History of Amsterdam

Amsterdam circa 1544, before the semi-circular ring of canals was added.
Amsterdam in 1649, with the first section of canal ring added.
Amsterdam around 1662. The ring of canals is now complete.
Amsterdam and surroundings around 1770. The expansion has come to a standstill.

Amsterdam has a long and eventful history. The origins of the city lie in the 12th century, when fishermen living along the banks of the River Amstel built a bridge across the waterway near the IJ, which at the time was a large saltwater inlet. Wooden locks under the bridge served as a dam protecting the village from the rising IJ waters, which often flooded the early settlement. The mouth of the river Amstel, where the Damrak is now, formed a natural harbor, which became important for trading-exchange from the larger koggeships into the smaller ships that sailed the merchandise deeper into the hinterland.

The oldest document referring to the settlement of "Aemstelredamme" (Amsterdam) 'dam in the river Amstel' comes from a document dated October 27, 1275 CE. Inhabitants of the village were, by this document, exempted from paying a bridge toll in the County of Holland by Count Floris V.[1]

Excavations between 2005 and 2012 found evidence that the origins of Amsterdam are much older than 'only' the twelfth century. During the construction of the Metro "Noord-Zuid lijn" archeologists discovered, some 30 meters below street level, pole-axes, a stone hammer and some pottery, all dating from the Neolithic era (New Stone Age). This would mean Amsterdam or its predecessor would have seen human habitation since about 2600 BCE. [2] [3]

Medieval feudalism

The GIFT-LETTER of 1275.

In 1204, the inhabitants of Kennemer penetrated the first aggrem Aemestel, the castle at the Amstel dike, thus resulting in the destruction of the house of Gijsbrecht van Aemstel, who, by name of the Bishop of Utrecht, ruled the area. This event was later used by the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel to write a historical play, the Gijsbrecht van Aemstel, which since then has been staged every first week of the new year. A hundred years later (1304), his descendent, Gijsbrecht van Aemstel VI, tried to claim his alleged rights over the Amsterdam regions, but found himself and his family banished to Flanders.[4]

A more important year in the history of Amsterdam was 1275. While Aemstelland fell under the administrative jurisdiction of the Prince-bishop's Sticht Utrecht, Count Floris V of Holland -the hindland of Aemstelland, granted traders, sailors and fishermen exemption from tolls. This document, dated October 27, 1275, is the oldest recorded usage of the name "Aemstelredamme" - Amsterdam.[5][6][7] This meant the inhabitants from the vicinity of Aemstelredamme acquired a right to travel freely through the County of Holland without having to pay tolls at bridges, locks and dams. This was the very start of the later richness of the young evolving city: by not having to pay tolls, traders could sell merchandise, shipped to Aemstelredamme harbour from everywhere (Scandinavia, Denmark, Germany), at a more competitive price in Amsterdam and the hinterland.[8] After the murder of Count Floris V in 1296, Amstelland again belonged to the Sticht. By 1327, the name had developed into Aemsterdam.[7]

In 1306, Gwijde van Henegouwen, bishop of Utrecht, gave Amsterdam city rights. After his death (1317), Count Willem III inherited the Aemstelland, whereby Amsterdam fell under the County of Holland.

In 1323, Willem III established a toll on the trade of beer from Hamburg. The contacts laid through the beer trade formed the basis for subsequent trade with cities of the Hanseatic league in the Baltic Sea, from where during the 14th and 15th centuries the Amsterdammers increasingly acquired grain and timber. In 1342, Count Willem IV awarded the city "Groot Privilege", which greatly strengthened the position of the city. During the 15th century, Amsterdam became the granary of the northern low countries and the most important trading city in Holland.

According to legend, on 12 March 1345, the miracle of Amsterdam occurred and Amsterdam became an important pilgrimage town. The town grew considerably thanks to the pilgrims. A Roman Catholic procession (Stille Omgang) occurs every year to celebrate the miracle.

Two great fires swept through the city in 1421 and 1452. After the second, when three quarters of the city were destroyed, Emperor Charles decreed that new houses were to be built from stone. Few wooden buildings remain from this period, a notable example being the Houten Huis (Wooden House) at the Begijnhof.

