Cheat Sheet: Amsterdam (Book)

A History of the World’s Most Liberal City.

Daniel Lanciana
33 min readMar 7, 2023


A book by American journalist Russell Shorto, who also wrote New York City, The Island at the Center of the World.

Dutch provinces were part of Holy Roman Empire, which according to Voltaire, was “neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.”


“People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” — James Baldwin

  • An ingrained commitment to openness. The first truly modern free-trading culture.
  • A city historically famed for championing tolerance now seems to be charting old new frontiers of intolerance (conservatives, lockdowns).
  • The canal belt is 17th century heart of the city.
  • The Ij (pronounced “aye”) — an inland harbour. Streets named after famous persons: Vincent van Goghstraat, Rembrandtplein, Beethovenstraat, Rubenstraat, Bachstraat.
  • In 1580, one of the world’s first orphanages.
  • The West India House — where New York City was conceived — has a statue of Peter Stuyvesant out front and is currently the American Culture Centre.
  • Rembrandtplein was once the Butter Market; site of four-day riot after soldier fired into crowd.


  • Poldermodel is the daily need to battle against the sea.
  • Called the Low Counties because the land lies below sea level.
  • A practical, no-nonsense people owing to their involvement with water; individuals cooperating for a common good. Also reflected in their naming (Old Church, New Church, etc.).
  • Building dikes and dredging canals was a massive communal activity merging common and individual interests.
  • Since much of the land was reclaimed (and required constant maintenance to keep it that way), neither Church nor nobility could claim to own it. Only 5% of Holland was owned by nobles (45% by peasants), which was vastly different to other parts of Europe.
  • Merchants became savvy international traders. Ships carried wine from France; beer from Germany; “green soap” from the Baltic. Markets were created. Ships brought languages and cultures.
  • The Dutch were less inclined to be obedient, leading to the rapid adoption during the Protestant Reformation.


  • The notion of tolerance not about celebrating diversity, but putting up with others for necessity and practicality. No great philosophical idealism.
  • Willem Bardes, the shout (sherrif) from 1542 to 1566 adopted a look the other way policy.
  • During the 1960s and 70s, the city was a haven for hippies, freaks, squatters, feminists, gay rights activists, counter-cultural radicals, and environmentalists.
  • Marijuana falls under godogen — technically illegal but officially tolerated.


  • Dutch merchants had privileges and liberties such as free trade, protectionism over foreign traders, and a right to a say in their taxation.
  • John Adams visited trying to secure loans to fund the American Revolution during the Dutch conflict with Spain. Both were revolts against economic injustice, a foreign monarch, and concepts of individual liberty. Both movements had a founding father.
  • The Union of Utrecht was a constitution allowing religious freedoms and a legal notion of equality. An ancestor to the First Amendment.
  • Amsterdam was unusual in Europe as there were virtually no restrictions on newcomers doing business.
The Miracle

The Miracle

  • Around 1100, a few hundred farms started heaping dikes along the edge of an inhospitable marshy wilderness of a vast river delta where three of Europe’s largest rivers — the Rhine, Meuse (Maas), and Scheldt — converge before meeting the sea. Wooden huts with straw roofs and sloped clay floors to let the rain flow.
  • Around 1200, a dam on the Amstel river that gave the city its name, Amstelredamme.
  • In 1345, the “Miracle of Amsterdam” put the city on the map as one of Europe’s holiest spots and pilgrimage destination; a gold rush. Religious institutions flocked, tensions between religious orders arose. Heiligeweg is still named the “Holy Way,” Bloedstraat is named after the blood of Christ. Ironically now the Amsterdam Dungeon tourist attraction in the middle of the Red Light District. To this day, an all-night procession every March.
  • In the 15th century, Dutch found a way to preserve herring for longer (and increase taste) by leaving in the stomach and pancreas and lightly salting (“soused”). This transformed Europe. Fishermen could stay at sea longer (over five weeks) and travel further from the coastline. Complex support infrastructure was required: more capital, new types of vessels, Government warships to protect the fleet, shipyards expanded, barges were created, a crankshaft was invented leading to saw mills and wood exporting. Within a few decade, the Dutch had cornered the market with Holland Herring — an early instance of branding.
  • Around 1500, a lively shipping centre and one of the most intensely Catholic cities in Europe — a holy place of fish guts, cursing seamen, and scheming abbots. An era where popes issues licences to brothels (for revenue), it was common for “celibate” priests to have mistresses and openly father illegitimate children, and when an 8-year-old was appointed as Bishop!
  • During the 1500s, religious radicals called the Anabaptists paraded naked, refused to wear clothing, and chanted for polygamy. After storming City Hall and killing a mayor and 20 followers, a short trial led to some vibrant death sentences: males were publicly beheaded; women drowned in sacks; chests cut open and still-beating hearts ripped out and thrown in their faces before being beheaded and quartered!
Willem The Silent

