Dutch Empire

From New World Encyclopedia
A map showing the territory that the Netherlands held at various points in history. Dark green indicates colonies that either were, or originated from, land controlled by the Dutch West India Company, light green the Dutch East India Company

The Dutch Empire is the name given to the various territories controlled by the Netherlands from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. The Dutch followed Portugal and Spain in establishing a colonial global empire outside of continental Europe. Their skills in shipping and trading and the surge of nationalism and militarism accompanying the struggle for independence from Spain aided the venture. Alongside the British, the Dutch initially built up colonial possessions on the basis of indirect state capitalist corporate colonialism, primarily with the Dutch East India Company. Direct state intervention in the colonial enterprise came later. Dutch merchants and sailors also participated in the surge of exploration that unfolded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though the vast new territories revealed by Willem Barents, Henry Hudson, Willem Janszoon, and Abel Tasman in the Arctic and in Australasia/Oceania did not generally become permanent Dutch colonies.

With Dutch naval power rising rapidly as a major force from the late sixteenth century, the Netherlands reigned supreme at sea, and dominated global commerce during the second half of the seventeenth century. A cultural flowering during the century is known as the Dutch Golden Age. The Netherlands lost many of its colonial possessions, as well as its global power status, to the British when Holland fell to French armies during the Revolutionary Wars. The French centralized government in a Dutch client state during this "French period" from 1795 to 1814. The restored portions of the Dutch empire, notably the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and Suriname remained under The Hague's control until the decline of traditional imperialism in the 20th century. The Netherlands are part of a federacy called the Kingdom of the Netherlands of which its former colonies Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles are also part. One legacy of its colonial past was the development in Holland of openness towards multi-culturalism towards the end of the twentieth century. However, concerns about national cohesiveness and debate about assimilation have led to new laws citizenship to tests related to Holland's cultural and linguistic tradition. The Dutch empire played a significant role in bringing people across the globe into consciousness of belonging to a single human family, and is especially noteworthy as an example of what commerce and trade can achieve.


Commercial origins

Following the founding of the Dutch East India Company (or VOC, from the Dutch Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) in 1602, the Dutch set about wresting control of Portugal's overseas possessions causing the Dutch-Portuguese War. Since 1580, the Portuguese had been allied to the Spanish under a united monarchy, and the Spanish in turn were embroiled in a fierce war against the Dutch, who had rebelled against their overlords. Although united under the same king, Spain and Portugal's overseas empires continued to be administered separately, and the overstretched and under-defended Portuguese possessions presented an easy target to the Dutch, who were particularly interested in taking control of the spice trade.

The Dutch were especially well-placed to achieve this. Much of Holland had been wrestled from the sea, making the Dutch masters of wind and water. The wind-technology that they developed translated into building the best and fastest sailing ships in the world at the time. Their merchant fleet ruled the waves especially during the seventeenth century, although by the eighteenth the British had surpassed Holland as lord of the seas. However, Dutch seamanship and Dutch commercial enterprise resulted in a far-flung series of possessions and colonies, of which the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) was the largest that became the envy of her larger and more powerful neighbor, Germany to the South. To some degree, the colonial enterprises of Germany and Italy, as well as of Leopold II of Belgium was spurred by little Holland's large colonial empire. These later empires were nationalistic projects for the glorification of the motherland (or fatherland) and were not as genuinely commercial as the Dutch empire was for most of its history.

Debate about the usage of the term "Dutch Empire"

Usage of the term "empire" in relation to all of the overseas activities of the Dutch is debatable, because many of the colonies were in fact trading posts governed by two independent trade companies, the Dutch East India Company and Dutch West India Company. Only after 1815, when the British returned the colonies to the Dutch after occupation during the Napoleonic War, did the kingdom (and from 1848 onwards, the parliament) take charge of the administration of the colonies and were the names changed to an official colonial status. Until recently Dutch historians were quite hesitant to use the words "imperialism" and "Empire." Nowadays they use it, but mainly to refer to it in a more European aspect and most of the time only when looking at the period 1880–1940.



Dutch East India Company and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia)

Ships of the Dutch East Indies Company ruled the waves. VOC Amsterdam.

In 1605, Portuguese trading posts in the Spice Islands of Maluku, Indonesia fell to the superior firepower of the Dutch. In 1619 a fortified base was established in Batavia (now Jakarta), and became the headquarters of the Dutch East Indies Company. Following the company's bankruptcy in 1800, Indonesian territory under its administration was nationalized as the Dutch East Indies. By the early twentieth century, the Netherlands had under its administration all the territory that now forms Indonesia. Indonesian independence was declared on August 17, 1945, and officially recognized by the Netherlands in December 1949, following the Indonesian National Revolution. During World War II, Holland was occupied by Nazi Germany and Indonesia by Japan. Following Indonesia's liberation, the Dutch attempted to regain control. They fought so tenaciously to keep their colony that subsequent to independence, little of the type of cultural and linguistic links between the former colony and the former colonizers survived, unlike in, for example, the former French colonial space. At independence, there were very few Indonesia graduates and no qualified medical doctors at all.[1]

This may in part result from the fact that Dutch is less useful internationally than French. Dutch New Guinea however, remained Dutch until 1962, when it was transferred to Indonesia following United States pressure.

