Category Archives: Netherlands

Death of Venice’s Stato da Mar, c. 1500

From: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley (Random House, 2012), Kindle Loc. 5454-5511:

Vasco da Gama returned from India in September 1499, having rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The Republic dispatched an ambassador to the court of Lisbon to investigate; it was not until July 1501 that his report came in. The reality of it fell on the lagoon like a thunderclap. Terrible foreboding gripped the city. For the Venetians, who lived with a particularly intense awareness of physical geography, the implications were obvious. Priuli poured his gloomiest predictions into his diary. It was a marvel, incredible, the most momentous news of the time:

… which will take a greater intelligence than mine to comprehend. At the receipt of this news, the whole city … was dumbfounded, and the wisest thought it was the worst news ever heard. They understood that Venice had ascended to such fame and wealth only through trading by sea, by means of which a large quantity of spices were brought in, which foreigners came from everywhere to buy. From their presence and the trade [Venice] acquired great benefits. Now from this new route, the spices of India will be transported to Lisbon, where Hungarians, Germans, the Flemish, and the French will look to buy, being able to get them at a better price. Because the spices that come to Venice pass through Syria and the sultan’s lands, paying exorbitant taxes at every stage of the way, when they get to Venice the prices have increased so much that something originally worth a ducat costs a ducat seventy or even two. From these obstacles, via the sea route, it will come about that Portugal can give much lower prices.

Cutting out hundreds of small middlemen, snubbing the avaricious, unstable Mamluks, buying in bulk, shipping directly: To Venetian merchants, such advantages were self-evident.

There were countering voices; some pointed out the difficulties of the voyage:

… the king of Portugal could not continue to use the new route to Calicut, since of the thirteen caravels which he had dispatched only six had returned safely; that the losses outweighed the advantages; that few sailors would be prepared to risk their lives on such a long and dangerous voyage.

But Priuli was certain: “From this news, spices of all sorts will decrease enormously in Venice, because the usual buyers, understanding the news, will decline, being reluctant to buy.” He ended with an apology to future readers for having written at such length. “These new facts are of such importance to our city that I have been carried away with anxiety.”

In a visionary flash, Priuli foresaw, and much of Venice with him, the end of a whole system, a paradigm shift: not just Venice, but a whole network of long-distance commerce doomed to decline. All the old trade routes and their burgeoning cities that had flourished since antiquity were suddenly glimpsed as backwaters—Cairo, the Black Sea, Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, Smyrna, the ports of the Red Sea, and the great cities of the Levant, Constantinople itself—all these threatened to be cut out from the cycles of world trade by oceangoing galleons. The Mediterranean would be bypassed; the Adriatic would no longer be the route to anywhere; important outstations such as Cyprus and Crete would sink into decline.

The Portuguese rubbed this in. The king invited Venetian merchants to buy their spices in Lisbon; they would no longer need to treat with the fickle infidel. Some were tempted, but the Republic had too much invested in the Levant to withdraw easily; their merchants there would be soft targets for the sultan’s wrath if they bought elsewhere. Nor, from the eastern Mediterranean, was sending their own ships to India readily practical. The whole business model of the Venetian state appeared, at a stroke, obsolete.

The effects were felt almost immediately. In 1502, the Beirut galleys brought back only four bales of pepper; prices in Venice steepled; the Germans reduced their purchases; many decamped to Lisbon. In 1502, the Republic dispatched a secret embassy to Cairo to point out the dangers. It was essential to destroy the Portuguese maritime threat now. They offered financial support. They proposed digging a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. But the Mamluk dynasty, hated by its subjects, was also in decline. It proved powerless to see off the intruders. In 1500, the Mamluk chronicler Ibn Iyas recorded an extraordinary event. The balsam gardens outside Cairo, which had existed since remote antiquity, produced an oil with miraculous properties highly prized by the Venetians. Its trade symbolized the centuries-old commercial relationship between Islamic countries and the West. That year, the balsam trees withered away and vanished forever. Seventeen years later, the Ottomans strung up the last Mamluk sultan from a Cairo gate.

Tome Pires, a Portuguese adventurer, gleefully spelled out the implications for Venice. In 1511, the Portuguese conquered Malacca on the Malay Peninsula, the market for the produce of the Spice Islands. “Whoever is lord of Malacca,” he wrote, “has his hand on the throat of Venice.” It would be a slow and uneven pressure, but the Portuguese and their successors would eventually squeeze the life out of the Venetian trade with the Orient. The fears that Priuli expressed would in time prove well-founded; and the Ottomans meanwhile would systematically strip away the Stato da Mar.

