DISCOVER Magazine #7

Between dike & dune

Published in category: Countries

How the water shaped the Dutch and the Dutch shaped the Netherlands

There is one element with which the Netherlands can boast a unique relationship. A relationship that stretches back millennia and which has dramatically shaped, not only the landscape, but also the people of this low-lying country. Across the ages, in reclaiming ground from the seas and continually striving to protect it, and in their quest for international discovery and trade, the Dutch have become renowned the world over for their understanding and mastery of water.

With around one third of its total landmass and 8 million of its people living below sea level, the Netherlands has had to learn how to stay dry and, as the population has grown, how to create more land from the depths. The process of reclaiming land, known as polderisation, required from the inhabitants of the Lowlands an extraordinary amount of cooperation.

An expression of this was the creation, already by the Middle Ages, of regional water councils; one of the first examples of democratically elected governance anywhere in the world. The councils were formed to involve the whole of society in the maintenance of flood defences. This spirit of collaboration is to be found in the country today, where the favoured style of government is one that seeks compromise and consensus and which is still known as ‘the polder model’ as a hint at its distant origins.

Fishing, ferries & yachts: a pioneering maritime industry

Medieval fishing practices played no small part in the rise of the Netherlands’ historic shipping industry. The development of the Herring Bus (from the Dutch ‘buis’) enabled Dutch sailors to process the fish they caught whilst underway, and, therefore, to remain at sea for longer periods of time, considerably increasing their catch. In this manner, the Dutch dominated the market, gaining, even at this early stage, a reputation for cost-efficiency and innovation. At its peak in the early years of the 17th century, the Dutch herring industry, using an estimated 500 busses, landed an annual catch of around 33,000 tonnes of fish.

Inland, the Dutch learnt to work with their abundance of water to develop transportation systems – for both goods and people. In the 1600s, the creation of the trekschuil (literally ‘tug-boat’) gave the world its first taste of public transport. Along purpose-built canals between the major cities of the Netherlands, passengers were conveyed by sail and horse-drawn flat bottom boats. The journeys were slow and uncomfortable by modern standards, but at the time represented a considerable improvement and displayed a pioneering spirit that the Dutch would also put to use far from their own shores. The Dutch also found the time, at this point in their history, to give the world the art of yachting. The first yachts took their name from the Dutch ‘jacht’, meaning ‘to hunt’; the swiftness and shallow draught of the small vessels being employed to patrol the inland waterways and coastline against incursions from pirates.

Globetrotting 17th century style

The Netherlands’ development as a global maritime nation began rather close to home with the Baltic Grain Trade. The rapid urbanisation of the country drove demand for imported grain, purchased from the Baltic region. In return, in what contemporaries called ‘the mother trade’, the Dutch exchanged tiles and bricks – used as ballast in the ships on their outward voyages. The Netherlands had become a sailing nation and, by the 17th century, the stage was set; the newly independent country prepared to embrace its finest hour. During what is still referred to as ‘the Golden Age’, Dutch ships plied the seven seas, transporting precious cargoes of sugar and spices from all over the globe. The most notable destination of the day was present-day Indonesia, where the Dutch East India Company (VOC) enjoyed a monopoly on trade. The VOC has been considered the world’s first multi-national corporation and was certainly the first to issue stock publically.

The Dutch were not alone in their overseas adventuring; many other European powers were sailing to far-flung destinations at the time.

Protecting these interests, as well as those closer to home, meant the development of one of the most reputable navies the world has ever known. Seaborne events of the time helped to cement the fame of the Netherlands as a nation and of its naval officers such as Maarten and Cornelis Tromp and Michiel de Ruyter.

Sentinels against the storms

Today, the Dutch relationship with water is just as strong as ever. To protect their land from the water, the people of the Lowlands have ever been ready to learn lessons from the floods that have befallen them over the years. Following a particularly devastating storm in 1953, action was taken to create a robust flood-defence system in the south-west of the country.

The Delta Works plan has been hailed as one of the ‘seven wonders of the modern world’. Consisting of a series of sluices, locks, dikes, levees and barriers, this incredible work of engineering substantially reduces the length of the nation’s coastline and, thus, the amount of dikes required to protect the land.

Similarly, the ancient Dutch traditions of fishing and maritime trade and defence have all contributed their part to the development of a robust, innovative shipbuilding industry.

Damen continues to play its part in this great maritime legacy; delivering Holland’s Glory to the world.

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