Willem The Silent

  • Charles V — Holy Roman emperor and King of Spain, perhaps the most powerful man in the world — waged conflict against popes; sacked Rome; fought off the Ottomans; cleansed the Mediterranean of pirates; personally sent off Magellan, Cortés and Pizarra; colonized South America; formally set off the Protestant Reformation; and took over the Dutch provinces. He spoke most European languages. He was not a Spinish native, but won over the people by stepping into the bullring. At 22, he duelled his friend in a bloody joust where he sustained a permanent injury; later appointing the friend to viceroy of Naples!
  • In 1555, Charles V abdicated the throne to his 28-year-old son, Philip II, in a chessboard assembly of knights, bishops, and queens. Charles advice to Philip was “remember the French are always discouraged if they do not succeed immediately in anything which they undertake…As we have seen and discovered, the [Dutch] people there cannot tolerate being governed by foreigners.”
  • Philip II led the Spanish Inquisition. Deeply devout and an avid collector of holy relics (over 7000 sacred bones, 144 heads of saints, thousands of limbs, supposed hair of Jesus and Mary, supposed bits of the cross). Increased taxes on the Dutch (the “nine years’ tax”) to pay off debt — maintaining an army of 3,000 soldiers who unleashed terror.
  • Protestantism, which allowed people to make money and still be a good Christian, was a threat. New laws forbid Protestant worship and the punishment was death; men were beheaded or buried alive, women were drowned. Those that didn’t repent were burned at the stake. Around half the three million Dutch were Calvinists — a branch of Protestantism — at this point!
  • Willem of Nassau became on the richest noblemen in Europe at age eleven through inheritance. Trusted by Philip. Earned the nickname Willem The Silent for his silence towards Philip regarding the Dutch revolution.
  • Philip suffered the greatest Spanish military defeat — losing dozens of ships and the surrender of 10,000 soldiers trying to retake Tripoli from Ottomans. In 1559, Philip met representatives in Ghent where the Dutch refused to continue paying tax unless the soldiers were withdrawn; feeling betrayed at Willem’s signature on the demands, he directed an angry tirade at Willem as he left.
  • In 1566, around 200 merchants visited the Dutch provinces regent in Brussels asking for a relaxation of heresy laws — getting their demands after performing a “caracole” manoeuvre used by soldiers to warn of a possible uprising. An adviser commented they acted like a bunch of beggars, so the group chose the name Order of the Beggars out of satire. The Order dressed in grey cloaks, wore a begging bowl on their belt, and grew “Turkish” moustaches — a look that became a fad amongst young people.
  • In 1566, Willem— against Philip II — allowed Calvinist worship. An iconoclastic uprising lasting three days vandalised and ransacked over 400 churches.
Duke of Alba de Tormes

Duke of Alba

“Out Devil, who art in Brussels. Cursed be thy name.”

  • Philip sent an army of ten thousand troops commanded by the Duke of Alba — probably the greatest military tactician of the age — who had such a reputation for unecessary brutality people fled before he even arrived! In 1567, Alba took over Brussels and set up the Council of Troubles; later known as the Council of Blood. The Council beheaded high-profile Dutch nobles, and put around 18,000 Dutch to death. He introduced a new Tenth Penny Tax, which the Dutch knew, was used to maintain the army that was oppressing them.
  • Willem set up military headquarters in his German homeland, convered to Calvinism, and mounted a propaganda campaign through pamphlets and flyers. A popular song written during that time became the Dutch national anthem.
  • Queen Elizabeth wanted to avoid a war with Spain, so forced out his fleet of piratical ships, known as the Sea Beggars. The Sea Beggars sailed and easily took the city of Den Briel from the Spanish — the first victory by the revolutionaries. They made their way from town to town, igniting fury against the church; nuns and priests were stripped and murdered.
  • By 1572, only Amsterdam was under Catholic control (deep ties from The Miracle) — the rest had converted to Calvinist. Alba used Amsterdam to launch assaults on other cities. He sent thirty thousand troops to take Haarlem, which Willem defended through a savage winter. When the town finally surrendered, all two thousand remaining Dutch soldiers were systematically killed.
  • Alba sent troops under command of his son, Don Fadrique, who attacked Naarden. The town surrendered on the condition their lives would be spared. Fadrique accepted, then murdered the entire town!
  • Eventually, with Alba’s soldiers close to mutiny, Philip’s court turned against Alba. In declining health (severe gout), Alba was relieved of command; he died in Lisbon in 1582.
House of Orange-Nassau

Willem of Orange

  • In 1578, the Order of the Beggars took control of Amsterdam and converted it to Calvinist. On the Alteration Day the “real Amsterdam was born.” The annual miracle procession banned and the dismantling of Catholic order began.
  • In 1580, Willem the Silent entered Amsterdam on a galley draped with his noble colour, which became the national Dutch orange. He was received in front of City Hall on Dam Square. There was costumed theatre, a flaming arrow show, and mock battle recreation.
  • Willem was anointed Prince William I of Orange.
  • Willem was assassinated in Delft four years later (you can still see the bullet holes) after Philip offered a reward. The first assassination using a handgun!
  • In 1576, the Spanish sacked Antwerp and Laid siege to it in 1580. Once the centre of European finance, tens of thousands of wealthy and highly skilled (bankers, merchants, artisans) individuals left for Amsterdam. Flemish art changed to the glories of the individual.
Cornelis de Houtman

