Special Features

Pride and prejudice as Dutch look at 700 years seafaring

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Over a million visitors attended the SAIL Amsterdam maritime festival in August. The event began in 1970 to mark the 700th year of Dutch maritime history and takes place every five years. But as a multicultural city Dutch maritime history is a source of pride for some and prejudice for others.

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Throughout the 17th century, during what is known as the age of discovery, the Dutch navy was invincible. The exploits of Dutch mariners made Amsterdam one of the world’s wealthiest cities, transforming it from a muddy backwater to the centre of a newly connected world.

At the height of Amsterdam’s glory as a global maritime hub it was commonplace to see hundreds of ships on the water surrounding the city. Joost Schokkenbroek, a curator at the Dutch Maritime Museum, likens the event to a 17th century cityscape.

“If you close your eyes you can pretend you’re walking through Amsterdam in the early 1600s,” he says

While many Dutch people are proud of their maritime past, for others it’s a dark chapter in history - one that saw their ancestors taken to the former Dutch East Indies as slaves aboard Dutch-owned vessels.

"I was amazed when people mentioned that slavery was the first thing to come to mind when thinking about SAIL Amsterdam," says Dan Maier, the managing director of SAIL Amsterdam after conducting a survey.

While the debate about slavery rages on among the West Indian communities in Amsterdam, people from the former Dutch East Indies feel less aggrieved according to Joost Schokkenbroek:

“As a Dutchman when you go to Indonesia and ask people how they feel about their history they say, 'we don’t care'."

The trade in contentious commodities such as slaves and heroin may have fuelled the Dutch shipping industry of yesteryear. But today the Dutch are using their nautical expertise in a very different way, via shipyards and workshops dedicated to restoring classic boats across the Netherlands.

Globalisation, spurred on by the age of discovery, means that princes and presidents can now buy and sell luxury vessels at the click of a button. And Amsterdam is still a hub where people find innovative ways to preserve maritime history.



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