Monday, February 11, 2013

There was a time


I write this from the Dutch East India (VOC) Cafe located in the Tower of Tears.  This was the home to the harbormaster, who collected all duties and tariffs on ships coming and going.  It was also the last point where families said goodbye to their relatives before the sailed off into parts unknown.  Seeped in tears and hopes of a speedy return.  The world has gone snow globe, and I am staring out the back into the black canal brightened with white snow.   The sign outside stated:

From this ancient "Tower of Tears, erected in 1462, Henry Hudson set sail April 4, 1609 on the vessel "Half Moon."  On that voyage of discovery that would bring him to the harbor of New York New Amsterdam and the Hudson River
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I properly started my morning at the Koninklijk Palace (Royal Palace).  This opulent building was better known as the Stadhuis or City Hall.  Constructed in 1648, in the golden age of Hollandia, when the Netherlands mercantile empire stretched across the vast seas.  In a time when cloves were gold, and cinnamon silver, the Dutch prospered without compare.  This City Hall was a place for the people, and was accessible to all.  I made my way into Citizens Hall, the ornate marble structure to showcase Amsterdam as the center of the world.

The power of Amsterdam as the center of world trade was expressed in the marble architecture and marble statues that filled the rich hall.  There were marble maps on the floor of the Eastern and Western hemisphere, which flanked a map of the northern constellations that helped guide the merchant fleet.  High above on the ceiling was a huge fresco.  

At the near end, the patroness saintess  of Amsterdam sat on high and gazed down over the worlds she ruled, accompanied with figures representing the power of Hercules and the wisdom of the grey-eyed Pallas Athena.

At the far end, a marble Atlas towered high above.  Below Atlas, Justice with a golden sword and golden scales looked out.  Sitting below, amid other figures, was a marbe death in his marble cloak and marble bones.  His bony marble fingers held a marble hour clock.

And into the stunning Magistrate's Hall.  The Dutch liked to show off their prowess in municipality, and their fondness for those who ruled justly.  One thing I found striking was that in the regal Magistrate's Hall, civil marriages were performed every week for those who could not be married in the Church.  Dutch tolerance, early on.

The other thought I had was the fact that the two empires that prospered most through the 16th century was the Dutch and the Ottomans, both who were the most tolerant to the Jews and offered haven to them from the fires of the Inquisition.

Moving onward into the Chamber of Petty Affairs, this salon held arbitration hearings on petty affairs and if either party used foul language, they were fined 1 guilder to go to the coffers of the paupers fund.

While wandering, I found a bit of Escher perfection in the proclamation room.

There was a chamber for the insurance masters, because daring mercantile pursuits like that which made the Dutch prosper needed solid backing.  Citizens of Amsterdam (and other places) could take out liability against damage, theft or loss.  In the chamber of the insurance masters, policies were written and kept, and cases adjudicated.

Interestingly, there was also an Orphans' Chamber.  There were three to four orphan supervisors, who would be responsible for all of Amsterdam's children who lost one or both parents, unless the family would care for them.  These orphans supervisors were responsible until they reached adulthood, and they also maintained the city's orphanages.

Everything changes with the French conquest of Holland.  Louis Bonaparte, the brother of Emperor Napoleon, was installed as King of Holland in 1808.  He made the place his own palace, and brought with it the style of Empire.  Ornate in a classical and gilded way.  After bit of history worth looking into at the link above, Napoleon went on to force his brother's abdication, annexed Holland and installed himself as
King of Holland.

After the fall of Napoleon, the Dutch royals took the place as their own palace, and kept many of the trappings of the Empire style.

Years and years passed, and the Dutch royalty eventually opened it up to the public and for State occasions like visiting dignitaries and royal marriages.

I left by way of the executioners marble area, where marble fresco of examples of justice were on display: of a magistrate who ordered the removal of both eyes of a rapist, only to find his son in the docket.  As punishment he ordered they each lose one eye; of Solomon's judgement over two mothers; of Lucius Junius Brutus' execution of his own sons.

