The Dutch and Their Fishy Business


Johannes Vermeer, Delft, Netherlands, 1660-1661.

Oil on Canvas.

Dutch Royal Cabinet of Paintings at the Mauritshuis.

Vermeer, Johannes. View of Delft. 1660-1661. Oil on Canvas. Mauritshuis, The Hague. In Vermeer’s Hat. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008, Plate 1 Insert.


The Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, was a period where the Dutch were at the forefront of trade, science, military, and art. What was the impetus for this renowned prosperity? The answer can be found in Johannes Vemeer’s View of Delft. This piece was made around the height of the Golden Age, 1660, and simply depicts a view of Delft, Netherlands. In the painting, the herring busses are humbly portrayed as an integral part of this town. As integral as the herring busses are in this piece, so are they in the impetus of the Dutch Golden Age.

Due to a global cooling, the herring industry geographically moved into the control of the Dutch. The Dutch began to exploit this newfound economy through their advancements of the herring busses. In turn, caused the prosperity of the Golden Age. One of the notable features of the Dutch Golden Age, is the VOC. Formed in 1602, the Dutch East Indian Company is herald as the most powerful trading corporation in the seventeenth-century world. As the first modern stock exchange, its influence is present in modern finances. The profitable herring industry provided the financial backing that allowed the Dutch to venture into creating the VOC.

The initiatives to create efficient herring busses compelled the Dutch’s methodical and technological advancements. One of which was to create an onboard curing system on the herring busses allowing them to stay out on the water for longer period of time. In order to compensate for the longer time at sea, a larger boat and crew was necessary. The Dutch shipbuilders had to create larger boats to compensate for necessary space of the curing system and the larger crews needed to maintain this system. The combination of larger boats, larger crews, and technological advancements are the beginning of the military glory of the Dutch Golden Age.

The successful herring industry did not go unnoticed. Envious eyes of the Dutch’s enemies attempted to hamper the Dutch’s profits by attacking the herring busses. In response, Dutch towns agreed to send out convoys to protect their common interest. These convoys had to protect the busses without causing any damage to them. This created a necessity for naval strategies among the convoys. Here, the herring busses are uniting and organizing the Dutch towns in a system to protect itself.  The famous navel strategies of the Dutch Golden Age can find their roots in the navel expedition to protect the herring busses.


Brook, Timothy. 2009. Vermeer’s Hat. New York: Bloomsbury Press.


The things we did for Nutmeg

Nutmeg Grinder, Unknown Artist, British
Silver metalwork and cowrie shell
The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 68.141.278

Spices were at the heart of World commerce in the 17th century. It could be argued that the Dutch republic built itself a golden age on the spice trade. At the height of their power, the Dutch had a monopoly on the world’s supply of nutmeg and mace as well as control over the vast majority of the the world’s access to cloves.

Part of the reason why the Dutch could maintain their nutmeg monopoly was because the nutmeg tree only grew on the Banda islands in Indonesia. Although efforts to cultivate the trees elsewhere generally proved futile, to protect their monopoly the Dutch would dip their nutmeg exports in lime. To further defend their monopoly, the Dutch maintained a heavy military presence on all of the Bandan isles. These stringent measures were enacted by the governor of the Dutch East Indies of the time, a man named Jan Pietersz Coen.

The seriousness with which Coen took the security around the Bandan isles was largely due to the fact that the Dutch were able to make a 7500% profit on each shipment of nutmegs. This was at least partly due to Coen’s especial ruthlessness. He coerced the headmen of tribes on each island to sign contracts that established the Dutch East Indies Company as the sole beneficiary of their Nutmeg harvests, ratcheting down the prices for their labor to be so low as to provoke widespread uprisings on the islands against his terms. Coen saw the uprisings as breach of contract and so declared war, eventually enslaving the native inhabitants of the islands to ensure steady production of nutmeg.

Although the Dutch had established their claim to the Banda Islands with an excessively blatant display of imperialism, in the eyes of the British, the westernmost Island in the archipelago, Pulo Run, was sovereign British territory. The Brits had reached the Bandas first in 1603 and had sent several subsequent, unsuccessful colonization attempts that had largely been thwarted by the Dutch.

Tensions over Pulo Run contributed to the outbreak of both Anglo-Dutch wars. Terms that required the return of Pulo Run to British ownership were expressly stated in the treaty of Whitehall of 1662 which marked the end of the first Anglo-Dutch war. Although the British attempted a return to claim the island, by the time they managed to launch an expedition, the second Anglo-Dutch war had begun and the Dutch once again prevented English occupation of the island. They had managed to keep their monopoly.

The treaty of Breda doesn’t expressly state the names of any territories. Britain and the United Netherlands (as Holland was then known) instead agreed that all territories that had been captured over the course of the war were to be be kept of by the captor. This was effectively a game of monopoly where the Dutch exchanged their colony of New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island in the American Northeast for the British territory on Suriname and the British claim to the Island of Pulo Run.

