawling the letter `K’ (for cancer in Dutch) on cigarette ads of the day or supporting the `White Chicken Plan’ which consisted of a call that the Amsterdam police be provided with condoms, Band-Aids and fried chicken drumsticks to distribute on their rounds in order to make the police – called `kip’ or chickens in Dutch slang – `true servants of the people.’

In the summer of 1965 – when Kappler and I were passing through Amsterdam – it was in full swing. I don’t recall us having any sense of that at all. Once again, Americans finding themselves in the midst of historic events the existence of which they are oblivious. 

__________

Links:

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 1

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 2: Ahmed Ben Bella

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 3: Robert Merle in October 1964

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 4: “Fortunes de France” Translated Into English

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 5: City of Wisdom and Blood

Rouen Chronicles: Arques La Bataille/Dieppe

Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe: The Botched Raid – Part One

Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe: The Botched Raid – Part Two

Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe: The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos

Rouen Chronicles: Ferid Boughedir

Rouen Chronicles – Rouen’s Jewish Heritage

Rouen Chronicles – The Literary Work of Robert Merle – In Two Sessions – Notes. 

 

 

 

18 Comments leave one →
  1. kerim ( known sometimes as kerym ) permalink
    March 11, 2014 2:02 am

    I enjoyed reading this article, Rob !!!
    Just by chance, I happen to know a great deal of contemporary dutch Society, as well as highlights of its History , the ruthlessness that one finds when reading Multatuli’s Max Havelaar, and the success of the VOC Enterprise ( East-indies Company) .
    But I couldn’t actually figure out what kind of information you were looking for exactly, which I might provide . One thing is sure : Shareholding, as we know it today, is definitely a dutch invention that came with the VOC Enterprise, back then . It was more like a pyramid-system where profits are paid out , from the deposits of the new comers, relying on one single garanty that there will always be new comers .

    • March 13, 2014 6:59 am

      Kerym…good to hear from you…would be interested in a couple of things – a solid general history of the VOC, readable (something I could assign to students), plus now I am reading about the indigenous Dutch led military formed in the early 1800s when Dutch East Indies becomes a formal colony of the Netherlands. Natives recruited from one or another ethnic group to be used to crush uprisings in other ethnic groups – French and Belgians did likewise in Africa…but I have a feeling that much of this is based on a Dutch model and want to explore it more. Am less interested in the contemporary Dutch scene (but if there is something you think of as especially worth reading…I’d give it a try.

      • kerim permalink
        March 13, 2014 11:17 pm

        Rob, I’m going to do my best on the general history you’ve requested .
        Just give me a day or 2 to come up with a short treatment .

        P.s . I guess you’re reading about the Moluccans and the Ambonese on how they collaborated . Yes….History keeps on repeating itself, all the time !!!

      • kerim permalink
        March 14, 2014 9:57 am

        Founded in1602, the VOC made an enormous contribution to commerce and trade, worldwide .
        It all strarted in the 1590s, when a number of dutch fleets set sail to Asia . On board, they had Gold and Silver which will allow them to buy products such as spices, indian textiles, chinese tea and porcelain, japanese lacquer, as well as Java coffee and sugar .
        The mutual competition was so tremendous, that the Dutch Authority had to grant the VOC the monopoly of becoming the one & only company allowed to do business in Asia . It was the only way, in order to keep prices as low as possible .
        The VOC was also given the right to wage war, to recrute soldiers, to build fortresses, and to found factories .
        Three fleets departed each year to the East, namely a Fair fleet, a Christmas fleet, and an Easter fleet . Due to threats like storms, diseases, wars or possible hijacking, the policy was to strictly sail in convoy .
        Soon there was a fast increase of knowledge in Cartography, Geography, Faunae & Flora . The VOC meant business for real, as it turned out to be .
        All that gold & silver carried onboard, seemed to have come from the newly discovered America .
        On their way to India, the VOC ships made stopovers in different ports, to buy goods that they would sell in the next port , and that’s how profits rapidly became so lucrative ( before they even started !!! ) .

