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The history of Amsterdam 


Only a small patch on the globe, the Netherlands's role in world history, culture and commerce is out of all proportion to its size. The country owes a lot to its strategic position. Major European rivers like the Rhine pass through the Netherlands into the North Sea, making it a natural centre for business and industry. Since its very early days, over 700 years ago, the City of Amsterdam has occupied a key position in the Dutch scene. Growing from a fishing village in the powerful province of Holland, the city developed into a hub for trade, the arts and politics.


Amsterdam Map

* The early days

The first written mention of Amsterdam comes in 1275. In that year Count Floris V granted the people living near the dam on the Amstel River freedom to navigate the waters of the Province of Holland - without paying tolls.

This tax-exemption was an important step in a long-standing power struggle. The lands around the Amstel (Amstel-lands) actually belonged to the Bishop of Utrecht, but were ruled on his behalf by the Lords of Amstel. They were threatening to declare independence from the Bishop. Floris V put a stop to this. A separate, independent Amstel-land did not fit in with his plans. And to win the hearts and minds of the population he granted freedom from tolls - a foretaste of the benefits of joining mighty Holland! The ploy worked. The Lords of Amstel were obliged to accept the Count of Holland as their feudal master. But they were not happy about it, and in 1296 they kidnapped and assassinated Floris. Amsterdam duly reverted to the bishopric of Utrecht.

City charter
In 1300 or 1306 - the year can't be fixed for sure - Amsterdam was granted a city charter by its feodal lord, the Bishop of Utrecht. When the bishop died in 1317, the situation turned around again. Lordship over the city passed to his near relative, William III, Count of Holland. Amsterdam was back in the powerful arms of Holland for good.

The city was developing fast. The first church - the core of today's Old Church - was built around 1300. Dikes were built along the banks of the Amstel river. And in the river itself, at the spot where the National Monument now stands, they built a dam. This became the site of the 'Plaetse' market.

Amsterdam's economy floated on beer and herring. In 1323 the city was awarded a monopoly on the import of beer from Hamburg - something which had been prohibited for a long period. This gave Amsterdam a valuable competitive advantage. Baltic countries had traditionally dominated the herring trade. But when the fish shifted their spawning ground to the North Sea, Amsterdam saw its chance to penetrate a new market. This coincided with new gutting techniques enabling the catch to be kept fresh even longer. The fishermen could now get bigger catches to market and profits rose apace.



Nachtwacht by Rembrandt

* Golden century

The 17th century was boom-time for Amsterdam. Riches, power, culture and tolerance burgeoned in the city.

The canals
Not surprisingly, Amsterdam's magnificent network of canals was set out in the 17th century. And along the canals which girdle the city, the citizens built houses taller than any seen in any other Dutch city centre. The city authorities encouraged this 'tall is prestigious' idea to add to the glory of Amsterdam. Two massive places of worship were built in the first half of the century, the Zuiderkerk and Westerkerk - respectively the South and West churches. The gothic city hall was destroyed by fire in 1652, and the present building (now the Dam Palace) rose up on the same site. Dam Square - still De Plaetse in those days - was expanded considerably. The city also grew apace, and by 1700 it boasted some 200,000 inhabitants.

Culture flourished alongside business. Poets and playwrights like Bredero, Vondel and P.C. Hooft created their immortal works. Rembrandt and his pupils had their ateliers here. And the philosophers Spinoza and Descartes ('I think therefore I am') fashioned new insights as food for thought.

Economic crash
Amsterdam looked rich and powerful, but its prosperity was fragile. War with England prevented the arrival of a crucial merchant fleet from the Indies, bringing the city to the brink of bankruptcy. For people at the lower end of the social scale this meant no work. They went hungry, and discontent smouldered.
Baltic trade was still the traditional pillar of the city's economy. And when war came to the Baltic, Amsterdam ships fought on the Danish side against Sweden and Norway.