The classical allusions of de’ Barbari’s map already contain a backward-looking note; they hint at nostalgia, a remaking of the tough, energetic realities of the Stato da Mar into something ornamental. They perhaps reflected structural changes within Venetian society. The recurrent bouts of plague meant that the city’s population was never self-replenishing; it relied on immigrants, and many of those from mainland Italy came without knowledge of the seafaring life. It was already noticeable during the Chioggia crisis that the volunteer citizens had to be given rowing lessons. In 1201, at the time of the adventure of the Fourth Crusade, the majority of Venice’s male population were seafarers; by 1500, they were not. The emotional attachment to the sea, expressed in the Senza, would last until the death of the Republic, but by 1500, Venice was turning increasingly to the land; within four years, it would be engaged in a disastrous Italian war that would again bring enemies to the edge of the lagoon. There was a crisis in shipbuilding, a greater emphasis on industry. The patriotic solidarity that had been the hallmark of Venetian destiny had been seen to fray: A sizable part of the ruling elite had demonstrated that, though still keen to recoup the profits of maritime trade, they were not prepared to fight for the bases and sea-lanes on which it depended. Others, who had made fortunes in the rich fifteenth century, stopped sending their sons to sea as apprentice bowmen. Increasingly, a wealthy man might look to reinvest in estates on the terra firma, to own a country mansion with escutcheons over the door; these were respectable hallmarks of nobility to which all self-made men might aspire.

It was Priuli again, acute and regretful, who caught this impulse and pinpointed the declining glory it seemed to imply. “The Venetians,” he wrote in 1505, “are much more inclined to the Terra Firma, which has become more attractive and pleasing, than to the sea, the ancient root cause of all their glory, wealth, and honor.”

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Along the Sumatra Railroad, August 1945

From Chapter VI, The golden spike, in The Sumatra Railroad: Final Destination Pakan Baroe, 1943-1945, by Henk Hovinga, trans. by Bernard J. Wolters (KITLV Press, 2010), pp. 276-281:

It was 15 August 1945. The previous night telexes had spread the news across the world: ‘Japan surrendered. Armistice on 15 August at 00.00 hrs.’ The Japanese officers there in the godforsaken green heart of Sumatra also knew that. They shouted: ‘Banzai Nippon’ while they knew that they had been defeated. But they kept quiet. They only talked about the railway that was finally completed at the cost of immeasurable human suffering. At the cost of more than eighty thousand dead, the vast majority of which were romushas.

The POWs who were waiting motionlessly between the trees, still had no knowledge of the surrender. With sweat dripping down their chins, they did not dare to move. Ignorant of this historical moment in the world’s history, they looked breathlessly at how the bottle on the table was uncorked, how the glasses went around and the biscuits were presented. A short while later the tense ceremony, that had lasted not even half an hour, was abruptly terminated. Tables and chairs were hastily loaded on to the lorries after the emaciated workers had also been offered a biscuit and a swig from a bottle. Then they were ordered back to the trains. One departed to the north, the other to the south, to the camp in the gorge, where fresh rumours had circulated in the meantime….

That evening, shortly before sundown, the POWs were counted and recounted. All men had returned from the railway. The Japanese commander stepped forward in front of the hundreds of almost naked human wrecks. The ribs could be counted on most of them; many were covered in wounds and tropical ulcers. With their hollow eyes they tensely watched the well-fed, arrogant Japanese. Would he announce what they had all for so long desperately wanted to hear? Lieutenant Visser interpreted:

‘Now that the railway is finished, thanks to the efforts of all of you, I have been given the authority in the name of His Majesty, the Emperor, to inform you that all of you are permitted to rest from this moment on. In a short while you will all be relocated to more pleasant parts of the country. As of today all rations of rice, vegetables and meat will be increased. You will be provided with these new rations as soon as we receive new stock. At this moment we do not have any meat or vegetables and we have only a supply of rice for a few days. Pending your relocation, you are not permitted to leave the camp.’

That was all…. The choking uncertainty lasted for over a week, while the men were hanging around the camp with nothing to do. It was probably 24 August when the first train with a real steam powered locomotive stopped at Camp 11…. On August 27 a second contingent of POWs was transferred in the same manner…. The last group from the south departed on 30 August, taking with them the entire inventory of the camp that was now completely abandoned….

‘We obtained complete certainty a little later during roll call. Lieutenant Visser stepped forward and shouted: “Today is 31 August. It is the birthday of our beloved Queen Wilhelmina. That is why together we are now going to sing our national anthem, the Wilhelmus: one, two, three…” But nobody had the courage. “Then I will do it alone”, Visser said as he began to sing. Fearfully, we looked at the Jap, but when he did not move we all joined in one after the other. At first hesitatingly, but then louder, from the heart. It was a very strange moment. I saw the Jap slowly move his legs; he put down his samurai sword and stood up. When the last words of the anthem sounded, he stood directly across from us and saluted. That was when we knew. At last! We hardly dared to believe it, but this time it was true. We were free. We cheered, shouted and cried. We were free. Finally free…’

Without an official Japanese declaration of surrender lieutenant Visser’s group was the last to find out that the war was over. Two weeks earlier the wildest rumours of a possible surrender had already been going around the first camps near Pakan Baroe ['New Market']. Mid August hope of an impending liberation was also glimmering in Camp 2 when the usually sadistic Koreans suddenly turned friendly, even inviting a group of prisoners from the camp staff to a meal! That had to occur at midnight and without knowledge of the Japanese. Naturally the place that would be least likely to attract undesired visitors and snoopers was the cemetery on the other side of the stream. There, at the graveyards, the Koreans offered the representatives of their victims a conciliatory meal. They told the captives that the war was almost over and that they, the POWs, should not be too hard on them. After all Korea had also been occupied and suppressed by the Japanese for years, so that the prisoners and the guards were actually partners in adversity….

