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It is a pretty outrageous plug, but it does it well. Have a look.


OK, Holland, we get it! You have all the nice things! Organic food, cool little local shops, bikes, green energy. Way to rub it in.

Yes, we still drive cars! Yes, we are jealous! No, we don’t have a minimum of $1,079 to spend on a round-trip ticket from New York to Amsterdam sometime in the next six months.

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Well, maybe not the other half, maybe the quarter of one percent. We are talking about Willem van Loon, who had the means and the good fortune to get in on the ground floor of one of the most profitable companies in history– the Dutch East India Company. On a recent trip to Amsterdam, we dropped by to see the family home on the Keizersgracht. It is one of the grandest historic canal homes in Amsterdam.


By 1602, various traders from Portugal, England and the Netherlands had made fortunes bringing back spices from the Moluccan Islands. In the summer of 1599, Jacob van Neck sailed back with a ship laden with nearly a million pounds of pepper, cloves nutmeg, mace and cinammon. The commander and his men were feted as heroes, paraded through the streets of Amsterdam while the city’s church bells rang.

Dutch East India Company Warehouse

The profits were so extravagant that the spice trade threatened to turn into a nautical gold rush with one country against another, cities against cities. Amsterdam merchants responded by petitioning their delegates in the States General, which represented all the provinces of the Netherlands, for a total and exclusive monopoly.

This outrageous demand was rejected, but the Attorney General realised that some sort of Dutch monopoly was essential. He insisted that small investors from across the country be included. On March 20, 1602, a deal was struck and the VOC came into being. It was known as the Seventeen, for the number of men on the council. It was awarded a monopoly for 21 years.


Just eleven days later three ships were dispatched. They were ordered to establish trading links with Java, Sumatra, Ceylon and the “other spiceries,” sail to China and open up trading houses there as well. Military action was both permitted and expected. The VOC is often considered to have been the first multinational corporation in the world. It was the first company to issue stock. It possessed quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, coin money, and establish colonies.



The Dutch East Indian Company eclipsed all of its rivals in the Asia trade. Between 1602 and 1796 the VOC put almost a million Europeans to work on 4,785 ships, and netted more than 2.5 million tons of Asian trade goods. The fleet of the British East India Company was a distant second with 2,690 ships and one-fifth the tonnage of goods carried by the VOC.



In 1619 the Seventeen established a capital in the port city of Batavia (now Jakarta). Over the next two centuries the Company acquired additional ports as trading bases and safeguarded their interests by taking over surrounding territory. It remained an important trading concern and paid an 18% annual dividend to its shareholders for almost 200 years. The van Loon family did very well.



For the stunning profits there was a price to pay, and most of it was paid in the Far East. On one journey to the Banda Islands, a Dutch crew became incensed that they had to eat putrid beef while plump cattle and buffalo roamed freely in the streets. To the Singalese, they were holy animals. The captain paid lip service to the wishes of the King, but allowed his men to butcher and roast some cows. After getting his guests drunk at an elaborate banquet, the King and his people took their revenge, killing the Vice Admiral and all those who were with him. Massacres among all the players in the spice trade were not uncommon.



The history of the spice trade is absolutely fascinating, and I’m sure there are many wonderful Dutch books on the subject. The only narrative I am familiar with is told from the British point of view. It is a work of popular history by Giles Milton called “Nathaniel’s Nutmeg.” The ending is astonishing. Read it and you will never look at New York City in quite the same way.



For those of you who think that Tulip mania was a bizarre, but short-lived economic bubble that took the Netherlands by storm in the middle of the 17th century, let me assure you that it has not gone away. My wife and I can both testify to that, having braved the hordes to see the Dutch equivalent of a horticultural Disneyland. It is called Keukenhof and it is spectacular, drawing 800,000 visitors every year. There is a direct shuttle from Schiphol Airport, should you wish to bypass the capital city and head straight for the home of flower power.



From March 20 to May 20, this floral wonderland offers bulb growers the opportunity to show off in a big way. The park covers thirty-two hectares (about 84 acres for the decimally challenged among us). However, and this is a big caveat for those who don’t like crowds, the equivalent of the entire population of Amsterdam goes through the turnstiles during those two months. And, being human, they procrastinate, waiting for warmth, sunshine and the best blooms. In other words, they all go in May. This year, the so-called spring weather in the Netherlands has been a little late, to put it politely.