Cornelis de Houtman

  • The Portuguese Empire held a monopoly over half the world’s commerce through trade with India, Ethiopia, and the Spice (Maluku) Islands. A network of Portuguese ships, navigators, maps, mapmakers, cannons, and agents.
  • After the influx of money and skilled workers from Antwerp, and signs to empire was tottering, Amsterdam challenged Lisbon for control of the Indies.
  • In 1594, group of ten met spearheaded by merchant Dirck van Os, met in Marten Spil’s Amsterdam wineshop to draft capitalism.
  • The Dutch sent Cornelis de Houtman (not a spy) to Lisbon to spy on Portuguese trade activities. On his return he (not a sailor) was appointed vice Commander of the Compagnie van Verre (Company for Faraway Lands) — the first Dutch expedition to the East Indies. Improbably, he reached Bantam after a harrowing journey that included scurvy, disease, rats, lice, and death.
  • The Portuguese had a minor presence, but spread rumours of a Dutch attack and Houtman was imprisoned. The Dutch ship blasted the town and Portuguese ships, with Houtman released in exchange for a ransom. They sailed further north and while attending a feast by the locals, were attacked losing twelve Dutchmen.
  • After the ship’s commander died, Houtman was suspected of poisoning and imprisoned. With no command, the crew then sailed home — but not before four weeks of rest and relaxation in Bali!
  • In 1597, after nearly two-and-a-half years three of the four ships (the fourth abandoned because only 89 of 249 sailors were still alive) returned to a Dutch port. Houtman was placed under arrest and charged. A year later he sailed off again and was killed in his cabin during the voyage!
  • Houtman’s brother, Frederick, was the first to chart the Southern Hemisphere stars and identified and named the twelve constellations. Frederick would later sail to Australia and discover an island group called the Houtman Abrolhos.
  • The ship returned nearly empty, but the little pepper they brought back was enough to recoup investments. The Company for Faraway Lands was dissolved (as was custom on completion of a voyage), and investors doubled-down on a new voyage. “Getting rich became the ambition of the day.”
VOC headquarters


  • Just two years after Houtman’s return, a second fleet sailed back with over one million pounds of spices — earning the backers a 400% profit. Two years after that, sixty-five ships had made the journey. Dutch ships sailed to Java, Sumatra, Bandas and Indonesia. Deals were struck for nutmeg, clove, mace and pepper. So much pepper began arriving in Europe it sent prices plummeting. To this day, peperduur (“pepper-expensive”) is a Dutch expression.
  • After Javanese merchants began increasing their prices, the Dutch merchants created the first private, for-profit venture with government oversight and military support. It had the authority to wage war, build and maintain military forts, force foreign populations to trade with it, and negotiate treaties.
  • The world’s first multinational corporation, the Verenigde Oost-Indishe Compagnie (VOC) — also known as The Dutch East India Company. Unlike other companies of the day, it was not dissolved (technically it has a 21-year charter that was always renewed). The VOC remade the world. The surviving VOC paperwork is measured in kilometres!
  • It introduced Europe, Asia, and Africa. It pioneered globalisation, invented the first modern bureaucracy, advanced cartography and shipbuilding, spread disease, took over kingdoms, slaughtered entire populations, sent over 1 million Europeans to Asia, and introduced exploitation through slavery on a scale never imagined. For two centuries it was the only country permitted to trade with Japan!
  • It hauled over four times the amount of Asian products back to Europe than its nearest competitor, the English East India Company. For the first time, whole populations became dependent on foreign sale of their goods. Its sister company, The West India Company, colonised Brazil and the Caribbean islands — as well as setting New York in motion (Henry Hudson consulted Petrus Plancius, one of the great cartographers of the age, before his voyage).
  • The Dutch East India Company colonised modern-day Indonesia and South Africa.
  • Porcelain, coffee, tea, and tobacco became household items in the West. It sold Indonesian sugar in Persia and Indian fabrics in Yemen.
  • The company refined insurance, storage, and processing. Ancillary trades such as marketing new products to European markets was the beginning of consumerism geared towards the individual.
  • VOC became the largest (50,000 employees) and wealthiest company in the history of the world. Amsterdam’s per capita income grew to 4x Paris.
VOC receipt


  • Capitalism is a word Marx made famous, but it was originally intended as an insult.
  • Dirck van Os house the birthplace of capitalism. Over five months anyone could purchase shares in VOC. A total of 1,143 people bought shares (technically receipts), making up 57% of the VOC stock. Investors no longer bought into a single voyage, they bought into a company.
  • Days after sales ended, a successful convoy returned and shares went up 15%; 40% shortly after that; doubled shortly after. Entitled to sell their shares, the stock market was born.
  • As traders sought innovative ways to speculate on share prices, derivatives were born. In 1607, the first futures trading during an open-air meeting on the New Bridge.
  • Within a few years of the the first modern capitalistic venture came the first manipulation of shares (insider information), followed by first effort at financial regulation. Short-selling ban didn’t last for long as it was too lucrative.
  • Within a decade, 300 licensed brokers and trade negotiators, who traded in the open-air of New Bridge. In 1611, construction of the Amsterdam Merchants’ Exchange. The 1903 Amsterdam Exchange (Euronext) is the oldest site of trading in the world (Antwerp and London have older trade buildings). The centralised stock exchange provided security, insurance, and facilities for traveling merchants.
  • For nearly two centuries the VOC paid healthy dividends to shareholders (originally paid in spice, by 1618 paid in cash).
  • Shareholding created a collective sensibility by sharing the risk. The stock market empowered individuals through a collectivist enterprise.
  • The original VOC headquarters now part of the University of Amsterdam. The oldest existing VOC stock was a plot device in Oceans Twelve.