When a few days later the news of liberation seeped through to everyone, the most heart-warming scenes took place everywhere along the railway. On 25 August at eight o’clock in the morning the POWs in Logas (Camp 9) were informed that the war was over. The Japs disarmed the Koreans, while a Korean non-commissioned officer stood to attention before a Japanese soldier third class. The next day all ducks and chickens of the Japanese camp commander had disappeared. They had been consumed by the prisoners.

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Maggot therapy in Sumatra, 1944

From Chapter IV, Maggots with sambal, in The Sumatra Railroad: Final Destination Pakan Baroe, 1943-1945, by Henk Hovinga, trans. by Bernard J. Wolters (KITLV Press, 2010), pp. 184, 186:

A great problem in many camps was the acquisition of an adequate amount of proteins. Even though in Camp 3 little fish were caught in the river with a klamboe [= Malay kelambu 'mosquito net', also borrowed into Tok Pisin], most other camps were not near a river. Again Indonesians knew that the maggots of fire ants and coconut beetles were edible and also palatable when cooked with sambal. Doctor W.J. van Ramshorst, who was fighting a losing battle against disease, came to similar conclusions:

‘The greatest problem was the lack of food. The sick men were totally emaciated and had lost their immunity to all kinds of infectious diseases. I got the idea to use maggots from the chickens that were quickly becoming fat foraging around the latrines, feeding on the fly maggots there. There was always a cloud of flies buzzing over the holes in the ground where people were defaecating. And I thought to myself, what is good for chickens, must also be good for men. It is a filthy story, but we hauled those maggots by the bucketful from the latrines, washed them, cooked them and gave them to the sick men with sambal. On this protein rich diet their condition improved visibly.

I made another discovery in that terrible camp, where those working on the railroad were sent to die. We had no disinfectants to treat the filthy tropical ulcers. But again maggots were the solution. I bound an old rag with larvae around the wound and after a few days it was cleaned beautifully. Many still died from undernourishment, beri-beri, malaria and bacillary dysentery, for which we had no cure. But at least with those maggots we were able to save a good number of our people.’

POW Ben Wolters discovered another remedy for tropical ulcers, when two large ones developed on his left foot instep. One afternoon he was sleeping on his left side on the balé-balé [bamboo stretcher on wooden posts] with his left foot instep toward the boards. He woke up due to an itch in the ulcers, which had turned dark red. When he took a closer look and inspected them he saw tiny ants. They had removed all deleterious material. After [he removed] the tiny ants, he covered the wounds with a cloth patch and glued it with fresh liquid latex from a rubber tree. Soon the wounds were healed. And so ants and maggots made a positive contribution to the POWs’ lives.

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“New Spain’s Century of Depression”

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 4988-5028:

The imperialism of Philip II’s reign had been based on a Spanish-Atlantic economy, in that it was financed out of the resources of America and of a Castile which itself received regular injections of silver from the silver-mines of the New World. During the last decade of the sixteenth century American silver was still reaching Spain in very large quantities, and the port of Seville had an undeniable air of prosperity; but the comforting appearances masked the beginning of a radical change in the structure of the entire Spanish-Atlantic system.

This change was, in part, a direct result of Spain’s war with the Protestant powers of the north. In the first two decades after the outbreak of the Netherlands revolt, the Dutch had continued to trade with the Iberian peninsula. Spain was dependent on northern and eastern Europe for its supplies of grain, timber, and naval stores, a large proportion of which were transported in Dutch vessels. Irked by Spain’s continuing dependence on the Dutch, and anxious to strike a blow at the Dutch economy, Philip II placed an embargo on Dutch ships in Spanish and Portuguese ports in 1585, and again in 1595. The Dutch appreciated as well as Philip II that any interference with their peninsular trade threatened them with disaster. They needed Spanish silver and colonial produce, just as they also needed the salt of Setúbal for their herring industry. Faced with embargoes on their peninsular trade, they therefore reacted in the only possible way, by going direct to the producing areas for the goods they needed – to the Caribbean and Spanish America. From 1594 they were making regular voyages to the Caribbean; in 1599 they seized the salt island of Araya. This intrusion of the Dutch into the Caribbean disrupted the pearl fisheries of Santa Margarita and dislocated the system of maritime communications between Spain’s colonial possessions. For the first time, Spain found itself heavily on the defensive in the western hemisphere, its overseas monopoly threatened by increasingly audacious Dutch and English attacks.

The presence of northern interlopers in the American seas was a serious danger to the Spanish commercial system; but potentially even more serious was the simultaneous transformation in the character of the American economy. During the 1590s the boom conditions of the preceding decades came to an end. The principal reason for the change of economic climate is to be found in a demographic catastrophe. While the white and the mixed population of the New World had continued to grow, the Indian population of Mexico, scourged by terrible epidemics in 1545–6 and again in 1576–9, had shrunk from some 11,000,000 at the time of the conquest in 1519 to little more than 2,000,000 by the end of the century; and it is probable that a similar fate overtook the native population of Peru. The labour force on which the settlers depended was therefore dramatically reduced. In the absence of any significant technological advance, a contracting labour force meant a contracting economy. The great building projects were abruptly halted; it became increasingly difficult to find labour for the mines, especially as the negroes imported to replace the Indians proved to be vulnerable to the same diseases as those which had wiped out the native population; and the problem of feeding the cities could only be met by a drastic agrarian reorganization, which entailed the creation of vast latifundios where Indian labour could be more effectively exploited than in the dwindling Indian villages.

