International School History - International Baccalaureate - MYP History

MYP4 Last update - 05 avril 2018  
Unit 3 - Lesson 5 - Mercantile Capitalism and Slavery

What can art tell us about the past? (Again)

We can always begin our entry into a particular time and place, though the art or literature that the period produced. The gothic tympanum of Amiens cathedral offers a brilliant insight into the medieval vision of heaven and hell. Albrecht Dürer's self-portrait encapsulates the essence of humanism. So what of the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, which sees the Netherlands become the most important trading and financial power in the world?

This is the most famous painting. This is the 1642 painting by Rembrandt called The Night Watch shown in this photograph at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2016.

Rembrandt The Night Watch: The real story behind the ‘kids on phones’ photo
Khan Academy on the Night Watch

Whilst the Catholic world of the 17th century embraced the extravagance of Baroque, which was excessive in a deliberately Counter Reformationary way. The Council of Trent decided to appeal to a more popular audience, and declared that the arts should communicate religious themes with direct and emotional involvement. While the Protestants harshly criticized the cult of images, the Catholic Church ardently embraced the religious power of art. The visual arts, the Church argued, played a key role in guiding the faithful. Gian Lorenzo Bernini's work on St Peter's in Rome is typical of the awe inspiring power of Baroque.
Rom, Vatikan, Petersdom, Cathedra Petri (Bernini) 4.jpg Bernini Baldachino.jpg
Chair of St. Peter Baldacchino of St. Peter's Basilica



In contrast to Baroque, the art of the Dutch Golden Age, was secular rather than religious. The dominant themes are landscapes and cityscapes, scenes of everyday life and portraits, lots of portraits. It has been estimated that the rich merchants and townspeople of the Netherlands commissioned over a million portraits during the 17th century. And because of the influence of puritanical Calvinism, most of these portraits look the same. There is a lot of black, not much body and very few possessions shown. The exceptions to this were the group pictures which were much more relaxed, of which The Night Watch is the most famous example of this. The cost of group portraits was usually shared by the subjects, often not equally. The amount paid might determine each person's place in the picture, either head to toe in the foreground or face only in the back of the group.

Activity 1

Read the text above and watch the video.

1. Research some examples of Baroque art in Italy and contrast it to the art of the Dutch Republic.  The Khan Academy is a very good place to start. Include two or three examples from each tradition and explain why they typify the two very different traditions.

2. What can The Night Watch tell us about the mid 17th century Dutch Republic?

A glorious little film about Vermeer.

Why did the Dutch (and the British) become so rich in the 17th century?

Socio-cultural explanations

As we saw last lesson, the Protestant Work Ethic is a good place to start to try and explain the commercial success and the origins of capitalism. Watch the first 3 minutes and 26 seconds of this film for a recap.

In addition to the importance of Protestantism (and to some extent perhaps because of it), the Dutch Republic and the British Isles were also home to some of the most significant scientific innovators in this period we know as the 'Scientific Revolution'. (see next lesson 6) The main reason for this, was the freedom and protection these countries provided for scientists to be left alone to experiment. Both countries produced internationally significant scientists like Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632 -1723) in Holland and Isaac Newton (1642 – 1726) in England. Both countries had institutions which encouraged scientific thinking,  like the University of Leiden in Holland (1575) and the Royal Society (1662) in England. And as we saw last lesson, both countries (Holland first) allowed its citizens a degree of individual freedom which had been hard won as a result of war or civil war. Holland, with its geographical proximity to a predominantly Catholic Europe, became a safe haven for free-thinking scientists and philosophers from all over Europe.  Comenius (1592 –1670), Descartes (1596-1650) and Spinoza (1632 –1677) all found refuge in the Dutch Republic. Again due to the Dutch climate of tolerance, book publishers flourished. Many books on religion, philosophy and science that might have been deemed controversial abroad were printed in the Netherlands and secretly exported to other countries. Thus during the 17th century the Dutch Republic became more and more Europe's publishing house.


But socio-cultural explanations of their own are never enough. (Remember PESC?)

