A Short History of Amsterdam

from the early days to the 21st century


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.

1. 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 feudal 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.

2. Political unity

The region which now forms the Netherlands was politically fragmented. The gradual move towards greater unity got underway in the 15th and 16th centuries. The process was pushed along by the young city - quick to see the benefits of burgeoning trade.

During the 15th century Amsterdam became part of the powerful and widespread Dukedom of Burgundy, under Duke Philip the Good. The duke sought to keep his lands together, but ran up against opposition in Holland and from Countess Jacoba of Bavaria who feared Burgundian encirclement. Sides were chosen and the sets of supporters - calling themselves the 'codfish' and the 'hooks' - battled it out. Amsterdam backed Duke Philip and his successors.

Centre of commerce

Political unity of the Low Countries - roughly covering the area of today's Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg - came in 1543. The man responsible was Charles V, the great-great-grandson of Philip the Good. The hub of the new state was in the south, with Brussels as capital. Amsterdam's importance came from its status as a centre of commerce. The city imported wood and grain from the Baltic region - also the place to buy iron-ore, furs and cod. The salt to preserve the cod came from Portugal. This made Amsterdam into a central clearing-house where goods from north and south could be stored, processed and sold on. And to service the growing business community and international trade, Amsterdam developed a range of trades and professions like cartography, printing, banking and insurance.

Biggest city

A blooming economy helped Amsterdam to grow into the biggest city in the province of Holland, with some 30,000 inhabitants. We can get an idea of the size and spread of the city from 16th century maps. The IJ waterway (pronounced: 'eye') was still an estuary; in it was a port directly connected to Damrak. Ocean-going vessels could sail right into the city, up to what is today Dam Square. Back then, the Dam was covered in small houses, with a medieval, gothic city hall. The New Church (as opposed to the Old Church built a century earlier in 1300) was also surrounded by clusters of houses. And the city limits were defined by the Singel canal to the west, and the Kloveniersburgwal (wall) to the east.

3. The Republic

Amsterdam was not immune to the Reformation which raged through Europe. For a long while it remained a Catholic stronghold, but protestantism gradually took the upper hand. Religious rivalry actually halted the city's growth between 1535 and 1578.

Eighty years war

Wars of religion stopped the unification of the Netherlands. Charles V's son Philip II, inherited the throne of Spain. And as King Philip of Spain he sought to annihilate the reformation in the Netherlands. Many of the Dutch rebelled. They wanted to keep their freedom and opposed the idea of religious persecution. Prince William of Orange became their national leader. His ironic nickname, William the Silent, came from his skill as a negotiator - never committing himself until the last possible moment. In 1572, the province of Holland chose the side of William of Orange. Only Amsterdam remained loyal to Spain. Indeed, Amsterdam helped the Spanish army capture Haarlem. At this point the advantage started to shift. The Spanish troops were forced to retreat, and the Sea Beggars - pirates to some, patriots to others - gained the upper hand over the Amsterdammers. The city was now isolated. A peace treaty with the rest of the province of Holland was signed in 1578, and within a few months a new city government was in place, made up of protestants and allies of William of Orange.

Seven provinces

A definite break-up of the Netherlands came in 1579. The provinces clustered in two 'Unions', of Utrecht and Atrecht. The seven provinces in the Union of Utrecht continued the war with Spain until 1648 and the Peace of Munster. This treaty marked the end of the eighty years war.

The seven provinces - the basis for the modern Netherlands - were known as 'the Republic'. Together they formed a loose state. William of Orange was given the title of 'Stadholder'. In broad terms this made him a semi-hereditary president/commander-in-chief, with wide powers in time of war, but subject to a mass of checks and balances in peacetime. (A unique construction reflecting the Dutch relish for compromise and consensus.)

Stadholder William of Orange was based in The Hague. While Amsterdam was outside the centre of power, under the Republic, the 'say' of city or province was measured by how much money it contributed. The Dutch Republic was neither a democracy as we know it, nor the sort of absolute monarchy which reigned in most neighbouring countries.

Rights and privileges awarded to the city in the middle ages, added to a flair for wheeling-and-dealing in business, ensured a degree of freedom and tolerance.

4. A touch of spice

Merchant adventurers from Amsterdam sailed the seas to the far-off Indies or 'spice-islands' (today's Indonesia). Big risks brought bigger rewards. Soon, a process had been launched that would boom into the 'Golden Century'.

Towards the end of the 15th century, the great maritime powers of Portugal and Spain undertook epic voyages of discovery to the Americas and the Indies. Holland soon became involved in trading exotic imports from these regions, initially by collecting cargoes in Lisbon for sale and distribution to wider markets.

