By ANDREW J. COSENTINO
On Nov. 16, the Library will open an exhibition of Dutch and Flemish 16th, 17th and 18th century maps and related items: "Leo Belgicus: The Dutch and Flemish World, 1500-1800." The exhibition is made possible with the support of the Embassy of the Netherlands, the Netherland-America Foundation, Netherlands- American Amity Trust, Julien G. Redele and the Flemish community.
The 17 provinces situated between France and Germany and variously called Germania Inferior, Les Pays Bas, Nederland, the Lowlands or Leo Belgicus (the Belgic Lion) have enriched world culture to a degree far out of proportion to their size.
Originally peopled by the ancient tribes of the Batavi, Belgae and Frisii, mentioned in the writings of Caesar and Tacitus, the Lowlands were invaded and often subjugated by the Romans, the Franks, the Burgundian Dukes, the French and Spanish and, not least, by the ever encroaching North Sea. Nonetheless, by the 16th century, the mostly Dutch-speaking Lowlands, then a Spanish possession, had attained a measure of unity and had become one of the wealthiest centers of commerce and culture in northwestern Europe.
With the death of the benevolent Spanish King Charles V, a Fleming by birth, and the accession to the throne of his zealously Catholic son, Philip II, the Lowlands rebelled in the 1560s, at the height of the Protestant Reformation. Philip's surrogates, the dukes of Alva and Parma, brutally crushed the revolt in the 10 predominantly Catholic southern provinces, while the seven northern Protestant provinces, spearheaded by William of Orange and the "Sea Beggars," declared their independence in 1581, dividing the Lowlands into what are now the Netherlands (or Holland) and Belgium.
Building on the experience of the great Flemish mercantile and cultural centers such as Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, Brussels and Leuven, the energetic Dutch created a commercial empire -- magnificently represented in maps and atlases from the collection of the Library's Geography and Map Division -- that vied with the great powers of Europe from 1600 to 1800. Through their privately owned East India and West India companies, established in 1602 and 1621, respectively, the Dutch controlled much of the trade -- sugar and spice, but also slaves -- from the east coast of Africa to Japan and from the west coast of Africa to the Americas.
Likewise, the extraordinary Northern Renaissance, spurred by Erasmus of Rotterdam, was largely the work of Flemish and Dutch artists whose names and works are indelibly inscribed on Western culture: Van Eyck, Memling, Van der Goes, Brueghel, Rembrandt, Hals, Hobbema, Steen, Vermeer and Rubens, to name a few. Among these creative geniuses must be counted the great Flemish and Dutch cartographers who also dominated the European scene, from the 1550s to the 1750s, and whose works form the basis of this exhibition: Ortelius, Mercator, Hondius, Janssen, Blaeu, Visscher, and Ottens, among others.
As their empire faded during the late 18th century, the Dutch Patriots were inspired toward national renewal by the American Revolution, to which they had contributed both materially and spiritually. The U.S. Declaration of Independence, for example, owes much to the Dutch declaration of 1581, which enunciates forcefully the principle of self-determination; likewise the American principles of private enterprise and rule by the people, which have long distinguished the Dutch tradition.
The Dutch East India Co. Before the Dutch established the East India Co. in 1602, they had a vigorous Baltic and Mediterranean trade, profitably exporting such products as salt herring and importing, through Portugal, the increasingly popular spices from the East. These advantages were abruptly cut off in 1580 when Philip II of Spain closed all Portuguese ports to the Dutch and Flemish, who were struggling for independence from the Spanish Crown.
Prevented by English privateers from going west to the Indies, the Dutch unsuccessfully sought a northeastern route through the Arctic. Finally they turned south, by way of Africa, facing their enemies Spain and Portugal. They were guided by the descriptions of the secretive Portuguese-Asian trade contained in Jan Huyghen van Linschoten's Itinerario, as well as new trade route maps produced by the minister-cartographer Peter Platevoet (Petrus Plancius). They adopted daring new capitalist methods of underwriting commercial ventures. The Dutch sailed to the East Indies in 1595, reaching Bantam, Java, the following year.