Conflict with Spain

The 16th century brought a rebellion by the Dutch against the Habsburg king Philip II of Spain. The uprising was mainly caused by the lack of political power for the local nobility and by the religious intolerance of the Spanish. Although Amsterdam began the war on the Spanish side, it changed sides with the Alteratie of 1578 and gave its support to William I of Orange. The rebellion led to the Eighty Years' War and Dutch independence.

One of the results of the war was that Spanish religious intolerance gave way to Dutch tolerance. In Amsterdam people were free to believe what they wanted (within certain limits). In the city a large Roman Catholic minority remained (and Roman Catholicism is still one of the major religions in Amsterdam), but the majority of the people belonged to the Reformed Church and other Protestant denominations.

Dam Square in the late 17th century: painting by Gerrit Adriaenszoon Berckheyde (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden)

During these years religious wars raged throughout Europe and many people fled to the Dutch Republic and Amsterdam, where they sought refuge. Wealthy Jews from Spain and Portugal, prosperous merchants from Antwerp and the Huguenots from France all sought safety in Amsterdam.

The "Golden Age" (1585-1672)

The 17th century was Amsterdam's Golden Age. Ships from the city sailed to North America, Indonesia, Brazil and Africa and formed the basis of a worldwide trading network. Amsterdam's merchants financed expeditions to the four corners of the world and they acquired the overseas possessions which formed the seeds of the later Dutch colonies. Rembrandt painted in this century,and the city expanded greatly around its canals during this time. Amsterdam was the most important point for the transshipment of goods in Europe and it was the leading financial centre of the world (a position later taken over by London).

Government by regents

By the mid-1660s Amsterdam had reached the optimum population (about 200,000) for the level of trade, commerce and agriculture then available to support it. The city contributed the largest quota in taxes to the States of Holland which in turn contributed over half the quota to the States General. Amsterdam was also one of the most reliable in settling tax demands and therefore was able to use the threat to withhold such payments to good effect.

Amsterdam's canal, c. 1686

Amsterdam was governed by a body of regents, a large, but closed, oligarchy with control over all aspects of the city's life, and a dominant voice in the foreign affairs of Holland. Only men with sufficient wealth and a long enough residence within the city could join the ruling class. The first step for an ambitious and wealthy merchant family was to arrange a marriage with a long-established regent family. In the 1670s, one such union, that of the Trip family (the Amsterdam branch of the Swedish arms makers) with the son of Burgomaster Valckenier, extended the influence and patronage available to the latter and strengthened his dominance of the council. The oligarchy in Amsterdam thus gained strength from its breadth and openness. In the smaller towns, family interest could unite members on policy decisions but contraction through intermarriage could lead to the degeneration of the quality of the members. In Amsterdam, the network was so large that members of the same family could be related to opposing factions and pursue widely separated interests. The young men who had risen to positions of authority in the 1670s and 1680s consolidated their hold on office well into the 1690s and even the new century.[9]

Amsterdam's regents provided good services to residents. They spent heavily on the water-ways and other essential infrastructure, as well as municipal almshouses for the elderly, hospitals and churches.

Amsterdam's Dam Square, 17th century

Amsterdam's wealth was generated by its commerce, which was in turn sustained by the judicious encouragement of entrepreneurs whatever their origin. This open-door policy has been interpreted as proof of a tolerant ruling class. But toleration was practiced for the convenience of the city. Therefore, the wealthy Sephardic Jews from Portugal were welcomed and accorded all privileges except those of citizenship, but the poor Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe were far more carefully vetted and those who became dependent on the city were encouraged to move on. Similarly, provision for the housing of Huguenot immigrants was made in 1681 when Louis XIV's religious policy was beginning to drive these Protestants out of France; no encouragement was given to the dispossessed Dutch from the countryside or other towns of Holland. The regents encouraged immigrants to build churches and provided sites or buildings for churches and temples for all but the most radical sects and the native Catholics by the 1670s (although even the Catholics could practice quietly in a chapel within the Beguinhof).


During the 17th and 18th century, Amsterdam was a city where immigrants formed the majority. Most immigrants were Lutheran Protestant Germans. The enormous impact of German immigration can be seen nowadays in the surnames, which are often German. The integration of immigrants was smooth. It was not hard to find work as a craftsman, but craftsmen were forced to join guilds, to serve in the city patrol and to cooperate in the local district to compete with other districts. These were powerful institutions that resulted in quick integration, especially since all these institutions were mainly filled with immigrants or children of immigrants. The city council of Amsterdam consisted of people with all kinds of backgrounds: Dutch, German, Flemish, French, Scottish.