Dutch Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

The Dutch first landed in Ceylon in 1602, and it was then under Portuguese control. Between 1636 and 1658, they managed to oust the Portuguese, initially at the invitation of local rulers. The Portuguese had ruled the coastline, though not the interior, of the island from 1505 to 1658. Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims had all suffered religious persecution under Portuguese rule; the Dutch were more interested in trade than in religious converts. The VOC proved unable to extend its control into the interior and only controlled coastal provinces. Ceylon remained a major Dutch trading post throughout the VOC period. Ceylon's importance came from it being a half-way point between their settlements in Indonesia and South Africa. The island itself was a source of cinnamon and elephants, which were sold to Indian princes. In 1796 the British seized control of the Dutch positions, at the urging of the ruler of Kandy. It was formally ceded in the treaty of Amiens.

Formosa (Taiwan)

The Dutch maintained a base, Fort Zeelandia, on Taiwan from 1624 until 1662, when they were driven away by Koxinga. The island itself was a source of cane sugar and deerskin. It was also a place where Dutch VOC merchants could trade with Chinese merchants from the mainland. Here they could buy the silk needed for the Japanese market.


The Dutch captured Malacca on the west coast of Malaya (now West Malaysia) in 1641 from the Portuguese. In accordance with a treaty signed with stadtholder William V of Orange (then in exile in the United Kingdom) it was turned over to the British in 1806, during the Napoleonic wars. It was returned to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1816. It was then ceded to the British in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824.


Initially, the Dutch maintained a trading post at Hirado, from 1609–41. Later, the Japanese granted the Dutch a trade monopoly on Japan, but solely on Deshima, an artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan, from 1641 to 1853. During this period they were the only Europeans allowed into Japan. Chinese and Korean traders were still welcome, though restricted in their movements.

New Holland

The part of Australia now known as Western Australia was recognized as in the Netherlands sphere of control and known as New Holland. No formal claim was ever made through an attempt to settle the region, although much of the North West coast has Dutch names. There are many Dutch shipwrecks littered all along the coast, (such as the Batavia) that were wrecked on their way to the East Indies. By the time the British arrived, they noticed that there were small pockets of the indigenous population with blond hair and blue eyes.


The Dutch held territory in central and southern Iran from 1623-1766. They held trading posts in Isfahan, Bandar Abbas, Kerman, and Sjiraas. There were also a number of Dutch forts in Central and Southern Iran at the time. The Dutch reached their peak extension conquering all of Central-Southern Iran by the 1680s. The Dutch would lose influence to the Portuguese and British (more so the British) and their last stronghold, the fort, Kharg was destroyed by the Persian Army in 1766.


The Dutch held the city of Sindi (now Thatta) from 1652-1660.

South Africa

A painting of the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in Table Bay, 1652 (by Charles Bell)

In 1652, the Dutch East India Company under Jan van Riebeeck (1619-1677) established a refueling station at the Cape of Good Hope, situated half-way between the Dutch East Indies and the Dutch West Indies. Great Britain seized the colony in 1797, during the wars of the First Coalition (in which the Netherlands were allied with revolutionary France), and annexed it in 1805. The Dutch colonists in South Africa remained after the British took over and later made the trek across the country to Natal. They were subjected in the Boer Wars and are now known as Boers. Britain regarded the Cape as vital to her supremacy in India. Until the building of the Suez Canal, it was a major port of call on the voyage to and from the jewel in her colonial crown.

The Americas

New Netherland

New Netherland comprised the areas of the north east Atlantic seaboard of the present-day United States that were visited by Dutch explorers and later settled and taken over by the Dutch West India Company. The settlements were initially located on the Hudson River: Fort Nassau (1614–7) in present-day Albany (later resettled as Fort Orange in 1624), and New Amsterdam, founded in 1625, on Manhattan Island. New Netherland reached its maximum size after the Dutch absorbed the Swedish settlement of Fort Christina in 1655, thereby ending the North American colony of New Sweden.

New Netherland itself formally ended in 1674, after the Third Anglo-Dutch War: Dutch settlements passed to the English crown and New Amsterdam was renamed New York.

The treaty forged by the Dutch and English may, in a nutshell, be regarded as a cessation of hostilities and that each party would hold onto any lands held or conquered at the time of the Treaty of Breda ending the previous Second Anglo-Dutch War. There was no exchange of lands. Hence, the English held onto what had been an easily-conquered New Amsterdam of Peter Stuyvesant (including Manhattan Island and the Hudson River Valley), and the Dutch spoils included what is now Dutch Guiana or Suriname in South America as well as a small island in the East Indies (the Spice Islands) that was the home of the most valuable spice (if not substance) in the world: Nutmeg. At the time nutmeg was much more valuable than gold. This island was the only place in the world where the nutmeg tree was found. At the time, the Dutch were very pleased with getting the nutmeg isle and did not regret the loss of New Amsterdam.

