According to Hannah Amsterdam’s Grachtengordel (or Canal Belt, the semicircular ring of canals in the centre of Amsterdam) is the 8th wonder of the world: It’s incredibly beautiful and very well constructed, with locks and dams controlling the water level and keeping the canals clean. And most of the houses on Singel, Herengracht (Gentleman’s Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperors Canal) and Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal) were built in less than 50 years! This was possible because Amsterdammers were extremely rich in the 17th century – which the Dutch call De Gouden Eeuw (the Golden Age).
Dutch merchants made a lot of money then from buying goods all over the world and re-selling them in Europe. Spices, tea, coffee, wood, textiles, dyes, precious stones… You name it, the Dutch could trade in it because of the excellent ships they built. Some of the houses on the canals have huge gaping doorways facing the canal on the second floor. These were warehouses. Goods were brought up the canal by ship and hoisted into these buildings through these doorways.
But, while making all this money, Dutch merchants belonged to the Protestant religion, which meant they weren’t supposed to show off their wealth too much.
They couldn’t put lavish decorations on the exteriors of their canal houses (apart from on some of the roofs) and had to simply paint them white or black, or they left them with brick façades.
To get around the religious rules and display their wealth, however, they came up with little tricks. Alot of houses on the canals have little showrooms on the street side in which expensive paintings, furniture and even rolls of pepper (pepper was very expensive at the time) were exposed. Most homes were designed with big windows on the first floor, and smaller ones on every other floor.
There was a downside to this Golden Age though. When we said Dutch merchants would trade in ‘anything’, it meant they would also trade in people. Quite a few of them made money by buying and selling enslaved people from Africa or grabbing other people’s lands and turning them into colonies. Some were pirates, e.g. Piet Hein, who robbed the Spanish of a whole fleet of ships carrying silver from South America. (Of course, the Spanish had just robbed the South American people of that same silver.)