Politically both countries enjoyed significant advantages for the development of capitalism. Firstly, both countries enjoyed a degree of political stability after years of disruption. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Eighty Years' War between the Dutch Republic and Spain and the Thirty Years' War between other European superpowers, brought the Dutch Republic formal recognition and independence from the Spanish crown. In England after civil war and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a period of political stability followed. The nature of both political systems also encouraged the development of capitalist business. Neither the Netherlands nor England were absolute monarchies dominated by the power of great landowners. The Dutch Republic was highly decentralized, urban and largely run by the leading businessmen in their interest. Whilst in England, the Bill of Rights of 1689 set out the rights of Parliament, including the requirement for regular parliaments, free elections, and freedom of speech in Parliament. Parliament had significantly weakened the power of the monarch.


But it was economically that the Netherlands had the real advantage. The Low Countries were favorably positioned at a crossing of east-west and north-south trade routes, and connected to a large German territories through the Rhine river. Dutch traders shipped wine from France and Portugal to the Baltic lands and returned with grain for countries around the Mediterranean Sea. The Dutch had large merchant and shipping fleets. In 1670, about ten per cent of Dutch adult males were sailors; - the Dutch had more ships than England, France, Germany, Portugal, Scotland, and Spain combined. The Dutch built ships, the fluyt sailing ship (right), more cheaply, more quickly and better than any of her rivals.

Dutch religious tolerance also attracted skilled workers, many of whom came to work in the new cloth industries that increasingly replaced expensive high-quality woolen cloth. In addition to the mass migration of natives from the Southern Netherlands, there were also significant influxes of non-native refugees who had previously fled from religious persecution, particularly Jews from Portugal and Spain (see Unit 2), and later Huguenots from France. The Pilgrim Fathers also spent time there before their voyage to the New World.

The Dutch exploited the wind-powered saw-mill (invented 1596) to turn timber into lumber more efficiently than their rivals. The Netherlands were also at the forefront of agricultural innovation. Instead of periodically leaving land fallow, the Dutch rotated crops (turnips, peas, and clover alternating with grain). This enabled them to sustain high levels of production without exhausting the land. Alternation of "fodder crops" with grain also allowed the farmer to keep more livestock and use their manure to fertilize the land, so winning both ways. Despite its highly efficient agriculture, the Netherlands still had to import some grain, so densely was it populated. (See Unit 5 - Industrial Revolution)

Activity 2

Read the text above and make a mind-map or revision table to explain how the Dutch (and the British) became so powerful in the 17th century. Make sure to follow the PES-C approach outlined above.


Image result for fluyt sailing ship

East India Companies

The Spanish and Portuguese had a monopoly of the East Indies spice trade until destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588 by the British, which permitted the British and Dutch to seek their share of this wealthy import business. The British formed the East India Company in 1600. The Dutch founded two important trading companies: - the Dutch East India Company (1602),  (Dutch: Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) and the Dutch West India Company (1621). These private companies behaved like political states and acted relatively independently of the Dutch and British governments. They even had their own governments and armed forces to defend the territories they controlled.

Tea, coffee, and spices were its most important commodities.  They were the first-ever multinational corporations, financed by shares that established the first modern stock exchange. Spices were imported in bulk and brought huge profits due to the efforts and risks involved and seemingly insatiable demand. Spices, at the time, could only be found on these islands. Spices such as pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon could bring profits as high as 400 percent from one voyage. To finance the growing trade within the region, the Bank of Amsterdam was established in 1609, perhaps the world's first central bank central bank. Amsterdam's dominant position as a trade centre was strengthened in 1640 with a monopoly for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) for trade with Japan through its trading post on Dejima, an island in the bay of Nagasaki. From here the Dutch traded between China and Japan and paid tribute to the shōgun.

The tension was so high between the Dutch and the British East Indies Trading Companies that it escalated into at least four Anglo-Dutch Wars between them: 1652-1654, 1665-1667, 1672-1674 and 1780-1784. By the time of the last of these wars Britain was the dominant economic power and was on the verge of launching the second stage in the development of capitalism, the industrial revolution. (unit 5)

Activity 3

Read the text above and watch the film. 