        For the 1st time in History, shareholders gathered a capital consisting in a large sum of money, and whereby profits can only be collected once every 10 years . That was the agreement made by all parties . In fact, the Amsterdam-shareholders alone, were able to gather an amount as high as 3,679,915,00 guilders, which was 50% of the acquired amount. The other 50% came from other dutch cities like Rotterdam, Middelburg, Delft, Hoorn etc…, and 10 years after, the dividend growth reached 20% on a yearly basis !!!
        In contrast, salaries & wages were moderate . For instance, a skipper who’d lose his ship or cargo ( or both ) would be entirely on his own, and a bailout would be out of the question .
        High profits were usually obtained through violence and exploitation . The VOC was initially a trading company that left the cultuvation of crops over to the indigenous population, but intimidation and the use of violence weren’t ruled out : Jan Pieterszoon Coen became famous for rooting out the local population of the Banda islands ( Indonesia ), when he found out they were selling nutmeg to someone else, other than the VOC . As a result, the Banda-Island “agriculture” was completely wiped out, which led the VOC to impose the so called “plantation economy” whereby slaves were called in to work in the fields .
        With all that power in hands, the VOC-men destroyed different places in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), then went on to Jakarta, gave the same treatment to the population there, and changed the name “Jakarta” into Batavia .
        As time went by, 17th century winds of change overwhelmed the Netherlands and prosperity spread throughout its provinces, and asian artefacts & goods became ever since part of daily life .
        The 17th Century is still referred to as “the Golden Century”

        Nowadays, if one wanders around the Oostenburg industrial area, one wouldd notice the remains of the VOC shipyard . Sophisticated as it was, one can only assume that the dutch were ahead of their time, long before the industrial revolution came to be . Alongside the shipyard, stood the majestic VOC building with its 215 meters in length, and 7 stories high (3 times higher than the Royal Palace on Damsquare) .
        Just like the yard, the ships too had impressive dimentions : A ship measured around 45 meters in length, 16 meters high ( with keel ), and 12 meters wide, equipped with the most advanced navigation instruments that were specially designed by the best scientists and astronomers . Also medical care and food supply stood at a very high level .

        Last but not least, the VOC was a kind of aggregation made of several small businesses, each with its own speciality . For example, there was a hydrographic department, charged with the making of maps, as well as a pharmacy and a health department, a machination or intrigue etc… There were some 600 suppliers for spareparts and accessories, and from the year 1660 on, an average of 3 to 4 ships came out of the production line, every single year .

  2. Jim permalink
    March 12, 2014 8:43 pm

    You note the ” Provo” movement
    in 1965, and anarchist proclivities
    in Amsterdam.
    Does the cyber age , digital
    I- net rise of technology spur
    tinges of anarchy to existing
    order in some places ?
    Some notion of Arab Springs.
    There seems to be a brewing
    blow back to common
    core in public education
    in places in the U S.
    Was’t the 3 R’s traditional
    before the 1990’s,
    students strived to learn
    Reading, writing, and arithmic.

    Now , endless arugments on
    dogma surround grade school
    education, often at the expense
    of students.
    This is happening as the
    U S ranks 36th in comparative
    International rankings.
    Asian countries are among the
    top in primary education.
    The more money and dogma thrown
    at primary public school education
    in the U S , the rankings keep getting
    worst.
    Of course, there are exclusive private
    schools, that cost over $ 15,000
    per year, where the 1 %
    assure their kids are not
    put in the public schools, some
    battle grounds to make
    kids guinea pigs.

  3. kerim permalink
    March 14, 2014 10:07 am

    Founded in1602, the VOC made an enormous contribution to commerce and trade, worldwide .
    It all strarted in the 1590s, when a number of dutch fleets set sail to Asia . On board, they had Gold and Silver which will allow them to buy products such as spices, indian textiles, chinese tea and porcelain, japanese lacquer, as well as Java coffee and sugar .
    The mutual competition was so tremendous, that the Dutch Authority had to grant the VOC the monopoly of becoming the one & only company allowed to do business in Asia . It was the only way, in order to keep prices as low as possible .
    The VOC was also given the right to wage war, to recrute soldiers, to build fortresses, and to found factories .
    Three fleets departed each year to the East, namely a Fair fleet, a Christmas fleet, and an Easter fleet . Due to threats like storms, diseases, wars or possible hijacking, the policy was to strictly sail in convoy .
    Soon there was a fast increase of knowledge in Cartography, Geography, Faunae & Flora . The VOC meant business for real, as it turned out to be .
    All that gold & silver carried onboard, seemed to have come from the newly discovered America .
    On their way to India, the VOC ships made stopovers in different ports, to buy goods that they would sell in the next port , and that’s how profits rapidly became so lucrative ( before they even started !!! ) .

