Today Amsterdam is a cosmopolitan city, bursting with tourists and at the same time maintaining a unique Dutch character. The city's history accounts for its economic and cultural development, the results of which we see today. While visiting Amsterdam, take a minute to check a few historical facts about the city - this way you'll surely find your way in the maze of Amsterdam's streets!
The beginnings of Amsterdam
Amsterdam is a relatively late developer compared to most European cities. During the period of Classical Antiquity, these regions were largely unpopulated, notwithstanding the fact that Roman coins were discovered there, a fact indicating that they were inhabited back in Roman times. The area was first settled in the 9th and 10th Centuries.
The generally accepted view is that the city grew around a dam on the Amstel River in the late 1100s. Along with several others, this dam formed a network of dikes along the southern bank of the Amstel River. One view is that workers who came from the Utrecht diocese located in Holland to build the dikes built Amsterdam. The river flowed into the Amstel through a sluice in the dam, while the canals served the purpose of water supply to the city. To this day, no matter where you are in Amsterdam, there is a canal nearby.
Inhabited mostly by craftsmen, traders and farmers, Amsterdam was granted a city charter around 1300 by the Bishop of Utrecht. Some historians believe that this charter actually confirmed the city’s rights given by the Lord of Aemstel in 1200. The oldest record of the city dates from 1275. This is the toll concession of the Count of Holland, which states that the settlers in the area around the dam were relieved from toll payments to Holland, as they transported their own goods. This was an essential arrangement, because in the 1200s Amsterdam was under the jurisdiction of the Utrecht diocese. As such, they were bound to Holland by trade regulations.
A shipyard and several workshops dating from the 14th Century were excavated at the Zeedijk in Amsterdam. It was determined that the inhabitants of Amsterdam maintained contact with the area of the Rhine following the discovery of an early 14th-Century pilgrim's mark from Cologne. Around 1300, the city had around 1,000 inhabitants, and 5,000 a century later. Amsterdam acquired an independent parish in 1334.
The 12th-Century floods destroyed a large part of the farmland, so the population turned to crafts, fishing and shipping to sustain itself. The construction of the dam turned the estuary of the Amstel into a natural port (present-day Damrak), the oldest port of the city. Initially, Amsterdam was a fishing port, but over time its inhabitants began to concentrate more on trade. Trade began to flourish in the 14th Century, when the fishermen started to sell their catches to foreign markets. In due course, they decided to buy goods and take them home instead of just selling and coming back empty-handed. Eventually, they placed an exclusive focus on the transport business, leaving the fishing to others.
Amsterdam developed as a major centre of commerce after it began trading with the Baltic countries and the coastal areas near the German part of the North Sea. The Count of Holland granted the city a beer toll in 1323. This was the most important privilege secured by the city in its history. As a result, it became a major beer market. One-third of the total amount of beer exports from Hamburg were being shipped to Amsterdam by 1369, and the major factor behind this was the beer toll. This business also eventually led to significant corn trade with the Baltic countries.
At the turn of the 15th Century, trade with these countries grew to such an extent that it caused disagreements with towns of the Hanseatic League. Eventually they escalated into a war. Amsterdam and several other Dutch cities sent warships to secure free course through the sea between Sweden and Denmark (Sont). The Dutch cities emerged as victors. As a result, Amsterdam gained control of the entire Baltic trade, and maintained it from the end of the 1400s onward. Amsterdam broke the Hanseatic monopoly on corn trade and became a leader in this business.
By 1600, over half of all the ships sailing through the Sont had the Amsterdam market as their final destination. This business formed the backbone of Amsterdam’s commercial success for hundreds of years. It gave rise to the golden age of the city.
Medieval Amsterdam was enclosed by a moat formed by the canals of Kloveniersburgwal, Singel and Geldersekade. The weighing house at the Nieuwmarkt, the lower part of the Munttoren, and the weeping tower are remains of the Medieval city walls, constructed in the late 15th Century. The most notable Medieval buildings in the city are the Olafskapel and the Gothic churches Nieuwe Kerk and Oude Kerk. These churches were consecrated in 1414 and 1306, respectively.