In the 15th century, the land belonged to Countess Jacqueline of Bavaria, who lived in Teylingen Castle. In the courtyard, herbs were collected for the kitchen, hence the name– “kitchen courtyard.” Flash forward to 1949, when a group of bulb growers and exporters came up with a plan for an open-air exhibition of spring flowers in the park on the Keukenhof estate.

To say that their bright idea was brilliant is the understatement of the century. Eighty-five exhibitors, growers, and exporters donate SEVEN MILLION bulbs, the very best in their inventory, to create this astonishing park. And every one of those bulbs has to be planted by hand. The bulb business is a billion euro industry, attracting some ten thousand growers in the Netherlands.



It all started in the late sixteenth century, when Carolus Clusius, a Dutch botanist and one-time gardener to the Habsburgs, brought the first tulip bulb over from Vienna. It had been brought to Austria from somewhere in Turkey. The tulip flourished in the sandy soil of the Netherlands.

The tulip was different from every other flower known to Europe at that time, with a saturated, intense petal colour that no other plant exhibited. The appearance of the non-pareil tulip as a status symbol at this time coincides with the rise of the newly independent country’s trade fortunes. No longer the Spanish Netherlands, its economic resources could now be channeled into commerce and the country embarked on its Golden Age. Amsterdam merchants were at the centre of the lucrative East Indies trade, where a single voyage could yield profits of 400%. The new merchant class displayed and validated its success, primarily by erecting grand estates surrounded by flower gardens, and the plant that had pride of place was the sensational tulip.

the Viceroy

Tulips were so highly prized that they fuelled a speculative bubble. At the peak of tulip mania, in March 1637, some single tulip bulbs sold for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. Rare bulbs were supposedly traded for canal houses in Amsterdam. The most spectacular, striped flowers were the result of a virus that, by its very nature, limited the supply.

This list of goods was allegedly exchanged for a single bulb of the Viceroy tulip. At that time the currency was the florin.

Two lasts of wheat 448ƒ
Four lasts of rye 558ƒ
Four fat oxen 480ƒ
Eight fat swine 240ƒ
Twelve fat sheep 120ƒ
Two hogsheads of wine 70ƒ
Four tuns of beer 32ƒ
Two tons of butter 192ƒ
1,000 lb. of cheese 120ƒ
A complete bed 100ƒ
A suit of clothes 80ƒ
A silver drinking cup 60ƒ

Total 2500ƒ

Semper Augustus

Many individuals grew suddenly rich. A golden bait hung temptingly out before the people, and, one after the other, they rushed to the tulip marts. Every one imagined that the passion for tulips would last forever, and that the wealthy from every part of the world would pay whatever prices were asked for them. The riches of Europe would be concentrated on the shores of the Zuyder Zee, and poverty would be banished.

Admiral Verijck

People were purchasing bulb futures at higher and higher prices, intending to re-sell them for a profit. Such a scheme could not last unless someone was ultimately willing to pay such high prices and take possession of the bulbs. In February 1637, tulip traders could no longer find new buyers willing to pay increasingly inflated prices for their bulbs. As this realization set in, prices plummeted.



Some were left holding contracts to purchase tulips at prices now ten times greater than those on the open market, while others found themselves in possession of bulbs now worth a fraction of the price they had paid. Even though the contracts were torn up, hundreds of investors were ruined. Calvinist ministers rubbed their hands in glee, eager to redeem the lost souls.

Yet tulip mania is not gone, believe me, it lives on multi-coloured splendour, embedded in the brains of tourists from every country on the planet. They arrive, they eat and they photograph. Get thee to Keukenhof, your time is running out.

If you want to blame anyone for all the fuss and the fact that church bells are clanging away as if a Crown Prince had just been made King (which he has), I think you would have to lay it all at the feet of William the Silent, Prince of Orange. Take a wander out into the walking street of Wassenaar and you will see more orange articles of clothing than any right-minded citizens anywhere should have in their possession. You will also see multitudes of children attempting to flog all their unwanted toys, puzzles and books, but that is another story.

