Books about the common roots of UK, US and Dutch societies

In my previous post I promised to share two books I’m currently reading.

Recently, on occasion of their return to Texas, we offered a farewell dinner to an expat couple that had resided with us as long stay guests. They concluded their stay in The Netherlands of over three years with the observation that there are more similarities in character between Americans and Dutch that they would have believed. They also pointed me to a recent book of Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World, that gives some background explanation.

It is an epic story about the discovery of New Amsterdam and it’s early years as a settlement of the Dutch West Indies Company (in Dutch Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie). The book is based on historic material kept under dust for ages, but popped up in Albany, New York, of all places. For over 25 years there sits a historian who is in the process of translating over 12,000 Dutch language documents dating back to the first half of the 17nd century. The Dutch were too tidy and destroyed most of their West India Company’s archives so it is a sort of wonder this new material popped up. It is known as The New Netherland Project or NNP. Do visit their site as they have a wealth of material!

I learned Englishman Henry Hudson discovered New Amsterdam on commission of the Dutch East India Company (VOC or Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie). On a former trip he had discovered Newfoundland on commission of the British Muscovy Company, in search of a northern passage to the India. He had hoped that via the rivers Hudson or Connecticut he could reach the great lakes and from there there was a passage to India.

Going Dutch by Lisa Jardine

When buying The Island at the Center of the World I stumbled on the book Going Dutch, How England Plundered Holland’s Glory, by English writer Lisa Jardine.

Coincidentally Robbert Russo penned an insightful column for the New York Times Going Dutch about how an American looks at Dutch society.

Lisa uses the subtitle more as a eye catcher than as a flag covering her cargo: She describes the early 17nd century more from a view of an art historian. How thinkers, architects, landscape architects, sculptors and painters from the low countries influenced the English courts. How members of the Royalists party got refuge in The Hague during Cromwell’s reign and how the various European courts especially those who were not in the Roman Catholic league like the Spanish were related, intermingled and intermarried and tried to cooperate in their struggle against the Spanish. All up to the year 1688 when William and Mary took over the English throne.

It is really fun to read the two books together. If you’re interested in Dutch, US and/or UK history both books are a must read!

7 thoughts on “Books about the common roots of UK, US and Dutch societies”

  1. As someone who has long studied in America’s European roots, this caught my attention. I spend part of my time in Michigan, where many of my friends have Dutch heritage (and names). There’s a strong Dutch presence that has remained over time, which I find interesting.

    The New York Times article you linked to said Dutch society is collectivist and has “fewer risk-takers.” Would you agree?

    That seems to be a broad generalization….

  2. @Josiah

    There are many observations to your question, as you know:-)

    Here are some:

    Robbert Russo appears having lived in Amsterdam at least for 18 months – maybe he still lives there. At least he has undergone Dutch Society. Apparently he likes many of its aspects as our deep southern very Republican expats did.

    He quotes Geert Mak whose “In Europa” is maybe also a good read for you. Geert with his usual wry humor explains that Dutch “collectivism” stems from it’s battle against water: “Democracy of dry feet” he calls it referring to the fact that when you have to keep the water from your polder (an enclosed piece of land below sea level) you have to pump it out and ask your neighbors permission to let the water flow over or along their land and ditches and canals. When there is a storm every polder inhabitant is expected to help side by side to watch the dikes and if necessary to enforce the dikes. So you have to work together en get everybody on one line.

    Then there is religion. In the past Dutch were among the first to turn to Protestantism in an era when everybody was supposed to be Roman Catholic. The citizens had to stand side by side to fence off the Spanish ( the 80 years’ war which started over Alva’s 10th penning, a 10% tax then considered usurious) and other European powers (think Napoleon, think Brits).

    In addition there is a sort of anarchism in the Dutch mind. An inborn total lack of respect for authority because it is labeled as authority. Authority has to be earned by arguments only. From the same set of mind stems the total lack of respect for pomp and/or status. Dutch ministers tent to bike to their offices. “Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je gek genoeg” i.e. “Behave normal, then you will stand out enough” is a popular Dutch saying. This stems partly from it’s past, but as a Baby Boomer I believe that this set of mind has been enhanced by the 60ies (woman’s lib, sexual revolution, drugs etc etc.) I have lived through the period and see that many forefront protesters of the 60ies now have responsible positions. We now have abortion and euthanasia and the use of drugs permitted under circumstances. There is no respect for a policeman or a CEO because he is a policeman or CEO. He should behave like one would expect from a policeman or CEO. Since the 60ies this ”anarchism” is also enhanced, because there is also a common feeling that during WW2 under German occupation there was too much respect for (German) authority of the parents of the Dutch Baby Boomers for the authority the Germans imposed upon us.

    On the other hand during the last 20 years (even under our left wing governments that maybe would be viewed upon as “communist” governments – even by the standards of US Democrats) many institutions that earlier formed part of Government rule have been dismantled: Post, Telephone, Electricity, Social Housing cooperatives transport by Rail and the very advanced money transfer system Postgiro: All have been delisted as Government activities. Partly as a consequence of the further unification of the European Community that advocates free movements of people services and goods.

    Currently the most aggressive European Commissioner is the anti trust commissioner, Dutch Neely Smit – Kroes, born in a family of road transport entrepreneurs.

    I refuse to believe there is a lack of initiative in General. I happen to be interested in design and architecture and there are many Dutch designers and architects who took initiative and stand out in the world.

    However I do agree to the extent that Dutch society in general is less competitively minded as the American society. You see it in the education system: There are hardly any stimuli built into the system to induce students to strive for the best. Dutch attitude is more like “You shouldn’t let students overwork themselves”:-)

    An egalitarian society nurturing it’s freedom is probably a better description than collectivist society.

  3. Wow, very good insights Guido. I appreciate you taking the time to share those.

    “I happen to be interested in design and architecture and there are many Dutch designers and architects who took initiative and stand out in the world.”

    Exactly what I was thinking!

  4. Wow pap, erg onder de indruk. Wil boek graag lezen. Zeker nu ik op Governors Island was voor het New Island Festival.

  5. @Marit
    Daughter #1 AKA FilmGirl communicating from NYC via blog comments with dad…
    The book is here for you to read:-)


    Are you aware that your sister was on the verge of being lifted from her bed by an overzealous anti terrorism squad that seems unable to see through a couple of TodaysArt posters?

    A wry fact considering my final line answering @Josiah: “An egalitarian society nurturing it’s freedom is probably a better description than collectivist society.”…

    The same spirit of freedom (including freedom of speech) we (and later the French after their Revolution) apparently brought to the USA in the early 17nd century seems now, after 9/11, under heavy pressure by and influence of the same USA, been curtailed into something alike what the Dutch underwent during WW II under German Occupation.

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