In Medieval times, most of the houses in the city were made of wood. Medieval timber frames support a great deal of the houses today. These houses are actually several centuries old. They were renovated with new facades in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Stone was reserved for important buildings like city gates, abbeys, and churches. Most of the wooden houses were destroyed by fires in 1421 and 1452. After the last fire, city authorities banned the construction of wooden sidewalls. However, it took a long time to create a city of stone from a city of ashes. It wasn’t until the 17th Century that wooden facades finally disappeared.
The Golden Age
Amsterdam officially joined the revolt against Spanish rule in 1578. The city council, which was aligned with Catholic Spain, was replaced by a Protestant council. This was an important event in the city’s history. Another milestone was the fall of Antwerp in 1585. The blockade of the Scheldt that ensued allowed Amsterdam to become the most significant market in the world. This marked the beginning of Amsterdam’s Golden Age. Within the next several decades, the city had amassed an incredible amount of wealth. It became a colonial empire, and exercised political influence over most of Europe. The city’s dockside warehouses, which are a landmark today, were brimming with goods from all parts of the globe.
The city then entered its first stage of expansion. The first project aimed to improve the fortifications. The Swanenburg bulwark was designed, and new defensive walls were built. After Antwerp fell, there was an influx of refugees, and many of them settled outside the walls. Suburbs began to develop, and so further expansion was necessary. The first stage of the famous canal ring was completed in 1613, and the ring itself was completed in 1663.
The Golden Age was in full swing. The rate of immigration skyrocketed, as did the corn trade turnover. Amsterdam became the first modern urban-industrial area the world had ever seen. The salary rates in the city were the highest in northern Europe. Businessmen began to invest in labor-saving technology like windmills. The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602, and Amsterdam held 50% of this company, which was the first limited-liability company in the world. The Exchange Bank was established in 1609, and the Commodity Exchange in 1613. These institutions made an important contribution to the commercial success of the city.
By the turn of the 17th Century, Amsterdam was the largest, the most powerful and the wealthiest city of the Dutch Republic. It had control of the Republic’s foreign and internal affairs. The city council was fully autonomous. As a result, the city came to enjoy unprecedented freedom of trade, thought, and religion.
Due to the large immigrant population, the city acquired a distinctly cosmopolitan character. Everyone was granted freedom of religion, even Roman Catholics in due course. This freedom attracted many famous scholars and philosophers to the city, including Rene Descartes.
Amsterdam was ruled by an oligarchy which had influence throughout Holland. Unofficially, it ruled the entire Republic. William III of the House of Orange was displeased with this situation. The conflicts thereof escalated in the 17th Century, resulting in a war which rendered the country helpless in the face of foreign threats.
The English Wars were fought mainly at sea, with a detrimental effect on trade. France invaded Holland in 1672. Amsterdam panicked, and government stock and the shares of the Dutch East India Company took a plunge. This marked the end of Amsterdam’s Golden Age.
The legacy of this period continues to be felt. The center of Amsterdam acquired its characteristic shape during the Golden Age. The urban expansions were so well-planned that no further expansion was necessary until the 19th Century. The canal ring was completed in a short time. Typified by straight canals and compact districts, the city’s development was fully in line with the Enlightenment ideals of the time. The core of the historical district developed during the Golden Age. Examples include the Town Hall (today the Royal Palace), the Zuiderkerk and the Noorderkerk.
Amsterdam in the 17th and 18th Centuries
After France invaded Holland, a mobilisation was called in Amsterdam. Eventually, the cold weather forced the French army to retreat. However, the crisis left its mark. The Republic was torn by political and economic strife. Trade recovered, however, and another period of prosperity began, which proved to be even more glorious than the Golden Age. All other Dutch towns suffered from a recession, but not Amsterdam. The city was not affected by the decline of industry in the 17th and 18th Centuries, because it was a centre of commerce, not industry. During the 18th Century, Amsterdam was the main market in Europe along with Hamburg and London. It was also the financial centre of the continent. Gradually, its merchants became the bankers of Europe. Foreign rulers financed their military campaigns with loans allocated through the Amsterdam Exchange.
