History of Amsterdam

From its humble beginnings as a 13th century fishing village on a river bed to it's current role as a major hub for business, tourism and culture, Amsterdam has had a strong tradition as a centre of culture and commerce.

From swamp settlement to fishing village

Amsterdam was founded in a swamp along the rivers IJ and Amstel, somewhere between 1180 and 1200. Shortly after the start of the settlement, the settlers built a dam at the cross points of the rivers IJ and Amstel, to protect the settlement from the floods of the river IJ. This dam created a natural harbour, which became an important trading harbour and an important reason for the growth of ‘Aemstelredamme’.

This dam became the centre of the settlement and was expanded to form a square where a large fish market brought in the first commercial activities. Around 1300 Aemstelredamme gets its city rights, which helped the city in its growth and prosperity even more.


Video: The Expansion of the Amsterdam canals in the 17th century

Dutch East India Company

By the end of the fifteenth century, the development of the city was rapid. After the Spaniards conquered Antwerp, many rich Jews fled to Amsterdam. The money they brought with them was used to organise trips to India, which proved a huge commercial success. VOC - East India Company - painting The Return to Amsterdam of the fleet of the Dutch East India Company 1599The Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) was founded in 1602 to spread risk evenly and to regulate the trade. The company, a combination of commercial organisations in various cities of Holland and Zeeland, traded both in Asia and between Asia and Europe. Amsterdam had a majority share in this company, which was to become the first multinational in the world. The VOC ran its own shipyards, the largest being in Amsterdam. The result was a period of unprecedented boom and prosperity, causing the 17th century to become known as the ‘Golden Age’.

The Royal Palace started as Amsterdam’s town hall

In the middle of the 17th century the Dam also became the centre of the government. In 1648 the mayor and magistrates of Amsterdam commissioned the famous architect Jacob van Campen to design a new building. Amsterdam at the time was the most powerful trading nation in the world and people were attracted by its power and prestige. The building came into use in 1655, although it was not yet finished. In 1808 Napoleon’s brother, Lodewijk Napoleon, decided to make the town hall his residence and so the town hall became a palace.

The Golden Age

During the period, the city underwent two massive urban expansions, and for the first time it was not only keeping functionality, but also beauty in mind. The Night Watch, painted by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1642The results were the canals and the Jordaan. The art scene was also flourishing at this time. In the first half of the 17th century, the number of artists rose enormously and there was an explosion of art and art dealers in Amsterdam. In thirty years, Amsterdam became a thriving cultural city, leaving a legacy of Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer and Jan Steen.

At the end of the 17th century, the Amsterdam economy finally came to a standstill, resulting in a period of decline and increasing poverty. But with the construction of the North Sea Canal (1876), Amsterdam finally had a direct connection to the sea. From that moment on steamships became part of everyday life in Amsterdam's port. It was a turning point for the city. Thanks to trade with the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Amsterdam acquired an important position in the world trade of spices. The diamond trade with South Africa also began to evolve at this point.

The 20th century

The 20th century began well. The Amsterdam school, an idealistic architecture movement, built different districts, providing low-cost housing around the old city. The city also expanded to include Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, which still remains the home of Dutch national carrier KLM - the oldest airline in the world.

Although the Netherlands remained neutral during World War I, a serious shortage of food arose because of the war. Many products had to be rationed by vouchers. World War II caused little physical damage to the buildings and infrastructure of Amsterdam. But starvation during the period did take many lives, and as a result of the persecution of the Jews, the city lost ten percent of its inhabitants.

After the war, the composition of the Amsterdam population changed rapidly. Many original Amsterdammers left for satellite towns, such as Purmerend, Hoorn and Almere. On the other hand, the influx of Surinamese, Turkish and Moroccan immigrants maintained the population. Amsterdam now hosts more than 750,000 residents from 175 different countries.