The century that followed the great Indian epidemic of 1576–9 has been called ‘New Spain’s century of depression’ – a century of economic contraction, during the course of which the New World closed in on itself. During this century it had less to offer Europe: less silver, as it became increasingly expensive to work the mines, and fewer opportunities for the emigrants – the 800 or more men and women who were still arriving in the 1590s in each flota from Seville. At the same time, it also came to require less of Europe – or at least of Spain. European luxury products found themselves competing with the products of the Far East carried to America in the Manila galleon. But much more serious from the point of view of Spain was the establishment in its American possessions of an economy dangerously similar to its own. Mexico had developed a coarse cloth industry, and Peru was now producing grain, wine, and oil. These were exactly the products which had bulked so large in the cargoes from Seville during the preceding decades. In fact, the staple Spanish exports to America were ceasing to be indispensable to the settlers, and in 1597 Spanish merchants found it impossible to dispose of all their goods: the American market, the source of Andalusia’s prosperity, was for the first time overstocked.

From the 1590s, therefore, the economies of Spain and of its American possessions began to move apart, while Dutch and English interlopers were squeezing themselves into a widening gap. It was true that Seville still retained its official monopoly of New World trade, and that Sevillan commerce with America reached an all-time record in 1608, to be followed by a further twelve years in which trade figures, while fluctuating, remained at a high level. But, as an index to national prosperity, the figures are deprived of much of their significance by the fact that the cargoes were increasingly of foreign provenance. The goods which Spain produced were not wanted by America; and the goods that America wanted were not produced by Spain.

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Spanish Fears of Religious Encirclement, 1568–69

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 4015-4044:

In the Netherlands, in France, the forces of international Protestantism were on the march. That it was an international conspiracy, Philip had no doubt, for each passing year showed more conclusively that the Dutch rebels were not alone. Behind them were the Huguenots, and the Breton seamen who were now waging war on Spanish shipping in the gulf of Gascony, and who were to cut Spain’s maritime communications with Flanders in the winter of 1568–9. Behind them, too, were English privateers like Sir John Hawkins, whose raid into the Spanish Caribbean in 1568 brought Spain and England a step nearer to open war.

Already by 1568 it was clear that the struggle was spreading – spreading in particular to the sea, where the Protestants were at their strongest and where Spain was still weak. The war between Spain and international Protestantism was essentially a naval war, fought in the Bay of Biscay, the English Channel, and even, increasingly, in the hitherto exclusive preserve of the Spanish Atlantic. Spain’s American possessions could no longer be regarded as safe. But for that matter it was questionable whether any part of the King’s dominions was now immune from attack. Indeed, Spain itself was threatened, both by pirate attacks on its coasts, and by armed incursions across its frontier with France.

The acute sensitivity of Philip to the dangers from heresy is suggested by his behaviour in the Principality of Catalonia. The Principality was undoubtedly one of the weaker sections of the Spanish bastions, both because of its exposed position on the French frontier, and because the extent of its privileges made it little amenable to royal control. It was well known that there were Huguenots among the bandit gangs that were constantly passing to and fro across the border, and there was every reason to suspect that heresy had found converts among that steady stream of Frenchmen which had for some years been crossing the Pyrenees into Catalonia in search of work. If heresy were to take root in Catalonia, the position would be extremely grave, since the Principality had all the makings of a second Netherlands: a strong tradition of independence, its own laws and privileges, and a hatred of Castile that was aćcentuated by linguistic and cultural differences. Consequently, as the pressure mounted against the Catalan frontier, the King’s fears grew. The viceroys were instructed to show the greatest vigilance in guarding the frontier, and in 1568 the situation appeared so alarming that severe new measures were decreed: a fresh prohibition on natives of the Crown of Aragon studying abroad; a harsher censorship in Catalonia; and a ban on all teaching by Frenchmen in Catalan schools. Then, in 1569, the Catalans refused to pay the new tax known as the excusado, which had just been authorized by Pius V. Convinced by their refusal that they were on the verge of going over to Protestantism, Philip ordered the Inquisition and the Viceroy to take action, and had the Diputats and a number of nobles arrested.

The King’s vigorous action against the Catalan authorities is an indication of his deep anxiety about the course of events. As he himself later realized, the action was unwarranted; there was no breath of heresy among the Catalan governing class. But the situation seemed sufficiently dangerous to make action essential. The Protestant peril was growing hourly, and it was growing at a moment when the danger from Islam seemed also to be mounting to a climax. For Catalonia was not the only region of Spain where revolt and heresy threatened. On Christmas night of that terrible year 1568 – the year of the danger in Catalonia, of the cutting of the sea-route through the Bay of Biscay, and of the arrest and death of Philip’s son and heir, Don Carlos, a band of Morisco outlaws lead by a certain Farax Abenfarax broke into the city of Granada, bringing with them the news that the Alpujarras had risen in revolt. Although the rebels failed to seize the city, their incursion signalized the outbreak of rebellion throughout the kingdom of Granada. Spain, which had surrounded itself with such strong defences against the advance of Protestantism, now found itself endangered from within; and the threat came not, as was expected, from the Protestants, but from its old enemies, the Moors.