Although half the ships' crewmen perished and the voyage was barely profitable, the enterprise of the Compagnie van Verre (Company of Truth) irrevocably opened the Indies to the aggressive Dutch East India Co. Indeed, by the 1680s, the company dominated the East India trade, including the highly prized spices -- cloves, nutmeg and pepper -- from the Moluccas, Banda and Sumatra; white sandalwood from Timor; cinnamon and rice from Ceylon; and gold, silver, lacquerware and copper from Japan.
The remarkable success of the East India Co. was partly due to its unusual status as a state-supported private enterprise that was given a monopoly over all Dutch trade from the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Southern Africa east to Japan. The company also had the legal authority to wage war, make treaties and appoint governors and magistrates. No less important in establishing the dominance of Dutch commerce were innovations in ship design and the efficiency of the company's cartographic offices in Amsterdam and Batavia in supplying merchants with the most current nautical charts.
Managed by a board of 17 directors, called the Heeren XVII, the company sought not land but profitable trade -- a quest that, ironically, required territorial acquisition and war, as the founder of Batavia, Jan Pieterzoon Coen, had predicted. The Dutch quickly forced the Portuguese from many of their trading posts and forts and, sometimes brutally, routed the English, French and Spanish, as well as the native Muslim population.
The company's first success was in 1605 at Amboina, in the Moluccas. By 1619, from their headquarters at Batavia on the island of Java, the company managers captured and ruled the Indies trade until the company was taken over completely by the Dutch state in 1800.
The Dutch West India Co. By the time the West India Co. was formed in 1621, the Dutch had been engaged in trade and colonization in Africa and South America for almost 30 years. They had operated for some 10 years in North America (following Henry Hudson's unexpected discovery of the "Hudson" River in 1609, under the flag of the East India Co.). Once established, the company aggressively pursued its charge to "do everything that the service of this country and the profit and increase of trade shall require." This included purposeful confrontation with the Spanish, who, under Pope Alexander VI's Bull of 1493 and the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, were given hegemony over the Western Hemisphere, except for Brazil, which was Portuguese controlled.
Like its predecessor in the East, the West India Co. was a state-supported, privately owned company managed by a board of directors empowered with monopolistic rights of trade and broad discretion in military and judicial affairs over a large area, extending from the west coast of Africa to the west coast of the Americas. Unlike its sister organization, however, the West India Co.'s fortunes were mixed. Its most spectacular success was Piet Heyn's capture off the coast of Cuba in 1628 of the fabulous Spanish "Silver Fleet," whose rich cargo was used to help finance the company's far-flung ventures.
On the Guinea coast of West Africa, for example, the company displaced the Portuguese in the 1590s and established a lucrative slave trade with the Americas through the Caribbean island of Curacao. In Guiana on the northeast coast of South America, the company expanded existing trading posts and established agricultural colonies at Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice, which produced exotic woods, sugar, tobacco and rice. The Dutch exported sugar from Pernambuco, Brazil, taken from the Portuguese in 1630 and later lost to the Spanish.
In 1634 the West India Co. took several Caribbean islands from the Spanish. Later called the Netherlands Antilles, these included Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire, St. Eustatius (where the company provisioned the American revolutionists), Saba and St. Martin. On mainland North America, the New Netherlands (Nieuw Nederlandt), established in 1615 by a conglomerate of voorcompagnieen and taken over by the West India Co. in 1624, stretched from Delaware Bay to the Connecticut River.
A unique feature of the American settlements were the patroons, or private colonies, which the company chartered after discontinuing its own colonizing efforts. The first of these were at Essequibo and Berbice in Guiana, chartered in 1626 and 1627, followed by Swanendael on the Delaware River and Rensselaerswyck on the Hudson, chartered in 1629. The freedoms and exemptions (vryheden end exemptien) given the patroons to encourage their plantations were withdrawn from the New Netherlanders in 1634, however, so that the company could concentrate on the fur trade in North America, the more lucrative colonies in South America and the increasing competition from the English and French.
New Netherlands was finally lost to the British in 1644, leaving behind a legacy of culture and place names such as Brooklyn, Harlem, the Bowery and Staten Island.
"Leo Belgicus: The Dutch & Flemish World, 1500-1800" will be on display Nov. 16 through May 15, 1994, in the B Level of the Madison Building, Monday - Friday, 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. and Saturday 8:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.