On a clear day, the blocky Maritime Museum (Het Scheepvaartmuseum) is visible from afar but today a drizzling rain hides it until the three towering masts of an old wooden ship, the Amsterdam, loom out of the mist.
This replica of an East India merchant ship that sank during a winter storm in 1749 is a highlight of this museum in Amsterdam East, which had a major refurbishment in 2011. The building itself is impressive enough, built in 1656 and raised on 1,800 wooden piles. Inside, its galleries are filled with exquisite ship models, maritime paintings, nautical instruments and the latest in audiovisual trickery to tell the story of the city’s connection to the sea.
“From its founding in 1200 for 400 years, Amsterdam was a small village,” says historian Peter van Ruijven. “You could walk across from the center in Dam Square to its edge in three minutes. In 1300 we started trading with Germany and Poland in the Baltic Sea. We traded herring to the Baltic and brought back grain for bread. But in 1600 we won the lottery when we went overseas to Asia.”
As well as a monopoly of the Asian spice trade, the Dutch entered the transatlantic slave trade and fishermen venturing further north into the Arctic also began whaling, a trade that lasted unto 1964. “We were the biggest whale hunters in the world,” says Peter. “The blubber gave lamp-oil that was also useful for keeping rope flexible.”
Such goods were stored in the very building we are standing in. “This was a ship’s warehouse,” says Peter. “Six ships in a row could be built on the shore here at one time. It was not just Henry Ford who thought of the production line. But a wooden ship by itself is nothing; you have to equip it and this warehouse housed everything from rope to cannon.”
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