Thursday, 17 March 2016

Amsterdam - A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto

The main reason for me reading this book, was to get a historical background to the Dutch 'Golden Age' in the 17th century, for a project I am doing. However, it is such an excellent and interesting read, covering the history of this fantastic city, up to our days, so I highly recommend it for anyone interested in history.

The Dutch are well known for their liberal views, and this book tells it all. Shorto is covering the whole history of the city, and it is as exciting as any adventure book. He knows what he is talking about. He lived in Amsterdam for six years from 2007 to 2013, and is not only an author, but also a historian and journalist, and the book is very well researched.

This is evident in all the details of people living in the city, within all areas of the society. The freedom of speech and the possibilities to pursue your ideas, created a very talented population, in a time where restrictions were put on people by governments and royals. He has found the stories of, not only well known people, but also ordinary people that somehow made their mark on the city. A fascinating story of fighting against the sea to make arable land, hardworking people on all levels, immigrants attracted by the possibilities the city offered, open minded people and a love for the city where they lived.
”The Dutch provinces were for a long time relatively complacent components of the empire. Dutch people had no national identity as such - they related not to a sense of ”being Dutch” but rather to their province, seeing themselves as Hollanders or Zeelanders of Friesians. They were pious and hardworking; they contributed a large percentage of the taxes that kept the empire afloat, and in return they received protection.  
In another sense, however, the situation of the Low Countries ensured that they would develop in a crucially different way from the rest of Europe  - a difference that would lead eventually to violent and world-historic upheaval. One of the defining elements of medieval Europe was the top-down structure of society, called the manorial system, which had a lord who oversaw an estate and peasants who worked the land and paid rent in the form of labor or produce. The lord provided protection and served as the court of law for his peasants, so that the manor was a complete economic and political unit. And the lord, in turn, owed fealty to both a greater lord and to the Church. 
The Dutch provinces did not become manorial, and the reason as with nearly everything else, related to water. Since much of the land was reclaimed from the sea or bogs, neither Church nor nobility could claim to own it. It was created by communities (hence the Dutch saying ”God made the earth, but the Dutch made Holland”). Residents banded together to form water boards that were responsible for the complex, nonstop task of maintaining polders (reclaimed boards - waterschappen - are still very much a part of Dutch life and have exerted an enormous influence on the culture, in particular on the peculiar combination of individualism and communalism that helps define Dutchness.” 
A story about Amsterdam is also the story of its most successful enterprise; The Dutch East India Company. It was founded by a couple of successful businessmen, but was also sanctioned by the government of the day. It was a huge company and transported silk, spices and other exotic commodities from the East to Europe. This was one of the first share holding companies in the world. Although the Tulipomania that stirred the Dutch society in the 1630s and made people rich of poor from one day to the next, was the first sign of a stock market enterprise. The grandeur, richness, liberalisation and the possibilities for all people to find work, would probably not have been possible without the Company.

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A waterway in Amsterdam
Shorto gives us a varied story of the history of the city, its people, its liberalism and its religious freedom, that was far ahead of any place in the world at the time. Many great names in history, philosophy, art, science and other areas were either born here, have lived here or have passed by the city at certain times; Rembrandt the painter, Spinoza the philosopher, John Locke who had to leave England took refuge in Amsterdam and ”During and after his five years in Amsterdam and travels to other Dutch cities, where he would be influenced and encouraged by the international cast of thinkers he met there, he would write and publish what would become three hallmark texts of the Enlightenment, on democratic government, tolerance, and epistemology, books that would earn him the unofficial title of father of classical liberalism and that would shape modern political thought, especially in England and the United States.” Many of the ideas on liberalism practised in Amsterdam went on to be the base for our modern democracies.

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Rembrandt's famous "Night Watch" at the Rijksmuseum
The 17th century was ”The Golden Age” of Holland. Everything seemed possible and was successful. However, already in the end of the century times changed. The ’Golden Age’ was a fascinating time, and visiting Amsterdam and its museums today, it is still there and gives us a hint of the grandeur of the city as it once was.

There are many more interesting eras and people in this history of Amsterdam. We still see the influence of the history in today's Netherlands. I think it also gives us a better understanding of the liberal, present day Dutch! Read it and see for yourself.

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Russell Shorto has written other books, of which one is 'The Island at the Center of the World'
The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, and the Founding Colony that Shaped America. There is a part of the Amsterdam book that tells the story of a young couple who emigrated to America to create a new life. They were among the first Dutch people to settle in America.

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