The Golden Age

  • Amsterdam was a small medieval city with walls and a moat. Size was restricted by law so outside buildings couldn’t be used as bases for attack. By as the city grew, people ignored the law since land was cheaper and city taxes were not payable.
  • Frans Hendricksz Oetgens, one of four mayors, acquired outside land for next to nothing then appointed several friends to council positions. He held secret meetings to expand the city that he profited directly from. One of the first real estate regulatory attempts to prevent Oetgens’ collusion that enriched themselves at the city’s expense. His mansion is now the Bible Museum.
  • The land was divided and sold the lots through “Amsterdam” auctions — normal bidding (the highest bidder receives a cash prize) followed by a reverse bidding war between the two highest bidders to add a supplementary amount. The highest total at the end wins. Added complexity and excitement to an action. Some speculated by bidding to claim the cash prize without the money to buy (called a “sheep”), which risked two months in prison if caught.
  • Each new canal given a fancy name to attract buyers: Prince’s Canal, Gentleman’s Canal, and Emperor’s Canal. Prinsengracht was designated specifically for commerce. Warehouses to keep prices from fluctuating.
  • In a single lifetime, six miles of canals were dredged by hand (using water wheels powered by stationary bikes), twelve miles of canal-side land built up from canal mud, sand hauled in from barges, around a hundred bridges constructed, a dozen miles of canal-side road laid brick by brick, and three thousand houses — each requiring the backbreaking work of heien (pile driving).
  • Each house required around forty pairs of Scandinavian pine piles, each driven 40–60 feet into the ground using a triangular “tree” support. City Hall required 13,659 piles. A construction site during the Golden Age. Amsterdam’s central ring rests on piles rammed into the earth in the 1600s. The city rests atop a Scandinavian forrest.
  • Ships anchored in the harbour, goods transferred to small vessels, and unloaded directly into homes — almost without touching the ground!
  • Peter the Great stayed in the city studying urban planning techniques, which were put into practice in St. Petersburg. Water coaches towed passenger boats by horses; ran on a regular schedule, accepted various currencies, sold food and drink, and were used by rich and poor alike.
  • Among the canals you could find elephants, picked snakes and frogs, spices, delftware, markets (poultry, butter, veg, butchers), and street hawkers. Nearly every profession had a guild. Vuilnisvaarders hauled dung. Piskijkers (piss lookers) studied urine for cures. The ceaseless donging of church bells.
  • The Dutch lived modestly — a form of egalitarianism. Opulence was in bad taste. Servants ate meals with the family. Amsterdam has few grand monuments. Tourits come to see people’s homes.
  • Tulips were introduced from Asia via Turkey in the late 1500s, and named after the Persian word for turban, tulp. At the height of tulip mania, a single bulb cot as much as a grand canal house!
  • In 2010, the central ring became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn


  • Rembrandt was an unusual name, even in 1632. He took the surname van Rijn after the river.
  • Got famous after painting The Anatomy Lession of Dr. Tulp of the annual public dissection of a human corpse (there was a fine for stealing bits of corpses!).
  • Worked with astonishing speed. Forty two paintings in two year period, with the emergence of individual portraits.
  • Almost never left the city after arriving — usually confined to handful of blocks.
  • The name, The Night Watch, was adopted a century and a half after work was made.
  • Regularly got into disputes with his patrons. His fame dimmed and a former pupil, Govert Flinck, became the new golden boy.
  • His three children all died in infancy. Fell for his housemaid. Had an ex-lover committed to a workhouse, released after five years to Rembrandt’s objections, and dying shortly after. Went bankrupt and lost his house and possessions. Sold his dead wife’s grave (her bones were removed)! The next year his new lover died, followed by his son, then the following year Rembrandt himself!
René Descartes


“I think therefore I am.”

  • The father of modern philosophy arrived in Amsterdam around the same time as Rembrandt. He lived in city for five years.
  • Amsterdam was a hotbed of literary reform and experimentation. Forty publishers in the city attracted authors from around Europe.
  • Descartes published Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences. Gallileo published The Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences. The VOC cartographer had a printing press on Bloemgracht.
  • In the 17th century, half of all books published in entire world came from Dutch provinces! Another estimate has 30% from Amsterdam (around 400 bookshops) alone.
  • 1683, Englishman John Locke, the father of classical liberalism, published a hallmark text of the Enlightenment while residing in Amsterdam after fleeing after his brother failed to assassinate Charles II. Thomas Jefferson used Locke’s writings as a starting point for individual rights, saying he was “one of the greatest men that ever lived, without any exception.”
  • In 1719, the most scandalous book of early 18th century was publishe, Le vaie et l’espirit de Spinoza, which argued that Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed deceived their followers and established their religions as power bases. A 1735 reprint gave the same fake place and publisher that Spinoza had once done.
Baruch Spinoza


“I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.” — Albert Einstein

  • The first true philosopher of modernity. The first to argue that religion and politics should be separate; to be kept out of scientific inquiry. An early advocate for democracy.
  • The first and maybe the greatest philosopher of liberalism — who made it his life’s work to comprehend what freedom means and how individuals can be free.
  • Bertrand Russell called him “the noblest and most loveable of the great philosophers” but in his time, and for a century later, he was one of the most hated.
  • Saw that religion was a man-made trapping that existed so that institutions could exercise control.
  • Believed in free trade, but saw firsthand the dark side of history’s first experience with capitalism — large companies strangled small businesses, manipulated markets, force citizens to pay inflated prices, and kept the poor down. Capitalism was a pitiless machine that needed to be controlled.
  • He proposed a new framework, a theory of knowledge based on the human mind, not the Bible. The first stirrings of the Enlightenment, which would sweep through Europe.