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Charles V, Holy Roman Spendthrift

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 3427-3580:

From the moment of his Imperial election Charles V found himself saddled with enormous commitments. The struggle with France in the 1520s, the offensive and defensive operations against the Turks in the 1530s, and then, in the 1540s and 1550s, the hopeless task of quelling heresy and revolt in Germany, imposed a constant strain on the Imperial finances. Always desperately short of funds, Charles would turn from one of his dominions to another in the search for more money, and would negotiate on unfavourable terms with his German and Genoese bankers for loans to carry him over the moments of acute penury, at the expense of mortgaging more and more of his present and future sources of revenue. This hand-to-mouth existence had prompted, in the very first years of the reign, gloomy prophecies about the certainty of financial shipwreck, but, in fact, it was not until 1557, when Philip II had succeeded his father, that the expected bankruptcy materialized. Until then, Charles’s appeals to the generosity of his subjects and his constant recourse to loans from the bankers somehow managed to stave off the moment of disaster; but the price paid was a renunciation of any attempt to organize the Imperial finances on a rational basis and to plan a coherent economic programme for the various territories of the Empire.

The main cost of financing Charles’s imperialism was borne by different territories at different times, depending on their presumed fiscal capacity and on the facility with which money could be extracted from them. The territories concerned were primarily European, for the part played by the new American possessions in financing Habsburg policies during the first half of the sixteenth century was relatively very small. Until the 1550s the Crown’s revenues from America averaged only some 200,000–300,000 ducats a year, as compared with the 2,000,000 ducats a year of the later years of the reign of Philip II. This meant that the real entry of the New World into the Habsburg empire was delayed until the decade 1550–60, and that Charles V’s imperialism, unlike that of his son, was essentially a European-based imperialism. Among the European territories of Charles it was the Netherlands and Italy which bore the brunt of the Imperial expenditure during the first half of the reign. But as each in turn began to be squeezed dry Charles was compelled to look elsewhere for further sources of revenue, and by 1540 he was writing to his brother Ferdinand: ‘I cannot be sustained except by my kingdoms of Spain.’ Henceforth, the financial contributions of Spain – which meant essentially Castile – assumed a constantly increasing importance in relation to those of the Low Countries.

Within Spain there were several potential sources of revenue, both secular and ecclesiastical. The financial contribution of the Spanish Church to Habsburg imperialism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries still awaits an adequate study, but its importance would be difficult to overestimate. If the Lutheran princes of Europe were to gain great benefits from breaking with Rome and despoiling the Churches in their territories, the kings of Spain were to show that despoiling the Church was equally possible without going to the lengths of rupture with the Papacy, and that the long-term advantages of this method were at least as great, and probably greater. It was difficult for the Papacy to refuse new financial concessions when the, Faith was everywhere being endangered by the spread of heresy; and the Spanish Crown, by placing no restrictions on mortmain, could further the accumulation of property in the hands of the Church, where it was more readily available for taxation.

Charles V’s fantastically expensive foreign policies and his dependence on credit to finance them therefore had disastrous consequences for Castile. The country’s resources were mortgaged for an indefinite number of years ahead in order to meet the Emperor’s expenses, a large proportion of which had been incurred outside Spain. His reliance on credit contributed sharply to the prevailing inflationary trends. Above all, the lack of provision in the Crown’s financial policies – its inability to devise any coherent financial programme – meant that such resources as did exist were squandered, while the methods used to extract them might almost have been deliberately designed to stunt the economic growth of Castile. The reign of Charles V, in fact, saw three dangerous developments that were to be of incalculable importance for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain. In the first place, it established the dominance of foreign bankers over the country’s sources of wealth. Secondly, it determined that Castile would bear the main weight of the fiscal burden within Spain. In the third place, it ensured that within Castile the brunt of the burden was borne by those classes which were least capable of bearing it.

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Charles the Flemish King of Spain

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 2489-2536:

The new King, a gawky, unprepossessing youth with an absurdly pronounced jaw, did not make a favourable impression on his first appearance in Spain. Apart from looking like an idiot, he suffered from the unforgivable defect of knowing no Castilian. In addition, he was totally ignorant of Spanish affairs, and was surrounded by an entourage of rapacious Flemings. It was natural to contrast him un-favourably with his brother Ferdinand, who enjoyed the supreme advantage of a Castilian upbringing – a background that seemed to Charles’s advisers to be so fraught with danger for the future that they shipped Ferdinand off to Flanders a few months after his brother’s arrival in Spain. His departure, which (as was intended) deprived the grandees of a potential figurehead and the populace of a symbol, merely increased the discontents of a disaffected nation.

The principal complaint of the Castilians was directed against the Flemings, who were alleged to be plundering the country so fortuitously inherited by their duke….

