- Evan HaefeliEvan HaefeliDepartment of History, Texas A&M University
The Dutch Atlantic is often ignored because for much of its history it was quite small and seemingly insignificant compared to other European colonies in the Americas. However, it began with extraordinarily ambitious conquests and colonizing schemes. The present-day Dutch Caribbean—St. Martin, Saba, Eustatius, Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire—is but the remnants of what was, in the first half of the 17th century, an empire that claimed large portions of Brazil, the Caribbean, North America, and Africa. Forged during the decades-long Dutch Revolt against Spain, this budding empire collapsed soon after the Dutch gained Independence in 1648. European powers that had been allies against the Spanish turned against the Dutch to dismantle their Atlantic empire and its valuable trade. A series of wars in the second half of the 17th century reduced the Dutch colonies to a handful of smaller outposts, some of which in the Caribbean remain Dutch to this day.
A recent wave of scholarship has emphasized the dynamism, ambition, and profitability of the Dutch Atlantic, whose fate reflected its origins in the small but dynamic Dutch Republic. Like the Republic, it was acutely sensitive to changes in international diplomacy: neither was ever strong enough to go entirely on its own. Also like the Republic, it was very decentralized. While most all of it was technically under the authority of the West India Company, a variety of arrangements in different colonies meant there was no consistent, centralized colonial policy. Moreover, like the Republic, it was never a purely “Dutch” affair. The native Dutch population was too small and too well employed by the Republic’s industrious economy to build an empire alone. As the Dutch Atlantic depended heavily on the labor, capital, and energy of many people who were not Dutch—other Europeans, some Americans, and, by the 18th century, a majority of Africans—colonial Dutch language and culture were overshadowed by those of other peoples. Finally, the Dutch Atlantic also depended heavily on trade with the other European colonies, from British North America to the Spanish Main.
The Dutch were expert merchants, sailors, manufacturers, and capitalists. They created Europe’s first modern financial and banking infrastructure. These factors gave them a competitive edge even as the rise of mercantilist laws in the second half of the 17th century tried to exclude them from other countries’ colonies. They also displayed a talent for a variety of colonial enterprises. New Netherland, covering the territory from present-day New York to Pennsylvania and Delaware, began as a fur-trading outpost in the 1620s. However, by the time it was captured by the English in 1664 it was rapidly becoming a “settler colonial society.” Suriname and Guyana developed profitable plantations and cruel slave societies. In Africa and the Caribbean, small Dutch outposts specialized in trade of all sorts, legitimate and not, including slaves, textiles, sugar, manufactures, and guns.
Although their territorial expansion ceased after 1670, the Dutch played an important role in expanding the sugar plantation complex of other empires, partly through their involvement in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Until the Age of Revolutions, the Dutch Atlantic remained a profitable endeavor, keeping the Dutch involved with Latin America from Brazil to Mexico. Venezuela in particular benefitted from easy access to Dutch traders based in Curaçao. Religion played a smaller, but still important role, legitimating the Dutch state and enterprises like the slave trade, but also opening up windows of toleration that allowed Jews in particular to gain a foothold in the Americas that was otherwise denied them. Although the surviving traces of the Dutch Atlantic are small, its historical impact was tremendous. The Dutch weakened the Spanish and Portuguese Atlantic Empires, opening up a path to Imperial power that would subsequently be seized by the French and British.