The Netherlands – A little history

The United Kingdom of the Netherlands was formed in 1815 following the downfall of Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo when the Dutch also fought alongside the British and Prussian forces – See Belgium section for more information on the Battle of Waterloo, fought just outside of Brussels.

The Netherlands also has a great history and here on these pages we have set down a Brief History of the Netherlands that we hope you find interesting to read.

Today The Netherlands has a population of around 17 million people, with around a million people located in the greater Amsterdam City area, Amsterdam being the biggest city.

Other big cities in the Netherlands are Rotterdam with about 600,000 people, The Hague, 475,000 people and Utrecht with around 300,000 people.

While these city numbers may sound small, they bely the fact that The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the whole country being around 160 kilometres east to west and 260 kilometres from north to south. Its coastline, with all its inlets, bays, islands and waterways is just 450 kilometres long.

The country is made up of 12 Provinces - Noord-Holland, Zuid Holland, Zeeland, Noord Brabant, Utrecht, Flevoland, Friesland, Groningen, Drenthe, Overijssel, Gelderland and Limburg.

Given that North Holland and South Holland are two of the biggest provinces, it is perhaps natural enough then that The Netherlands is often referred to as Holland, but then the people themselves are referred to as “Dutch.

Some 50% of the population have Dutch ancestry, while the other 50% have mixed ancestry, people having moved here of the past few centuries from different parts of Europe or former parts of the Dutch Empire – South Africa, Indonesia and Suriname.

The Netherlands is sometimes referred to as “one of the Low Countries” along with Belgium and Luxembourg, due to the fact that the country occupies land that is largely flat and part of the delta region of a number of Rivers, including the Rhine, Meuse, Amstel and others.

Some 26% of the country is located on reclaimed land from the ocean or river systems, with the highest mountain or hill in the south east of the country, ‘Vaalserberg’, being just 322.4 metres above sea level (1058 Feet).

Where land has been reclaimed, large concrete and earth walls called ‘Dikes’ (Dijk) have been built to protect the lands and property from the waters outside, with canals being built to provide both a transport link and also help disperse extra river waters. Much of the reclaimed land was initially for agriculture, but as towns and cities grew, including Amsterdam, they have also been built on the reclaimed land. Flooding has also been an issue at certain times too, the worst flooding being in 1953, though since that time there have been many changes made to protect the land and property from future flooding.

The country is also called the ‘land of windmills’, and there are over 1000 windmills dotted around the country, many used to pump water and others to grind grain. The windmills create a unique part of the Dutch landscape, the oldest windmills dating back to the 14th century. In recognition of the role that Windmills have played in Dutch life, each year they celebrate National Windmill Day on the 1st Saturday and Sunday of May when many of the windmills are open for visitors.

The Dutch also created a unique wooden shoes called ‘Clogs’ (Kloppen) and the oldest records of these shoes being used dates back to 1230-1280AD. Handmade wooden clogs were used by farmers and ideal for walking on wet or boggy soils, sometimes lined with straw to keep the feet warmer or drier. Once worn out they could also be used as firewood, or if planning for an occasion, they could be decorated by the user. Today most Clogs are produced for tourist souvenirs, but they certainly are a unique part of Dutch tradition and Dutch Identity.


Looking back in history, The Netherlands  lands were first invaded by the Romans under the command of Julius Caesar around 59BC, over 2000 years ago, with the Romans establishing  a military base in the now city of Nijmegan and a main base in Utrecht.  By the 5th century, the Franks had gained control and then Charlemagne (747-814) and the protestant Carolingian Empire gained power around 780-800AD, with individual Dukedoms then ruling the lands.

The Netherlands with its location on the North Sea and rivers enabled it to establish trade and in the 12th Century some of its merchants and cities joined with the powerful Hanseatic “Hansa” League.

The Hansa trade Guild, headquartered in Lubeck in Germany, managed to establish a trade monopoly that lasted for 300 years stretching from the Baltic Scandinavian ports to Bruges (in Belgium), to London and even to Verona in Italy. To read more about the Hansa League – see the Lubeck Germany section and also Bruges in Belgium section of this website. The Hansa had trade control over many markets from grains, to hides, minerals, cloth and textiles, ceramics and more, even having their own shipyards and navy forces. The name of the German airline Lufthansa also is derived from the Hansa.

The 1500’s saw the European Hapsburg Dynasty gain control, and then in 1555 the Netherlands came under Spanish control when Phillip II of Spain (a Catholic but also Hapsburg family member) inherited the Netherlands and gained control.  In 1579 the ‘Union of Utrecht’ was formed by the Dutch Prince of Orange (William the Silent), allowing freedom of religion and claiming independence from Catholic Spain.  This would be the start of an eighty year war between the fighters from the Dutch provinces and the Spanish Crown, with Spain only finally only recognizing the Independence of The Netherlands in 1648.