The situation changed in 1580 when Spain annexed Portugal. The northern Netherlanders now had to make the trip to the Indies under their own flag. Meanwhile many rich merchants from the southern Netherlands had moved to Amsterdam after Antwerp fell to the Spanish. Their arrival gave the city's business community an extra boost. Among the new arrivals were Portuguese jews; having fled their home country for Antwerp, they were refugees once again.

Economic success

The very first trading voyages to the Indies from Amsterdam were a phenomenal success, yielding shareholders an awesome 400% profit. Anxious to share these riches, ships were fitted-out and dispatched from every port in the country. In 1602 all these fragmented efforts were clustered in the Dutch East Indies Company. Amsterdam provided more than half the capital. Other investors included ordinary people, alongside the wealthy merchant classes. Amsterdam was prevented from having half the seats on the board, for fear of over-domination. All the same, the city was still a powerful force within the organisation.

5. 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.


De Plaetse (nowadays Dam Square) in the 17th century, with the new town hall under construction (left). Painting by Johannes Lingelbach (1656)


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'.

6. Marking time

Amsterdam's period of boom had run out by the end of the 17th century. The city lost its status as heavyweight commercial sea-power. In turn, that eroded its position as universal clearing house. Money itself started to play a greater role and the city became Europe's financial and banking centre (indeed, the concept of shares was born in Amsterdam). Princes and potentates came here to borrow the funds to fill their war-chests. War has never been cheap. Meanwhile, the middle-classes were becoming politically aware ....

The social divide

By around 1600 wide gaps had grown up between the classes in Amsterdam. At top were the Regents - wealthy families who effectively ran the city, filling their pockets along the way. Nepotism was rife. A newborn baby from the right family could be appointed to well-paid sinecure (i.e. a job with a formal title but no work to do). Meanwhile, basic necessities were heavily taxed and unemployment was widespread. Gradually, a new middle class arose, between the rich regents and the poor at the bottom of the ladder. These new burgers were literate and open to new ideas from England and France - and they wanted a slice of power. The 18th century brought an age of enlightenment to Europe. The old order was being questioned. The air was alive with new ideas and theories around democracy and the sharing of power. These middle-class burgers saw the House of Orange as a natural ally against the regents. And in 1747, middle-class pressure secured many of the powers of a monarch for William IV of Orange.


A reform movement sprang up in Amsterdam, demanding an end to the corruption of the regents. By 1748 this had grown into a widespread popular drive. Rioting erupted across the Seven Provinces, with the violence directed at the hated tax-gatherers. Their houses were systematically plundered and destroyed. The authorities acted with an iron fist: the ring-leaders were captured and hanged. A generation later the so-called Patriot movement fought for the same ideals. But this time they targeted not only the regents, but also the House of Orange and the way the province of Holland and Amsterdam dominated the Republic. There were some ugly incidents and skirmishes, and many of the Patriots fled to France. This was on the eve of the French Revolution. Helped by French sympathizers and inspired by ideals of freedom, equality and brotherhood, they returned - effectively taking over the Dutch Republic in 1795. The city authorities of Amsterdam were ejected and replaced by provisional representatives of the people. These were the first experimental shoots of democracy.

Capital city

It was a short interlude. Napoleonic French influence turned into interference then dictatorship. The Republic was given a single head of state, only to become a Kingdom, under Napoleon's brother Louis. Louis-Napoleon chose Amsterdam as his official place residence, making it the country's focal point and capital. In 1813, the allies defeated Napoleon and the French left the Netherlands. In 1815, William I became king. Formally, Amsterdam remained the capital city, but - as in times gone by - the government went to The Hague.

7. Industrial revolution

Slowly but surely, the age of steam took an iron grip on Amsterdam. Industrialisation was certainly a boost for the city's economy, but it also spurred social unrest. Between 1870 and 1900, the city's population almost doubled and at the turn of the century, the number of 500,000 inhabitants was reached.

Faced with the problem of the old port silting up, Amsterdam applied a solution from its Golden Age - canal building. The new North Holland Canal linked the city directly with the North Sea port of Den Helder. It was a bold move, but prosperity was slow in returning. Poverty was rampant. The turnaround came after 1870 with the opening of another canal, Suez, and German unification under Bismarck. Both were good news for international business, and so was the relaxation of tariffs and restrictions on trade with the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia). The year 1870 also brought the first rough diamond from South Africa; the city's already world famous diamond industry expanded apace. And in 1876, the North Sea Canal gave Amsterdam a direct link with the sea.

