A 1660 view of Manhattan, New Amsterdam, later to be New York. From an original watercolour in the collection of the Rijksmuseum

All double dutch

The influence of the Netherlands’ seaborne empire can still be felt around the world, from Manhattan and South Africa to modern Sri Lanka

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

It wouldn’t surprise many English people if I described the village I was born in as a green and peaceful place in which the town church, a handsome stone structure, bears inside it a representation of the royal arms. But the arms in question are those of the Dutch monarchy, not the British one, and the village in question is in the Hudson Valley of New York, not the rolling hills of some English shire.

New Yorkers think very rarely of old New Netherland but for those with eyes to see the world the Dutch built is ever-present and survives in odd bits and bobs of varying importancenot just in New York but around the planet. In culture, politics, law, and language, the Hollandic empire persists, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in more obvious ones.

In Manhattan, even the flags that fly from the skyscrapers bear witness to the Netherlandic influence. New York City’s blue-white-and-orange flag and its windmill coat of arms hark back to the Prinsenvlag first raised in the Dutch revolt of the sixteenth century, and each of the city’s five boroughs’ flags have Dutch symbols, colours, or words. At least twelve counties, cities, towns, or boroughs across the state of New York have flags of obvious Dutch inspiration.

Dutch influence often survived longest not amongst dominant groups but in peripheral or minority communities

What are we to make of the fact that the creators of the expansive television franchise Law & Orderperhaps the most New Yorkish TV show evernamed their no-nonsense African-American police precinct chief Lieutenant Anita Van Buren? Her namesake Martin Van Buren was the first New Yorker to be elected President of the United States and throughout his time in the White House spoke English with a very pronounced and noticeable Dutch accent.

Van Buren’s birthplace of Kinderhook, New York, a hundred miles up the Hudson River, is, some maintain, the origin of the term “O.K.”, as “Old Kinderhook” clubs sprouted up to support the candidate’s presidential campaign. Even more telling of the lingering imperial connections is that the minister of the Reformed Church in Kinderhook today is a South African trained at the theological seminary at Stellenbosch in the Cape, another former Dutch colony.

Across the former empire Dutch influence often survived longest not amongst dominant groups but in peripheral or minority communities. The most persistent native Dutch speakers in North America were the descendants of former slaves and free people of colour and their distinct dialect, Jersey Dutch, was largely based on West Flemish and Zeelandic variants of the language.

The Pinkster holiday celebrations

The last speakers of this dialect only died out in the 1940s and were to a man and woman African-Americans. Pinkster, the Dutch celebration of Pentecost, persisted much longer amongst black New Yorkers than white ones such that the holiday became identified as an African one. African-Americans have attempted to revive the celebration, traditionally presided over by a black “Pinkster King”, in recent decades.

As in New York, so in South Africa. Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, establishing the Dutch colony there just over a quarter-century later than the foundation of New Amsterdam. Dutch as spoken at the Cape incorporated French and German influences from Huguenot refugees and Malay and Arabic from Javanese exiles. The simplified everyday lingua franca that developed eventually became Afrikaans, often derided as a “kitchen tongue” or kombuistaal. Even the use of the word kombuis sheds light on the Hollanders’ seaborne empire: Kombuis literally means a ship’s galley in Dutch but the maritime settlers at the Cape began to use it to refer to any kitchen and the word persists in that land-based meaning in Afrikaans today.

When the British seized the Cape in 1795 they left the legal system intact but expected the English language would supersede Dutch by its supposed natural superiority. In 1910, more than two-and-a-half centuries after van Riebeeck landed at the Cape, South Africa’s first constitution entrenched the use of Dutch as an unassailable right. Within two decades this recognition was transferred to Afrikaans, but not before the letters ZA for the Dutch “Zuid-Afrika” (as opposed to the Afrikaans “Suid-Afrika”) were adopted as the country’s two-letter country code. With the advent of the internet “.za” was adopted as South Africa’s country code top level domain meaning that in a land surfeited with eleven official languages, South Africa’s internet domains are all registered with a moniker in Dutch which has long lost its official status.

So far as the far end of Africa is concerned, where the Union Jack went, there also went Roman Dutch law

Law is an important realm in which the Dutch empire lives still. The persistence of Roman Dutch Law as a legal system in South Africa, Sri Lanka, and other jurisdictions is made all the more curious in that it is no longer the legal system of the Netherlands itself. There, Roman law as interpreted by centuries of Dutch jurists and thinkers was swept away by the Civil Code in the Napoleonic tidal wave. After Waterloo it was thought prudent to keep the civil system both at home and in whatever colonies the Netherlands managed to recover.

