Climate Change, Water, and the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic
Dutch whalers pursue bowhead whales off the Svalbard archipelago. Abraham Storck, “Walvisvangst bij de kust van Spitsbergen,” 1690. Stichting Rijksmuseum, Zuiderzeemuseum.
This is part of our special feature on Water in Europe and the World.
These are momentous times in the history of our planet. Industrialized and industrializing nations, as well as world-straddling corporations, are choking our atmosphere with greenhouse gases in such quantity that the whole Earth is warming with a speed, on a scale, unprecedented in the 300,000-year history of our species. Yet natural forces have repeatedly changed Earth’s climate during that long history, even before the onset of industrialization. Most of us are familiar with the great Ice Ages, but fewer know that even in the Holocene – the period of relative climatic stability that nurtured the rise of agriculture and then civilization – Earth’s climate changed on scales big enough to profoundly influence the course of human affairs.
Of all the climatic upheavals of the Holocene, few mattered more for people and environments than the period of erratic climatic cooling that we have come to call the “Little Ice Age.” Sometime in the thirteenth century, the combined force of enormous volcanic eruptions and slumping solar output started to cool the northern hemisphere, and waves of cooling would come and go across much of the Earth until the nineteenth century. The chilliest century of all was the seventeenth, when two especially cold waves of the Little Ice Age – the “Grindelwald Fluctuation” and “Maunder Minimum” – followed each other with only two slightly warmer decades between them. In much of the Northern Hemisphere, temperatures in both periods dipped by nearly one degree Celsius, relative to the late twentieth-century average.
We know about the Little Ice Age and other periods of pre-industrial climate change owing to creative work of paleoclimatologists, who scour the Earth for lasting signals of past trends in temperature or precipitation. Rings embedded in tree trunks, for example, attest to the summer growth of trees, which in turn registers seasonal soil moisture, temperature, and sunlight. By measuring changes in the width of tree rings – and more recently, in the concentration of isotopes embedded in those rings – paleoclimatologists can painstakingly reconstruct centuries, even millennia of climate change. Historians can add to paleoclimatic reconstructions by pouring through observations of weather and records of weather-related activities. Yet if they know what to look for, they can even determine how climatic trends influenced the fates of societies and communities before the onset of global warming.
By now, hundreds of publications in “climate history” – the branch of the historical profession dedicated to the social impacts of climate change – connect periods of profound cooling to societal crisis, perhaps even collapse. Cooling and associated precipitation extremes, the argument goes, reduced or interrupted growing seasons across the pre-industrial world, especially at high latitudes and altitudes. Harvests failed, food prices skyrocketed, and, after a few years, starvation usually set in. Malnourished bodies have weaker immune systems, so places wracked by famine also repeatedly endured outbreaks of epidemic disease.
Desperate peasants migrated from stricken regions, spreading outbreaks into cities and depopulating the previously fertile countryside. Some joined bandit groups and thereby rebelled against governments to stay alive; others explicitly blamed governments for their misfortune and protested in the streets. Rage in the face of starvation and death worsened existing causes of discontent and provoked revolts that toppled government after government. Mass migration and opportunistic rulers, meanwhile, unleashed wars between states that confronted climatic crises with their own distinct cultures, economies, and politics. The demands of war drew even more resources from the stricken countryside, which in turn exacerbated the causes of starvation, disease, death, and conflict. Famed historian Geoffrey Parker, for example, has argued that this “fatal synergy” ultimately claimed the lives of a third of the world’s seventeenth-century population.
These arguments remain controversial among many historians, partly because they seem to rob people in the past of their “agency:” their ability to act in defiance of big forces and trends. Moreover, new research has revealed that many communities and societies successfully endured – that is, were “resilient” to – even the chilliest stretches of the Little Ice Age. In a new book, I argue that there may be no better example than the Dutch Republic, precursor state to the present-day Netherlands. Over the course of the frigid seventeenth century, the Republic’s population exploded, its economy boomed, its military forces won a series of breathtaking victories against daunting odds, and its thriving intellectual life expanded the frontiers of contemporary art and science.