However, the city's trading status meant it suffered from an outbreak of bubonic plague from 1663 to 1666, supposed to have come from Algiers to Amsterdam. (The plague also broke out in the trading centre of London in June 1665.) Though it had little initial effect, the impact grew in autumn 1663 and in 1664. The wife and youngest daughter of well known collector of paintings Jan J. Hinlopen, as well as Rembrandt's partner Hendrickje Stoffels, fell victim to it that autumn. According to Samuel Pepys, for a few weeks at the end of 1663, ships from Hamburg and Amsterdam were quarantined for thirty days. In 1664, 24,148 people were buried in Amsterdam. More than 10% of the population died in this period - everybody that came into contact with the plague was at risk. At the time people assumed the plague was caused by the digging of new canals.[10]

Surprisingly, tobacco smoke was regarded as an effective prophylactic against the plague.[11] With the prospect of the plague, as well as war with England looming, the English ambassador commented in May 1664: "there are dead this last week to the number 338 at Amsterdam and if the plague thus increases within, and a warre with His Majestie without, there will be little need of that vast new towne which they are making there".[12] Rich people left the cities to avoid the disease, but in the worst week of the pandemic of 1664, in Amsterdam there were 1,041 burials compared with 7,000 in the late summer of 1665 in London, a city twice its size.[13] The mayors warned the population that eating salad, spinach or prunes could be unhealthy. The vroedschap shut the theatre, allowing performances to resume only in 1666,[14] though Jan J. Hinlopen's own death in 1666 is ascribed to the plague. Sailors on ships out to sea were relatively safe.

Decline and modernization

Coat of arms of Amsterdam. The three crosses are thought to suggest the three plagues which have affected the city: flood, fire, and pestilence.

The 18th and early 19th centuries saw a decline in Amsterdam's prosperity. The wars of the Dutch Republic with the United Kingdom and France took their toll on Amsterdam. During the Napoleonic wars, Amsterdam's fortunes reached their lowest point; however, with the establishment of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815, things slowly began to improve. In Amsterdam, new developments were started by people like Samuel Sarphati who found their inspiration in Paris.

At the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution reached Amsterdam. The Amsterdam-Rijn kanaal was dug to give Amsterdam a direct connection to the Rhine and the Noordzee kanaal to give the port a connection with the North Sea. Both projects improved communication with the rest of Europe and the world dramatically. They gave the economy a big boost.

Dam Square, Amsterdam as it appeared c. 1890-1900 with the "Naatje of the Dam" statue.

The industrial revolution led to a huge influx of worker migrants from the Dutch countryside into the city of Amsterdam. This occurred during the rise of socialism in Amsterdam. The Dutch authorities tried to destroy socialism by treating socialists with violence. During the 1880s and 1890s, fights between the police and the socialists occurred on a weekly basis. A notorious event was the Palingoproer (eel riots) in 1886, when 26 demonstrators were killed by the army. Another was the Orange riots of 1887, which included the destruction of a socialist pub by orangists and the arrest of the defending socialists, while the orangists were not punished at all. The most popular socialist leaders of the 1890s were those who had been in jail most of the time. One socialist was so angry with the police, that he tried to kill the chief superintendent of the police. He shot a hole in the hat of the superintendent and was sentenced to many years in jail after being beaten up by policemen. After his release, he was welcomed as a hero during a parade with a laurel wreath on his head, while people were crying in the crowded streets filled with workers from Amsterdam.

The end of the 19th century is sometimes called Amsterdam's second Golden Age. New museums, the Centraal Station and the Concertgebouw were built. Also built was the Stelling van Amsterdam, a unique ring of 42 forts and land that could be inundated to defend the city against an attack. Amsterdam's population grew significantly during this period.

20th century

During World War I, the Netherlands remained neutral, but Amsterdam suffered the effects of the war when food became scarce. When working class women started to plunder a ship with army supplies, the military was brought in. Workers joined their wives in the plundering and the soldiers opened fire on them. Six people were killed and almost 100 were wounded.