When the Cortes were held at Valladolid in January 1518 to swear allegiance to the new King and vote him a servicio, the procuradores seized the opportunity to protest against the exploitation of Castile by foreigners; and they found some outlet for their indignation in addressing Charles only as ‘su Alteza’, reserving the title of ‘Magestad’ exclusively for his mother, Juana….

News reached Charles as he was on the road to Barcelona at the end of January 1519 of the death of his grandfather Maximilian; five months later, after long intrigues and the expenditure of vast sums of money, he was elected Emperor in his grandfather’s place. Gattinara, a man whose broad imperial vision was inspired by a cosmopolitan background, an acquaintance with the political writings of Dante, and, most of all, by the humanist’s longings for a respublica christiana, showed himself fully prepared for the change. Charles was no longer to be styled ‘su Alteza’, but ‘S.C.C.R. Magestad’ (Sacra, Cesárea, Católica, Real Magestad). The Duke of Burgundy, King of Castile and León, King of Aragon and Count of Barcelona, had now added to his imposing list of titles the most impressive of all: Emperor-elect of the Holy Roman Empire.

Charles’s election as Emperor inevitably altered his relationship to his Spanish subjects. It did much to increase his prestige, opening up new and unexpected horizons, of which the Catalans – as a result of his residence among them at this moment – were probably the first to become aware. Charles himself was changing, and beginning at last to acquire a personality of his own; he seems to have established an easier relationship with his Catalan subjects than with the tightly suspicious Castilians; and Barcelona for a glorious six months revelled in its position as the capital of the Empire.

If a foreign ruler had obvious disadvantages, there might none the less be compensations, as yet barely glimpsed. It was the disadvantages, however, which most impressed the Castilians as Charles hurried back across Castile in January 1520 to embark for England and Germany. If the King of Castile were also to be Holy Roman Emperor, this was likely to lead to two serious consequences for Castile. It would involve long periods of royal absenteeism, and it would also involve a higher rate of taxation in order to finance the King’s increased expenditure. Already, at the news of Charles’s election, voices were raised in protest against his impending departure. The protests originated in the city of Toledo, which was to play the leading part in the troubles of the next two years, for reasons that are not yet fully clear. The city seems somehow to have exemplified, in heightened form, all the tensions and conflicts within Castile, offering an illuminating example of the constant interaction of local and national affairs.

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The Financial Ascent of the Dutch VOC

From: The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin, 2008), Kindle Loc. 1780-1831:

The campaign for a reform of what would now be called the VOC’s corporate governance duly bore fruit. In December 1622, when the Company’s charter was renewed, it was substantially modified. Directors would no longer be appointed for life but could serve for only three years at a time. The ‘chief participants’ (shareholders with as much equity as directors) were henceforth entitled to nominate ‘Nine Men’ from among themselves, whom the Seventeen Lords were obliged to consult on ‘great and important matters’, and who would be entitled to oversee the annual accounting of the six chambers and to nominate, jointly with the Seventeen Lords, future candidates for directorships. In addition, in March 1623, it was agreed that the Nine Men would be entitled to attend (but not to vote at) the meetings of the Seventeen Lords and to scrutinize the annual purchasing accounts. The chief participants were also empowered to appoint auditors (rekening-opnemers) to check the accounts submitted to the States-General. Shareholders were further mollified by the decision, in 1632, to set a standard 12.5 per cent dividend, twice the rate at which the Company was able to borrow money. The result of this policy was that virtually all of the Company’s net profits thereafter were distributed to the shareholders. Shareholders were also effectively guaranteed against dilution of their equity. Amazingly, the capital base remained essentially unchanged throughout the VOC’s existence. When capital expenditures were called for, the VOC raised money not by issuing new shares but by issuing debt in the form of bonds. Indeed, so good was the Company’s credit by the 1670s that it was able to act as an intermediary for a two-million-guilder loan by the States of Holland and Zeeland.

None of these arrangements would have been sustainable, of course, if the VOC had not become profitable in the mid seventeenth century. This was in substantial measure the achievement of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, a bellicose young man who had no illusions about the relationship between commerce and coercion. As Coen himself put it: ‘We cannot make war without trade, nor trade without war.’ He was ruthless in his treatment of competitors, executing British East India Company officials at Amboyna and effectively wiping out the indigenous Bandanese. A natural-born empire builder, Coen seized control of the small Javanese port of Jakarta in May 1619, renamed it Batavia and, aged just 30, duly became the first governor-general of the Dutch East Indies. He and his successor, Antonie van Diemen, systematically expanded Dutch power in the region, driving the British from the Banda Islands, the Spaniards from Ternate and Tidore, and the Portuguese from Malacca. By 1657 the Dutch controlled most of Ceylon (Sri Lanka); the following decade saw further expansion along the Malabar coast on the subcontinent and into the island of Celebes (Sulawesi). There were also thriving Dutch bases on the Coromandel coast. Fire-power and foreign trade sailed side by side on ships like the Batavia – a splendid replica of which can be seen today at Lelystad on the coast of Holland.