“Democracy is of all forms of government the most natural and most consonant with individual liberty.”

  • Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) contended the basis of politics should be individual liberty. The first book to argue the Bible was the work of humans, which contained errors, and miracles were nonsense. Used a fake publisher and place of location, but his true identity was leaked. Attacked by the church; German philosopher Leibniz was appalled; condemned by Dutch republicans. In 1674, the States General banned it. Because of the uproar, his earlier-written Ethics was only published after his death. Tractatus was republished a century later in the year of the American Revolution.
  • Almost everyone in the 17th century belonged to a formal faith. It was your community, a basic part of identity, and legitimacy in the eyes of society. Religious rules and morality were seen as necessities to maintain basic order in society. Spinoza wanted to show that freedom was not a threat to order, but necessary for public peace as well as faith. People were not ready for it.

“Men are of necessity liable to passions and prone to vengeance more than mercy.”

  • In 1677, he died ending his dream of the democratic state.

End of The Golden Age

  • In 1648, twin peace treaties were signed. The Thirty Years’ War Catholic-Protestant conflict, and Eighty Years’ War between Spanish Empire and Dutch Republic was at an end. For the first time in living memory, Europe was a peace. Less than two years later, two Dutch parties were vying for control.
  • The Dutch nation was proclaimed by official decree. The son of one of original VOC founders acted as chief negotiator.
  • In 1650, Willem II sent ten thousand troops to surprise invade Amsterdam but the army arrived late due to bad weather — giving the city time to prepare. The attack fizzled and Willem died shortly after from smallpox.
  • Johan de Witt, a mathematician and lawyer who contributed to linear algebra (admired by Newton), was named Grand Pensionary of the States of Holland. He negotiated a treaty with English leader Oliver Cromwell to keep Willem III from being named stadholder (hereditary monarch). The treaty consisted of a secret annex and stated Willem III could not be named stadholder.
  • The Dutch had the larger trading empire, while England had more military might.
  • Between 1652 and 1654, the First Anglo-Dutch War between England and the Dutch Republic that was ruinous for both sides. Around 1200 Dutch vessels were taken or destroyed! The herring fleet was decimated.
  • Between 1665 and 1667, a Second Anglo-Dutch War. Under De Witt’s order, the Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter sailed up the Thames with a fleet and delivered the worst defeat in English navy history.
  • In 1672, Charles II of England and Louis XIV of France attacked the Dutch Republic simultaneously with over 130,000 troops led by James, Duke of York. The Dutch army was kept weak by De Witt, out of fear the Orangists, who were loyal to the House of Orange, would use it against him. Thousands were killed, riots broke out, councils capitulated, and the Orangists took over. The people blamed De Witt. Some captured land would never again be Dutch. Referred to as rampjaar — the Disaster Year. The end of the Dutch Golden Age.
  • Four months later the secret agreement was torn up and Willem II named stadholder, but he resigned the following month after being wounded during an assassination attempt.
  • A mob in The Hague ambushed De Witt and his brother. They were cut open, shot, hanged, dismembered and set on fire!

New Amsterdam

  • In 1609, the West India Company funded an exploratory trip by Henry Hudson — which failed to reach Asia as intended, but did chart North America. The Dutch claimed the territory, which they named New Netherlands, but initially didn’t do much with it.
  • First settlers were Walloons (now Belgium) voyaging on the ship eendracht (“unity”), which arrived in Cape May. The city was built with yellow bricks used as ballast on the voyage over.
  • Soldiers got into a dispute without two native tribes with four Dutchmen killed. Because of the threat, Peter Minuit was sent to unite the settlers. Originally Governors Island was to be the capital, but Minuit instead purchased the island natives called Mannahatta. Commonly known as New Amsterdam, it was actually Amsterdam in New Netherlands.
  • Unlike other Dutch colonies, where people returned home after a while (unlike the British Empire), they settled in New Amsterdam.
  • By 1643, fewer than 500 people but 18 languages were spoken! Everyone was a trader.
  • In 1638, director Willem Kieft declared war (Kieft’s War) on the natives, leading to a series of brutal exchanges. Colonists campaigned to take direct control of colony for survival. West India Company removed Kieft and installed Stuyvesant — who lost his leg to a Spanish cannonball in — in 1647 to bring order.
  • Adriaen van der Donck emerged as leader and frequently clashed with Stuyvesant, who arrested him. Donck traveled to Amsterdam and The Hague and got New Amsterdam a municipal charter.
  • Following the restoration of the English monarchy, Charles II wanted to reorganise his North American colonies. New Amsterdam lay between New England and Virginia so the English took the colony by force in 1664; Dutch got it back in 1673; English took it back for good following year and renamed it to New York. English kept many Dutch structures because they worked — and some of the first mayors were even Dutch! Ten years after the English takeover, Dutch was the common language and city hall still kept a copy of the laws of Amsterdam.
  • The Flushing Remonstrance was the first statement of religious freedom in America.
  • The Dutch are responsible for naming Rhode Island (“red island”), Flatbush (Vlackebosch), Flushing (Vlishing), Bushwick (Boswijck), Catskill, Coney (Conyne) Island, Harlem (Haarlem), Brooklyn (Breuckelen), Staten Island, Long Island, and East River.
  • Catalina Trico and Joris Rapalje married in 1624, sailed to New Amsterdam, and had 11 children — the Adam and Eve of New York. Estimated to have over one million descendants!
King William III

