The signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 ended the Thirty Years’ War and brought about the formation of the independent Dutch Republic, a coalition of the seven provinces of the Netherlands. During the mid 17th century, the Dutch became the wealthiest and most active trading and shipbuilding people in Europe. By dominating most trading routes in the Baltic and Atlantic Seas, the Dutch Republic earned recognition as an influential nation. This booming economy would eventually encounter challenges during the late 17th century that would cost the Dutch their monopoly over trade routes and influence amongst other European powers.
The decline of the Dutch Republic can be attributed to a series of foreign conflicts, internal distrust and disunity in the provinces, and the loss of trade dominance and economic prosperity. The rapid success of Dutch trading ventures captured the attention of other European nations who were ready to destroy the Republic’s security through several military battles. Leading the charges was England, who clearly demonstrated its resentment throughout the Anglo-Dutch wars.
Between 1652 and 1674, there were 2,000-2,700 Dutch ships seized by the English, at least four times the amount seized by the Dutch (Doc 3). It goes to show the intensity with which the Dutch were being torn down from their powerful position. France joined the attack on the republic by allying with England. Signed in 1670, the Treaty of Dover plainly lays out the goal of the foreign powers: “Each of the allied sovereigns will the jointly declare war on the Dutch Republic” (Doc 6). This official document reflects the actions and feelings of the neighboring countries accurately.
The Dutch were not in the dark about the plans of other nations. A year later, Amsterdam’s City Council released a Resolution stating that “Not only the French monarch but other kings seem more... to scheme how to ruin what remains of the trade... of the Dutch Republic” (Doc 7). The urge to go to war with the Dutch was nearby irresistible to the rulers who saw the fragility of the Dutch Republic. Konrad Van Beuningen, the Dutch ambassador to England, gave an accurate reflection of the situation in a letter back to the Dutch government.
These wars would exhaust the resources of the country, and England’s persistence could only lead to the destruction of the Dutch lands or the ruination of their commerce (Doc 8). The foreign alliance that formed between England and France against the Dutch Republic majorly threatened the security of this newly flourishing nation. Despite its thriving economy, the Dutch Republic did not succeed as a nation because of the disagreement within and the mistrust amongst the provinces.
The republic was a confederation: a weak union of strong provinces. While the Dutch did little to change this, outsiders like Sir George Downing, the English ambassador to the Dutch Republic, pounced on this weakness. In his letter back to the English government, Sir Downing writes, “The government of the Dutch Republic is a shattered and divided thing” (Doc 4). With the exception of Holland, the provinces were poor and weak individually; the nation could not sustain itself if each region isolated itself. Unfortunately, Dutch sentiment was stuck to the idea of free and separate provinces, which proved to be ineffective when trying to elect a military commander to lead troops against France.
According to a government report from the time, the “mutual distrust among the Dutch provinces hindered deliberations on how to oppose the violent attacks of Louis XIV” (Doc 9). Had the provinces been able to come to a consensus on this issue, they might have had a fighting chance. However, to fight means to have resources. There was a steady supply of soldiers willing to battle but never enough money to cover all of the costs.
The rhetorical question phrased in a political packet from Amsterdam comments on the society: “But who, other than wealthy citizens of Amsterdam, much like a rich milk cow, is to furnish the money?” (Doc 10). The most profit came from this urban location where traders congregated and enjoyed the fruits of their labor. Another pamphlet from the province of Holland emphasizes the merchants’ desire for “low taxes, peace, and trade as well as protection” (Doc 5) since they are the financiers of the war. The Dutch Republic’s disparity between economic classes and incapability to comprise on key issues contributed to the disunity and failure of the nation.
Consequently, the separation of the provinces only worsened the economic situation of the Dutch Republic. After the Thirty Years’ War, it seemed that the “golden age” of Dutch achievement would last; the Dutch had established control over most European trade routes, including a monopoly on the Baltic Sea, as seen in the map in Document
1. What can also be inferred from this document is that the English cracked down on Dutch trade ships, engaging in battle wherever possible. Marquis de Pomponne, the French ambassador to the Dutch Republic in the 1680s, understood the motives of the English government, considering the signed Treaty of Dover.
He gave a concise reason for the English attacks in a report back to his government by stating, “This trade competition was the real cause of the war which broke out in the 1650’s between England and the Dutch Republic” (Doc 11). England’s bullying tactics seemed to be effective, especially when looking at numbers. The graph in Document 2 depicts the decline in the percent of voyages taken by Dutch ships between 1645 and 1695.
Over these fifty years, the Dutch lost almost 50% of their trade in the Baltic Sea. Understandably, the economy went down the drain, as it was based primarily on trade. Document 12 shows the magnitude of the increase of the Dutch Republic’s national debt, and, in guilders, it is nearly fivefold over 25 years. As more European nations entered the trading race, the Dutch East India Company began to suffer.
A Dutch colonial administrator, writing honestly in the spirit of improving the company, notes that “profits… have turned into losses… [T]he commercial competition from the English, French, Portuguese, Chinese, and Muslims in Asia cannot be checked” (Doc 13). Due to the competition in overseas trade, this economic slump led to the decline of a once thriving republic.
The most pressing challenges faced by the Dutch Republic were foreign entanglements, internal disparity, and the loss of trade routes, all which led to the demise of the nation. The republic did not have a change against the allied team of England and French. The only way to have put up a fair fight would have been to be able to compromise and work together on certain issues with the seven provinces. Because of the trade losses, the Dutch Republic could not amass enough profits to outweigh the debts. Who knows what course history could have taken if the Dutch Republic had succeeded.