While walking around Amsterdam you can’t help but notice the canals, and just how beautiful they are. The main Canal ring was made a UNESCO world heritage site in 2010 and this year they celebrate their 400th birthday and will play a big part in the Amsterdam 2013 celebrations throughout the year.
The canals have a rich history starting 400 years ago and were part of the economic and cultural boom during the 17th Century. The three canals which comprise the canal belt are the Herengracht, Prinsengracht and the Keizersgracht. Originally constructed in the Golden Age, the canal belt was built to improve the infrastructure of the city, to allow for new development and was part of a project to turn Amsterdam into a port city.
In 1602 the Dutch East India Trading company (or VOC) was born and this led to a massive boom in maritime trade, shipping goods from all corners of the globe. Because of this Amsterdam became one of Europe’s most important cities, which led to an influx of immigrants seeking wealth.
It attracted many highly skilled craftsmen, the political elite and the artistic elite. By 1685 Amsterdam’s per Capita income was four times that of Paris, which led to a huge boom in real-estate development along the canals during the 17th and 18th Centuries, many of which are still there today.
In 1621 the West Indies Company was formed, and this meant that the Dutch became the centre of the slave trade between the West Coast of Africa, the Americas and the West Indies. At one point the WIC was the second biggest trader of slaves in this area, it wasn’t until 1790 that they stopped trading because of abolitionists and slave rebellions. This year Amsterdam will be celebrating 150 years since the abolition of slavery.
By the 19th century the city was in decline. The maritime trade suffered because of wars with France and England, and at first paying the French and English to maintain the freedom of the seas seemed like a good idea, but very quickly the costs mounted up, leaving Amsterdam stripped of its wealth.
This also meant a huge increase in poverty for Amsterdam, and several freezing winters caused transport problems which quickly led to food shortages. With Britain blockading the coast because of their support in the American war of Independence, the British very quickly started to attack Dutch trading posts around the world which led to the dissolving of both the Dutch East India, and Dutch West India trading companies.
Today, the canals are host to many colourful events, most notably Queen’s day and Gay Pride both featuring lots of music, festivities and dancing. With all of the celebrations going on in Amsterdam this year, the Canal festival in August is set to be a highlight, with both indoor and outdoor performances of classical music in different locations all over the city.
The best way to explore the city’s canals is on the water and there are several boat companies offering different packages, so you can experience the canals both during the day and at night. If you’re looking for a bit more of an adventure though, from April onwards you can learn how to paddleboard in the Ij and on Amsterdam’s canals (although it’s closed during the winter, because nobody wants to fall into the freezing water).
There are also exhibitions going on throughout the year around Amsterdam where you can learn about the vast history of the canals, but the best place to learn about it is at the Museum Het Grachtenhuis (Museum of the Canals), where they have an interactive exhibition where 400 years of history is covered in just 40 minutes. It is also a canal house built in the 17th Century and inhabited by many wealthy traders over the years, so the house is a piece of Golden Age history in itself.The Amsterdam Museum is also exhibiting the story of the Golden Age where you can learn about the economic prosperity during the 17th Century, which is running until August 2013.
So, the canals have seen it all. From the rise and fall of the Dutch East India company, to the present day, all without really changing that much. It is rare that a piece of history this old still works as it would have done 400 years ago (though with much less traffic), and still maintain its beauty. Here’s to 400 more years.