William the Silent 1533-1584

William was a complicated fellow, born in Germany, raised a Lutheran, educated by Catholics, ending his days as a Calvinist.  He was married four times,  spent much of his life fighting the Spanish rulers of the Netherlands, despite the fact that he had been groomed to serve under the Habsburgs as a member of the court of Margaret of Parma, Governor of the Spanish Netherlands.

Favoured by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, he was rapidly promoted, and became commander of one of the Emperor’s armies at the age of 22. He was made a member of the Raad van State, the highest political advisory council in the Netherlands. When Charles abdicated in favour of his son, Philip II of Spain, in 1555, the gout-afflicted Emperor leaned on William’s shoulder during his abdication ceremony.

A brief summary of his life runs to several pages on Wikipedia. German born, he usually spoke French.  William’s resolve to oppose the King’s policies originated in June 1559 when he was sent to Paris as a hostage to ensure the fulfilment of the conditions of the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis at the end of the Hispano-French war.

The duke of Alva and King Henry II of France openly discussed the extermination of the Protestants in both France and the Netherlands. William kept silent, but decided for himself that he would not allow the slaughter of so many innocent subjects. Suffice it to say that he was a key figure in the liberation of the Dutch from the Spanish yoke, even though he did not live to see it. Some of the legacy of William–


He is the ancestor of the Dutch monarchy. The flag of the Netherlands (red, white and blue) is derived from the flag of the prince, which was orange, white and blue. The coat of arms of the Netherlands is based on that of William of Orange. Its motto Je maintiendrai (I will maintain) was also used by William of Orange. The national anthem of the Netherlands, the Wilhelmus, was originally a propaganda song for William. It was probably written by Philips of Marnix, Lord of Saint-Aldegonde, a supporter of William of Orange. The national colour of the Netherlands is orange. The orange sash of the Prussian Order of the Black Eagle was in honour of the Dutch Dynasty of William the Silent, since the order’s founder, Frederick I of Prussia’s mother, Louise Henrietta of Nassau, was the granddaughter of William the Silent.


Willem Alexander and Beatrix

April 30th is Queen’s Day in the Netherlands, an official celebration of the birth of the Queen, even though she was actually born on my birth date, January 31. Nobody in the Netherlands wants to celebrate anything at that time of year. Beatrix wisely commandeered her mother’s birth date to celebrate as her own. Even though Beatrix did manage to alienate a sizable minority of the Dutch population by marrying a German, she has managed to maintain the popularity of the monarchy and the holiday. Rather than remaining at the palace and letting the Dutch people come to her, Beatrix usually visits two towns each year for Koninginnedag celebrations and she honours citizens for their service to the Netherlands.



Koninginnedag is the one day of the year that the Dutch government permits sales on the street without a permit and without the payment of value added tax. ING Bank did a survey in 2011 and found that one in five Dutch residents planned to sell at the free market and estimated they would earn €100 per person for a total turnover of €290 million. Even the Queen has been known to buy at the vrijmarkt; in 1995 she purchased a floor lamp.


While Queen’s Day celebrations take place throughout the Netherlands, Amsterdam is a popular destination for many revelers. Often the city’s 750.000 residents are joined by up to 1 million visitors. In recent years Amsterdam authorities have taken some measures to try and stem the flow of visitors as the city simply became too full. Those taking part in the festivities commonly dye their hair orange or wear orange clothing in honour of the House of Orange-Nassau. This colour choice is sometimes dubbed “orange madness”, or in Dutch, oranjegekte.



This may be the last Queen’s Day celebration for quite some time, since Beatrix has decided to step down after thirty-three years and let her son, our neighbour, Willem-Alexander, take up the royal reigns. I am frankly grateful that Willem’s family overlooked my invitation even though I didn’t have anything more important on the agenda. Neither my wardrobe nor my Dutch is really up to dealing with an event of that importance.  But who says we can’t celebrate? Long live the King, or Prince Pils as he was called during his student days. He did enjoy his beer. I’ll drink to that. It’s Dutch as Dutch can be.


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