The commercial payoffs of this aggressive strategy were substantial. By the 1650s, the VOC had established an effective and highly lucrative monopoly on the export of cloves, mace and nutmeg (the production of pepper was too widely dispersed for it to be monopolized) and was becoming a major conduit for Indian textile exports from Coromandel. It was also acting as a hub for intra-Asian trade, exchanging Japanese silver and copper for Indian textiles and Chinese gold and silk. In turn, Indian textiles could be traded for pepper and spices from the Pacific islands, which could be used to purchase precious metals from the Middle East. Later, the Company provided financial services to other Europeans in Asia, not least Robert Clive, who transferred a large part of the fortune he had made from conquering Bengal back to London via Batavia and Amsterdam. As the world’s first big corporation, the VOC was able to combine economies of scale with reduced transaction costs and what economists call network externalities, the benefit of pooling information between multiple employees and agents. As was true of the English East India Company, the VOC’s biggest challenge was the principal-agent problem: the tendency of its men on the spot to trade on their own account, bungle transactions or simply defraud the company. This, however, was partially countered by an unusual compensation system, which linked remuneration to investments and sales, putting a priority on turnover rather than net profits. Business boomed. In the 1620s, fifty VOC ships had returned from Asia laden with goods; by the 1690s the number was 156. Between 1700 and 1750 the tonnage of Dutch shipping sailing back around the Cape doubled. As late as 1760 it was still roughly three times the amount of British shipping.

The economic and political ascent of the VOC can be traced in its share price. The Amsterdam stock market was certainly volatile, as investors reacted to rumours of war, peace and shipwrecks in a way vividly described by the Sephardic Jew Joseph Penso de la Vega in his aptly named book Confusión de Confusiones (1688). Yet the long-term trend was clearly upward for more than a century after the Company’s foundation. Between 1602 and 1733, VOC stock rose from par (100) to an all-time peak of 786, this despite the fact that from 1652 until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 the Company was being challenged by bellicose British competition. Such sustained capital appreciation, combined with the regular dividends and stable consumer prices, ensured that major shareholders like Dirck Bas became very wealthy indeed. As early as 1650, total dividend payments were already eight times the original investment, implying an annual rate of return of 27 per cent. The striking point, however, is that there was never such a thing as a Dutch East India Company bubble. Unlike the Dutch tulip futures bubble of 1636-7, the ascent of the VOC stock price was gradual, spread over more than a century, and, though its descent was more rapid, it still took more than sixty years to fall back down to 120 in December 1794. This rise and fall closely tracked the rise and fall of the Dutch Empire. The prices of shares in other monopoly trading companies, outwardly similar to the VOC, would behave very differently, soaring and slumping in the space of just a few months.

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A Japanophile Dutch Banker’s Disillusionment, 1970s

From The Magatama Doodle: One Man’s Affair with Japan, 1950–2004, by Hans Brinckmann (Global Oriental, 2005), pp. 210-211:

My ‘Magatama Doodle’ metaphor was inspired by the whimsical linking of an observed physical habit (the doodling of comma-shapes on tabletops and chair arms) of certain functionaries, when confronted with a problem or pressed for an answer, to their assumed preference for evasion and procrastination. Japan’s leaders, I had always felt, were fully capable of taking decisions, and if they did not, that was because they chose not to.

I still believed this analysis to hold good for the corporate sector, but I no longer could credit the government and the bureaucracy with similar ability. After all, the cabinet members, from the prime minister on down, were beholden to their party colleagues waiting in the wings for their turn at government. And all politicians lived at the mercy of the business establishment, which financed their election campaigns. They were also constrained by the bureaucratic elite, which provided continuity and expertise for the government of the day. Some bureaucrats in turn were rumoured to be supplementing their income with donations from the major corporations, to whom they also looked for their eventual amakudari on their retirement from the civil service in their early fifties. Few senior civil servants could afford to retire at that age, so they were all interested in a second career as adviser or senior director at a major bank or corporation. The result of these cosy relationships was a woeful lack of discretionary power on the political level, and even a prime minister travelling overseas had to weigh every word and frequently backtrack on his public statements in the face of opposition at home.

I could now see that it was the stasis in Japan’s body politic that had bedevilled its relations with other countries, most of all the US, for decades. Earlier on I had, like probably almost every Japanese, habitually blamed the periodic strains in Japan-US ties largely on American impatience or intransigence. American leaders and negotiators, I was convinced, did not understand Japan, and their patronizing attitude only managed to infuriate their Japanese counterparts and thus stall progress in the talks. But without exculpating pushy American negotiators altogether I had come to suspect that the cause of the recurring tensions, especially in matters of trade and investment, lay mostly with the Japanese.

Through my Investment Committee at the American Chamber of Commerce and other sources I had heard stories about the ‘impossibility’ of dealing with Japanese negotiators on issues such as regulating the flow of car exports and improving access to Japan’s still heavily protected consumer market. The negotiators had no mandate and had to refer to Tokyo on every detail without in the end coming up with any kind of helpful response or compromise. The US side would be kept waiting interminably while their counterparts tried to placate them with pleas for understanding Japan’s slow-moving consensus system and promises of an eventual satisfactory outcome. More often than not, no such outcome ensued, and the Americans either had to back off with gritted teeth or threaten unilateral action to force an agreement. On several occasions the US Congress stepped in with mandated sanctions when negotiations stalled, to the consternation of the Japanese, whose own parliament had no such power.

