The Netherlands’ position at the threshold of the sea has historically been both a blessing and a curse. From its earliest settlement, inhabitants made efforts to keep their heads above water, as remains evident from the artificial mounds they constructed along the coast of Friesland. In modern times, vast public works projects have been undertaken, such as the Delta Project, built to protect the province of Zeeland after major floods in 1953. But the country has also taken advantage of its position and prospered from its overseas trade. Much of its productive farmland stands upon lands reclaimed from the seabed.
Defenceless against the onslaught of foreign powers in its nascent stages, the Netherlands was ruled by a succession of overlords. The forts of Nijmegen and Maastricht are evidence of Roman domination at the start of Christian era. During feudal times, the Franks took over, then the Holy Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages some measure of independence emerged under the Dukes of Burgundy and the region began to prosper from a thriving cloth industry.
Conflict erupted in the 16th century as Spain wielded its imperial power to suppress the rise of Protestantism in the northern provinces. Allying with the Catholic provinces to the south, Holland revolted against the Spanish and declared independence in 1588. A period of economic prosperity and cultural flowering ensued in the 17th century now recognised as Holland’s golden age. During this period, the country became a colonial power in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and South America while the settlement of New Amsterdam in 1625 established a beachhead in North America. Concurrently, shipbuilding and related industries flourished. Wars with England over control of sea trade checked Holland’s ascendance, and France annexed the country in 1795. After the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, Prince William I of Orange became king and the 17 northern and southern provinces of the Netherlands reunited only to be severed again in 1830, as Belgium declared independence.
The 19th century saw a shift to an industrialised society. The country managed to stay out of World War 1, but a few decades later succumbed to the onslaught of the Nazis, who systematically decimated Holland’s Jewish population. After World War 2, the Netherlands developed a progressive social welfare system and saw major migration from Morocco, Turkey and the former Dutch colonies of Surinam and the Antilles as a response to labour shortages.
Did you know?
• The World Happiness Report ranks the Netherlands the seventh happiest nation in the world.
• The age of the Dutch Masters in the 17th century produced many painters including Rembrandt and Vermeer.
• Famed Dutch actors include Rutger Hauer, Michael Huisman (Game of Thrones) and Famke Janssen.