Amsterdam

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
inhabitants.

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
Nations.”

“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
of Europe.

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
virtue.

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
perfect harmony.”