In 1932, a dike separating the Zuider Zee from the North Sea, the Afsluitdijk, was completed. The Zuider Zee was no more. The new lake behind the dyke was called IJsselmeer. For the first time in its history, Amsterdam had no open communication with the sea.

Statue of Anne Frank

During World War II, German troops occupied the city. More than 100,000 Jews were deported, famously including Anne Frank, almost completely wiping out the Jewish community. Before the war, Amsterdam was the world's center for the diamond trade. Since this trade was mostly in the hands of Jewish businessmen and craftsmen, the diamond trade essentially disappeared.

Amsterdam made a bid for the 1952 Olympic Games (summer games) but was unsuccessful. The games went to Helsinki.

During the 1970s, the number of foreign immigrants, primarily from Suriname, Turkey and Morocco, grew strongly. This increase led to an exodus of people to the 'growth cities' of Purmerend, Almere and other cities near Amsterdam. However, neighbourhoods like the Pijp and the Jordaan, which had previously been working class, became sought out places of residence for the newly wealthy yuppies and students. Amsterdam that used to be a poor city in the Netherlands turned into an economically rich city thanks to the new economical trend towards a service-economy instead of an industrial economy.

In 1992, an El Al cargo plane crashed in the Bijlmermeer in Amsterdam Zuidoost. This disaster, called the Bijlmerramp, caused the death of at least 43 people.

At the beginning of the millennium, social problems such as safety, ethnic discrimination and segregation between religious and social groups began to develop. 45% of the population of Amsterdam has non-Dutch parents. Large social groups are people from Surinam, the Dutch Antilles, Morocco and Turkey. Amsterdam is characterized by its (perceived) social tolerance and diversity. The social tolerance was endangered by the murder of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh on 2 November 2004 by a Mohamed Bouyeri, an Islamic fundamentalist. The mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, and his alderman for integration Ahmed Aboutaleb formulated a policy of "keeping things together" which involves social dialogue, tolerance and harsh measures against those who break the law.

Social struggles

The cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s made Amsterdam the magisch centrum (magical centre) of Europe. The use of soft drugs was tolerated and this policy made the city a popular destination for hippies. The period 1966–1986, however, was described by Geert Mak as the "twenty years' urban war" (twintigjarige stadsoorlog): an extended period of social struggle between the city's radical youth and its government. The war started with the appearance of the local anarchist movement, Provo, so called because it liked to provoke authorities and bourgeois society with (non-violent) happenings and Dada-inspired absurdism. The Amsterdam police struck back at Provo with force; Mak explains the extreme police violence by reference to events in the direct aftermath of World War II, when the resistance proved unable to replace the Nazi-friendly head of police with their own candidate, thus leaving police power in authoritarian hands.[1]

After the disbanding of Provo, new movements arose including the green Kabouters and the squatters' movement, which raised the question of "who owns the city" and took direct action to show their stance on this issue, opposing speculators' claims to land in the face of housing deficits. Tensions escalated to the point where the army was called in to clear streets of barricades and in 1980, street fights took place in the center between police and large numbers of squatters and their sympathizers, at the very moment that Queen Beatrix's coronation was taking place inside the New Church on Dam square. The loss of public sympathy stemming from this event eventually led to the downfall of the squatter movement, and by the mid-1980s it was effectively marginalized.[1]

21st century

In the early years of the twenty-first century, the Amsterdam city centre successfully attracted large numbers of tourists by means of campaigns such as I Amsterdam. Between 2012 and 2015, 3000 hotel rooms were built, Airbnb added another 11.000 accommodations and the annual number of visitors rose from 10 million to 17 million. Real estate prices have surged, making the center unaffordable for the city's inhabitants, while local shops are making way for tourist-oriented ones.[15] These developments have evoked comparisons with Venice, a city already overwhelmed by the tourist influx.[16]

Construction of a metro line connecting the part of the city north of the IJ to the centre was started in 2003. The project is controversial because its cost exceeded its budget by a factor three by 2008,[17] because of fears for damage to buildings in the centre, and because construction had to be halted and restarted multiple times.[18]