The year 1594 saw the ‘Compagnie van Verre’ formed, to explore foreign lands with the company outfitting 4 ships to set sail for the Orient, the commander of the Fleet being Cornelis de Houtman(1565-1599), who would also die on the voyage along with most of the crews.

The year 1600 saw the formation of the ‘British East India Company’ in London, followed in 1601 by the ‘Dutch West India Company’ and the formation Charter of the ‘Dutch East India Company’ with the world’s first Stock Exchange in Amsterdam established in 1602. The 1600’s, 1700’s and 1800’s would herald in “The Golden Age” of Dutch Exploration, Colonisation and Trade, with Dutch merchants, bankers and ship owners becoming immensely wealthy in the process, though many ships would be lost too.   

While the Portuguese followed by the Spanish may have been the first European Powers to explore the New World and Asia and establish trade, the Dutch with great seamanship also followed, their greatest success being the establishment in 1619 of the port city of ‘Batavia’ Modern day Jakarta in Indonesia, where they were able to secure spices to bring back to sell in Europe.

Just one Dutchman, Cornelis de Houtman (1565-1599) (see above) and his brother Frederik who were imprisoned in Portugal for two years managed to smuggle maps and information about the Portuguese Trade Routes back to The Netherlands and this information proved vital in the perilous sea journeys of the time.

Some of the famous Dutch explorers also found and mapped new lands too – Dirk Hartog had landed in Western Australia in 1616, leaving behind a Pewter Plate nailed to a tree with an inscription and Abel Tasman had in 1642 named a land that he found in the great southern Ocean, Van Diemen’s land and then a new land that he named as Nova Zeelandia (after the Dutch Province of Zeeland). This would later be anglicized to New Zealand.

The Dutch East India Company had also sponsored the voyage of Englishman, Henry Hudson (c.1565-70- 1611) to the north east coast of America and in 1609 he sailed up the River that became known as the Hudson River. This led on to the establishment of the Nieuw Nederland Compagnie in1614 and the establishment of Fort Nassau and a Fort in Albany. In turn the city of New Amsterdam was established in 1625.

Seeing the wealth brought back to Spain and Portugal also saw the Dutch involved in Piracy and attack on a number of the Portuguese and Spanish ships and colonial outposts too, with mixed success. They had attacked the Portuguese Port of Goa in India in 1603 and tried again in 1610 and they also tried to take over Macau from the Portuguese too, the last attempt being in 1622, when they were successfully defeated.

As with other Colonial Powers, the Dutch too with a sweep of the hand, sword, cannons, firepower and the right of King, or Queen and Country take claim over faraway lands in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

In 1637 the Dutch West India Company claimed the town of Recife in Brazil from Portugal, but then received tons of gold from Portugal in 1661 under the Treaty of den Hague on the basis that the Dutch relinquish all claim to Brazil.

In 1638 the Dutch East India Company claimed ownership over the island of Mauritius, bringing slaves to the island to grow and develop the sugar industry. They abandoned Mauritius in 1710, at which time the French and later British claimed ownership.

In 1642 the Dutch also attempted to establish a trading post in the Philippines from the Spanish and also on the island of Formosa (Taiwan) without success, but where they did have great success was in establishing a trading base with the Japanese in 1639. They gained exclusivity to all trade with Japan until 1854, with the exclusion of the Spanish, Portuguese, French and British – quite an achievement.

In southern Africa, the Dutch established a settlement in what became Cape Town in 1652 and over the years that followed they established the Cape Colony and Cape Town as an important port for ships travelling between Europe and Asia, picking up fresh supplies and trading in animals, slaves and goods that they brought with them or purchased in Cape Town.

Local tribal people, Dutch settlers, including Huguenots, African slaves from West Africa and indentured workers from Dutch Settlements in Malacca on the Malay Peninsula and Batavia (Jakarta) enabled Cape Town to develop into an important port city. This mix of races also led to a Dutch hybrid language developing that encompassed a mix of Dutch and local languages – Afrikaans with the Dutch settlers becoming known as ‘Boers’ and also moving to establish farms in the hinterlands.

The mid 1600’s also saw wars fought between Britain and the Dutch in what became known as the Anglo-Dutch Wars – the most significant result being the in 1667, when under the Treaty of Breda, the British took ownership over New Amsterdam, renaming it New York, and exchanged New Netherlands for the settlement of Suriname on the northern coast of South America, closer to some of the other Dutch Netherlands Antilles Settlements in the Caribbean – Sint Maarten, Aruba and Curaçao. See the Caribbean section of this website for more information on these islands and the other Dutch settled islands of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba.


While the Dutch influence in the United States ended with the British gaining control over New Amsterdam (New York), Albany and the Hudson River Valley in 1667, many of the people who were Dutch or had Dutch heritage continued to live in the New York and New Jersey states and you can still see the Dutch influence in some of the Dutch Architecture in the valley, as well as place names like Haarlem, Yonkers and people’s names such as Roosevelt, Vanderbilt, van Dyke and others.

