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Rotterdam and the Dutch East India Company

Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port, hosted the Dutch East India Company, the first great multinational corporation, which brought exotic spices and great wealth to the Dutch. We tour the city’s harbor and a museum on the Dutch Golden Age.

Complete Video Script

With Europe’s densest population, the Netherlands has invested in an impressive public-transportation infrastructure. Buses and trains seem to go everywhere all the time. After leaving Haarlem, in a few minutes we’re in Rotterdam, with its striking new train station.

Rotterdam has a gleaming skyline and Europe’s largest port. It’s a reminder of the Dutch knack for international trade. Locals say that while the money is spent in Amsterdam…it’s made here in Rotterdam. They boast that shirts in Rotterdam are sold with the sleeves already rolled up.

A walk through this thriving pedestrian zone complements our quaint Old World sightseeing with a dose of today’s reality.

Rotterdam’s harbor is the third largest in the world. With a harbor tour, you can appreciate its immensity. The port handles 35,000 ocean-going vessels each year — that’s almost a hundred ships a day. While most of these ships sail the open seas, this is where the Rhine River meets the ocean. And from here, river boats — filled with either tourists or cargo — can go all the way through Europe to the Black Sea.

Back in the 17th century the Dutch East India Company, which did business in ports around the world, was, in a way, the first great multi-national corporation. Today, the Dutch, with little in the way of natural resources, still make their serious money in trade. They remain among the world’s great shippers.

After mighty Rotterdam, the tiny but historic port of Hoorn (a couple of hours to the north) seems quaint. But in its day, it was one of six trading cities that joined forces to create the Dutch East India Company. It evokes a rich history, from its once formidable harbor to its main square. Overlooking the square is the Westfries Museum — which takes you vividly back to Holland’s Golden Age.

Stepping into the venerable building, which dates from the 1600s, the floor creaks. Its planks were salvaged from centuries-old trading ships, which likely sailed all the way to the Spice Islands on the far side of the world. Here, you feel the pride and the power of the Dutch — when they dominated world trade and brutally capitalized on their far-flung colonial empire. Pondering group portraits above the mantle, you can imagine the influence and the wealth of these tycoons. Here they’re portrayed as if they control the globe. In a way they did…and much of that was because of the value of the spices they imported.

With the bland cuisine of Europe back then, you can imagine the demand for these new, exotic spices. You could spice up both your food and your life with peppercorns, cloves, and cinnamon. And nutmeg was so valuable it was said a bag of these could buy a house in 17th-century Holland.