All this would not have been so bad if the Japanese had put their cards on the table. But they seldom did. To the home audience they usually played the victim card, blaming the heavy-handed Americans for bullying them into concessions, and asking the public to accept these ‘sacrifices’ in the interest of preserving good relations with the American ally. In this way they not only shifted the blame for any unwelcome outcome to the Americans, but they also obfuscated the system’s structural inability to produce effective and timely decisions, actually turning this shortcoming into an advantage.

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A Japan-trained Dutch Banker’s Impressions of Chicago, 1968

From The Magatama Doodle: One Man’s Affair with Japan, 1950–2004, by Hans Brinckmann (Global Oriental, 2005), pp. 184-185:

Seven years earlier, our first US visit was no confrontation. We were wide-eyed tourists then, basking in America’s sun and easy smiles without care or consequence. Even our brief stay in Illinois in 1965, a year after my bank’s takeover by the Chicago bank, was little more than a courtesy call made out of our safe and trusted Japanese home base.

But this time it was different. This protracted stay was intended to be confrontational. There were wise men in the head office suspecting their ‘man in Tokyo’ of alien sympathies. They were right, twice over.

First, there was my typical European prejudice against the might and swagger of America, its superficial, money-based way of life, its waste and hyperbole, even that questionable concept – the ‘pursuit of happiness’. This spoon-fed mindset was overlain by a less expressible, more internalized reserve about the United States, Japan-grown and stubborn. It was directed at the American mentality, the casual arrogance that is the birthright of the strong. It was a silent protest against the overweening, patronizing manners of so many Americans towards anyone and anything foreign, and especially Asian. Above all, it was a deep-seated resistance against the immodest American approach to life itself, its aggressive ‘conflict model’, its blatant emotionalism and lack of restraint, its materialism and physicality and holier-than-thou Christian orthodoxy.

Thus I arrived in Chicago heavily burdened with opinion but also willing to change my views ‘in the light of new experience’. Well, experience is what we got. From the first day I had to place my mental constructs on the back-burner. Actual, visceral life, took precedence. The accommodation the bank had arranged for us, a small, furnished apartment in Old Town, turned out to be an address of ill repute, teeming with prostitutes. Within our stingy rent allowance we found a better place, near the Ambassador East Hotel, with mostly decent tenants. But we had to decide how to deal with the neighbours across the hall, a friendly well-groomed woman with an attractive grown-up daughter for whom – Toyoko had to conclude to her astonishment – she was acting as a ‘discreet’ pimp.

The confrontation with American reality brought home to me the vast cultural gap that separated that society from the Japanese – and the Dutch. But the comparison was not necessarily negative. The office, for instance, far from being a nasty environment steeped in power-crazy adrenaline, was more like a large living-room filled with people exchanging easy banter while glancing at a document or two, or discussing golf scores with a customer on the phone. The informality was deceptive. While telling jokes or kidding around these well-educated bankers kept a beady eye on the boss’s door, to see who would go in next or to wait for an opportunity to slip in with a ‘hot deal’. I was amazed to see that in spite of their relaxed style of communication they did get their job done.

The looser structure was an immense relief from the tensions and social rules of Japan. What is more I soon discovered that the much-maligned ‘shallowness’ of American social relations was actually more like an open, unprejudiced kind of hospitality which we tight-arsed Europeans and fastidious Japanese would do well to try and emulate, to our benefit. Americans, I found, opened their doors first and then sorted out what they had let in. Europeans and Japanese, distrusting spontaneity, were forever trying to determine the suitability of others before deciding whether they wanted to get acquainted.

My lifelong latent resistance against America’s ways had collapsed inside a week. Not on fundamentals, but – let us say – on the attractions of their lifestyle. These Americans lived their lives instead of fretting about them. They had no time for wrenching soul searching or weighing up the relative merits of their civilization. They were victors, and victors are free of doubt.

Vietnam was supposed to have changed all this. But not here, not yet, in this heartland of assured capitalism, where seating a single black graduate from Northwestern University on my bank’s carpeted ‘platform’ for all to see, was deemed to constitute an adequate gesture to the irksome demands of the Civil Rights movement. The headlines of the Chicago Tribune copies scattered about the desks might be screaming indignantly about the seizure of the US Navy ship Pueblo by the North Koreans or about the Communist Tet offensive just launched by the Viet Cong, but loan requests had to be processed and the 17.37 back home to the comforts of Winnetka had to be caught.

The self-assuredness was astounding. Laced as it was with magnanimity and the decency of family concerns it was a far cry from the imperial hauteur of the British and French or the self-conscious pride of the Japanese. But it was daunting nonetheless. Paraded around Chicago as ‘our man in Japan’ I had to make frequent appearances at meetings, both inside the bank and on calls to important corporate customers, to shed light on the mystery that was Japan. I was expected to explain the peculiarities of the market and dispense hot tips on how to breach its protectionist shell.

My audience was eloquent, courteous and sceptical.

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