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 …