This draft, 3 August 2007 Introduction

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The Golden Age of the Dutch Republic
(Utrecht University)
This draft, 3 August 2007


The Dutch Golden Age is an icon of premodern economic growth. The revolt against Philip II and his successors in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century coincided with an unprecedented economic boom and cultural flowering. Between 1580 and 1650 the Dutch became the dominant player in European trade – an achievement based on their large-scale commercial agriculture and fisheries, market-oriented manufacturing, and low-cost shipping services. Besides, a combined military and commercial effort allowed the Dutch colonial companies, VOC and WIC, to establish a dense network of trading posts in Asia, Africa, and the America’s.

The Dutch Republic was a country of entrepreneurs, a society in which the livelihood of a considerable number of men and women depended on their judgmental decisions about the buying and selling of goods and services.1 These entrepreneurs included not just merchants involved in long-distance trade, but also shipmasters, fishermen, millwrights, farmers, artisans, and shopkeepers. Except for the directors of colonial joint-stock companies and the managers of a few large farm estates and manufacturing firms – men who received a fixed reward for their judgmental decisions – the income of these entrepreneurs depended on the profits or losses they made in the market place.

The origins of this entrepreneurial class predate the Golden Age by at least two centuries. Since the late fourteenth century the Dutch were involved in commercial dairy farming, the importation of bread grains, and the export of herring, beer and textiles. In the first half of the sixteenth century the commercialization of the countryside continued with the development of stockbreeding and peat digging while merchants and shipmasters in the coastal provinces established a regular trade with Flanders and Brabant, the Baltic Area, England, and the Atlantic coasts of France and Spain. In short, the entrepreneurial success of the Golden Age was to a large extent the realization of an already existing potential.

Even so, important changes did occur after the independence of the United Provinces. The removal of thousands of laborers and artisans from the southern provinces in the 1580s and 1590s stimulated the manufacturing of textiles, refined sugar, weaponry, paintings, books, maps, and myriad other luxury wares. The Fall of Antwerp in 1585 and the immigration of at least a fifth of its merchant community added considerably to the scale and scope of the Amsterdam market. Finally, without the independence from the Habsburg Empire, the establishment of direct trading links between the Low Countries and Africa, America, and Asia would have been inconceivable.

This chapter analyzes the contribution entrepreneurs in agriculture, industry, and trade made to the Dutch Golden Age. Were these men and women with outstanding personal qualities, either in terms of human, social, or financial capital? Or was it a favourable set of legal, political, and economic institutions – either inherited from an earlier period or copied from more advanced economies – that allowed more men and women than elsewhere in Europe to set up their private businesses, market goods and services, and manage the risks entailed by their reliance on market exchange? Or was there nothing special about either entrepreneurs or institutions, with the Dutch simply taking advantage of economic opportunities foregone by potential competitors caught up in economic crises and continuous warfare elsewhere in Europe?

A Country of Entrepreneurs?

In most accounts of the Dutch Golden Age the contribution of entrepreneurs revolves around the economic achievements of a relatively small group of highly successful merchants and manufacturers.2 The usual suspects include the rich and well-connected Flemish and Portuguese merchants that settled in Amsterdam at the turn of the seventeenth century; the skilled instrument makers, cartographers, schoolmasters, book printers, sugar refiners, painters, and silk weavers from Flanders and Brabant who followed in their wake; and, in the later seventeenth century, the experienced Huguenot silk weavers from France.3 Very few historians of entrepreneurship have looked down the line to the many other men and women who took judgmental decisions about the buying and selling of goods and services.4 And yet their number must have been in the tens of thousands.