Cultural life

In the 15th and 16th century, cultural life in Amsterdam consisted mainly of festivals. During the later part of the 16th century, Amsterdams Rederijkerskamer (Chamber of Rhetoric) organized contests between different Chambers in the reading of poetry and drama. In 1638, Amsterdam got its first theatre. Ballet performances were given in this theatre as early as 1642. In the 18th century, French theatre became popular. Opera could be seen in Amsterdam from 1677, first only Italian and French operas, but in the 18th century German operas. In the 19th century, popular culture was centered on the Nes area in Amsterdam (mainly vaudeville and music hall). The metronome, one of the most important advances in European classical music, was invented here in 1812 by Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel. At the end of this century, the Rijksmuseum and Gemeentelijk Museum were built. In 1888, the Concertgebouworkest was established. With the 20th century came cinema, radio and television. Though the studios are in Hilversum and Aalsmeer, Amsterdam's influence on programming is very strong. After World War II popular culture became the dominant cultural phenomenon in Amsterdam.

History of the municipality

When the municipality was created during the French occupation, it covered the city (then consisting of only the central part inside the canals) and the immediate surroundings, less than 10% of the current municipality. When the city grew, it annexed several neighbouring municipalities:

In 1995, the national government proposed the creation of a 'city province', consisting of Amsterdam and neighbouring towns. This proposal was rejected by the people in a referendum. The opposition was not so much against creating the city province as it was against the splitting of the city into parts. Opposers feared this would destroy the city's cohesion. After the referendum, the city province proposal was shelved. Nevertheless, since 1995, city parts have gradually become more autonomous, and neighbouring towns have been drawn into the city, politically and economically. In a sense, the city province has arrived in the form of 'Greater Amsterdam'.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Mak, Geert (1995). Een kleine geschiedenis van Amsterdam. Atlas. ISBN 9789046703878.
  2. http://www.parool.nl/parool/nl/4/AMSTERDAM/article/detail/3107442/2012/01/05/Amsterdam-mogelijk-2000-jaar-ouder-dan-gedacht.dhtml Het Parool, 05-01-2012
  3. http://www.onsamsterdam.nl/component/content/article/32-tijdschrift/tijdschrift-jaargang-2012/1237-nummer-1-januari-2012?showall=&start=5 Ons Amsterdam, no 1, 2012
  4. Een kleine geschiedenis van Amsterdam, p.19. Geert Mak. Atlas Uitgeverij, Amsterdam/Antwerpen (1994)
  5. http://www.onsamsterdam.nl/nieuws/1831-hoofdredacteur-ons-amsterdam-onthulde-jarig-amsterdams-geboortedocument | Ons Amsterdam, 2012
  6. Mak, Geert; Een kleine geschiedenis van Amsterdam (1994) Amsterdam / Antwerpen, Uitgeverij Atlas
  7. 1 2 Berns, Jan; Daan, Jo (1993). Hij zeit wat: de Amsterdamse volkstaal (in Dutch). The Hague: BZZTôH. p. 91. ISBN 90-6291-756-9.
  8. The toll privilege at the Amsterdam City Archives
  9. Elizabeth Edwards, "Amsterdam and William III," History Today, (Dec 1993), Vol. 43, Issue 12 in EBSCO
  10. Noordegraaf, L. & G. Valk (1988) De Gave Gods. De pest in Holland vanaf de late Middeleeuwen, p. 230. (In Dutch.)
  11. Schama, S. (1987) The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, p. 197.
  12. Lister, Life and Administration, iii, p. 319. In: Israel, J. (1995) The Dutch Republic, Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806. Clarendon Press, Oxford, p. 625.
  13. Domselaer, Tobias van (1665) Beschrijving van Amsterdam, p. 442; Schama, S. (1987) The embarrassment of riches. An interpretation of Dutch culture in the Golden Age, p. 643.
  14. Israel, J. (1995) The Dutch Republic, Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806. Clarendon Press, Oxford, p. 693.
  15. "Amsterdam als koelkastmagneetje" [Amsterdam as a fridge magnet]. De Groene Amsterdammer. 27 July 2016.
  16. "Winkelomzet in Amsterdamse binnenstad explodeerde in 2015". Het Parool. 28 January 2016. Archived from the original on 3 February 2016. Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  17. "Geschiedenis van een debacle". Het Parool. 17 April 2008.
  18. "Werk aan Amsterdamse Noord-Zuidlijn hervat". NOS.nl. Retrieved 22 June 2016.

Further reading

External links

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