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Dutch Treat

The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600-1800

by C.R. Boxer, in the series The History of Human Society edited by J.H. Plumb
Knopf, 326 pp., $6.95

History, we are told, has never been more popular with the reading public. But if Dr. Plumb is right, the art of writing history is in a poorish way. In his lively Introduction to this new series, he observes that as professional history becomes more accurate, public history becomes more shallow. It is the classic problem of the age; a specialization that leaves the pundits drowning in the heady promise of the Arkansas and Missouri Rail Strike of 1921 or the seductions of Enterprise in the Oxfordshire Horsehair Industry, 1775-1776. If this were merely how historians began life it would matter little. Too often it is how they end it. This new series is designed to encourage historians and readers to take a more comprehensive vision of the past.

It was a felicitous choice to begin with Professor Boxer’s book. The puzzle of Dutch history, the swift rise of these two small, sodden, water-logged provinces by the North Sea to be the center of a world empire, can never cease to fascinate the human imagination. Few historians are better qualified than Charles Boxer to probe its mysteries. A professional soldier by training, he has written less about armies and battlefields than about sailors and the sea, acquiring an enviable reputation among those most exacting disciplinarians, the naval historians. For nearly twenty years he has been Camoëns Professor of Portuguese at London University. But he is as familiar with the sources and literature of Dutch history as he is with that of the Portuguese, upon whose heels (or should it be toes?) the Dutch trod in the Americas, Africa, and the East.

In his first chapter he compasses the rise of the Netherlands; in his last their decline. Human history can show few more striking instances of a people pulling themselves up by their boot-straps, few more calculated to persuade even an anti-Toynbee-ite of the occasional merits of challenge-and-response. The story would (and did) delight eighteenth-century philosophers. For here were men growing rich not only by the challenge of scarcity at home, but by the opportunities offered by the poverty of others. Private Vices, Public Benefits with a vengeance.

The population explosion of the sixteenth century created great pockets of want in Europe. The Dutch moved in to supply them and richly profited thereby. From Lübeck to the Levant, from Batavia to Brazil, they mastered the world of trade and ground their would-be Spanish conquerors to a halt at the same time. Out of an ex parte lawyer’s brief came the concepts of Grotius that still govern our ideas of international law and order. From the accidents of war, still displeasing to historical determinists, sprang a recognizably modern nation.

After eighty years of war, the treaties of 1648 brought peace and prosperity’s peak to the new Republic. It was a century before decline set in. Even then no spectacular collapse; rather a stand-still in the midst of gathering pace elsewhere, a creeping paralysis that left the nerves of society numb, initiative frozen. The burden of defending a world empire proved in the end too large for a people which had never numbered more than one-third of the English or a tenth of the French. The marvel was not that they fell, but that they lasted so long, even that they ever began.

THE STORY, with its strange confusion of human achievement and human cruelty, is not consistently edifying. It is precisely in the dichotomy that its epic quality consists; in the failures as well as the triumphs. Professor Boxer does ample justice to the tragic theme. What was the driving force behind this fantastic progress? Motley’s version—the Calvinist David smiting down the alien Papist Goliath—will not do. Single-handed, Pieter Geyl has discredited it. Even by 1648 the Calvinists were only a bare majority in the North. Only by wilful distortion can the Dutch evidence be recruited in support of the old theory that capitalism was cradled in Calvinism. For of all the fissions in this ramshackle federation, none went so deep as that between the Calvinists and the relatively liberal merchant governors whose earthy politics threatened the crusading zeal of the godly, solemnly arrayed to establish their rule on earth.

Professor Boxer establishes all this in clear, bold outline. But good though these outer sections of his book are, they are less strikingly original than the middle of his sandwich. It is when he turns to the social structure, the condition of the people (seafarers in particular) and the problems of commercial expansion into the distant markets of South America, South Africa, and the East Indies, that he really comes into his own. Here we immediately sense something of what it was like to have lived in those societies. The sense is conveyed by the meticulous observation of the scholar and his humane perception of its tragedy, even occasionally of its comedy. For behind the wealth, the great houses along the slow canals, the rich flowering of creative genius, lay another world of poverty and brutality, a world of almshouses, dockside mobs, and sailors whose lot at sea was often little better than that of slaves in a transport. The great Tromp felt compelled to decline an invitation to dinner with an English admiral because he could not trust the behavior of even his own captains at table. The world of Jan Steen and Ostade was a rough place. Its perils are vividly portrayed here.

Best of all are the chapters on the great colonial trading companies and life in the tropical settlements. Their servants either died or grew rich quick on illegal private trading. But genuine immigrants remained a mere trickle. White women were scarce. The men were driven to the arms and charms (not inconsiderable) of half-caste or native concubines. Here again, what Professor Boxer calls the “repellent” mixture of Calvinism and sadism, increased rather than diminished the problems of both Europeans and natives. In South Africa, one can early detect the contrast between the relative liberalism of the Cape Dutch and the Calvinist bigotry of the back-country Boers. Were chaplains needed at sea, missionaries in the tropics? Calvinism was largely deaf to such calls. Its colonial influence (says Professor Boxer) was “negative.”

A dark picture? In some ways yes. But we must remember that the equation of religion with social humanism had little appeal to an age which saw life (in the words of a wartime sailor of the the 1940s) as “long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of intense fear.” Fear, disease, poverty ruled. The triumph was the greater when a minority rose above their challenge, even as a minority behind the Iron Curtain can still rise to understand the meaning of a freedom they have never enjoyed. But the creative genius, the sciences, the painting and the education of the Dutch Golden Age were for all time. Even in the colonies civility kept breaking in. The India Company repeatedly exhorted its servants to conduct themselves with dignity and humanity to the natives. Mere aspiration? Maybe, but aspirations are important. Dutch tolerance may have been limited and expedient, but it was, after all, better to abuse your opponent than to burn him alive. For all its weaknesses, this was a civilization pointing the way to better and nobler things.

By 1764 James Boswell was painting a gloomy picture of Dutch poverty and decline from his lodgings in Utrecht. At the other end of the world, cynics were translating the initials of the Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.) as “Vergaan Onder Corruptie“—collapsed under corruption. Exaggerated maybe: but undeniably the great days were gone. That they were great days Professor Boxer demonstrates, all the more surely because this is a true portrait, painted not only with skill and learning, but with understanding, warts and all. Linguistic barriers may explain why there are so few good books on Dutch history written in English. Of those few, most are academic exercises. This one is in a different class, welcome not merely because it will be indispensibly useful, but because it is a work of rare quality.

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