A horn of flatland, bounded by the North Sea and the Zuyder Zee, just
northward, with Haarlem and Amsterdam at its base. Sundered by a channel
from the point of the horn is Texel, the biggest of the curious line of
islands that stretches along the coast to Friesland. This Helder, or
“Hell’s Door,” the tidal channel leading to the broad inlet of the
Zuyder Zee, runs like a mill-race, and the passage is deep enough to
admit large vessels travelling to the port of Amsterdam.
The capital of Holland is built upon logs driven into the firm earth
through morass and silt. It is a city of canals and dykes, spanned by
hundreds of bridges, a northern Venice, dependent for its safety upon
the proper control of sluices. The devouring sea is kept at bay by a
mighty dam. Truly, Amsterdam is one of the wonders of men’s ingenuity.
The plan of its streets is remarkable; the thoroughfares are a series of
semi-circles with their points to the Zuyder Zee. The flow of the
canals and waterways that wind about the city is impelled by artificial
means. The number of the piles upon which the palace of Amsterdam stands
is reckoned at nearly fourteen thousand.
About the thirteenth century, the building of the city began around the
castle of Amstel, on a tidal marsh. During the siege of Haarlem by the
Spanish, Amsterdam depended upon its waterway for food supplies. The
Duke of Alva wrote: “Since I came into the world, I have never been in
such anxiety. If they should succeed in cutting off the communications
along the dykes, we should have to raise the siege of Haarlem, to
surrender, hands crossed, or to starve.”
In 1787 when the King of Prussia brought his troops to Holland, in
favour of the stadtholder, Amsterdam surrendered its garrison. And in
1795 the French entered the city without the resistance of the
Sir Thomas Overbury, who wrote in 1609, describes Amsterdam as
surpassing “Seville, Lisbon, and any other mart-town in Christendom.”
The city maintained a great fleet of vessels trading to the East Indies,
the German ports, and the towns of the Baltic Sea.
The historian relates that the people were not “much wicked,” though
disposed to drink; they were hard bargainers, but just, thrifty,
hardworking, and shrewd in commerce. To-day the natives of Amsterdam are
assuredly “inventive in manufactures,” and eminently capable in all
affairs of trading and finance.
The fishing industry has declined seriously, but the export trade of
Amsterdam is enormous, the products being chiefly butter, cheese, cotton
goods, glass manufactures, leather goods, bread, stuffs, and gin. In
1900 the population of the city was 523,558.
Amsterdam is still a metropolis of capitalists, many of whom are of the
Jewish race, while it is a principal European centre of the diamond
trade. The famous banking system, established under guarantee of the
city, in 1609, is described at length by Adam Smith in his “Wealth of
“Public utility,” he writes, “and not revenue was the original object of
this institution. Its object was to relieve the merchants from the
inconvenience of a disadvantageous exchange.” The bank was under the
control of four reigning burgomasters, who were changed every year.
The opulence of Amsterdam is apparent to the stranger who roams its
streets to-day. Factories abound, artificers are numerous, and
everywhere there are evidences of a prosperity that recalls the day when
most of the business of Europe was transacted in these narrow, twisted
streets, and a large fleet of vessels traded with the Indies.
Here several renowned printers set up their presses in the seventeenth
century, and many famous books were printed in the city. During the
following century Amsterdam still remained the great commercial capital
The immigration of Spanish and Portuguese Jews into Holland brought to
the city a fresh class of artisans, and gave an impulse to several
crafts. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was a vigorous
intellectual development in Amsterdam. Several notable men were natives.
Spinoza was born here, in 1632, after the routing of the Spanish forces.
His parents were traders, Jewish fugitives from Spain.
Baruch, or Bendictus, Spinoza excelled even his tutors at the age of
fourteen, and the Rabbin Saul Levi Morteira was astounded by the boy’s
capacity for learning. A troubled, but resplendent life lay before this
dark-eyed Hebrew youth. He was of the order of reformers, and shared
the griefs and the trials of all who strive to benefit humanity.
Persecution pursued Spinoza from the day when he conflicted with
Morteira in the synagogue, uttering opinions which were regarded as dire
heresy. We read of attempts upon his life, of excommunication, and of
ostracism. The philosopher supported himself by polishing lenses for
telescopes and optical instruments, until he was able to leave Amsterdam
for the University of Leyden. Later came recognition with the
publication of the great “Tractatus.”