In a fascinating turn of events, the Dutch were almost too thorough and I had almost too much interest and too many questions, and hunger forced me own.  But this is a rare and good thing.  I walked out to the sage words of Talking Heads: Same as it Ever Was

After my stopover at the Tower of Tears, I decided to brave the elements in my continued search after Jan Company, as the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was known.  As I battled through the blizzard, I was faced with a quandary.  I wanted to both visit an old VOC compound near the waterfront, and also the maritime museum but the museum closed at 5pm. 

I was debating if I should visit the compound first, which was on my way to the museum, or the museum first- since that had a definitive closing time.  I opted to try to find the old VOC compound, wandering in and out of university areas (I thought I remembered seeing a documentary on tv about the compound serving as part of the University of Amsterdam), and stopped in a bar to ask a young bartender, whom I ended up educating on the proximity of the warehouse.  Alas, my search for the compound proved fruitless, but I did find a giant windmill covered in the snow as I crossed the bridge to the maritime museum.

I arrived to the Maritime Museum at 4pm, with just an hour left to visit.  I asked the ticket seller if I could get a discount since there was only an hour left and I wouldn’t have full time.  She said no, but asked if I happened to be a student.  Why, yes I am.  I had been of habit of late to pay full price, but this struck me as a reasonable discount.

So I quickly rushed through the museum dedicated to Amsterdam’s role as the “warehouse of the world.”  The museum spoke of the spoils of the Golden Age of Amsterdam, with the trade of china from the Middle Kingdom; cowery shells from the African coast.  It also showcased the Dutch role in the information revolution of the day, as Dutch cartographers created the finest maps and globes to help the world explore.

I was most curious to learn about the Dutch East and West India Companies.

There was an interesting exhibit on the Dutch West India Company (WIC), which battled in North and South America, the Caribbean and West Africa.  For a span of 25 years, the WIC even controlled Brazil— bringing slaves to the Americas for sugarcane production— until it lost control back to Portugal.  The WIC gained Surinam (“The Wild Coast”) from the British in 1664 in compensation for the loss of New Amsterdam. 

But my fascination remains with the Dutch East India Company (VOC).  The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602, and was the first multinational company in the world.  At its height, 32,000 workers were employed on ships.  The Jan Companije controlled a monopoly on trade in Asia, and also played a leading role in facilitating trade in Asia; while there was little interest in European goods, the VOC exchanged Persian spices for gold, Indian textiles for Japanese copper.  The journey from Holland to the East lasted 8 months, with one stop over at the refreshment station at the Cape of Storms.

There was a time when the Dutch possessed the most powerful navy in the world, rivaled only by England.  But success begot war, with the likes of Spain and England, with France and Sweden.

Where am I now? Where shall I go? What is my speed? What is the depth? On the high seas, in unknown waters, it is impossible for a sailor to determine his position without aid.  Over the centuries, a never-ending stream of new instruments and methods were invented to help mariners find their way. They used the sun, the moon, the stars, the horizon and the depth of the seas to ensure that vessels reached their destinations safely and quickly.

The other side of the building had a collection of navigational equipment and globes.  I was in a bit of a rush, so I didn’t get to go too deep into this section but it was fascinating nonetheless.  There was a section on all the different tools invented to study latitude, longitude, speed and depth.  There was also a fantastic collection of globes, which was a source of wealth for Holland for centuries, given their detailed cartography.  The old globes were as fascinating as they were beautiful.  I want to collect globes!

Anyway, I speed through the museum, catching just enough to keep me happy.

I remain so curious about the days in which the Dutch ruled the world through its mercantile maritime routes.  And I remain fascinated by the Dutch East India Company, and its role in shaping world history.  There was a time when Amsterdam was the center of the world, but that day is past.  Today, there is a saying from a European bureaucrat, “The Dutch are always right but never relevant.”  As a member of a small tribe that hits above its weight, I am always impressed with the way the Batavians remain relevant in their forward thinking and exploration.

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