Dutch West Indies

The colonization of the Dutch West Indies, an island group at the time claimed by Spain, began in 1620 with the taking of St. Maarten, and remains a Dutch overseas territory to this day, as part of the Netherlands Antilles. Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles are organized as two self-governing units whose legal relationship to the Kingdom of the Netherlands is controlled by the Charter for the Kingdom of the Netherlands.


Captured by the Dutch from the English during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, Suriname and its valuable sugar plantations formally passed into Dutch hands in return for New Netherland with the signing of the Treaty of Westminster in 1674. It remained an overseas Dutch territory until independence was granted in 1975.


In the sixteenth century, European settlers first arrived in this area of north South America, the Netherlands being the fastest to claim the land. Around 1600, the first trade route was established by the Dutch. Eventually, the Netherlands planted three colonies to further mark the territory under the Netherlands rule; Essequibo (1616), Berbice (1627), and Demerara (1752). The British occupied Guyana in the late eighteenth century. The Netherlands ceded Guyana to the United Kingdom in (1814).


In 1624, The Dutch captured and held for a year Salvador, the capital of the Portuguese settlements in Brazil.

From 1630 to 1654, the Dutch West Indies Company controlled a long stretch of the coast from Sergipe to Maranhão, which they renamed New Holland, before being ousted by the Portuguese. A major character from the war was a mestizo named Calabar, who changed sides and changed the course of the fighting in favor of the Dutch, for a while. He was captured and executed by the Portuguese.

Virgin Islands

First settled by the Dutch in 1648, but they were annexed by England in 1672, later to be renamed the British Virgin Islands.


"Nieuw-Walcheren" (1628–77) is now part of Trinidad and Tobago.


The Netherlands were granted control of the Southern Netherlands after the Congress of Vienna. The southern Netherlands declared independence in 1830 (the Belgian Revolution), and its independence was recognized by the Netherlands in 1839, giving birth to Belgium. As part of the Congress of Vienna, King William I of the Netherlands was made Grand Duke of Luxembourg, and the two countries united into a personal union. The independence of Luxembourg was ratified in 1869. When William III of the Netherlands died in 1890, leaving no male successor, the Grand Duchy was given to another branch of the House of Nassau.


Relations between Holland and several former colonies are cordial. Dutch-Indonesian relations have been more complex. Dispute over sovereignty of West New Guinea. Between 1949 and 1962—when West Guinea was handed over to Indonesia—there was very little formal contact between Holland and Indonesia apart from normal diplomatic exchange. In 1962, an aid program started which spent over five billion over the next thirty years. However, no "influence" was gained in Indonesian affairs. This, it has been suggested, may be a "perfect example of decolonization."[2] Church links between Holland and former colonies are strong, due to the missionary legacy—the Dutch Reformed Church and the Catholic Church engaged in extensive missionary activity throughout the Dutch empire. The academic study of Islam has a long presence in the University system in Holland, largely due to historic links with the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia. Migrants from former colonies have also settled in Holland, where by the late twentieth century a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural society comprised some 10 percent of the total population. However, concern about social cohesion and national identity and preservation of the majority's linguistic and cultural heritage led to new tests for citizens being introduced in 2005.[3] What had been celebrated as a "successful, tolerant, multicultural community" was becoming increasingly polarized by the start of the twenty-first century, according to an all-party Parliamentary report.[4]


  1. S. Ramachander, Interpreting the colonial legacy, The Hindu Business Line. Retrieved June 16, 2008.
  2. Jan-Paul Dirkse, Five billion dollars spent, no influence gained, International Institute for Asian Studies. Retrieved June 16, 2008.
  3. BBC, Dutch set immigrants culture tests. Retrieved June 16, 2008.
  4. Angus Roxburgh, Dutch are "polarized" says report, BBC. Retrieved June 16, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Andeweg, Rudy C., and Galen A. Irwin. Governance and Politics of the Netherlands. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. ISBN 1403935297
  • Boxer, C.R. The Dutch in Brazil, 1624–1654. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1973. ISBN 978-0208013385
  • Boxer, C.R. The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600–1800. New York: Knopf, 1965. ISBN 0090744608
  • Bromley, J.S., and E.H. Kossmann. Britain and the Netherlands in Europe and Asia. London: Macmillan, 1968.
  • Corn, Charles. The Scents of Eden: A Narrative of the Spice Trade. New York: Kodansha International, 1998. ISBN 978-1568362021
  • Elphick, Richard, and Hermann Buhr Giliomee. The Shaping of South African society, 1652-1820. Cape Town, ZA: Longman, 1979. ISBN 978-0582646445
  • Gaastra, F. S. The Dutch East India Company: expansion and decline. Zutphen, NL: Walburg Pers, 2003. ISBN 978-9057302411
  • Postma, Johannes. The Dutch in the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0521365857
  • Wesseling, H. L. Imperialism and Colonialism: Essays on the History of European Expansion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0313304316


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.