When offered a pension by the King of France, the philosopher refused
it, fearing that if he became a slave of the State, he might sacrifice
his liberty of thought. Spinoza lived in extreme simplicity, it is said
that he spent only twopence-farthing a day on his needs. His temper was
equable. “Reason is my delight,” he declared. “A virtuous life is not a
sad and gloomy one.”
Strange that this noble and tolerant thinker should have been described
as an enemy of humanity. “The God-intoxicated man,” as Novalis said of
Spinoza, was accused of atheism in a day when philosophic doubt was
synonymous with crime. It was only such thinkers as Hegel, Lessing,
Goethe and Schelling who were able to appraise Spinoza at his true
value. For the uncultured he remained for generations an enemy of
In Amsterdam Spinoza formed at least a measure of toleration among the
citizens. He writes: “In the midst of this flourishing republic, this
great city, men of all nations and all sects live together in the most
A monument to Spinoza was unveiled by Renan at the Hague, in 1877.
Amsterdam abounds in memories of Rembrandt, though many of his paintings
are distributed in the galleries of other cities. The rich capital of
Holland encouraged painters, poets, and men of science; and in the year
when Spinoza was born, Rembrandt settled in Amsterdam, and soon became
noted as a painter of portraits. His house is in the Breestraat. In his
day, it was beautifully adorned with works of art, and he owned a large
collection of engravings. Like many great artists, Rembrandt lived
absorbed in his labours, seldom frequenting society. After a spell of
reverses he went to live on the Rozengracht, and in this house on the
quay he spent his last days.
We think of Rembrandt, in the busy Amsterdam of his day, writing to a
friend: “In this great town wherein I am, there being no man, save me,
who does not pursue commerce; everyone is so attentive to his own profit
that I might remain here all my life unseen of any.” Here, leading a
life of strenuous simplicity, content with his labour, a piece of cheese
and a crust, Rembrandt painted many memorable pictures. He soon became
one of the most respected of Amsterdam’s citizens. His pupils were many,
and they paid high fees for their tuition. But Rembrandt remained almost
a recluse, and seldom forsook his studio for festive company.
In the Fodor Museum in Amsterdam may be seen the “Tribute Money,” some
portrait drawings, and “Mars and Venus in the Net.” Several of
Rembrandt’s works are in private collections in the city. The picture
gallery also contains some of the painter’s famous pictures.
For a glimpse of the business life of Amsterdam, we must stroll in the
Kalver Straat, an interesting thoroughfare, running from the palace to
the sea, and then along the harbour and the quay. The great dyke
encloses a number of docks, all thronged with ships, and the fish
market should be seen. Herring-curing, by the way, was the invention of
a native of the Low Countries.
Among the public buildings that will repay inspection, are the Town
Hall, the Bourse, and two churches, the old church and the new church.
The older church dates from about 1300. Its beautiful stained windows
were painted at a later date. There are some tombs here of illustrious
naval conquerors, and these, and the magnificent organ, in its very
ornate gallery, are the chief objects of interest.
The new church is scarcely “new,” for it was built in 1408. This is a
fine edifice, with a number of monuments, an interesting carved pulpit,
and metal-work screen.
Admiral De Ruyter lived here, the great adversary of Blake, and the
gallant commander who held us at bay off the coast of Suffolk, and did
such damage to our ships in the Medway.
The pictures in the Museum are representative of the Dutch school, and
the collection includes many masterpieces; the chief artists represented
are Teniers, Rembrandt, Paul Potter, Gerard Douw, and Vandyk.
The situation of Amsterdam, on a salt marsh, with a stratum of mud below
its houses, would seem dangerous to the health of the city. It is,
however, a very healthy capital, and the inhabitants do not apparently
suffer from the specific diseases that are said to flourish in low, wet
Amsterdam leaves a picture in the mind of mediæval lanes and alleys,
with curious turrets and gables, shadowing slow canals; of sunlight and
vivid colour; of ships coming and going, and bustling quays, and streets
with old and new houses quaintly jumbled.
- The Project Gutenberg EBook of Old Continental Towns, by Walter M. Gallichan