King William III

  • France unleashed a series of drastic trade restrictions that crippled Dutch business, leading to a mass of Dutch ships.
  • Willem III ascended to the English throne by arranging a group of English rebels to issue him an invitation to take over part of the country. He used a propaganda campaign with printed documents distributed en masse.
  • In 1688, the Dutch invaded England with one of largest European invasion forces — a fleet four times the size of the Spanish Armada! London offered no opposition as King James refused to believe an invasion was happening; victory brought a quick end to the war for the Dutch and James fled to France. The English monarchy went into exile in The Hague.
  • Willem became King William III of England. He modernised Great Britain, expanded British East India Company, and began the constitutional monarchy by creating a stronger parliament. He presided on rival nations and competing companies. Dutch-ness blended into Englishness.
  • The English hated the fact that a tiny, water-logged strip of land across the Channel had battled the Spanish empire, formed a nation, risen to become the dominant financial power, been involved in three trade ware, defeated their navy, and became their King. The animosity is embedded in English language with derogatory terms such as Dutch Courage (drunk), Going Dutch, Dutch Agreement (drunk), and Dutch Oven (fart).
King William I


  • Dutch shipped supplies to American colonists, leading to Britain declaring war on Dutch —a fourth trade way between the two nations — that led to the end of Dutch dominance. The British captured hundreds of Dutch ships, took West Africa slaving forts, and began dismantling the VOC.
  • In 1787, Willem V countered a democratic revolution with a Prussian army of 26,000 troops. Took control and forbade talk of democracy.
  • After the French Revolution, French troops merged with Dutch revolutionary forces. Willem V fled to England and a new Batavian Republic (named after the area’s name during Roman times) was established — but was short-lived.
  • In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte took over and instilled his brother, Louis, as King of Holland. Louis transforming City Hall into the Royal Palace. The French brought in the metric system, national government bureaucracy, and a picture collection that became the Rijksmuseum. But Louis didn’t last long — after losses during an invasion of Russia, French abandoned the Low Countries in 1813.
  • Willem V’s son became the first Dutch king, King William I, taking residence in the palace. What started as Willem the Silents’ revolt against a monarch led to his own family installed as rulers. The Dutch monarchy persists to this day, ceremonially speaking.
  • Napoleon tried once again to invade Low Countries in 1815, but was defeated by Duke of Wellington near Brussels and forced into exile.


  • In 1799, after a VOC loss to the British the Dutch took over East Indies possessions — transforming a corporate empire into a colonial one. The Dutch economy faltered, and King Willem I squeezed money out of Indonesian peasants through coercion, corruption and brutality; thousands died of starvation.
  • Eduard Dekker wrote Max Havelaar — “the book that killed colonialism.” Dekker got into fights; was suspended for a year for accounting irregularities; was a gambler; gave much of his money to a French prostitute to leave her job, lost the rest on roulette, asked for his money back…and got it! Used the pseudonym Multatuli, which is Latin for “I have suffered much”. Compared the character based on himself with Socrates and Jesus. Awakened Dutch society to systemic abuses — the Dutch were doing what the Spanish had once done to them. Championed voting rights, workers rights, and established religion.
  • In 1848, a year of revolutions. Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto was published, upheaval in a dozen countries, monarchies buckled, and the Industrial Revolution. Economic liberalism kept government out of business and social liberalism to protect individuals. King Willem II acceded to a new constitution under threat of revolution.
  • Indonesian independence came after years of warfare. This awakened more of the world’s colonies, starting the end of European colonial domination. After the revolution, Indonesians were given the choice to become Dutch citizens — leading to a large Indisch (Indo-European) community in Amsterdam.
Aletta Jacobs

Industrial Revolution

  • During the 1850s, the harbour was modernised and the population doubled in less than 40 years. No building code led to slums, no street lamps, unpaved roads, human waste dumped into the canal, routine Cholera epidemics. Trade unions formed.
  • In 1864, Heineken opened.
  • 1872, Karl Marx spoke at the Amsterdam Dance Hall.
  • 1876, the North Sea Canal connected Amsterdam directly to the ocean. The six mile trench was dug by hand!
  • In 1877–78, Vincent van Gogh spent a year in Amsterdam.
  • Aletta Jacobs was the first Dutch woman with university degree and first medical doctor (a handful in the world) after appealing to the prime minister to intervene — which he did after checking with her father. One of the first in the world to advocate for contraception and conducted contraceptive trials. Ran the world’s first birth control clinic, coined “planned parenthood,” and called marriage an economic trap for women. Had a modern partnership with separate incomes and bank accounts. Met with President Woodrow Wilson. In 1883, campaigned for woman’s suffrage in front of the Supreme Court, which rejected her on the catch-22 grounds that women “do not have full citizenship or civil rights [because] they lacked the right to vote!” In 1899, participated in the first International Women’s Conference and befriended Susan B. Anthony. In 1919, Netherlands gave women the right to vote.
  • In 1890, Royal Dutch Petroleum after oil found in Sumatra, merged with Shell in 2012. 1891, Philips opened.
  • A diamond workers’ union called The Citadel was designed by a famous architect, provided health insurance, personal improvement classes, and a library. In 1919, responsible for introducing the eight hour workday. A model for other trade unions and social liberalism. Currently a small museum.
  • The Amsterdam School of architecture formed.
  • Between 1915 and 1921, The Ship project constructed 30,000 dwellings that was run by housing corporations that allowed both private investment and government oversight — mixing capitalist incentive with a committment to public good. Long-term rent called erfpacht (“ground rent”) rather than ownership to avoid speculation and corruption. Currently the Amsterdam School Museum.
  • In 1903, the Amsterdam Stock Exchange.
  • Remnants of the diamond industry in street names: Topaz, Diamond, Emerald Square.
De Wallen.


