Being a foreigner in the northern provinces can seem, well, incredibly foreign. Yet the Netherlands has been shaped by its contacts with other cultures throughout its entire history within its own borders, and it has undeniably shaped the histories of other cultures.
All the way back in 55 BC, the Roman Empire reached the Rhine and Maas rivers in what would become the modern Netherlands. The tribes above the Ijssel river, where the three northern provinces of Drenthe, Friesland and Groningen are now located, were decidedly reluctant Roman subjects. Friesland was particularly unruly: in his book “Germania”, the Roman senator Tacitus wrote that after Roman forces entered the Frisii tribe’s lands and heavily taxed the people, in AD 28, the Frisians responded by hanging the Roman taxmen and chasing their governor out of town, and then laying siege to the fort where he had fled. When a higher ranking Roman officer dispatched troops to defend the fort, the Frisians slayed at least 900 Roman soldiers.
Although the Frisians wanted nothing to do with the Romans, that did not stop them from imposing themselves on other countries. Frisian mercenaries were among the Angles and Saxons when they first invaded Britain. That point of contact goes a long way toward explaining why reading famous Old English works like “Beowulf” aloud may actually sound more familiar to a Frisian speaker than a native English speaker: Old English and Old Frisian have more in common than modern English and Old English. I personally discovered this seemingly unfair advantage when I was enrolled in a Medieval literature course at the RUG and my northern Dutch classmates followed the assigned texts with ease, particularly the Frisians.
As early as the first century of the University of Groningen’s existence following its founding back in 1614, nearly half of the students in attendance came from outside the Dutch Republic. Even the RUG’s first rector magnificus, Ubbo Emmius, was from East Frisia (now Lower Saxony) in Germany. Part of the Dutch Republic’s goal in establishing institutions of higher learning was attracting foreign students, particularly fellow Protestants from German. Huguenots, a protestant group from France, also sought refuge in the Netherlands in the 17th century. The RUG and the affiliated medical faculties at UMCG remain a major draw for talented foreign academics to the northern provinces to this day, and German students are still the largest non-Dutch population at the university.
Even the Dutch national anthem acknowledges the international nature of Dutch history: the monarch to whom the song is dedicated, William of Orange (founder of the House of Orange-Nassau), was actually “of German blood”. And despite the line declaring loyalty to King Phillip II of Spain, William of Orange gained the honor of a volkslied named after him for leading the Dutch revolution that eventually ended the Spanish Habsburg reign in what would become the Netherlands.
Born Naked and Little Poops
Although “van Oranje-Nassau” is an exclusively royal surname, one of the most schadenfreudig (and sadly untrue) anecdotes from Dutch history is connected to the infamously unusual Dutch family names: the Napoleonic register. Following the declaration of the short lived (1806 to 1810) Kingdom of Holland, which Napoleon Bonaparte set up for his brother Louis, Dutch people were encouraged to officially register their surnames with their local municipality. As the story goes, some wise cracking Dutch folks did not much appreciate this campaign and submitted bizarre joke names to make clear how little they thought of their French overlords. But truth is stranger than fiction: in addition to patronymic structure (son or daughter of), places of origin and references to a family’s trade, bizarre Dutch nicknames such as Naaktgeboren (“Born Naked”) and Poepjes (“Little Poops”) were already in common use as surnames and were not simply made up to stick it to the French.
In addition to its long history of foreign influences within its own borders, the Netherlands also shaped much of the outside world throughout its existence. The Dutch were merchants during the Middle Ages and a number of Dutch cities were a part of the influential Hanseatic league, but starting in the 17th century – the beginning of the Dutch Golden Age – the activities of the Dutch East India Company made a name for the Netherlands across the globe. Known in Dutch as the VOC, it was the first multinational corporation in the modern sense and its business was transporting valuable spices and other products from Asia to the European market. The foundation of the VOC coincided with the peak period of Dutch art, characterized by opulent portraits of wealthy patrons and business guilds.
Although the VOC never fully controlled trade on all of the tens of thousands of Indonesian islands, over the course of the next three centuries, the company’s economic activities effectively colonized Indonesia (even though the country was only officially a Dutch colony between 1820 and 1950). An officer in the Dutch East India Company, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, led an assault in order to secure a Dutch monopoly on the Banda islands. When the indigenous people fought back (using cannons from previous trade partners, the British), only 1,000 people out of the 15,000 inhabitants estimated to have been on the island survived.
Kingdom of the Netherlands
From the 1600s through the 1800s, the VOC’s western equivalent – the Dutch West India Company – was active in the Caribbean Islands, South America, and Africa. They engaged in similar trade as the VOC, but the Dutch ships in the west also bore much crueler cargo: around 600,000 enslaved Africans were transported to the Americas by the Dutch. Although they lost Brazil to the Portuguese in 1650, the Dutch had control of the islands of the sugar cane-rich islands of Sint Maarten, Curacao and Aruba, where many enslaved peoples worked on the plantations. These nations are now constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The 17th century was also the period when the Dutch briefly had the bragging rights for owning New York City. The first attempts by the Dutch to formally settle in the area occurred in 1624, but by 1673, Dutch influence on the island of Manhattan was already a thing of the past. The Netherlands’ connection to the city is still reflected in the names of streets (Bleecker), neighborhoods (Harlem) and local geography (Coney Island, derived from the Dutch word “konijn”, meaning rabbit, due to the high numbers of rabbits on the island). Despite the popular (and unproven) legend of the Dutch getting the island for trading beads with local native American tribes, it was the Dutch themselves who arguably gave up their hold on the city for a song: as part of the Treaty of Westminster in 1674, in exchange for continued possession of Suriname, the Netherlands relinquished their claims to the future Big Apple to the British.
With inhabitants from more than 200 different countries, New York is known as one of the most diverse cities in the world, but Old Amsterdam – also called simply Amsterdam – comes close to matching Manhattan in terms of nationalities represented by its citizens, with its residents hailing from at least 180 nations. As for the Northern Netherlands, local academic institutions and multinational companies have brought scholars and staff from Germany, Indonesia, the Antilles, Aruba, Suriname and China in particular to Drenthe, Friesland and Groningen. In fact, there are more non-Dutch people moving to the province of Groningen than Dutch people nowadays. So if you ever find yourself feeling like you are a bit of an oddity around here as a foreigner, just remember that you are a part of the continuing Dutch tradition of close encounters of the international kind.