„Most foreign observers pointed to industriousness, thrift, and cleanliness as the outstanding Dutch national characteristics. Some of their reports seem to indicate that three centuries ago the Dutch nation was not radically different from what it is today. It was, for example, noted that Dutchmen were singularly lacking in any respect for authority: servants did not tremble for their masters, women had often the better of their husbands, and children dared to speak up to their teachers, who ran the risk of being sued if they resorted to corporeal punishment. ‘The Dutch,’ said an Englishman in 1658, ‘behave as if all men were created equal.’ There was also lavish praise for the high level of elementary education and the excellency of the new Dutch universities, especially that of Leiden, the fame of which attracted students from all parts of Europe. Many persons in leading positions all over Europe acknowledged their high opinion of Dutch skills by making determined efforts to introduce Dutch practices in shipbuilding, the organization of foreign trade, the reclamation of land, and in a variety of other fields. According to the English historian William Cunningham, the middle and late period of English seventeenth-century economic history was that of a ‘conscious imitation’ of the Dutch. The Dutch contribution to the economic development of Scandinavian countries was even more substantial…
The only unfavourable characteristics they frequently mentioned were a slow, unimaginative disposition and a common indulgence in bouts of drinking, and these shortcomings were generally excused by attributing them to the country’s humid and chilly climate.
Yet there was another side to the foreign view of the Dutch Republic. The image which one nation forms of another is generally little more than a caricature inspired by hatred and prejudice, and the seventeenth century was no exception to this rule. It is well known that at this time the Dutch populace still laboured under the delusion that the English were distinguishable from ordinary human beings by having tails. The average Englishman’s view of the Dutch was not much more complimentary. The large number of expressions in the English language of this period in which the word ‘Dutch’ had an unfavourable connotation—’Dutch courage’, ‘Dutch concert’, ‘Dutch window’—seem to indicate that many Englishmen considered the Dutch drunkards devoid of any real bravery and cultural refinement. They were also commonly designated as ‘cheesemongers’ and ‘butter-boxes’; or, as an English pamphleteer put it in 1664: ‘A Dutchman is a lusty, fat, two-legged Cheeseworm, a creature that is so addicted to eating butter … that all the world knows him for a slippery fellow.’ Such derogatory notions of the Dutch were not confined to the illiterate masses, but are even found in works of literary distinction. Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘The Character of Holland’ is for example, almost unsurpassed in the grotesque distortion with which it portrays the Dutch way of life.
It was not in England alone that such contemptuous views of the Dutch were current. Wherever, in Europe or Asia, the Dutch went, they acquired the reputation of being a nation of uncouth sailors and unscrupulous merchants taking unfair advantage of their neighbour’s gullibility and robbing him of his legitimate profits. It was said of them that Mammon was their only God, and that for profit’s sake they would not hesitate to pass through Hell even at the risk of having the sails of their ships burned. Many Frenchmen denounced the Dutch as bloodsuckers and the Germans expressed their resentment in the saying: ‘Where a Dutchman treads, no grass will grow.’ Among the Chinese the Dutch enjoyed a similar reputation. Because of their highhanded methods they became known as they ‘red-haired barbarians’. ‘They are greedy and shrewd,’ reported a Chinese source of the time, ‘if meeting them at sea, one is certain to be robbed.’ „
THE MIRACLE OF THE DUTCH REPUBLIC AS SEEN IN THE SEVENTEETH CENTURY
K. W. SWART
PROFESSOR OF DUTCH HISTORY AND INSTITUTIONS
IN THE UNIVERSITY OF LONDON
An Inaugural Lecture
Delivered at University College London
6 November 1967
PS. „In the matter of labour the Hollanders were in some respects better and in some respects worse off than their English competitors. Wages were notoriously high in the United Provinces, where heavy excise taxes burdened all articles of general consumption, and high rents raised further the cost of living. This was somewhat offset by certainty of employment for artisans engaged in shipbuilding, who therefore worked for less than if employment had been seasonal.’ Another mitigation which drew the admiration of foreigners was the use of labour-saving machinery, especially the saw-mill wind-driven, and the great cranes which lifted and moved heavy timbers, and masted ships. It was perhaps appreciation of these machines that influenced certain Dutch carpenters to decline a pressing invitation from Colbert to remove to France and work in the royal dockyards at greatly improved wages. The work, they said, would be too hard.”