Amsterdam: a city where innovation, creativity and the spirit of free trade have played an ongoing role through the centuries. Our rich past has laid the foundation for today’s entrepreneurial spirit. And so the history of Amsterdam is firmly anchored in our DNA.
1200-1400: Birth of a City
A Dam in the River Amstel
Amsterdam derives its name from the dam in the River Amstel. This dam was constructed around 1265 to protect the land against flooding. The ground was wet and marshy – not exactly the best location for a global city. But the water also provided possibilities: access to the hinterland and the sea, and thus to the rest of the world.
On 27 October 1275 Count Floris V of Holland granted the people who lived by the ‘dam on the Amstel’ to transport goods through his country without having to pay tolls. This gave a major boost to the development of Amsterdam as a trading town. Since this document is the first to mention the town, 27 October is maintained as the city’s birthday. A few decades later Amsterdam also received its town charter.
In 1345 a miracle took place on the Kalverstraat, one of the town’s main streets. A dying man vomited out the host he had received as the last sacrament. The vomit was thrown on the fire but the next morning the host lay unblemished in the fireplace. The people of Amsterdam built a special chapel at the site, the Heilige Stede or Holy Site. This was visited by many pilgrims and Amsterdam became a real pilgrimage site; mass tourism avant la lettre. 1400-1575: Governance and Trade
Amsterdam has traditionally been a city governed by the citizens themselves. In 1400 the Count of Holland gave the people of Amsterdam the right to appoint their own rulers, known as burgomasters. These were mostly wealthy merchants. They took decisions that ensured that Amsterdam had a climate conducive to trade.
Trade in the Baltic
Amsterdam conducted a great deal of trade with the region around the Baltic Sea. Herring and beer were two important commodities shipped via Amsterdam. All the beer shipped from Hamburg to Holland was subject to tolls in Amsterdam. And so the city became an important trade centre. 1575 – 1611: Towards a Golden Age
In 1578 the people of Amsterdam, following on from other towns in Holland, rose up against Spanish rule. The Protestants deposed the Catholic, Spanish-supporting city council who, very symbolically for Amsterdam, were sent out of the city by water in a small boat. The lack of bloodshed during this event typifies the tolerant character of Amsterdam. Protestants took over the city administration and thus also the churches. Many Protestants and Jews from the south of the country then moved to the tolerant city and brought the wealth with them. The new residents gave an important boost to the economy of Amsterdam.
Dutch East India Company
From the end of the 16th century onward, Amsterdam-based ships set sail for Asia. They brought back spices which were sold at a great profit. In order to prevent too many small companies competing with each other, a single big company was set up in 1602: the Dutch East India Company (VOC). In a new development, normal Amsterdam citizens were able to invest in the company, too – by buying shares. Thus the Dutch East India Company is sometimes called the world’s first multinational.
Amsterdam quickly grew to become the centre of global trade. New municipal institutions such as the Bank of Amsterdam and the Stock Exchange were ahead of their time and ensured that trade went smoothly. This resulted in huge prosperity for the city. 1611-1700: Expanding Economy, Expanding the City
The 17th century is known as the Golden Age of Amsterdam. The city experienced huge growth and went through two major expansions. This led to creation of the famous Canal Ring. The final expansion took place in 1663. This well-known urban design, which brings together water and prosperity, is still a symbol of the wealth of Amsterdam. In 2010 the Canal Ring was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Golden Age of Art and Science
It was not only shipping and trade that flourished, but science and art as well. The city became a centre of printing: works that would never have escaped censorship in other places rolled from the presses in comparatively tolerant Amsterdam. Moreover, Rembrandt painted his masterpieces on behalf of wealthy Amsterdam citizens and cartographers incorporated the latest discoveries into their beautifully illustrated maps.
A New Town Hall
A grand new town hall on the Dam Square symbolized the power and prosperity of Amsterdam’s citizens and the city’s position as the mid-point of the world. The facade of the building is topped by a relief in which Amsterdam receives homage from all parts of the world.
1700 – 1850: Bankers and Patriots
In the 18th century trade declined, but the city remained Europe’s major financial centre. Rich Amsterdam merchants went in banking and also lent money to foreign sovereigns. A small number of rich families, the regents, held the reins of power in the city. From the second half of the 18th century onward the population of the city increasingly protested against this situation.
Amsterdam’s prosperity also had a dark side. Amsterdam citizens were not only involved in trading goods, but also in trading enslaved people from Africa. The Dutch West India Company (WIC) held the monopoly on slavery and between 1668 and 1738 it transported almost 63,000 enslaved people to what is now South America. They were mostly put to work on the many profitable plantations in Suriname, Berbice and Brazil. Slavery was abolished in 1863, an event commemorated annually in Amsterdam.
The ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity spread from France to the Netherlands. Amsterdam revolutionaries, known as the Patriots, sought to gain power. Thanks to the help of French troops, in 1795 the old Republic then became the Batavian Republic for the space of ten years.
The coup marked the start of democracy in the Netherlands, but it also brought a loss of independence for Amsterdam. The French Emperor Napoleon appointed his brother Louis as king. He moved into the town hall on the Dam, which was refurbished as a palace. Louis was popular with the people, but overseas trade came almost to a standstill and the city fell into poverty. In 1813 the French were driven out and the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was founded, with William I as king. 1850-1900: Rapid Innovations
A Second Golden Age
In the second half of the 19th century Amsterdam rapidly transformed into a modern metropolis. This period is sometimes referred to as the Second Golden Age. Shipping gained a new lease of life, but this time in a modern form. Now steamships brought coffee and tobacco from the Dutch East Indies and carried passengers to America. The ships reached the city via the new North Sea Canal and moored in a new section of the port, the Eastern Docklands.
In 1889 Amsterdam gained a large new Central Station, situated on an artificial island in the IJ lake and designed by the famous architect P.J.H. Cuypers. The new Amsterdam had everything a modern city should be able to offer: hotels, shops, restaurants and cultural institutions such as the famous Concertgebouw (Concert Hall) and the Rijksmuseum.
The city began to become crowded and it expanded again for the first time since the 17th century. While the population of Amsterdam numbered just 180,000 in 1810, toward the end of the century it had grown to over 500,000.
1900-1940: Living Conditions
The urban growth in the 19th century also brought new problems. Many workers lived in appalling slums and cellars, often with the entire family in just one room. From 1875 onward new neighbourhoods were thrown up at high tempo outside the city. But the buildings were of poor quality. The Socialists demanded better housing for the workers and gained wide support in Amsterdam. On the initiative of Socialist aldermen such as Floor Wibaut and Monne de Miranda, new districts were built, with better homes for workers. Wibaut even travelled to London to borrow money from bankers to fund his socialist dream.
The houses were built in the style of the ‘Amsterdam School’: large apartment blocks with decorative facades full of sculptures and striking masonry. Besides residential blocks, other facilities such as monumental schools, libraries, post offices and hospitals were built in a similar style. 1940-1945: Occupation
The February Strike
During the 1930s the previously tolerant city of Amsterdam became more divided. Antisemitism increased and in 1939 the NSB (the Dutch fascist party) gained three seats on the Amsterdam city council. On 16 May 1940 the German army entered Amsterdam and the following year the occupying forces began systematic persecution of the many Jews in the city. The Communist Party of the Netherlands (CPN) initiated a strike to protest against the ruling authorities. Op 25 February 1941 many Amsterdam citizens stopped work, in what became known as the February Strike. The strike quickly spread throughout the region. But the Nazis responded harshly to the demonstrators and the persecution of the Jews continued.
1929-1945: Anne Frank
Many Jews went into hiding. The most famous of these was the teenage girl Anne Frank, who spent two years in hiding in a house annex on the Prinsengracht. The Frank family was betrayed and Anne died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945. Her story would ultimately move millions of people after her diary gained international fame.
Amsterdam was liberated on 8 May 1945. Thousands of Canadian soldiers entered the city and were welcomed by almost half a million wildly celebrating Amsterdam citizens. But there was much sorrow, too. The war cost the lives of some 110,000 Amsterdam residents, of whom 75,000 were Jews: three-quarters of the total Jewish population of Amsterdam.
1945- Now: Progress
1950s: Modern Living in Garden Cities
During the reconstruction of the city, Amsterdam expanded once again. New districts were added to the western edge of the city, described as ‘garden cities’. These new neighbourhoods were based on the principles of light, air and space and the flats were equipped with modern facilities such as central heating.
1960s: Hippies and Immigrants
From the 1960s onward, young people began to rebel against the ruling authorities and the bourgeoisie. The Provo group opposed the established order by provoking the police with offbeat, ‘playful’ events and happenings. Besides this, hippies from all over the world came to Amsterdam. They slept on the Dam Square, and later in the Vondelpark.
During this same period the first immigrant workers arrived in Amsterdam, mostly from Spain, Italy and Greece and later also from Turkey and Morocco. It was thought that the migrants would return to their home country after a period spent working in the city. However, many preferred to remain in the Netherlands and brought their families over to join them.
1970s and 1980s: Protest
In the 1970s and 1980s unrest in the city increased. Amsterdam residents rebelled against the plans of the city council to demolish some areas in the old city in order to make space for new buildings and a subway network. At the same time, a housing shortage led to even more unrest. More and more young people moved to the city. But because there was not enough housing for them, they squatted empty houses and office buildings. Chaos and riots were the result. During the coronation of Queen Beatrix on 30 April 1980 a pitched battle broke out between squatters and police. Now