The Dutch Empire: Three Centuries on Five Continents

Despite Its Small Size, the Netherlands Controlled a Large Empire

Traditional Dutch windmills
Traditional Dutch windmills at Kinderdijk in South Holland, Netherlands.

Elena Eliachevitch/Getty Images

The Netherlands is a small country in northwestern Europe. The inhabitants of the Netherlands are known as the Dutch. As very accomplished navigators and explorers, the Dutch dominated trade and controlled many distant territories from the 17th to 20th centuries. The legacy of the Dutch empire continues to impact the current geography of the world.

The Dutch East India Company

The Dutch East India Company, also known as the VOC, was founded in 1602 as a joint stock company. The company existed for 200 years and brought great wealth to the Netherlands. The Dutch traded for coveted luxuries such as Asian tea, coffee, sugar, rice, rubber, tobacco, silk, textiles, porcelain, and spices such as cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and cloves. The company was able to build forts in the colonies, maintain an army and navy, and sign treaties with Native rulers. The company is now considered the first multinational corporation, which is a company that conducts business in more than one country.

Important Former Colonies in Asia 

Indonesia: Then known as the Dutch East Indies, the thousands of islands of present-day Indonesia provided many highly-desired resources for the Dutch. The Dutch base in Indonesia was Batavia, now known as Jakarta (Indonesia's capital). The Dutch controlled Indonesia until 1945.

Japan: The Dutch, who were once the only Europeans allowed to trade with the Japanese, received Japanese silver and other goods on the specially-built island of Deshima, located near Nagasaki. In return, the Japanese were introduced to Western approaches to medicine, mathematics, science, and other disciplines.

South Africa: In 1652, many Dutch people settled near the Cape of Good Hope. Their descendants developed the Afrikaner ethnic group and the Afrikaans language.

Additional Posts in Asia and Africa

The Dutch established trading posts in many more places in the Eastern Hemisphere. Examples include:

  • Eastern Africa
  • Middle East- especially Iran
  • India
  • Malaysia
  • Ceylon (presently Sri Lanka)
  • Formosa (presently Taiwan)

The Dutch West India Company

The Dutch West India Company was founded in 1621 as a trading company in the New World. It established colonies in the following places:

New York City: Led by explorer Henry Hudson, the Dutch claimed present-day New York, New Jersey, and parts of Connecticut and Delaware as the "New Netherlands". The Dutch traded with the Native Americans, primarily for fur. In 1626, the Dutch purchased the island of Manhattan from the Native Americans and founded a fort called New Amsterdam. The British attacked the important seaport in 1664 and the outnumbered Dutch surrendered it. The British renamed New Amsterdam "New York" -- now the most populated city in the United States.

Suriname: In return for New Amsterdam, the Dutch received Suriname from the British. Known as Dutch Guiana, cash crops were grown on plantations. Suriname received its independence from the Netherlands in November 1975.

Various Caribbean Islands: The Dutch are associated with several islands in the Caribbean Sea. The Dutch still control the "ABC Islands," or Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao, all located off the coast of Venezuela. The Dutch also control the central Caribbean islands of Saba, St. Eustatius, and the southern half of the island of Saint Maarten. The amount of sovereignty that each island possesses has changed several times over the years.

The Dutch controlled parts of northeastern Brazil and Guyana, before they became Portuguese and British, respectively.

The Decline of Both Companies

The profitably of the Dutch East and West India Companies eventually declined. Compared to other imperialistic European countries, the Dutch had less success convincing its citizens to emigrate to the colonies. The empire fought several wars and lost valuable territory to other European countries. The debts of the companies rose rapidly. By the 19th century, the deteriorating Dutch empire was overshadowed by the empires of other European countries, such as England, France, Spain, and Portugal.

Criticism of the Dutch Empire

Like all European imperialistic countries, the Dutch faced severe criticism for their actions. Although colonization made the Dutch very wealthy, they were accused of brutal enslavement of Native inhabitants and exploitation of the natural resources of their colonies.

The Dutch Empire Domination of Trade

The Dutch colonial empire is tremendously important geographically and historically. A small country was able to develop an expansive, successful empire. Features of Dutch culture, such as the Dutch language, still exist in the Netherlands' former and current territories. Migrants from its territories have made the Netherlands a very multiethnic, fascinating country.

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Richard, Katherine Schulz. "The Dutch Empire: Three Centuries on Five Continents." ThoughtCo, Jul. 30, 2021, Richard, Katherine Schulz. (2021, July 30). The Dutch Empire: Three Centuries on Five Continents. Retrieved from Richard, Katherine Schulz. "The Dutch Empire: Three Centuries on Five Continents." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).