The seventeenth century is considered golden age in the turbulent history of Amsterdam. Soon after getting freedom from the Iberian rule, the Dutch established the first United East-India company in 1602. It was the first company to issue common stocks and grew into the first true multinational. The Dutch were ruled by the rich merchant families at that time and soon they (the Dutch) joined the race of European Imperialism. Along with the mercantile eagerness for explorations, they were also helped by the better qualities of their maps, thanks to Gerardus Mercator, the father of Dutch Cartography and the first person to use the word Atlas for collection of maps, and Abraham Ortelius who published the first modern Atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum in 1570, the most expensive book of its time. The period starting from 1550-1675 is also known as the Golden Age of Dutch Cartography.
Equipped with the cutting edge cartography, the Dutch ships were sailing to Indonesia, Brazil, and Africa and were challenging the Portuguese along the Indian coast and Sri-Lanka. The Dutch soon owned an empire and the trade with these far-off places brought prosperity. During that period, Amsterdam briefly reigned as the wealthiest, most populous and most powerful city of the Europe. The prosperity attracted large number of immigrants and to accommodate its growing population need was felt to further expand the canal network.
The city council decided to buy land around the city, dig the canals and lease back the plots to developers. The plan was passed in 1607 and work began six years later, against the back drop of corruption charges, with people of Amsterdam buying up the land they thought the council would soon have to purchase.
In 1613, construction of canals started, based on a comprehensive plan that had four concentric half circles with their ends resting on IJ bay, interconnected with radial cross-streets. These canals were constructed from west to east like wiper movements and not from centre onwards as some people believe. The concentric half-circle waterways were set aside for residence and business of the richer and more influential Amsterdam merchants, while the radial cross streets were reserved for modest artisan’s homes. The concentric belts are known as the Grachtengordel where Grachten in Dutch means a canal.
Before 1613 there was only Singel canal that encircled the city from middle ages and served the purpose of a moat. The three new concentric half circles of canals have interesting names and history associated with these names.
The middle age Singel canal, was followed by Herengracht (also known as the Gentleman’s canal). Herengracht is widely known for the most prominent addresses in canal belt as the plot of land around it were meant for the cities wealthiest citizens of that time and was soon known as the Golden Bend. Today it is known for the large houses along the canal and even today having an address at Herengracht is considered prestigious.
It was followed by Keizersgracht or the Emperor’s canal. This canal was named after Maximilian I, 15th century patron of the city who belonged to the Hapsburg dynasty of Austria. This thirty-one meters wide canal is the widest among the main three. In the beginning a wide boulevard was planned at the place of the canal but the future residents opposed the idea and pressed for the canal. They felt in that way they can reach faster to their house by boats. Today Keizersgracht feels calmer than the closer to center Herengracht and shop filled Prinsengracht, one that followed Keizersgracht.
Prinsengracht, also known as the Prince’s canal, is the largest among the main three. It is filled with houseboats, locally owned shops and galleries. Today it is by far the liveliest of Amsterdam’s main three. It is named after the 16th century Prince William I, the Prince of Orange, forefather of the Dutch Royal family. He is the honored father of Holland. He was the main leader of Dutch revolt against the Spanish rule that set off the 80 year war with Spain and resulted in independence of the united province in 1648. Dutch national anthem ‘Het wilhelmus’ was written in his honour. William of Orange was killed by a catholic Frenchman ‘Gerard’ who, in his opinion, felt that William of Orange had betrayed the Spanish king and the Catholic religion. William of Orange is reputed to be the first world head of state assassinated through the use of a handgun.
The outermost canal called Singelgracht, don’t confuse it with old Singel canal, was constructed for defense and water management purposes.
It took decades to complete the project, but by 1690s it was all pretty much finished off – ironically at a time, when Amsterdam was in economic decline. I am embedding a YouTube video that beautifully depicts how the landscape of Amsterdam changed with the layered execution of 1607 plan.
Currently Amsterdam has one river, 160 canals creating 90 artificial islands which are connected by more than 1280 bridges and covers 100 km. These canal and waterways embody the very spirit of Amsterdam and are included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2011. The number of canals has led Amsterdam to be known as the “Venice of the North”.
I wonder probably, I am under extreme Venetian influence. First, I wrote about the Venice of East, now I am writing about the Venice of North. I wish that the next would be Venice and not Venice of west or south.
While we were walking around the area, we noticed a large number of personal ships lined along the canal. My attention was drawn to the Dutch tricolor fluttering over a boat.
The national flag of Netherland is a horizontal tricolor of red, white and dark blue strips. Introduced in 1572 it is one of the first and oldest tricolor that are still in use. This flag was derived from flag of the Prince of Orange – that was orange, white and blue. Orange of that flag was replaced by red, and blue by dark blue. The reason for the change was to replace faint colors with dark shades that are visible from far. At that time orange was made of natural or herbal dyes of yellow and red; During long voyages, yellow used to fade away, leaving distinctive red stripes. And so it was replaced by red to remove any ambiguity.
However, Netherland’s National color is still orange – a symbol of solidarity and identity with the house of Orange (of which William of Orange was a descendent) and it is used, among other things, in the clothing of Dutch athletes and players.
This is all about the Canals and the Dutch tricolor. In the next articles we will learn more about the other peculiarities of this amazing city.