A very crude measure to fathom the number of active entrepreneurs would be the urbanization ratio of the Dutch Republic. By the mid-seventeenth century some 40% of the total population lived in towns, albeit with strong regional differences. Urbanization in Holland reached an impressive peak of 60% while it did not exceed 25% in several of the inland provinces.5 Such a high level of urbanization would have been unthinkable without entrepreneurs. First there were the numerous commercial farmers, wholesalers, retailers, and shipmasters responsible for the food supply of the town populations.6 Then there was a group of artisans and tradesmen who supplied households with all kinds of consumer durables.7 Finally, the Dutch economy thrived on the imports and exports of agricultural produce, manufactures, and colonial wares – activities that further stimulated entrepreneurship in town and countryside.8

Yet, to claim that the Dutch Republic was a country of entrepreneurs requires more persuasive reasoning. We need to estimate their numbers. An appropriate starting point would be the countryside of the coastal provinces Holland, Friesland, and Zeeland in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when soil compaction dramatically changed the economic outlook of the rural population.9 Peasants who had previously grown bread grains shifted their production to dairy, meat, and industrial crops such as hemp and madder that were subsequently marketed in the Dutch beyond. At the same time they took on by-employment as peat diggers, brickworker, fisherman, and shipmasters, the result of which was a surprisingly modern looking rural economy with peasant households earning their living with a combination of wage labour and entrepreneurial activities.10

A first approximation of the number of rural entrepreneurs in the countryside can be obtained by looking at the number of households involved in dairy farming – perhaps the single most important agricultural sector. The Italian chronicler Lodovico Guicciardini wrote in 1567 that the annual production of cheese and butter in Holland equaled the value of Portuguese spice imports.11 Preliminary calculations, taking into account the small size of landholdings, and the limited number of cows per household, suggest that around 1500 between one half and two thirds of the total number of households in Holland was involved in commercial dairy farming. Most of these farms were productive enough to secure full employment for the family and in some cases even additional maids or farmhands.12 The total number of rural entrepreneurs in Holland was higher still. For one thing, the peasant households relied on wholesalers and retail traders in villages or small towns to supply their food, clothing and farm supplies such as dung, hay, fodder, equipment, and breeding stock.13 For another, there were hundreds of herring fishers and shipmasters, as well as a small but thriving contingent of entrepreneurs who ran paper-, and sawmills, salt refineries, madder kilns, brick- and tile-works, and shipyards on the banks of the major rivers and lakes.14

But how many were these entrepreneurs? A detailed reconstruction of the wealth and principal occupation of heads of households in the small town of Edam, north of Amsterdam, allows a tentative estimate.15 In 1462 Edam, with a population of 2,400, counted at least 200 fishermen, shipmasters, wholesalers, shipwrights, and well-to-do peasants (with five cows or more). That is not including bakers, butchers, fishmongers, and the like. If we assume that the total workforce made up two thirds of the population, the share of this class of entrepreneurs in this early period was 12.5%. In 1560 the number of town dwellers had grown to 3,750 but now there were fewer (160) rather than more entrepreneurs with a comparable economic status – a development that might be explained by the decline of the number of town dwellers that owned large farm holdings, a greater scale of operations in industry, and perhaps a stronger hold of Amsterdam merchants and shipmasters over shipping and trade.

But the highly commercialized countryside of Holland was a world apart, even in the Dutch Republic.16 Only parts of the coastal provinces of Friesland and Zeeland went through a similar process of agricultural specialization early on.17 The inland provinces retained large areas where agriculture was dominated by subsistence farming, and where urban entrepreneurs offered only a limited set of goods and services.18 Still, even here one finds highly productive agricultural regions dominated by small numbers of wealthy farmers. In the Guelders river area, for example, the early development of term leases, the obligation of landowners (noblemen, religious institutions, and town dwellers) to fund repairs, waterworks, and physical infrastructure, made for high re-investment ratios.19 This stimulated the growth of a small group of large tenants who used their high incomes from farming to fund short-term investments in livestock, seeds, implements, and labour. Using local labour surpluses created by the ever more skewed distribution of landownership and leases, they were able to step up production for the market in the course of the sixteenth century.

Still, the most obvious place to look for entrepreneurial activity is in the major ports and manufacturing centres that were actively involved in domestic and international trade. These included Leyden, Haarlem, Rotterdam, Middelburg, several smaller ports in Holland and Friesland, and of course the city of Amsterdam. The very rich historiography of the latter port allows us to estimate the number of entrepreneurs that worked here in the first quarter of the seventeenth century (Table 1).

Table 1. Estimated number of entrepreneurs working in various sectors in Amsterdam, c. 1620



% population 15-64 years

Retail trade






Wholesale trade






Other services






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