What accounts for the remarkable prosperity of the Republic in the coldest stretch of the Little Ice Age? Part of the answer must be that climatic trends rarely determine the course of human affairs (unless they spiral out of control, as they might in the coming century). Many social and economic forces contributed to the rise of the Republic, and would have even in the absence of a Little Ice Age. Yet another, perhaps more important, part of the answer involves the remarkable relationship between the Dutch and water. In a world dominated by inefficient, rain-fed agriculture, the Dutch exploited and endured water in distinct ways to wage war, conduct commerce, and create culture.
In one sense, the impact of climate change on water left the Dutch Republic uniquely vulnerable to the worst weather of the Little Ice Age. Medieval colonizers had drained, and then, with cattle, trampled peat bogs that previously lined the coastal stretches of what would become the Dutch Republic. The coastal regions of the country literally deflated until they sank below sea level. Communities improvised dikes and sluices that gradually coalesced into a comprehensive system of water defenses. Yet in the Grindelwald Fluctuation and Maunder Minimum, cooler temperatures disrupted patterns of atmospheric circulation in ways that funneled more, and more severe, storms towards the Dutch Republic. Storm surges repeatedly broke through dikes and swept away thousands of people and animals. After cold winters, meanwhile, huge chunks of ice congregated at choke points in rivers that meandered around the Dutch Republic. Water amassing behind these “ice dams” repeatedly spilled over river banks and inundated kilometers of low-lying countryside.
Rivers that threatened to overflow their banks in the spring also offered formidable barriers to invading armies during the many wars that engulfed the Republic in the seventeenth century. Yet when those rivers froze in the winter, armies could easily find their way across. The Dutch state repeatedly hired laborers to break up the ice, but little could be done if the cold was too severe. In chilly winters, sea ice also choked harbors and sea lanes across northern Europe, halting the flow of commerce to and from Dutch ports. Crews aboard Dutch warships could suddenly find themselves ensnared by ice, perilous indeed when rival armies camped nearby.
Still, climate change altered watery environments in ways that ultimately offered more benefits than drawbacks for Dutch citizens. When the provinces that would establish the Republic broke away from the Spanish Empire, for example, the onset of the Grindelwald Fluctuation made it harder for Spanish troops to besiege rebellious cities. In spring, summer, and autumn, rebel engineers repeatedly opened sluices to inundate areas around and between rebellious cities, literally washing away Spanish sieges. Some of these deliberate floods would not have worked without consistently stormy, rainy weather. Even in the absence of such flooding, Spanish troops often found it all but impossible to build fortified lines and tunnels in rain-soaked muck. When sieges dragged on into winter – as they often did – Spanish troops suffered terribly in bitterly cold weather. Dutch guerillas on skates even raided Spanish supply lines, worsening the plight of the besiegers. Thousands of soldiers died, and Spanish attempts to reclaim the core territories of the eventual Republic came to nothing. If the weather of the Grindelwald Fluctuation made the Republic easier to invade, it also made it harder to conquer.
Midway through the seventeenth century, the Republic reached the height of its economic and political power. Its waterborne commercial networks straddled the world, and its war fleets appeared unrivaled within Europe. Yet Europe’s other great maritime state – England – soon launched a series of naval wars aimed, in part, at overturning the Republic’s commercial dominance. These wars coincided with the onset of the Maunder Minimum, however, when shifting patterns of atmospheric and oceanic circulation gradually increased the frequency of winds from the east – that is, easterly winds – in the seas off northern Europe.
To understand why that mattered, you have to know something about how wars unfolded at sea in the age of sail. Rival commanders vied to claim what they called the “weather gage:” the position between the opponent and the source of the wind. The weather gage allowed commanders to choose when and how to attack and retreat. Claiming it became especially important after English and then Dutch commanders refined the “line of battle:” the tactic of sailing by enemy formations in single file, firing broadsides at range and then turning to do it again. When the opponent’s formation broke down, the battle was usually won. These tactics depended on precise maneuvers relative to the enemy, and those maneuvers were much easier to execute with the weather gage.
