The United Provinces

The United Provinces
1748 map of the United Provinces
Map of the United Provinces in 1748
by Geographicus Rare Antique Maps
Population2 million
LeaderAnthony Heinsius

1 Population of the United Provinces

The population of the United Provinces in the early 18th century is estimated at two million. About one million lived in Holland. Smaller populations lived in the other six provinces and the so-called 'Generaliteitslanden'. On account of this population figure the United Provinces would have been a minor power, but its extreme wealth made the United Provinces a major power in politics as well as culture.

2 Wealth in the United Provinces

2.1 Wealth of the average Dutchman

The average wealth of the Dutch, but also the wealth of the average Dutchman, was about twice as high as in other European states. This wealth came from international trade, from industry and from finance.

2.2 International trade

As regards international trade Dutch traders controlled most of the carrying trade. This meant that as regards transport they not only dominated transport to and from the United Provinces, but also carried lots of goods between other European countries or carried goods to the United Provinces and then exported them anew (the so-called stapel market). This control of transport was based on a cost advantage the Dutch had in shipping. They could built ships at a lower cost than other nations and because of innovations they needed less people to man them.

This in turn led Dutch traders to dominate a lot of markets by acting as middlemen between producers and consumers. For certain goods from the East Indies they in fact did this as monopolists who excluded the competition by violent means. Dutch trade could have reached a relatively high level on this basis alone, but had reached an extraordinary high level in the decades before 1672 through international circumstances. These were the destruction of much of the competition by (civil) warfare and policies that had little regard for mercantile interests. The United Provinces also saw its wars in these decades, but its internal policy made them far less harmful to its traders.

Some aspects of maritime commerce could be named separately. One of these is the 'moedernegotie' which designates the trade to and from the Baltic. Even after the war almost half of the ships passing the Sont would continue to be Dutch. The export to the Baltic consisted for example of finished products and salt. On the return voyage wood and iron were important. The trade to the East Indies was also dominated by the Dutch. It gave them a very strong position in the trade of Asian luxuries and even a kind of monopoly in the trade of certain spices. In the trade of the West Indies the Dutch were not so conspicuously present.

2.3 Dutch industry

The Dutch industry of the time is less well known. There were several reasons that it prospered. The natural reasons were in the geography of the United Provinces. It made transport relatively very very cheap, which led to raw resources costing less money in the United Provinces. The concentration of industry made that this effect multiplied itself.

The other reason was in the way government was organized. In the United Provinces power was very decentralized. The local government in towns and cities was powerful and inclined to act in the interest of local trade and industry. At the time of the War of the Spanish Succession many 'regents' still were themselves traders or industrialists.

2.4 Dutch Finance

With regard to finance one can state that in 1700 Amsterdam had the first stock market of the world and was the primary financial center. It would continue this position for many decades to come.

3 Political Structure

The United Provinces were an alliance of states which had deposed their sovereign and divided his power between his governor (stadholder) and their traditional representative bodies. Amongst these states the province of Holland outweighed all others. While Zeeland traditionally held second place in the union, this was clearly Friesland in 1700. The rather complicated constitution of the United Provinces did not hinder it from achieving a lot of success. For a long time some perceived the Dutch state as an example for the whole of Europe. Many others abhorred its religious toleration.

4 International position

Over the years Dutch success had sparked the aggression of some powerful neighbors. First the aggression came from across the North Sea and thereafter from the south. The issue with the neighbors across the sea was settled in 1674 and more finally in 1688. The problem from the south was forced on the Dutch in 1672 and wasn't considered solved by 1700. It would determine Dutch politics for centuries to come, and even now the elite in The Hague is ever doubtful about French intentions.

One could easily be tempted to think that the Dutch were peaceful traders who only defended themselves in response to unwanted aggression. In certain respects this is a misconception. On lots of occassions the navy was used aggressively to pursue the trade interests in for example the Indies or the Baltic. Custom duties or import and export tariffs were also very important items in any peace negotiation with the United Provinces. One can argue that the Dutch were for free trade and therefore for equal opportunities, but this argument is basically hollow. Primarily because the Dutch had the cost advantage and free trade therefore tended to advance their trade and to disadvantage other nations. Secondly because the Dutch were not wiling to implement it in the areas they controlled.

5 Internal strife

On a personal level Dutch politics were divided between the Orangist party, that was normally supported by the masses and the army, and the Regents party made up primarily of city magistrates/traders and the city of Amsterdam. On a basic level the constitution opened the way for political struggle over the infinite number of entities that were sovereign in their own sphere (provinces, towns, colleges etc.). From 1672 till 1720 William III and later Heinsius had the upper hand in Dutch policy.