A city builds

The opening of Central Station in 1889 positioned Amsterdam firmly on the rail map. As if reawakened to its status, the city started to build on a grand scale: theatres, museums, hotels and department stores. The years after 1870 also saw a band of new workers' neighbourhoods arise, beyond the Buitensingelgracht. The city needed workers, the workers needed homes, but that was as far as it went. Quality of building, life and surroundings were low priorities.

The 20th century up to 1940

The Housing Act of 1901 was designed to end the appalling living conditions endured by many people. The authorities now had powers to confiscate and demolish slum dwellings. The new Act also set out minimum building standards. New grant arrangements led to creation of many housing cooperatives; to this day, they are important players in the provision of public sector housing in Amsterdam. The city expanded in other directions and styles. Delightful garden-neighbourhoods sprang up. The idealistic Amsterdam school of architecture created a number of neighbourhoods with low-cost rented housing, around the old city. A small airport was established at Schiphol to the south-east of Amsterdam, and 900 hectare wooded recreation area was laid out on the south-west fringe. The great depression hit hard. In 1934 the government decided to cut the dole paid to the unemployed. There was brief outbreak of rioting in working-class districts like the Jordaan (today a fashionable place to live!).

8. 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.

9. Recovery and growth

With peace restored, the city faced the challenge of revitalising its two most important generators of prosperity - the sea- and air-ports. There was a housing backlog to be cleared away, and the city's roads would have to be re-planned to cope with growing traffic. Schiphol Airport grew apace and now ranks high among European airports in terms of volume - and higher in terms of service. Obviously this expansion has had a positive and a less-positive impact on the nearby city.

Meanwhile, enhancing Amsterdam's access to the North Sea was an ongoing priority. The harbour mouth, canals and locks were regularly enlarged and improved. With the independence of the former Dutch colony Indonesia, Amsterdam lost its position as clearing house for tropical produce. To compensate, the Port of Amsterdam took on the role of gateway for commodities like grain and - later - Japanese cars for the European market. There was a period of intense rivalry with Rotterdam (the world's largest port). Today, the Port of Amsterdam is happy to operate as a niche player, with a specialised offering, alongside the neighbourly giant. (Success has been sweet: PoA is the world's premier cacao port!)

Traffic and housing

Pre-war Amsterdam was almost unaccessible for modern traffic. Solving this demanded far-reaching infrastructural change. Successful major projects include the road tunnel under the IJ waterway, the metro (subway) network and the ring-road around the city. And there were new housing projects, like the Bijlmermeer. Blocks of spacious apartments with plenty of green, open space in between - homes for hundreds of thousands. Sadly, factors including high rents prevented the project from realising its potential.

10. Urban renewal

The early sixties were a time of fundamental change in Dutch society. The young were finding that they had a voice, and they were using it to challenge the traditional hierarchy. It was the time the 'Provo' movement, flower-power and protest. John Lennon and Yoko Ono had their legendary sleep-in at the Amsterdam Hilton. The explosion of youth culture in Amsterdam hit the headlines worldwide. Hippies and back-packers flocked to the city. They slept in the Vondelpark and even around the national monument on Dam Square (until this was banned in 1970).

Outdoor sleeping was soon regulated by limiting the permitted areas and providing cheap accommodation called 'sleep-inns', a kind of hip youth hostels, that often provide some cultural program at the side.

Overspill or compact city

By 1970 a much-needed programme of urban renewal was underway. There were two conflicting visions at work here. The traditional approach was based on the city as centre of business and production. This 'overspill' school assumed the relocation of around half the inhabitants to towns like Almere, Hoorn and Purmerend. This was bitterly opposed by people in the older neighbourhoods determined to stay in their familiar surroundings. The renewal process ground to a halt. The impasse was broken in 1978 when the city council chose for the 'city as a place to live' model. Local people were involved and consulted on the changes. Meantime, City Hall developed the so-called compact city model - the opposite of overspill. The search was on for new sites to build, in and around the city centre. And, after a long lull, the population curve began to rise again.

The squatter movement

Things were on the move, but there was still a housing shortage. There was a sharp drop in the number of people living in a single home; and the urban renewal programme has demolished large blocks of flats - with nothing to replace them. Young people started to move into empty building, taking squatters' right. The squatter movement developed into an independent help and support network - for and by youngsters seeking somewhere to live. Rioting was common when the police removed squatters. But the most serious disturbance was on 30 April 1980, at the inauguration of Queen Beatrix at the New Church on Dam Square (Dutch monarchs are installed not crowned). The intensity of violence around the squatter movement cooled considerably after 1985.

11. The 21st century

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.

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 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 seven neighbourhood councils. City Hall retains the final say on major issues.

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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