Canals of Amsterdam

The Port of Amsterdam…

Amsterdam is one of those places where local circumstances changed human history. It’s hard to appreciate because doing so requires asking questions so fundamental that they are taken for granted without bothering to ask.

“How did the United States develop a taste for multiculturalism when the original European colonists were religious zealots, prisoners, and Highlanders too dangerous to leave in Scotland?

A significant part of the answer is that old New York was once Nieuw-Amsterdam.

Amsterdam is built of different stuff than feudal Europe. As the saying goes, God made Earth, but the Dutch made Holland. This is an important distinction because land that was “made” by areas reclaimed from the sea was not feudal land. Collective water boards formed and owned land, who then sold the land to individuals. The water boards were easy for people to buy into, so while much of the investment came from people already wealthy, a lot came from the local butcher, baker, or chandler. Land in Holland was not ruled by divine right, and people could pool resources to create a corporate profit. While not middle class by modern standards, land ownership was available to anyone with the resources to buy in. Land title could be bought and sold and was not held by a lord or king.

It’s one of the great twists of Western history that one of the foundation stones of personal property rights was the need for people to work connectivity to take land from the sea.

The sea provided a second piece of Amsterdam’s magic in the form of herring. Not in having herring; everyone had that. But Amsterdam discovered a way of preserving herring that could last over a year, be easily transportable, and be done at sea by experienced hands.

This meant that the onshore fishery could become an offshore fishery, leading to the Dutch developing seamanship and larger craft. Now, with ocean-going craft and a market, the Dutch needed products for the backhaul. Imported raw materials led to local industry and the need for more trade. And in trade, there is one foundational truth, and that is that profit is made from differences, not similarities.

Dutch colonizers were still colonizers, but many of their colonies were formed on the understanding that trade with locals was more profitable than outright subjugation. Colonies, yes, but also trading posts.

When Nieuw-Amsterdam was being formed, Amsterdam was possibly the most cosmopolitan city on Earth, and their American colony, with its wealth of oysters and furs, relied on local knowledge and workforce to fill Dutch ships. And the city that would go on to be the financial powerhouse of the United States was rooted firmly in its original namesake.

And that namesake, Amsterdam, is the city I get to explore today.

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