The country now known as The Netherlands became a world economic power in the 16th and 17th centuries, holding its own in the both markets and battlefields against such powerhouses as Spain, France, and Great Britain. Today The Netherlands is still one of the major shipping powers of the world.
Early years. Since Charlemagne's time, the various small cities and countries comprising modern Netherlands and Belgium were part of the Holy Roman Empire. The city of Bruges became a major seaport in the late Middle Ages thanks to a canal that connected it to the North Sea. Long a major wool market, the city had expanded its wool trade to the British Isles in the 12th century. A trade agreement with Genoa in 1277 made Bruges the major northern European port for Mediterranean goods. By the 14th century, silting in the area now known as the Hey Zwin nature preserve cut off Bruges, so the center of trade moved first to Antwerp, then eventually to Amsterdam.
Amsterdam was ideally situated for trade to the North Sea, the Atlantic, and the Baltic. The city was only a small fishing village as late as the 12th century, but it soon became a major trading center for grain, wood, hides, beer, wine, salt and crockery. Fishing -- including whaling -- remained important to the local economy, however, so important that warships were sent out in later years to guard the herring fleet.
Independence. Amsterdam also became a destination for refugees from all over Europe in the 1500s: French Catholics, Portuguese Jews, German Protestants, all fleeing religious persecution. Many went to work in the yards or on the ships that were key to Dutch maritime growth. The Holy Roman Emperor had granted the Dutch the right to build warships in 1488 for the purpose of protecting their growing merchant fleet, a decision his successors would come to regret two centuries later. Several factors led to the generations-long struggle between the Dutch and the Spanish-dominated Empire: religious differences, taxes, and disagreements over the imperial succession. In 1648 the Dutch fleet defeated the Spanish at Gibraltar, and the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands was born.
The Dutch East India Company. The Dutch were well into their struggle for independence in 1595, and looking for ways to cut off imperial trade. The Portuguese, now part of the Empire, had for years held a monopoly on spices from the Far East. They had created a scarcity, intentionally or otherwise, of many of those spices, especially pepper. Most galling was the way Dutch merchants had been shut out of the profits. So several investors put together an expedition of four ships under explorer Cornelis de Houtman to find away around the Portuguese stranglehold on the spice trade.
De Houtman's expedition to West Java was a disaster, beset by disease, desertion, pirates, and de Houtman's general lack of respect for the natives. While his voyage barely broke even, it gave huge psychological boost to Dutch ambitions, and for the next several years dozens of ships headed to what is now Indonesia. The Dutch government took a hand in 1602, chartering the Dutch East India Company to conduct the country's trade in the Indian Ocean area. It was a huge success, frequently returning investments at eighteen percent or more and dominating European trade in spices, textiles, tea, sugar, and other goods for two centuries. At its height it had nearly twice the ships of its largest rival, the British East India Company (4700 compared to 2600).
The Dutch Empire. In large part due to the success of the East India Company, the Dutch Republic built a world-wide empire of colonies in not only southeast Asia but in South America (modern Guiana and Brazil), south Africa, west Africa (modern Ghana), and North America (New Amsterdam, now New York City).
Although slavery was forbidden in The Netherlands, it was permitted in the colonies and Dutch ships did a brisk business in the African slave trade to the Americas. During the so-called Golden Age of the Dutch Empire, more than 10,000 ships registered in Amsterdam engaged in transporting slaves to the New World.
Decline and fall. Dutch economic success made for jealous neighbors, and a series of wars with Britain and France commenced almost as soon as the Republic gained independence from Spain. Internal disagreements ultimately weakened the Republic, though, leading to a reduced ability to project its power overseas. Corruption and scandal in the East India Company lead to its dissolution in the late 1700s. In 1795 the Revolutionary French Army invaded, ending the Dutch Republic.
The Netherlands today. Like most European powers, The Netherlands lost the last of its colonial possessions in the decades following World War II, although some if its Caribbean colonies remain part of the Kingdom of The Netherlands for some purposes. The country itself remains a major maritime power, with more than 600 ships sailing under the Dutch flag. The port of Rotterdam, southwest of Amsterdam, is the busiest port in Europe and vies with Shanghai and Singapore as largest port in the world, serving more than 36,000 ships and handling more than 400 million tons of cargo in 2008.