The year 1672 brought a new trial of strength, with war between the Republic and France of Louis XIV. On top of this, England attacked. Making good use of the turmoil, William III of Orange seized power. And when the direct danger to the country had been quickly disposed off, William III wanted to continue the war. Amsterdam opposed these plans - in the eyes of the city fathers it was 'pouring money down the drain'.




* The Second World War

Unlike in 1914, Dutch neutrality was not respected in World War II. German forces attacked without warning on 10 May 1940. The hopelessly out-gunned, out-numbered Dutch army capitulated five days later.

With the exception of a few misdirected allied air raids, the city suffered little damage in terms of bombing or battles. But the large Jewish community was decimated - deportation to the death camps literally cost Amsterdam 10% of its people. And the starvation winter of 1944/45, killed more.

Jewish deportations
Measures against Jew by the occupying forces increased apace. When Jewish and Communist members were removed, the City Councils failed to protest. And civil servants obediently followed the orders of the occupying authorities. The momentum increased: the first mass raids were on 22 February 1941 on the Waterlooplein. Led by the dockworkers, the people of Amsterdam responded with a general strike on 25 and 26 February. This was a unique public show of determination by gentiles on behalf of their Jewish compatriots. Deportations started all the same, in July 1942. The Jews of Amsterdam were herded together in the Hollandse Theatre, before being taken to the staging camp at Westerbork, and then to concentration camps in Germany and Poland. Some - like Anne Frank and her family - went into hiding. Anne's world-famous diary tells their story. Eventually the Frank family were betrayed and deported to Auschwitz. All died with the exception of Anne's father.

The starvation winter
The defeat of the British and Polish airborne forces at the Battle of Arnhem in 1944, isolated the northern part of the Netherlands. With the German armies under pressure on all fronts, supplies dried up. The starvation winter of 1944-45 claimed countless lives in Amsterdam. To get wood to fuel their fires, people pulled down thousands of empty houses - often those of deported Jewish families. Germany surrendered on 5 May 1945, and two days later Canadian troops liberated Amsterdam.




* Heading for the millennium

Liveability is the priority, but Amsterdam has never down-played its relish for business. The rich opportunities are evidenced by the number of major international corporations choosing the Amsterdam region as their European gateway. The cultural picture is as dynamic and vibrant as ever. And the city's politicians, officials and stakeholders are looking and preparing well beyond the millennium.

The traditional port sector has taken on a new lease of life. Amsterdam's economy sought a new impetus from office projects in a swathe running south via the World Trade Centre (1985) to Schiphol. Teleport, a new cluster of office buildings was created near Sloterdijk Station in 1988; as the name implies, Telecoms are the focus here.

Culture and sport
Amsterdam is still the undisputed cultural capital of the Netherlands. The world renowned Concertgebouw orchestra, the ballet, theatre (from classical to the outer edge of experimental), dozens of museums and many more art galleries draw visitors from across the world. Amsterdam also boasts two excellent universities and teaching hospitals.

And, of course, what would Amsterdam be without Ajax? In the 1970's football (soccer if you're from the USA) fans around the world thrilled to the exploits of Johan Cruyff. When Ajax or the Dutch national team scores another victory - as in the 1988 European Championship - Amsterdam celebrates until the early hours.

Governance and self-determination
Recent years have brought two important changes in the way the city is run. Firstly, the adminstration has been decentralised. Alongside the Burgomaster (mayor) and aldermen at City Hall, Amsterdam now has sixteen neighbourhood councils. City Hall retains the final say on major issues. Second, with an eye to longer-term developments, Amsterdam and neighbouring local authorities are working together in a regional consultive body, known by the Dutch initials ROA. Plans to meld Amsterdam into a so-called city province were vetoed by a referendum in 1995, with the people of Amsterdam giving an unambiguous 'No'. As yet, it is hard to say if and how this will affect life in the city in the longer term.

But if history is any guide, the city will do what it has always done: take the best of the new and set it dancing to an Amsterdam tune. Put another way, nobody has ever called Amsterdam drab or boring.




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