    For the 1st time in History, shareholders gathered a capital consisting in a large sum of money, and whereby profits can only be collected once every 10 years . That was the agreement made by all parties . In fact, the Amsterdam-shareholders alone, were able to gather an amount as high as 3,679,915,00 guilders, which was 50% of the acquired amount. The other 50% came from other dutch cities like Rotterdam, Middelburg, Delft, Hoorn etc…, and 10 years after, the dividend growth reached 20% on a yearly basis !!!
    In contrast, salaries & wages were moderate . For instance, a skipper who’d lose his ship or cargo ( or both ) would be entirely on his own, and a bailout would be out of the question .
    High profits were usually obtained through violence and exploitation . The VOC was initially a trading company that left the cultivation of crops over to the indigenous population, but intimidation and the use of violence weren’t ruled out : Jan Pieterszoon Coen became famous for rooting out the local population of the Banda islands ( Indonesia ), when he found out they were selling nutmeg to someone else, other than the VOC . As a result, the Banda-Island “agriculture” was completely wiped out, which led the VOC to impose the so called “plantation economy” whereby slaves were called in to work in the fields .
    With all that power in hands, the VOC-men destroyed different places in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), then went on to Jakarta, gave the same treatment to the population there, and changed the name “Jakarta” into Batavia .
    As time went by, 17th century winds of change overwhelmed the Netherlands and prosperity spread throughout its provinces, and asian artefacts & goods became ever since part of daily life .
    The 17th Century is still referred to as “the Golden Century”

    Nowadays, if one wanders around the Oostenburg industrial area, one wouldd notice the remains of the VOC shipyard . Sophisticated as it was, one can only assume that the dutch were ahead of their time, long before the industrial revolution came to be . Alongside the shipyard, stood the majestic VOC building with its 215 meters in length, and 7 stories high (3 times higher than the Royal Palace on Damsquare) .
    Just like the yard, the ships too had impressive dimentions : A ship measured around 45 meters in length, 16 meters high ( with keel ), and 12 meters wide, equipped with the most advanced navigation instruments that were specially designed by the best scientists and astronomers . Also medical care and food supply stood at a very high level .

    Last but not least, the VOC was a kind of aggregation made of several small businesses, each with its own speciality . For example, there was a hydrgraphic department, charged with the making of maps, as well as a pharmacy and a health department, a machination or intrigue etc… There were some 600 suppliers for spareparts and accessories, and from the year 1660 on, an average of 3 to 4 ships came out of the production line, every single year .

Trackbacks

  1. Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 2 – on Algerian Political Figure Ahmed Ben Bella. | Rob Prince's Blog
  2. The Rouen Chronicles: The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos | Rob Prince's Blog
  3. The Rouen Chronicles: Arques La Bataille, Dieppe | Rob Prince's Blog
  4. The Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle – 1 | Rob Prince's Blog
  5. The Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe-2-the-botched-dieppe-raid-of-august-17-1942-in-two-parts-part-two/ | Rob Prince's Blog
  6. The Rouen Chronicles: The Dieppe – 2 The Botched Dieppe Raid of August 17, 1942 (in two parts) – Part One | Rob Prince's Blog
  7. The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle 4 – “Fortunes de France” Translated Into English |
  8. The Rouen Chronicles – Ferid Boughedir |
  9. Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 5: City of Wisdom and Blood |
  10. Rouen Chronicles: The Literary Work of Robert Merle – In Two Sessions – Notes |
  11. The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle 3 – Robert Merle in October, 1964 – |
  12. The Rouen Chronicles: Arques La Bataille, Dieppe |

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