January 07, 2009

The Role of the Bulk Trades in the History of the Netherlands

By 1477, 45% of the population of Holland lived in towns- that population was largely within the maritime towns. The Hague, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and other towns expanded greatly in this era. Their expansion derived mainly from the bulk trades. Amsterdam largely for example traded with Danzig, Konigsberg and Riga. The Herring fisheries similarly expanded throughout the 16th Century- in 1470 there were around 250 herring busses manned by 3000 men, by 1560 there were 500 busses manned by 7000 men. By 1560 there were 1800 ships in Holland with 500 based in Amsterdam- that figure is far larger than any other European fleet- in Venice there were for example only 300 ships at the height of her mercentile power in 1450. It is estimated that 1000 Dutch vessels- some sailing twice- going into the Baltic every year whereas only about 300 German ships went the same way.

These trades influenced the structure of Dutch urban society. Obviously it led to the large populations of the Dutch cities and their survival but its consequences went far further and shaped Dutch history in the 16th Century. Firsty there were important innovations in shipping- leading up to the design of the Hoorn fluit, a large trading ship, in 1590. Dutch shipbuilders designed ships which could take huge amounts of goods, carrying them with small crews over long distances. More importantly though the type of trade influenced the type of society that developed in its wake. There were almost no important Dutch merchants before 1585 and ownership of the ships was diversified over a huge number of men. Consequenctly affluent brewers, millers, grain and timber buyers and farmers might own a section of each ship. Ships were owned sometimes by over 64 people and the profits of voyages were spread over that large amount of owners. This diversification included a diversification across the maritime regions- it was not true that one town or two as in the south dominated trade- rather many towns developed at about the same rate. Hence though the urban population in the northern Netherlands was high, very few of its cities had large populations- only Amsterdam and Utrecht had a population above 20000 in 1560 and no city had a population above 30000 at that date. Compare that to the south which specialised in luxury trades and where Antwerp, Ghent, Brussels, Bruges, Mechelen and Lille all had populations over 30,000.

This diversification is important because it led to the success of the Northern Netherlands in resisting Spanish conquest. Partly this was because there were so many sailers about- to refresh the resources of the sea beggars for example in the 1570s who opposed Spanish rule. Partly also such a large diversification of wealth meant that the ruin of one or two cities could not devastate the entire economy of Holland. Likewise such a development argued against the dominance of the Netherlands or of Holland by one city- rather it led to the development of a regionalised politics in which Holland as the largest maritime province dominated. But as opposed to Parisian France or London dominated England, the Netherlands was a much more regionalised economy and therefore its politics too were much more regional. That had vast consequences for the type of regime that emerged after the revolt and also for the type of revolt that took place: the Spanish found the revolt hard to crush because of the difficulty of subduing its centre.


Crushed said...

Interesting point. I'm actually reflecting that the Netherlands today has followed this- the Randstad as opposed to one obviously dominant city.

I'm also reflecting that though you say none of these cities was that large, I think I'm right in saying that only London in York in England could claim to be over 30,000 in population around that time- London markedly so, but I think that all other English cities were still under 10,000.

Gracchi said...

Indeed. On the English point- luckily Israel has some figures on that- looking at it in 1475 Britain had 1 city with a population over 10,000 which I'd presume would be London, in the 16th Century that veers between 4 and 6 cities and the total population of British cities was 110,000 in 1550.

Compare that to the Northern Netherlands where the corresponding figures are that in the 16th Century you see between 10 and 19 cities with a population over 10,000 and in 1550 the urban population was 182,000.

I think those figures show both that the Netherlands was more urban and its urban population less concentrated on a particular couple of cities. I'd agree that the British cities are likely to be London and York- I'd guess the other biggies in the UK were Norwich and Bristol though that's guess.

stacy said...

Just wondering what got you on your current Dutch fixation?

Gracchi said...

Reading Israel's book on Dutch history- I think there are lots of insights in this and the story of the Netherlands is central to the story of the modern world.

That and I love history!