In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dutch Overseas Empire

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Archives and Source Aids
  • Source Editions
  • Journals
  • Overseas Companies and the Dutch State
  • Dutch Expansion in Asia
  • Dutch Expansion in West Africa and the Americas
  • Resisting the Dutch
  • Imperial Visions
  • Culture, Knowledge, Religion
  • Slavery in the Global Empire

Renaissance and Reformation Dutch Overseas Empire
Pepijn Brandon
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0502


Many have wondered how the relatively small Dutch Republic could emerge from a decades-long war of independence to achieve an outsized influence on global economic and political affairs. Explanations have focused on the commercial dynamism found in the Northern and Southern Netherlands, and the way in which the fall of Antwerp and rise of Amsterdam further strengthened capitalist tendencies. These propelled Dutch merchants, backed by the newly established state, to export the war against their Iberian adversaries to the Americas and Asia and to begin a series of conquests. Recently, historians have started to turn away from a purely commercially oriented narrative of expansion, to stress the crucial role of state planning and violence, dispossession of Indigenous populations, and slavery in Dutch expansion. These aspects were not absent from earlier literature, but historians often relegated them to second place, behind more positively perceived aspects like commercial acumen, maritime ingenuity, or tolerant attitudes toward religious diversity. Around 1650, Dutch overseas territories stretched from the nutmeg-producing Banda Islands in the Moluccas to provisioning stations and slave-trading fortresses on the African coast, and from the plantation colony Brazil to New Netherland in North America. Inter-imperial rivalry meant that the Dutch lost several Atlantic colonies while gaining new plantation colonies along the Guyana coast. The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC) in Asia continued to expand its territorial possessions in Asia. Some would question the use of the term “empire” for these spread-out territories, or whether it is correct to use this phrase in the singular when discussing the diverging processes of expansion in two hemispheres. Still, few historians now would deny the imperial dimension of Dutch early modernity, or its lasting global impact. The literature on the Dutch early modern empire is vast, and every selection biased. This bibliography focuses on power relations and the state. It includes several works that focus on colonial culture and the cultural resilience of the colonized, but not nearly enough. It foregrounds specialist work focused on Dutch colonization, which means that comparison and connections with other European and non-European empires are weakly represented. Finally, it reflects the tendency to treat the early modern empire as completely separate from the state-run colonial empire that emerged in the nineteenth century, though much of the more interesting work breaks through this divide. Some of the less conventional choices in this bibliography are aimed at working against these biases.

General Overviews

Given the amount of literature that exists on Dutch expansion, it is perhaps surprising that it is so difficult to find good overviews of the history of the Dutch Empire as a whole. For what remains the boldest attempt to sketch the evolution of this empire in all its facets, one has to return to Boxer 1965, and for a summary of the global dimensions of Dutch trade to Israel 1989. Broader theorizations of the place of the Dutch Empire within the connected histories of global capitalism and colonialism were mostly left to authors like Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein. Partly, this has to do with a deep-seated reluctance to see Dutch overseas conquest as more than a half-hearted extension of the semi-private colonial companies’ trading interests, a trend criticized in Antunes 2018 among others. Under the influence of the decline of Dutch relative might vis-à-vis other European powers during the eighteenth century, some Dutch authors like Pieter Emmer and Jos Gommans also hesitate to assign much lasting impact to the Dutch global presence in the early modern period (see Emmer and Gommans 2021). The last couple of years have seen a stream of works revising the trade-oriented, inconsequential image of Dutch expansion for specific subjects or regions, as subsequent sections will illustrate. Their emphasis on violence is reinforced by military histories such as Knaap, et al. 2015 that show the amount of regular and irregular warfare accompanying Dutch expansion, and by histories of Dutch state formation like ’t Hart 2014 that stress the crucial role of domestic and colonial warfare. These works complement the general economic history literature such as de Vries and van der Woude 1997, which has always assigned an important, though not exclusive, role to trade with Dutch overseas possessions in explaining the spectacular growth in urban wealth during the seventeenth century. However, the revival of interest in the history of Dutch overseas conquest has not yet culminated in new general histories or major retheorizations of the early modern Dutch Empire that can challenge those produced by previous generations. Readers who seek more comprehensive bibliographies on the state and society of the Dutch Republic can turn to the lemmas by Henk van Nierop on The Netherlands (Dutch Revolt/Dutch Republic) and early modern Amsterdam.

  • Antunes, Cátia. “From Binary Narratives to Diversified Tales: Changing the Paradigm in the Study of Dutch Colonial Participation.” Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis 131.3 (2018): 393–408.

    DOI: 10.5117/TVGESCH2018.3.001.ANTU

    This article makes a strong case for seeing Dutch expansion as a form of imperial expansion, not just a trade-driven affair. Furthermore, it challenges company-focused accounts of the Dutch Empire, urging researchers to look beyond the commercial functions of the companies to the ways in which the Dutch intervened to shape colonial societies. The essay introduces a special issue that further elaborates these themes.

  • Boxer, C. R. The Dutch Seaborne Empire. London: Hutchinson, 1965.

    A classical account of the rise and fall of the Dutch Empire. It took a non-Dutch author to first break through the usual historiographical division between Dutch conquest in the East Indies and the West Indies, bringing them together in a single frame. While the book might be quite old-fashioned in its framing in many places, it still is a great entry point into the history of the Dutch Empire.

  • de Vries, Jan, and Ad van der Woude. The First Modern Economy: Success, Failure and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy, 1500–1815. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511666841

    Although this book deals with the Dutch economy as a whole, not just with the sectors most directly connected to imperial expansion, it provides such fundamental information on the importance of long-distance trade for the Dutch economy that historians of the Dutch Empire will find it indispensable.

  • Emmer, Pieter C., and Jos J. L. Gommans. The Dutch Overseas Empire, 1600–1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021.

    This volume, which is a reworked translation of a Dutch handbook, is noticeable for treating the two hemispheres together. Unfortunately the authors themselves undermine this lofty attempt by contrasting Dutch expansion in the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean worlds in rather outdated ways. Given a difference in quality between its treatment of the two hemispheres, as commented on by several reviewers, the book will be of most use to scholars interested in the Dutch presence in Asia.

  • Israel, Jonathan I. Dutch Primacy in World Trade 1585–1740. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

    Together with his earlier work on the relationship between the Dutch and Iberian Empires and his massive later history of the Dutch Republic, this work has continued to shape perceptions on Dutch expansion, especially among those not well-versed in the Dutch literature. Economic historians have contested several of its claims, but the overview presented here remains of value.

  • Knaap, Gerrit, Henk den Heijer, and Michiel de Jong. Oorlogen oversee: Militair optreden door compagnie en staat buiten Europa 1595–1814. Militaire geschiedenis van Nederland 5. Amsterdam: Boom, 2015.

    This is the most comprehensive summary of colonial warfare by Dutch state and company troops during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

  • ’t Hart, Marjolein. The Dutch Wars of Independence: Warfare and Commerce in the Netherlands 1570–1680. London: Routledge, 2014.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315817071

    Asking the crucial question how a small and embattled European state could become a global power, this book traces the intimate connections between war and commerce from the Dutch Revolt to the late seventeenth century. Chapter 6 deals with “admiralties, privateers, and the colonial connection.”

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