The Netherlands History, Geography, People


The Netherlands' early history is linked with Belgium and Luxembourg: the three were known as the Low Countries until the 16th century, when the region's northern provinces united to fight the Spanish (see the Belgium History section). The most powerful of these provinces was Holland, with its main city of Amsterdam. To the outside world, Holland thus became synonymous with the independent country that was to emerge in this corner of Europe (a bit like saying England when you mean Britain).

Led by Prince William of Orange, the Revolt of the Netherlands lasted 80 years, ending in 1648 with a treaty that recognised the 'United Provinces' as an independent republic. As part of the deal, the Schelde River was closed to all non-Dutch ships. This destroyed the trade of the largest port in that time, Antwerp, but ensured the prosperity of its rival, Amsterdam.

Amsterdam stormed onto the European scene in what was the province of Holland's most glorified period: the Golden Age from about 1580 to about 1740, after which the British began dominating the world seas. The era's wealth was generated by the Dutch East India Company, which sent ships to the Far East in search of spices and other exotic goods, while colonising the Cape of Good Hope and Indonesia and establishing trading posts throughout Asia. Later the West Indies Company sailed to West Africa and the Americas, creating colonies in Surinam, the Antilles and New Amsterdam (today's New York).

It didn't last. In 1795 the French invaded and Napoleon made his younger brother Louis king. When the largely unpopular French occupation came to an end, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands -incorporating Belgium and Luxembourg -was born. The first king, William I of Orange, was crowned in 1814, and the House of Orange still rules (Queen Beatrix took over from her mother, Juliana, in 1980).

In 1830 the Belgians rebelled and became independent: Luxembourg followed soon after.

The Netherlands stayed neutral in WWI, but was unable to do so in WWII when the Germans invaded on 10 May 1940. A Dutch resistance movement formed, but only a small minority of the country's Jews survived the war.

In 1949, despite military attempts to hold on to Indonesia, the colony won independence. Surinam followed much later gaining a peaceful handover of sovereignty in 1975. The Antilles still have close ties with the Netherlands but are self-ruled.

The social consciousness of the 1960s found fertile ground in the Netherlands, especially in Amsterdam, which became the radical heart of Europe. The riotous squatters' movement stopped the demolition of much cheap inner-city housing, the lack of which is a problem that has continued into the 21st century.


The Netherlands (33,920 sq km) is largely artificial, its lands reclaimed from the sea over many centuries and the drained polders protected by dikes. More than half of the country is below sea level. Only in the southeast Limburg province will you find hills.


The Netherlands has a temperate maritime climate with cool winters and mild summers. The wettest months are July and August, though precipitation is spread pretty evenly throughout the year. The sunniest months are May to August, and the warmest are June to September. Because it's such a flat country, wind has free reign - something you'll soon notice if you take to cycling.



The population of the Netherlands is 15.65 million, making it the most densely populated country in Western Europe. This concentration is intensified in the Randstad, the western hoop of cities which includes Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam. Catholics are the largest religious grouping, accounting for 19% of the population. The Dutch Reformed Church, to which half the population belonged 100 years ago, attracts about 15% today, though it's still the official church of the royal family.

Society & Conduct

The Dutch are well known for their tolerance which perhaps has stemmed largely from verzuiling (pillarisation), the custom of dividing society into compartments or pillars which, although separate from each other, support society as a whole. In this way any group which demands a place in society can have it and the balance is kept by an overall attitude of 'agreeing to disagree'. It's customary to greet shopkeepers and bar/cafe owners when entering their premises.


Most English speakers use the term 'Dutch' to describe the language spoken in the Netherlands, and 'Flemish' for that spoken in the northern half of Belgium and a tiny north-western corner of France. Both are in fact the same language, the correct term for which is Netherlandic or Nederlands. The differences between Dutch and Flemish (Vlaams), in their spoken as well as written forms, are similar to those between UK and North American English. The people of the northern Fryslan (Friesland) province speak their own language.

Netherlandic has a formal and informal version of the English 'you'. The formal version is U (written with a capital letter and pronounced ü), the informal version is je (pronounced yer). As a general rule, people who are older than you should still be addressed with U.



The Netherlands

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