Three naval wars broke out between England and the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century; four, if you count the Glorious Revolution in 1688, when hostile fleets passed by each other but never had a chance to fight. In every war, English fleets typically sailed into battle from the west, which means they usually had the weather gage in westerly winds. In 1652, the First Anglo-Dutch War began as the Maunder Minimum had just begun to set in, and winds overwhelming blew from the west. English fleets exploited the advantage of the weather gage to repeatedly defeat Dutch fleets, and indeed England went on to win the war. Only a peculiar arrangement of political pressures in England and the Dutch Republic kept the English from imposing a harsh peace.
Yet in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars, prevailing winds responded to the deepening Maunder Minimum by blowing consistently from the East. Armed with the weather gage – and, it should be said, improved ships and tactics – Dutch fleets won battle after battle. Their victory in the second and third wars, when the economy and even survival of the Dutch Republic was very much on the line, owed much to a changing climate. Then, in 1688, a strong easterly wind spirited a Dutch invasion fleet across the Channel, permitting a revolution that really amounted to a takeover of the English crown.
Climatic cooling on a global scale therefore altered watery environments around the Republic in ways that broadly benefitted Dutch military operations. Yet these “positive impacts” of climate change – for the Dutch – extended beyond the conduct of war. Changing patterns of atmospheric circulation also seemed to have shortened Dutch journeys to Asia, for example, even if more frequent and severe storms made it riskier to travel by sea. Sea ice kept Dutch polar expeditions from charting a fabled Northwest or Northeast Passage to Asia, yet it did direct explorers to islands that later became centers for a brutal but lucrative whaling industry.
In many cases, climate change presented both new opportunities and challenges for Dutch citizens. More often than not, institutions, companies, communities, and individuals adapted in response. When cooling sea surface temperatures contributed to a migration of herring schools from the Baltic to the nearby North Sea, for example, a Dutch inventor came up with the herring buss: a factory ship that allowed fishermen to take full advantage of new fishing opportunities. Another inventor debuted the “ice wagon,” a bizarre fusion of sailing ship and carriage that could apparently reach great speeds on the ice, especially in high winds. Brewers’ guilds invested in horse-drawn icebreakers that not only maintained essential waterborne transportation networks, but also broke ice into piece that could be sold for use in cellars. When storms alternating with drought kindled urban fire after urban fire in the Maunder Minimum, another Dutch inventor – Jan van der Heyden – developed revolutionary firefighting technologies and practices that he then sold for lucrative profit across Europe.
Nowhere did the Dutch adapt more quickly or effectively to changing environmental circumstances than in the Arctic. The Maunder Minimum brought thick summer sea ice to bays across the Svalbard archipelago and the island of Jan Mayen, where Dutch whalers usually pursued their prey from coastal whaling stations. With the bays suddenly inaccessible and the whales far out at sea, Dutch whalers reinforced the hulls of their ships, greased them to slide off ice, and adopted Basque techniques of boiling blubber at sea. Eventually, they simply transported raw blubber back to the Republic, where it was boiled in enormous furnaces. In the face of a challenging polar climate, the Dutch Arctic whaling industry boomed during the Maunder Minimum.
There is a thin between adaptation and “resilience” in climate change discourse. Adaptation can refer to the effort to build more resilience: that is, to take less damage when a weather disaster hits, or at least to bounce back more quickly. Yet such resilience can be baked into the foundations of a society, with no adaptation necessary. Citizens of coastal Dutch cities, for example, enjoyed a remarkably diverse diet, relative to just about anyone else in the seventeenth-century world. While the inhabitants of most contemporary communities and empires relied overwhelming on a single crop – rye, for example – Dutch urbanites supplemented grains with seafood and dairy. When cold snaps or droughts contributed to harvest failures and in turn shortages of one kind of food, there was usually enough of another to insulate Dutch citizens from famine. Comprehensive civic charities, meanwhile, provided abundant food to the poor, who often suffered first and worst from food shortages elsewhere in Europe.