In Malacca in Malaysia, the Dutch seized power from the Portuguese in 1641 and then ruled over this city from 1641 to 1825 at which time the British gained control. A number of Malaysians also today have some Dutch Heritage and there are some buildings in the centre of Malacca that have elements of the former Portuguese Settlement and also the Dutch Governor’s House (Stadhuys) is still standing in Dutch Square.

The Dutch first established Batavia (Jakarta) in 1619 with the country named as the Dutch East Indies and they maintained the Dutch East Indies as part of their colonial empire until World War Two, when the Japanese took control. After the war, they tried to regain their former authority, but the Indonesians declared their independence in 1945, resisting all attempts by the Dutch to reclaim the country. In 1949 the Dutch formally accepted that independence. During the war many of the Dutch fled the Japanese invasion, heading to Australia and other places, and in the post war period many more would leave too.

There are still people in Indonesia who have Dutch Heritage and certainly there are many colonial buildings and infrastructure that was built during the 326 years that the Dutch governed the Dutch East Indies. Many Indonesians have also over the years moved to The Netherlands too, and today there are many Indonesian restaurants in The Netherlands.

The Netherlands still maintains its relationship with its former Caribbean colonies, including Suriname (formerly Dutch Guinea) which gained independence in 1975. There are many Suriname people who also now live in the Netherlands.

South Africa and the Cape Colony established in 1652 was under Dutch Governorship until 1795, reverting to the Dutch in 1803, before then going back to the British in 1806, with a large number of British settlers arriving in the post Napoleonic War period (post 1815). The Dutch Boer settlers had been here by this time for over 140 years, so they had a well-established way of life, speaking Afrikaans and using slaves for labour. In 1834 the British abolished Slavery, though slaves were bonded to their masters until 1838. This and other issues ultimately led to the Boer War between the Boers and the British that lasted from 1899 to 1902.

Today the biggest languages spoken in South Africa are Zulu, Xhosa and other African languages. Afrikaans is however the main language used by those of Dutch heritage with English spoken by those with English heritage. Many people of both Dutch and English heritage have also left South Africa and moved to countries including The Netherlands, Britain, Canada, USA, New Zealand and Australia.

In The Netherlands there have also been changes too down through the centuries.

In 1581 the Dutch Republic declared itself free of Spanish rule, with the 7 provinces in The Netherlands forming the Republic.  The Republic lasted until 1795 when it was replaced for a short while by the Batavian Republic, only to be dissolved by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806 when Napoleon’s brother, Louis was declared as King of the Netherlands. He too was replaced in 1810, with France becoming the Authority from Paris until 1813, with Britain signing a Treaty with the Dutch to provide its defence as its ‘protectorate’.

The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 saw Napoleon defeated by the combined forces of Britain, Prussia and the Dutch forces, and as a result the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was formed when the Congress of Vienna sanctioning new borders for the European powers at the time. Under this new arrangement the south and north of the Netherlands was joined as one. Fifteen years later in 1830 the southern part of the Netherlands separated to become Belgium – a country that has Flemish, French and German as its three languages. Flemish is very close to Dutch with a few different idioms and expressions, but is much closer to Dutch than Afrikaans, which is about 90% Dutch. Luxembourg also became a principality, but still maintains close relations with the Netherlands.

During World War One, the Netherlands remained Neutral, and towards the end of the war, it granted asylum to German Kaiser Wilhelm when he fled from Germany. World War Two however saw the Germans invade the Netherlands and large numbers of Jewish people taken to work and concentration camps.

A Jewish girl, Anne Frank wrote a diary of her for 2 years hidden in a secret annexe room room along with 7 members of her family in order to stay hidden from the Nazis.

In 1944 the family and those who had kept them hidden were discovered by the Gestapo and sent to concentration camps in Germany. Only Anne’s father would survive, with Anne dying in 1944 at age just 15.

 While hidden in the attic, Anne wrote a diary of her daily life, her diary only found at the end of the war. So moving was the story that Anne wrote, that the diary became a worldwide best-selling book and the house itself was set up as a Museum for people to see and gain an understanding of the times when Anne Frank lived here. The Museum is located at Prinsengracht 267.

While the Netherlands operates as a democracy and is part of the EU, it also has a Royal Family from the House of Orange-Nassau, the first King of the Netherlands being William 1st (1533-1584) and his descendants trace their family history back to him. The current King of the Netherlands is King Willem-Alexander.

Hopefully this short history of the Netherlands will add to your knowledge of the country and its people. It is a beautiful country to visit and quite distinct to other countries in Europe.

I hope you have a great time here in the Netherlands – seeing the cities, windmills, countryside, enjoying the bars, restaurants, museums and art galleries, taking a canal trip or riding a bicycle to take in the lifestyle of the Dutch people. There is a lot to see and do here in the Netherlands.

Happy travels

Geoff Stuart



Happy Traveller

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