Such was the draw of the monopoly that Nutmeg offered. For the Dutch, Even though the entirety of their Nutmeg crop came from the the two main islands of Banda and Naira, they couldn’t allow the Brits the possibility of breaking their monopoly with the island of Pulo Run.



Davenport, F.G., and C.O. Paullin. “Treaty of Friendship between Great Britain and the United Netherlands Concluded at Whitehall September 4/14 1662.” In European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States and Its Dependencies, 73–85. Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication. Lawbook Exchange, 2004.

———. “Treaty of Peace and Alliance between the United Netherlands and Great Britain, Concluded at Breda, July 21/31, 1667.” In European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States and Its Dependencies, 73–85. Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication. Lawbook Exchange, 2004.

Donkin, R.A. Between East and West: The Moluccas and the Traffic in Spices Up to the Arrival of Europeans. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society. American Philosophical Society, 2003.

Keay, J. The Spice Route: A History. John Murray, 2006.

Michael Krondl. “The Company Man.” In The Taste of Conquest; The Rise and Fall of Three Great Cities of Spice. New York: Ballantine Books, 2008.

Milton, G. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, Or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

Penny Le Couteur, Jay Burreson. “Peppers, Nutmeg, and Cloves.” In Napoleon’s Buttons; How 17 Molecules Changed History, 19–35. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2003.

Swart, Koenraad Walter. The Miracle of the Dutch Republic as Seen in the Seventeenth Century: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered at Univ. Coll. London, 6 Nov. 1967. Lewis, 1969.

Hoist the Colors High: A Life Under the Jolly Roger

Major Stede Bonnet.
Artist Unknown, London, 1724.
Print engraving.
From Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, in the Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division Washington.

This engraving shows the notorious pirate Captain Stede Bonnet, one of many pirates whose lives Captain Charles Johnsons details in his book, A General History of the Pyrates. Bonnet stands before his ship, the Revenge. Upon its mast flies Bonnet’s version of the much-feared Jolly Roger, a black flag with a skull, crossbones, and dagger. Like many of his contemporaries, Bonnet incorporated symbols of death onto the banner he flew.

The first appearance of the Jolly Roger was recorded in 1700, during the early years of the peak of the Golden Age of Piracy. Captain Emmanuel Wynn reportedly flew it while in the Caribbean. The name Jolly Roger has two possible origins: it could come from either 1.) la jolie rouge, a French phrase meaning “pretty red,” or 2.) Old Roger, a nickname for the devil; it could also come from some combination of the two phrases. Before the Jolly Roger became the official flag of pirates sailing in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, many flew a red flag, hence the French. As piracy became pervasive, pirates were associated with the devil for their violence and success in raiding European ships, hence the nickname. Thus, the black flag with its deathly symbolism found its moniker in the association with the previous pirate flag and the devil those who flew it evoked.

While the Jolly Roger united pirates under it, most pirate captains had their own version of the banner. “Black” Sam Bellamy and Edward England, for example, used the classic skull with crossbones underneath, while Francis Spriggs displayed a skeletal figure holding a spear and hourglass, and Jack “Calico” Rackham had a skull with crossed swords underneath it. Each captain had his own ship or fleet, and those in their crews pledged loyalty first to their captain, and then to the piratical ideal.

What was the piratical ideal? Why did so many sailors jump ship from British or French navies and merchant fleets and instead pledge loyalty to the Jolly Roger? The black flag lured many sailors to it with three promises: economic success, democratic governance, and vengeance. Some sailors turned to piracy after a history of privateering, a get-rich-quick scheme that was the legal version of piracy—so long as European states were willing to employ the sailors. Others turned to piracy because life aboard merchant, slave, and navy ships was unbearable—punishments were incredibly harsh for crew members sailing underneath English captains. More still turned on the European powers because most pirate crews were very democratic—they had the option to depose their captain if he was unsatisfactory and spoils were neatly divided amongst every crew member. Finally, almost all were drawn by the promise of justice—for the conditions they suffered upon the British ships or the abrupt unemployment they were dealt after the War of the Spanish Succession.

The Jolly Roger united sailors into a nation of outlaws, but the European states, particularly the English, ultimately created that nation. They drove away hundreds of sailors, whose only recourse was to don a mask of violence and attempt to invoke the devil as they attacked the countries that had wronged them.


Image: Artist Unknown. “Major Stede Bonnet.” In A General History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson, print engraving. London: T. Warner, 1724.

Johnson, Charles. A General History of the Pyrates: from Their First Rise and Settlement in the Island of Providence to the Present Time. London: T. Warner, 1724.

Kuhn, Gabriel. Life Under the Jolly Roger: Reflections on the Golden Age of Piracy. Oakland: PM Press, 2010.

Pringle, Patrick. Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy. San Francisco: Dover Publications, 2012.

Rediker, Marcus. “‘Under the Banner of King Death’: The Social World of Anglo-American Pirates, 1716 to 1726.” The William and Mary Quarterly 38, no. 2 (April 1981)