In 1747, France attacked Holland again. This resulted in mass panic. Amsterdam lease-holders revolted in 1748. William IV succeeded in stabilizing the power structure, and Amsterdam continued to enjoy peace and prosperity.
The Seven Years’ War, in which most European countries took part, broke out in 1756. Holland remained neutral. Amsterdam profited from the war, as the city had loaned money to almost all European rulers. The excessive financing resulted in crises in 1763 and 1773.
The Fourth English War, declared in 1780, proved disastrous to Amsterdam’s trade. The Republic of Holland entered a period of decline, along with its greatest city. The Patriot Party started to gain popular support at the expense of the House of Orange. It succeeded in making administrative reforms in Amsterdam in 1787. Conflict escalated and hooliganism was rampant in the city. That year, William V seized power with the help of Prussian troops. The House of Orange returned. This restoration resulted in loss of control over the Republican government on the part of Amsterdam.
Most of the houses in the centre of Amsterdam date back to the 18th Century. These houses were built for common citizens and rich merchants alike. The most common design was that of the canal house with a gabled façade, elegant stairways, imposing parlors and vast corridors. Many of these impressive residences survive fully intact. They are monuments to the city’s prosperity during this age. Very few houses were built during the late 18th Century.
France declared war on Holland in 1793. The French army invaded the country in 1794, and approached Amsterdam in 1795. On January 19, 1795, a Revolutionary committee replaced the old administrators in City Hall. The old Amsterdam ceased to exist, as did the Republic in its traditional form. Amsterdam entered a period of French influence. The old Republic was succeeded by the short-lived Batavian Republic, which involuntarily eased the transition to French rule.
Louis Napoleon, the brother of Napoleon, entered The Hague in 1806. He established a residence there, and later moved it to Amsterdam. He moved into the City Hall at Dam Square in 1808. City Hall was transformed into the Royal Palace, and the keys to the city gates were presented to Napoleon in 1811.
Under Napoleon, Amsterdam’s trade almost collapsed. There was a significant population drop in the city. A troubled era had arrived.
Amsterdam from the 19th Century Onwards
After France annexed Holland, Amsterdam received the status of third capital of the Empire. By that time, the city had lost all of its economic and political power, and its status as a pseudo-polis belonged to the past. The French reformed the old government and transformed The Netherlands into a uniform state.
The House of Orange returned to the political scene in 1813. The Netherlands turned into a kingdom. King William I of Orange moved the Dutch Trading Company to Amsterdam to help the city recuperate from the recession. This move proved successful, and the company took control of trade with all Dutch colonies, making the city a commercial centre once again. A channel was built to connect the city and the North Sea, enabling large sea vessels to have easy access to Amsterdam. Another channel connecting Amsterdam to the Rhine was opened, making the city a major transit port. Finally, the Central Railway Station was completed in 1889. All these improvements and developments facilitated population growth – the city’s population increased from around 180,000 in 1810 to approximately 520,000 by 1900.
Over the course of the Industrial Revolution, which began to influence the city in 1870, many people migrated from the countryside to seek prosperity. The city once again faced the need for expansion, and several construction projects were implemented.
Amsterdam’s economy flourished up until the 1920s. During that decade and the following one, the city suffered from the global economic recession. There were efforts to build more houses to accommodate the fast-growing population, but they came to nothing in light of the outbreak of World War II.
After the war, there was a cultural revolution in the city, transforming it into the so-called magical centre of Europe. Amsterdam entered the 1980s on an explosive note. During the coronation of Queen Beatrix in 1980, protesters started a riot and the military had to be called in. During the 80s, there was an influx of immigrants from Morocco and Turkey. As a result, many people moved to cities near Amsterdam like Almere and Purmerend. Former working-class neighborhoods like the Jordaan became popular with newly-rich yuppies. Amsterdam gained plenty of wealth after adopting a policy toward a service-oriented economy rather than an industrial one.
Modern Amsterdam has a truly cosmopolitan image, with Arabs, Africans, homosexuals, hippies, intellectuals, poor workers and wealthy businesspeople, not to mention the inhabitants of its Red Light District, all figuring into its population.