It’s only thanks to the eternal pragmatism of the Britishso often the enemies of enforced conformities or Gleichschaltungthat Roman Dutch Law persists. As the British hold on southern Africa expanded from the Cape to Natal, Rhodesia, and (after the gruelling slog of the Anglo-Boer War) the Transvaal and Orange Free State, Roman Dutch law became the established norm. So far as the far end of Africa is concerned, where the Union Jack went, there also went Roman Dutch lawwith a large dose of common law practices added on top.

Across the Indian Ocean, Ceylon’s status as a British colony, dominion, and eventual Commonwealth republic likewise preserved the inheritance of Dutch law, though in a more mixed system that included Sinhalese, Islamic, English, and other influences. In a 1933 case relating to whether a Muslim Ceylonese was subject to Muslim law in transactions that did not fulfil the requirements of Muslim law, a judge ruled that Roman Dutch law remains “the general law of the Island applicable to all its inhabitants in all matters whereupon which their personal laws are silent and in this sense [is] the common law of the land”.

Sri Lanka’s institutional decay since the 1970s has negatively affected the status of Roman Dutch law, however, with the constitutional scholar Asanga Welikala likening the increased reference to Indian and English jurisprudence as akin to Lord Denning’s analogy of the “incoming tide” of European law in the UK following the 1972 European Communities Act.

Still, the Sri Lankan capital’s legal district is named Hulftsdorp after Gerard Petersz Hulft, the Dutch general who died laying siege to the city in the 1650s. The island’s mixed-race Dutch-descended Burgher community has a certain social cachet in modern Sri Lanka, whereas the Afrikaans-speaking mixed race Cape Coloured community continue to suffer institutional discrimination — too black for the whites under apartheid, and too light for the blacks under democracy. While Afrikaans, the daughter of Dutch, is associated with white minority rule and apartheid, the majority of Afrikaans speakers are actually mixed-race.

Groot Constantia Wine Estate, near Cape Town

Even the mere forty years of Dutch rule in what is now New York had a lasting impact on the practice of law in the Empire State and by extension the United States. The Dutch West India Company created the office of schout, assisted by several schepens, to prosecute offenders and ne’er-do-wells in the company’s colony. The office of district attorney is the direct descendant of the schout, and several counties and states across the U.S. replicated this system of a dedicated state prosecutor. In contrast, England only created a Director of Public Prosecutions in the 1870s, and the Crown Prosecution Service dates from a century later.

South Africa was effectively ruled by Dutch descendants from its unification in 1910 until the end of apartheid, while in New Netherland the English conquest sharpened divides in a colony where a significant minority of English settlers lived already.

“Dutchness, ironically, was stronger in the area that had once been called New Netherland than in most colonies where the Dutch flag continued to fly,” Wim Klooster and Gert Oostindie argue. “The English conquest of New Netherland did not signal the start of a process of smooth assimilation of the Dutch population to English culture. On the contrary, the English takeover seems to have led to the emergence of a self-conscious Dutch identity at odds with mainstream English values.”

The Netherlands retained a fluctuating but persistent influence in terms of architecture particularly. Annette Stott has highlighted the “Holland Mania” of the 1890s-1910s when entire blocks of Dutch Renaissance Revival townhouses were built on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and many a Dutch gable and Flemish bond brickwork were incorporated into the designs of houses, schools, fire stations, and other buildings.

While retaining surnames and customs, the Knickerbockers of New York eventually folded into a broad English-speaking Protestant elite, but though they abandoned the liturgical use of Dutch in their Reformed churches, loan words persist in American English andthrough Hollywood and televisionthroughout the world.

There’s some truth in the many prejudices

Every time an American complains about a “boss” (baas) or reaches for a “cookie” (koekje) they are using Dutch. And many a child’s summer afternoon in Harlem and Brooklynboth named after towns in the Netherlandsare spent out on the stoop (stoep) of New York brownstones. Political power was not outside their grasp either, as the popularity of both Roosevelts shows. New York’s most recent Dutch-descended mayor was John Vliet Lindsay who left office in 1973.

There’s some truth in the many prejudices and pigeonholes the English-speaking world attribute to the Dutch. In their Low Countries home, they’re winsomely progressive liberals forcing their unfortunate monarchs to cycle. (Though the Dutch insist on being bien-pensant on paper they are often charmingly old-fashioned in their everyday lives.)

In the private clubs of New York and Colombo, a Dutch surname conveys a certain snobbish something, while the same from South Africa conveys across the world a simplistic trope of a big bad apartheid policeman beating up innocents.

Whether in Manhattan’s skyscrapers, South African internet domains, or advocates arguing cases in Sri Lanka, the Dutch empire may have fallen off the maps long ago but it continues in some shape or form wherever Holland’s sailors stepped on firm ground.

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