“If God exists and he allowed that [the Holocaust] to happen, then it’s better that he doesn’t exist.” — Frieda Brommet, Auschwitz surviver

  • Before WWII, Amsterdam was relatively tolerant of Jews — mixing with the wider community and intermarrying.
  • Hitler vowed in speech to Reichstag he would honour the Dutch neutral stance — then next day he ordered an invasion saying “Nobody will question that after we have conquered.”
  • Even with an imminent attack, locals were optimistic. The German ambassador met with the Dutch foreign minister with the message “we inform you of the action of a powerful German force. Resistance is completely senseless.”
  • A brief battle outside Rotterdam where the Dutch colonel refused to surrender when told of an imminent airstrike. Ninety planes dropped over one hundred tonnes of bombs, setting off a firestorm that destroyed the city centre. After threatening the same against Utrecht, the Dutch surrendered and the Nazi occupation began.
  • A German plane that had taken a hit dropped two bombs on Amsterdam — one landing on the corner of Herengracht and Blauwburgwal — destroying a building and killing 45 people.

But despite the sadness I see
While I wait for happier times.
One thing shines out above all.
That is Love, the little rogue,
Who gave me the prettiest thing he had,
A small precious treasure
Who looks at me so happily
And seems like a little princess.
— Bob de Jong, teenage amongst the first to be sent to Auschwitz

  • In 1940, German soldiers rode into the city to take possession. The Dutch Nazi party lined up — everyone else just watched.
  • The Sicherheitspolizei (Security Police, SP) was the intelligence arm of the SS that included the Gestapo — they set up in a school on the Euterperstraat; the basement used for torture.
  • The Reichskommissar chose a mansion on Museum Square, which is now the American consulate!
  • The Luftwaffe took over the Dutch Trading Association headquarters, which is now the City Archives.
  • Alfred Rosenberg, the chieft Nazi racial theorist argued the original home of the Aryan race was the lost city of Atlantis!
  • Nazis considered Dutch part of the same Aryan stock as Germans. Hitler planned to incorporate the Netherlands into greater Germany after the war. The homeland of liberalism was under totalitarian rule.
  • The Dutch pillar system, which gave religious and political groups their own social space, made the Nazi job easier by having the names and addresses of Jews on file.
  • A Dutch bureaucrat created a nearly counterfeit-proof identity card. He even traveled to Berlin to show it off. Every Dutch citizen was ordered to carry one; nothing like it had ever existed before.
  • Most Dutch that provided haven to the Jews (onderduik or “diving under”) demanded to be paid. Extortionists.
  • Dutch helpfulness to the Germans contributed to the lowest survival rates (27%, compared with 75% in France) of Jews in Europe. Of around 80,000 Jews, 58,000 died. The Jewish council was also found guilty of abetting the Nazis by making deportation lists, before they too were deported — only two survived. A moral collapse during the war.
  • In 1941, a general strike by the Dutch that ground the city to a halt. “The first and only antipgrom in human history.” As a result Jews were barred from parks, concerts, libraries, restaurants, and buses. In 1942, it was against the law for Jews to have sex with non-Jews; later the yellow star and an 8PM curfew.
  • Walraven and Gijs van Hall were brothers and rebels. They ran a secret operation at the Amsterdam Stock Exchange — collecting (via dummy stock certificates) and redistributing money to those in need. They communicated with the Dutch government in exile in London. The brothers robbed the Dutch National Bank and stole nearly 50 million guilders (half a billion today!) by replacing treasury bonds with fake ones, then selling the real ones and distributing the money. Walraven was captured three months before the Nazis fled and was executed by firing squad. In 2010, a monument was placed in front of Stock Exchange.
  • Frieda Brommet and her extended family (8 total) lived for two years in a single room above a bike shop, starving, at a cost of $7000 (today) per month.
  • Nobody knows who turned in the Frank family. They were sent on the last train to Auschwitz. Freida and Anne Frank twinned by horror. Both in a sick ward, but Anne recovered enough to leave — costing her life. One day SS soldiers stormed into the ward and ordered all patients to start walking or be shot; those two trudged off died. Frieda was too sick and hung on for nine days among decaying bodies in the ruins of the concentration camp. The Anne Frank diary one of most widely read (31 million copies) books of all time.
  • After the German surrender, people gathered in Dam Square to celebrate. German troops still in the city opened fire with machine guns killing twenty. A video exists.
  • Euterpestraat was renamed in honor of slain resistance leader Gerrit van de Veen.
  • Oud Zuid was the centre of Jewish Amsterdam, with 80,000 Jews in 1940. Today there are 15,000.


