The Dutch Door To America

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Amsterdam, too, is full of places connected to America’s past, many of them located in its nautisch kwartier (waterfront area). In 1779 Commo. John Paul Jones came here to pick up the frigate Indien , purchased by the young government and built in Amsterdam’s harbor. During the Revolutionary War Jones had often used Texel, an island off the north coast and now a popular seaside resort, as his base for raids on British ships. On September 23, 1779, he had sailed into Texel with his prize, the British warship Serapis . Texel’s citizens risked British fury as they tended to his wounded and his ships.

When Jones toured Holland after the war, thousands turned out to erect him. In Amsterdam children sang a song still known today: Daar kom’t Pauwe Jonas aan I’t is zo’n aardig ventje. … Hy wist het te probeeren I Fortuijn kan anders keeren. … (Here comes Paul Jones / He’s such a nice fellow. … He knew that by taking chances / One can change one’s fortunes. …) In 1910 Theodore Roosevelt sang this very song—albeit in broken Dutch—and charmed his Amsterdam audience.

The strongest links between Amsterdam and America were forged with the growth of the trading companies that orchestrated Holland’s golden age and allowed the Dutch to rule the seas. Exhibits in the Scheepvaartsmuseum (Maritime Museum), located in a seventeenth-century arsenal on Kattenburgerplein, provide a good introduction, and a replica of an eighteenth-century Dutch East India Company vessel tied up outside is open to visitors. Along Prins Hendrikkade, on the harbor’s edge at Foeliestraat, stood the warehouses of the powerful Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company), founded in 1602. The complex now houses a diving school, a maritime curiosities shop, and several apartments. The company’s logo remains above an archway, and its flag still flies over the doorway.

 

At the Schreierstoren (Tower ” of Tears), built in 1482 on Prins Hendrikkade as part of the city’s fortifications, women are sup- posed to have once congregated to bid weepy farewells to their sailor mates as they watched their ships disappear over the horizon. Historians now suggest that the tower’s name derives from scrayer , an old Dutch word for “shout“; the women weren’t weeping but shouting with frustration at the privations brought on by a constant state of war.

This landmark is located on the northern edge of the once-notorious Zeedijk, the red-light district frequented by seamen. In 1927 a historical society in New York placed a plaque there marking the point from which Henry Hudson set sail for, as it turned out, New York. Today the Tower of Tears contains a lively two-story café with a decidedly maritime interior and a nautical bookstore.

Hudson was hired by the Dutch East India Company to find a passage above Russia to Asia. He left Amsterdam on March 25, 1609, in the Halve Maen (Half Moon) and arrived at Texel, where he prepared for his journey north. But somewhere in the treacherous waters between the Russian coast, the North Pole, and nowhere, he found his path obstructed by icebergs. This forced him to make a choice: return a failure or seek a northwest passage to Asia through or above America.

He sailed west and on September 12 came upon the southern tip of Manhattan Island and De Groote Riviere (the Great River, later renamed in his honor), which his men declared “the cleanest river man has ever set eyes on.” Hudson went up the river as far as present-day Albany before concluding that it wouldn’t lead to the Pacific. In 1909, to commemorate the three-hundredth anniversary of Hudson’s voyage, a replica of the Halve Maen was constructed in Amsterdam and transported to New York on Holland America’s first Nieuw Amsterdam . Then it cruised up the Hudson River under its own sails.

The former headquarters of the Dutch West India Company, chartered in 1621 to handle New World trade, stands on the stately Herenmarkt. The company’s directors met in the main hall there in 1623 to plan a settlement at Nieuw Amsterdam. A letter one of them wrote in 1626 states: “Our people have purchased the Island of Manhattan from the Indians for the value of 60 guilders.”

Trade with America was a free-for-all until 1621, when the West India Company secured exclusive commercial rights in Nieuw Amsterdam. The monopolistic company offered generous incentives to colonists; since poverty and persecution were negligible in Holland, there was little reason for most Dutch to emigrate. Those who promised to work for six years in Nieuw Amsterdam would receive free passage and a generous plot of land.

Like so many Dutch historical buildings, the company’s earliest headquarters, Westindisch Huis, is still very much alive, though parts of it date back as far as 1617. It went up in flames during the closing ceremonies of European Monuments Year, in 1975, but was restored with help from the Diogenes Foundation, which funds preservation of historic buildings. A charming interior courtyard contains a fountain and a statue of Peter Stuyvesant.