1. The VOC was described as a state within a state, explain what is meant by this and why VOC's long-term business plans,  low interest rates and Dutch attitudes to investment and shares made for a successful business. (Video up to 8m15)

Inherent problems of capitalism - part 1 (monopolies)

2. The VOC was established to help the Dutch gain a monopoly of the spice trade. What is meant by a monopoly, how did the Dutch achieve this monopoly and what were the consequences? (Video from 8m15)



Inherent problems of capitalism - part 2 (boom and bust)

The Great Tulip Bubble, 1636-37

Not all Dutch investment was solid and sensible. Tulips were introduced from Ottoman Turkey and grown in the Netherlands during the early seventeenth century. The beautiful flowers served as an extravagant display of wealth and taste for prosperous Dutch burghers. Suddenly in 1634-35, there was an explosion in demand and prices soared. Particularly rare and beautiful bulbs fetched thousands of florins, and speculators invested in "tulip futures" - buying the flowers before they had even grown in the fields. The speculative bubble burst abruptly; prices began to fall and investors were left holding worthless assets bought with borrowed money. To restore some sort of stability, a government commission finally ruled that any contract could be terminated by paying 3.5% of the purchase price. (

Image result for tulip mania chart


Inherent problems of capitalism - part 3 (exploitation)

The Slave Trade

As we saw with the Dutch East India Company in the Banda Islands example, early European capitalism, backed by the armies of the state, forced weaker trading partners into uneven trade agreements. The biggest profits depend on keeping costs down and the biggest cost is human labour. What these early merchant capitalists tried to do was pay as little as possible for labour. The cheapest labour of all is slave labour. 


The transatlantic slave trade was responsible for the forced migration of between 12 - 15 million people from Africa to the Western Hemisphere from the middle of the 15th century to the end of the 19th century. Over time, European demand for spices was replaced by a demand for luxury commodities - sugar, coffee, chocolate, tobacco - luxury because they are not essential to life. Probably no more than a few hundred thousand Africans were taken to the Americas before 1600. In the 17th century, however, demand for slave labour rose sharply with the growth of sugar plantations in the Caribbean and tobacco plantations in the Chesapeake region in North America.  All the major European powers were involved in this enterprise, but by the early 18th century, Britain became the world's leading slave trading power. It's estimated that British ships were responsible for the forced transportation of at least 2-3 million Africans in that century. The wealth generated by slavery not only built the great port cities of Bristol and Liverpool, it also laid the economic foundation, the capital, essential to launching the British industrial revolution that made the modern world. (Unit 5)

Image result for coffee shops london 17th century
An early 18th century coffee house in London.

The majority of kidnapped Africans were not already slaves in Africa. They were free people who were kidnapped to provide the labour that the European powers required to build their colonies in the Americas. The transatlantic slave trade is sometimes known as the 'Triangular Trade', since it was three-sided, involving voyages:

from Europe to Africa
from Africa to the Americas
from the Americas back to Europe.

Image result for slave triangle

It's generally seen as a 'trade' since it revolved around transactions, or a form of exchange, between the African sellers of slaves and the European buyers of captives.


The Atlantic passage (or Middle Passage) was notorious for its brutality and for the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions on slave ships, in which hundreds of Africans were packed tightly into tiers below decks for a voyage of about 5,000 miles (8,000 km). They were typically chained together, and usually the low ceilings did not permit them to sit upright. The heat was intolerable, and the oxygen levels became so low that candles would not burn. Because crews feared insurrection, the Africans were allowed to go outside on the upper decks for only a few hours each day. Historians estimate that between 15 and 25 percent of the African slaves bound for the Americas died aboard slave ships.

slave ship Brooks
Detail of a British broadside depicting the slave ship Brooks and the manner (c. 1790) in which more than 420 adults and children could be carried onboard.

Activity 4

Read the text above and watch the extract from the Steven Spielberg film Amistad. The Amistad was a 19th century slave ship. Be warned the video contains some shocking scenes. Make a summary list of the conditions on board for African slaves on the middle passage. Can you suggest some reason why it took until the 19th century for European powers to finally ban the slave trade?




About I Contact Richard Jones-Nerzic