The Netherlands never let their small size get in the way of progress. Dutch persistence and ingenuity led to a distinct culture that is more than just wooden shoes, tulips, windmills, and the color orange. When they needed more land, the Netherlands pushed back the tides of the North Sea and reclaimed the ocean floor. Their formidable ships would reach far beyond Dutch shores as they built an empire based entirely around trade.
By the 1st Century, Germanic tribes had migrated to the lands beyond the Rhine. Those who settled in the region that would become the Netherlands weren’t entirely impressed, for the wetlands were difficult to farm (and tended to be a bit smelly). Yet the many rivers and lakes made the land quite defensible. The Romans thought so as well, founding two military posts (Nijmegen and Utrecht) at the edge of their frontier.
For a time, the tribes remained content with this border. Those near what would become Amsterdam often traded with the Romans. The Batavi fought alongside the Romans, but eventually rebelled during Emperor Nero’s final years. Although the rebellion was ultimately defeated, the act of defiance was the first of many.
Following the decline of the Roman Empire, a variety of would-be conquerors (the Franks, the Frisians, and the Vikings, to name a few) would invade the Low Countries. The Franks ultimately decided to stay and spruce up the place with both Christianity and a palace in Nijmegen. This lasted until 814, when (following the death of Charlemagne) the Frankish Empire divided their territory into a collection of smaller states. Left to their own devices, the Netherlands would establish trade routes that reached as far away as Asia. Bad soil composition and rising sea levels led the Dutch to begin the long process of draining of the wetlands.
By 1433 the Dukes of Burgundy laid claim to the Netherlands, increasing the flow of trade (at that point necessary and vital to an increasing populace), but the taxes imposed by the Burgundians went over poorly. The native Dutch were especially unhappy in the mid-1500s when Phillip II of the Spanish Empire inherited the Netherlands. Following his succession, the Dutch would find themselves thrust into 80 bloody, brutal years of war. The Dutch noble William of Orange led the rebellion against Spain until his assassination in 1584. However, the fight for independence would not die with him—the Dutch would resist until 1648, when they signed the Treaty of Munster, establishing the Netherlands as an independent nation.
Free from one European power, and hoping to avoid becoming beholden to another, the Dutch relentlessly expanded their trade empire. The Dutch East India Company’s reach extended to the eastern coast of the Americas and the far-flung island of Japan (with whom they established exclusive trading rights). Amsterdam became major hub for trade and shipbuilding and a city of opportunity in uncertain times.
Swollen coffers allowed the Dutch to invest in arts and sciences. The master artist Rembrandt created incredible paintings during this age. Christiaan Huygens, a mathematician and scientist, discovered Saturn’s moon Titan and founded wave theory. Joan Blaeu, a Dutch cartographer, authored the largest and most complete atlas of the 17th Century. (His ‘Atlas Maior’ contained 594 different maps written in Latin, French, German, Spanish, and of course, Dutch.)
The rise in Dutch fortune—and especially their increasingly imposing fleet—unsettled more than a few European neighbors. England in particular attempted to impose trade regulations preventing the Dutch from acting as “middle men” in any trade involving the English. That, and the English insistence of “unification” (which meant the effective dissolution of the Netherlands after their hard-won independence), led to multiple Anglo-Dutch wars through the late 17th Century. Ultimately, the English succeeded at blunting the exponential growth of Dutch wealth, influence and naval power, but when the dust settled, the Netherlands remained independent.
Unfortunately for the Dutch, Napoleon Bonaparte and his French Empire had little appreciation for independent nations bordering his own. At the end of the 18th Century, Napoleon seized the Low Countries and appointed his brother Louis King of the Netherlands. King Louis garnered a surprising amount of respect from his Dutch subjects, but a frustrated Napoleon removed him a short four years later in what was ultimately a sibling dispute. The Dutch continued to serve the French Empire, fighting in their wars and following French policies, until a (surprisingly) bloodless restoration of their independence in 1813. The newly minted “Kingdom of the Netherlands” included Belgium and Luxemburg—briefly. Belgium revolted and gained independence in 1830. Luxemburg departed near the end of 19th Century due to a quirk of inheritance laws (the details of which are even less interesting than they sound).
The Netherlands established and maintained a stance of neutrality, formally focusing on their security, economic growth, and internal politics. Though this brought them through the Great War relatively unscathed, the Netherlands would not find itself on the sidelines of World War II. The royal family and Dutch government fled to London to escape German invasion. Dutch Queen Wilhelmina actively defied German control of her country, bolstering the morale of her people remaining in the Low Countries (as well as a very active Dutch resistance). The Netherlands endured four long years of occupation, eventually aiding the Allied liberation of their country. After, the Dutch began the arduous process of rebuilding.
Today the Netherlands is an anchor of Postwar Europe. Not only is it a home of international legal tribunals and an important commercial hub, the nation is famous for granting considerable individual liberties to its citizens, reflecting its long history of social tolerance. In addition to providing a net export of food, the Netherlands are on the cutting edge of land reclamation and development, with some of the most impressive engineering projects of this age underway. As the poles melt and ocean levels rise, the Netherlands faces an uncertain future with determination, ingenuity, and wry humor. After all, who better to hold back the sea than the people who have been doing so for millennia?