“The problem of homosexuality is the problem not of the homosexual but society. Just like the problem of anti-Semitism is in the end the problem of the Jews but of non-Jews. And it’s the same with the problem of women’s emancipation, where it’s actually men who are the problem.” — Benno Premsela

  • After the war counterculture became Amsterdam’s dominant culture.
  • In 1946, The Shakespeare Club was the world’s first organisation for gay rights. Later became the Culture and Leisure Center (COC).
  • In 1950, the Social Economic Council (SER) is a panel comprising leaders from labor, industry, and government-appointed experts. Brings together social and economic liberalism. A social welfare state fueled by capitalism. Instead of corporations and unions clashing and lobbying government from opposite sides — an adversarial relationship between employers and employees — they work out a solution and present to the government. No equivalent in US or British systems.
  • Social welfare (unemployment, sick leave) took over some of the religion’s safety net functions. In 1900, 45% of people were Protestant. By 1971, 18%; by 2000, 5%. People stopped going to church.
  • In 1964, Robert Jasper Grootveld started weekly anti-smoking and anti-car “happenings” at the Het Lieverdje (“The Little Darling”) statue every Saturday night at midnight. The statue was funded by cigarette companies. Coined Provotariat (“Provo”) — a class to support revolution in society.
  • In 1965, two years before Berlin or Paris, a series of Provo movements. The White Bicycle provided bikes without restriction, and spawned today’s urban bicycle system. White Chicken (the slang term for cops is kips or “chicken”) that called for police to distribute fried chicken on their rounds. White Chimney sought to impose fines on polluters and use windmills for energy (radical at the time). White Rumon disrupted the marriage of Princess Beatrix to a Nazi German — causing street chaos after letting off smoke bombs. Provo the magazine, Provo the movement.
  • Invented the “Harihuette” game, which aimed to get arrested for doing something legal (e.g. smoking fake joints).
  • In 1966, Provos won five seats on city council. The D66 (Democrats ’66) party still exists.
  • In 1969, after marrying in Gibraltar and honeymooning in Paris (where Dali bit the head of a grilled bird!), John Lennon and Yoko staged a “bed-in” at the Amsterdam Hilton.


“Individually, we prosper, so collectively we do…If maintaining freedom means treading a line between chaos and control, Amsterdam has shown a strong preference for erring on the side of chaos.”

  • In 1971, it was legal to break into empty building and take up residence, with police unable to evict after their power was reduced by the Provo movement. In 2010, kraken (“squatting”) was made illegal.
  • In 1973, the first push to decriminalise soft drugs. That year the first coffee shop, Mellow Yellow on Weesperzide. Historically cafés could sell alcohol; coffee shops attracted less attention from police. Coffee shops managed the inevitability of soft drugs, contained their use, and provided a measure of control. By 1980, there were around 1,500 coffee shops.
  • In the 1970s, led the way with multiculturalism — but led to ghettoised communities — the opposite of a “society.” The Dutch ideology for immigration was that it was wrong to force Dutch culture, but this led to second-class citizens that didn’t understand Dutch language or culture.
  • Prostitution followed a similar trajectory and was contained to specific neighbourhoods, moving off the streets. The first windows appeared in De Wallen in the 1960s — with several hundred windows today. In the 1980s, the Red Thread advocacy group. Today there are between five and seven thousands registered prostitutes.
  • In 2000, prostitution, gay marriage and euthanasia were all legalised. Amsterdam became a centre for human trafficking. Difficult to legalise something the rest of the world considers illegal without attracting organised crime.
  • In 2001, the world’s first same-sex marriage.
  • In 2008, public smoking was banned.
  • The Dutch have of the most restrictive attitudes to prescription drugs (a third of the youth use antidepressants when compared with the US). An innate mistrust of pharmaceutical industry and deeply conservative with regards to surgery. Doctors are disinclined to prescribe medicine! Need a prescription for many drugs that are over-the-counter in the US.
  • The “Double Dutch” method of birth control and condoms has led to one the world’s lowest teen pregnancy and abortion rates. Nudity and sex are viewed as normal. Films with an R rating in US for sexual content are open for all ages. Films with a PG-13 rating in the US for violence are rated higher to shield children.
  • A BKR fine arts subsidy paid virtually anyone who applied as an artist, leading to widespread abuse and socialism-gone-wild parodies — but after several overhauls it works.
  • Parent’s receive kinderbijslag, a quarterly child subsidy. Employees get vakantiegeld, vacation money that is 8% of your annual salary! Capitalism, but with solid ground under people’s feet
  • The future is shifting. Western democracies make up a small portion of the world. Transplanting Western democracy has not been a great success. Societies focused on individual liberties — rather than pushing a nation forward, such as China — are at a crippling disadvantage.


  • Quirks: People leave their blinds open; living room displays. A standard greeting is three kisses. Lackluster cuisine.
  • Words: schat (darling), stoep (stoop), wolkenvelden (cloudfields).
  • Making Gazelle and Batavus bikes for over a century. 40% of all human transport is by bike!
  • The Blaeu Atlas Maior was the most expensive book of 17th century.
  • Erasmus of Rotterdam, coined “liberal studies” for correcting faults within the Church.
  • Jan van der Heyden invented the leather fire hose and perfected the water pump leading to the first usable fire engine. Founded the Amsterdam fire department. Also invented the streetlamp and the first assembly line. His designs spread across Europe. The Dutch da Vinci.
  • Dutch knighthood is a small ribbon called a lintje.
  • Dutch pioneered a small home consisting of a family unit. Innovated the border between public and private space. Houses bear similarities to ships: narrow passages and tight spaces.
  • Amsterdam boasts 178 nationalities — more than New York!

“I’ll end with this.”

“Ever since Auschwitz. Life is Absurd. It has no meaning. But it has beauty, and wonder, and we have to enjoy that.” — Frieda Brommet