I was expecting the museums and story lines of the Netherlands to rejoice in the “golden age” of Dutch economic and trading success and naval power, the seventeenth century. I was not disappointed. Nor did I begrudge them their celebrations of two great naval triumphs. They did force the surrender of the Prince Royal, The English flagship, in the four days battle in the 1665-7 war, allowing them to destroy it with fire after allowing the sailors off the vessel. Admiral Ruyter later in that war launched an audacious and successful raid against the English fleet at anchor in the Medway, destroying 6 ships and towing away a seventh. It was the English Admiralty’s biggest disaster. The Dutch celebration of it on a beautiful cup presented to the Admiral was entirely justified. The Dutch navy tended to have fewer large ships, but it offered brave and sometimes successful opposition to English power.
The two museums I visited that told some of this story glossed over the English acquisition of New Amsterdam, now New York, in the same war, and some English victories that also peppered largely inconclusive naval wars on and off between 1652 and 1674. The unpleasant violence of the colonial and trading rivalry between the two countries was brought to a welcome end by the peaceful invasion of Britain by Prince William of Orange, married to Mary Stuart. The British establishment welcomed them and switched allegiance to them so their arrival and assumption of the crown was uncontested. The two countries moved to naval co-operation.
The museums did try to broach the long shadow cast over western European nations by slavery. Where a UK museum would be able to counter point the misery of slavery with the important role played later by leading British figures to secure the end of the slave trade, the Dutch museums just acknowledged the bad life of the slaves and the role of slavery in helping to create the great wealth of the merchant classes in the seventeenth and eighteenth century Netherlands. It was also clear from the Rembrandt displays that arms manufacturers and dealers were some of the richest patrons.
Beneath these dark clouds there are the eternal light drenched canvasses showing the sheer abundance of food and household comforts that Dutch commercial success and wealth brought. Much of the wealth was honestly come by from successful manufacture and trade. For many Dutch people life was good, especially in the golden age. There was also reasonable social mobility, with people moving through hard work and enterprise from poverty to well heeled lifestyles.
The odd thing about the presentations was the episodic nature of the exhibits and stories, and the large missing gaps. I can appreciate the life and success of the Dutch golden age. I was surprised by the complete absence of material on the evils of the twentieth century occupation in the second world war, and the apparent sidelining of the Great war being waged just a few miles down the road in what was the southern low countries.
It is true that there was one other long shadow hanging heavy over Amsterdam which they do remember. I could not myself face going to Ann Frank’s house. It is such a heart wrenching story. To their credit the Dutch do remember the massacre of the Jews, whilst otherwise ignoring several years of being occupied by the Germans. Similarly, there are Napoleon memorabilia of his brother as King and then Napoleon himself as Emperor of an annexed Netherlands, but little about what this meant for those who had to live under the French tyranny.
It was perhaps fitting, however, that by far the largest painting in the Rijksmuseum is a large portrayal of Wellington receiving news at Waterloo of the imminent arrival of the Prussians. Waterloo meant their liberation.