Abstract: Sephardic Merchants and the Dutch Golden Age

Yda Schreuder


Abstract: If “civilization” is meant to suggest broad connections between business and a way of life that characterizes particular regions or countries, then there is probably no better example than the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century known as the Golden Age. Business and commerce greatly shaped society and public life in the Dutch Republic but so did the geo-political context under which long-distance trade --the main driver of economic growth-- began to take shape. Much has been written about the hegemony of the Dutch in long-distance trade in the seventeenth century but much of it follows rather broad strokes of argument. In discussions about Dutch primacy, the role of the Sephardic merchant network is sometimes referred to or even emphasized but seldom explained. In this paper I will try to analyze the relationships between cultural and economic circumstances that explain the rise to prominence of Amsterdam and the role Sephardic Jewish merchants played in that relationship. I will focus on the question why Sephardic merchants took their business to Amsterdam. What were the circumstances that enticed them to become resident merchants in Amsterdam (or more generally, the Dutch Republic during the Eighty Year War (1568-1648) between the Spanish Habsburg king and the United Provinces of the Netherlands)? Why were they encouraged to conduct long-distance trade on behalf of the Dutch? And what, if any, explains the success of the Sephardic community under the new republic's policies of Protestantism and tolerance towards outsiders? In other words, how did certain aspects of Dutch seventeenth century society, the interests of an emerging burgher class, and traditions of self government dictate conditions that offered trade opportunities to foreign merchants and made business success a reality. In the presentation I will juxtapose cultural versus economic arguments and review some of the historical literature that addresses these issues in a compare and contrast fashion of analysis.