There may have been no better example of resilience in the Republic than the Dutch transportation system. In low-lying coastal provinces especially, many overlapping transportation networks connected even small population centers. All had distinct vulnerabilities to different kinds of weather, which means that travelers could usually take at least one to arrive at their destination. One might take a sailing boat, for example, in rainy weather, or a horse-drawn barge in a contrary wind, or a horse-drawn wagon with ice on the water, or a sled – with skates – when temperatures dipped far below zero. Goods, people, and information could almost always arrive where they were needed.
Yet there was also a dark side to the Republic’s prosperity in the frigid seventeenth century. At least some of the Republic’s wealth came at the expense of desperate, marginalized, or brutalized communities across Europe, Africa, Asia, and the New World. Many suffered acutely from meteorological extremes that accompanied cold stretches of the Little Ice Age in different regions. Dutch merchants, for example, controlled the trade in grain from the Baltic Sea, and stockpiled surpluses in Amsterdam warehouses. When harvest failures sent grain prices soaring in one part of Europe, Dutch merchants sold stockpiled grain for a tidy profit.
This kind of opportunism may have been especially brutal in Africa, where agents of the Republic’s West India Company eventually shipped thousands of slaves to the New World. First, alternating droughts and torrential rains in the Grindelwald Fluctuation probably weakened African polities, making them more vulnerable to European encroachment. Then, refugees fleeing the famine-stricken countryside fell victim to slave-trading kings, and in turn to European slave traders. Finally, with the slave trade established across Africa, cooling in sub-humid and dry savannah regions actually improved agricultural yields and eased the burden of otherwise deadly diseases, such as malaria and trypanosomiasis. In these benign environmental conditions, the slave economy functioned with ruthless efficiency.
Admittedly, all these relationships are only now coming into focus, as paleoclimatic reconstructions for Africa continue to improve. Moreover, the slave trade may not have contributed meaningfully to the ability of the Republic to prosper in a changing climate, which predated the formation of the West India Company. Still, there was undoubtedly a destructive, parasitic character to part of the Republic’s economic vitality, in the Maunder Minimum at least.
Diverse relationships with water in all its forms therefore played an essential role in sustaining the Republic’s Golden Age through the chilliest stretch of the Little Ice Age. For better or worse, the Republic’s citizens were far from passive victims in the face of climate change. Yet can we, today, learn anything from them as we confront not cooling but warming on far greater scale?
While the world of the Dutch Golden Age was in many ways far different from our own, the experiences of the Dutch do distill into a parable for our times: a story that hints at deeper truths without telling us precisely what we ought to do. We can learn from the Dutch, for example, that even modest climate change on the scale of a degree Celsius can have profound social consequences, which makes it incumbent on us to avoid extreme warming. We can also learn that all but the most catastrophic climate changes have deeply unequal consequences for, and within, different societies. The Dutch preyed on those who suffered most amid a changing climate, yet we might instead work to strengthen equitable bonds between today’s countries and communities.
Yet we should remember that the Dutch coped with the Little Ice Age not because they were wealthy, but because their wealth and military security flowed from activities – often on or near water – that either benefited from, or could quickly adapt to, climate change. Those of us fortunate to live in the developed world may assume that the wealth of our governments will insulate us from the worst consequences of climate change. Yet it may be that proactive, far-sighted thinking, rather than wealth, will help us endure the warmer world to come. Fittingly, Dutch engineers are today following in the footsteps of their ancestors by designing floating communities that may one day replace cities washed away by the rising sea. The rest of us would do well to learn from their example.
Dagomar Degroot is an assistant professor of environmental history at Georgetown University. His recent work focuses on the resilience of different societies to pre-industrial climate change; the history of animal cultures in the Arctic, and the social impacts, on Earth, of environmental changes in outer space. His first book, The Frigid Golden Age, was recently published by Cambridge University Press. His second book, Civilization and the Cosmos, is under contract with Harvard University Press and Penguin Random House. He is the co-founder of the Climate History Network, an organization of more than 200 climate scholars, and the founder of HistoricalClimatology.com, a website that receives roughly 500,000 hits per year.
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Published on December 11, 2018.