If the English were drawn to the sea, the Dutch were driven to it, for the land could not produce enough to support their population. Nonetheless, they took to it with zest, for they were then the world's best fighters, navigators, and traders. They could build ships more cheaply and sail them better than any other people in Europe. As the seaboard outlets for the commerce of central Europe's river system, Dutch ports had long carried on a thriving shipping business in that day of negligible land transport. Their country was strategically located between the Baltic with its timber, wheat, and naval stores and the Iberian Peninsula, where their ships called at Lisbon for Portuguese spices to be redistributed throughout Europe. By 1550, the Dutch were monopolizing Europe's coasting trade, and their wealth made Amsterdam, Leiden, Rotterdam, Bruges, and Lille the envy of all Europe. They had inherited the waterborne commerce of the declining Hanseatic cities, and having perfected a method of preserving fish, they made their herring industry the cornerstone of a flourishing commerce with the Catholic Mediterranean.
By the opening of the seventeenth century, Dutch merchant-traders were ready to enter the deep-water trades to Asia and to America. There was no effective force to stop them. Between 1568 and 1580, they had defeated one of Spain's best generals, the Duke of Alva, and had wrung their freedom from King Philip of Spain. In 1595, when Philip seized between 400 and 500 Dutch ships then in Spanish and Portuguese ports, they acted quickly; their first expedition to the Far East left later that year. To eliminate the destructive competition that developed among various trading groups, the States-General chartered the Dutch East India Company in 1602. It was enormously successful: between 1607 and 1620, earnings of investors were between 80 and 250 percent annually.
By about 1610, the Dutch fishing and trading fleet is said to have numbered over 16,000 sail of more than 910,000 tons and to have offered employment to 158,000 crewmen. The Dutch West Indies Company, formed to trade in the Caribbean, alone controlled 800 ships. Dutch ships were soon trading over all the seas, legally and illegally, smuggling and slaving. In 1628, they captured an entire silver fleet returning from New Spain, and the bells of Amsterdam rang out in celebration. A French biographer of Jan De Witt, a Dutch statesman who died in 1672, reported that their herring industry produced 350,000 tons of salt fish annually and supported one-fifth of the population, that their trade with the Far East reached a value of 16 million francs annually, that their "importation " trade ran to 36 million francs annually, and that the total value of merchandise shipped in Dutch bottoms amounted to over one billion francs a year.
In the hands of these new entrepreneurs of world commerce, thrifty burghers of the rising middle class, waterborne trade began to come into its own. Whereas earlier traders such as the wealthy and aristocratic Italian merchant-shipowners, the Spanish, and the Portuguese had been content to deal primarily in exotic, high-value merchandise, the practical Dutch did not scorn traffic in lowly goods. A little pepper went a long way, one cargo of gold represented great value, but hundreds of shiploads were required to carry the wheat, timber, hemp, fish, wax, tar, leather, and iron that the Dutch transported. They appear to have recognized that no one segment of their maritime enterprise was self-sufficient. Even after their overseas trade had developed to a considerable volume and value, they did not neglect their coasting trade or fisheries industry. From the very nature of their commerce, it is evident that the Dutch concept of trade embodied ideas that are today looked upon as modern: that trade must benefit more than the rich and the powerful, that it must be a two-way affair, and that the carrier performs a service.
By about 1650, Holland occupied a shipping position in many respects analogous to that of Great Britain just before World War I. Her prosperity depended primarily on the ownership of the world's largest merchant fleet and a virtual monopoly of the world's carrying trade. But the Dutch, unlike the British of a later date who shipped coal and manufactured goods, had little of their own to export. In the face of a growing world commerce and effective competition, it was inevitable that Holland should not be able to continue her monopoly of the world's shipping.