How Water Helps a Nation
In the modern world, it is easy to overlook the economic and geostrategic benefits of building a city on a major waterway. Taking into account advancements in modern air, bus, and train travel, we tend to forget the advantageous position that comes with being a city with easy access to a natural water source. Before the development of modern transportation systems, the convergence of multiple bodies of water (rivers, oceans, seas, etc.) served as a logical hub for trade, both foreign and domestic. Therefore, the city of Amsterdam’s development, prestige, and power was facilitated by their location on a strategic waterway.
The development of Amsterdam was facilitated by the existence of a major waterway due to the several distinct benefits that accompany such a point. Among those benefits is the ability to maintain a powerful navy. Like many other nations, the naval presence of the Dutch has led to their climb to being a major power in world affairs. For most of Dutch history, the Dutch lacked the ability to effectively wage war over land. Despite this, the Netherlands still developed into one of the most impressive world superpowers through the Age of Exploration. At its peak, the Dutch Navy was the most powerful naval presence in the world. The dominance of the seas throughout the 16th and 17th centuries had several distinct benefits, including the ability to conduct various sea-faring expeditions. Without such a powerful naval presence, the Netherlands would never have been able to fight other European superpowers for access to shipping lanes, new world colonies, and other purposes. Given the relatively small land area of the Netherlands in Europe, the Dutch have consistently relied on their navy to secure shipping lanes to ensure a functioning economy. Without said shipping lanes, the Dutch would lack access to several resources that are crucial to maintaining the economic health of the Netherlands. The inability to fight off the British, Spanish, and French would have led to increasingly devastating losses, to both morale and the national economy.
The development of the Netherlands was facilitated by the opportunity to advance their national interests through these various sea-faring expeditions. These expeditions were not solely militaristic, but also served as the vehicle by which the Dutch could advance their economic interests. The economic benefit of being located next to the ocean was nearly unquantifiable. A good representation of the economic benefit afforded to the Dutch due to the location of the Netherlands was the Dutch East India Company. According to Business Insider, the Dutch East India Company was the most financially wealthy corporation of all time, with a valuation of about $7.9 trillion, adjusted for inflation through 2019. The Dutch East India Company made its fortune through settling and acquiring territory in the new world, facilitating global trade, and shipping large quantities of goods throughout the open ocean. The strategic point upon which Amsterdam was built was invaluable to the development of the Dutch East India Company, thus only beginning to quantify the value that having a strategic ocean outlet can provide an economy.
In contrast, the development of many major American cities was the direct consequence of an advantageous point upon which the city was erected. Like Amsterdam, the cities of Boston, Charleston, Tampa Bay, New York, and many more have been built on locations that have incredible economic and naval benefits. The convergence of three bodies of water (the Hudson River, Long Island Sound, and the New York/New Jersey Bight) led to the strategic point that developed into New York City. Though the area now known as Manhattan was a swampy, marshy area in a cold environment, the natural flow of the Hudson River and the East River on either side of Manhattan facilitated the growth of the area. When the Dutch first settled Manhattan Island, they erected a citadel on the southern tip of the island and thus maximizing the geostrategic benefits of developing a city on that spot. Unlike this, however, the city of Amsterdam was not planned on a geostrategic location, but rather naturally developed around an economically beneficial point. As Feddes writes, “ribbons of buildings on either side of the river were there long before their connection was established,” (Keppes, 26). This difference in the development of Amsterdam and New York City (once named New Amsterdam) was not due to a lack of planning on behalf of Dutch leaders but rather speaks to the importance of these strategic points. Feddes implies that, even without proper planning on a single point, two distinct ribbons of houses developed on either side of the river, displaying that access to a major waterway is a catalyst to the development of a major city, especially before the development of modern air, train, and bus travel.
Though there are not many situations precisely similar to that of Amsterdam’s development, the development of the American cities of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Saint Paul, Minnesota, proves to have many startling similarities. In a fascinating parallel to Amsterdam’s “two-ribbon” development, the cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul developed just miles from each other down the Mississippi River. Each city grew around a strategic point of its own (Lambert’s Landing for Saint Paul, and Saint Anthony Falls for Minneapolis), the two cities eventually grew to preside over mutual lands, and fuse into the modern-day metropolitan area known as the “twin cities.” This is similar to the development of Amsterdam, as the Oudezijds and the Nieuwezijds sections of the city developed individually before fusing into one. This type of compartmentalized development has some distinct characteristics. Like the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area, the Oudezijds and the Nieuwezijds developed from different roots, yet complimented each other’s purpose. As noted by Feddes, “it has long been assumed that the inhabitants of the western side [of the river Amstel] were farmers, and largely fishermen on the East,” (Feddes, 26). This is similar to the development of Minneapolis-Saint Paul due to the distinct dual-economy situation that was critical in the development of the area. While the development of Saint Paul was revolved around Lambert’s Landing (and more importantly, the last easily accessible place to unload boats onto the Mississippi River for quite some time), the development of Minneapolis was revolved around Saint Anthony Falls, which provided the water pressure necessary for building several successful grain mills. The two cities quickly began feeding on each other’s consumers and products. As Minneapolis and Saint Paul grew over time, they became linked, and eventually interdependent. This inter-dependence and mutual support were due to the fusion of both cities’ economies into one, as the removal of one aspect of one city would radically alter the economic equilibrium of the other. As the city of Amsterdam, this two-ribbon development would not have been possible without the geostrategic point. The Mississippi river brought together both of these cities, just as the river Amstel tied together with the Oudezijds and the Nieuwezijds.
Without access to the open ocean, the Netherlands could never have facilitated the global trade or funded the global exploration that vaulted the Dutch into their position as an international power throughout the Age of Exploration. The City of Amsterdam developed into such a major city due to a particularly advantageous position, an opportunistic population, and the ability to harness the incredible power of the sea.
- Feddes, Fred. “A Millennium of Amsterdam: Spatial History of a Marvellous City” 4thed. (Bussom, Netherlands: TOTH, 2012; 4thed. 2015), excerpts.
- Desjardins, Jeff. “How today’s tech giants compare to the massive companies of empires past,” (Buisness Insider, December 12, 2017)
- Ley, Willy. “The Home-Made Land”. For Your Information. (October 1961)
- Wingerd, Mary Lethert. “Separated at Birth: The Sibling Rivalry of Minneapolis and St. Paul“. OAH Newsletter. Organization of American Historians. (February 2007)
- “Kingston: Discover 300 Years of New York History Dutch Colonies“. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.