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Returning to Ireland

07/02/2013

017 121 026 065 056008 188I don’t know where the time has gone this last year, and cannot believe that I am now due to leave Amsterdam.  Residents at our dorm are packing up and heading home to Spain, America, Germany and elsewhere.  With a little luck, and Facebook, we will all maintain our friendships in the years to come.  One of our last, and most memorable, group activities was a canal boat tour for the students residents on Saturday.

We were all a little worried about the weather, since heavy rain fell the night before.  However we were lucky to have good weather, and we sat in the boat enjoying a few beers as we chugged around the canals.  It was an interesting experience to see the city from the level of the canals for a change.  We went down Prinsengracht and onto the Ij river, before turning into one of the canals in the red light district and continuing through the city.

Passing through the canals of the Grachtengordel, we admired the glorious architecture of Amsterdam’s golden age.  The city often feels like an open air museum, with a touch of surrealism which makes it feel unlike any other city I have known.  The Netherlands has an abundance of water, and it should come as no surprise that the Dutch made such good mariners.  We forget that for millennia before air and motorized transport, water was the medium which provided the means of travel.

One of my reasons for deciding to study in Amsterdam is that Dutch colonial and maritime power underpins so many of my life experiences.  I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa which, like New York, was once a Dutch colony before being taken over by the British.  While the United States did have three presidents of Dutch descent, it did not have the same political problems which grew out of two distint groups of colonists fighting for political power in one country.

One of our provinces in South Africa was called the Orange Free State, after the Dutch Royal Family, and this was changed after the 1994 elections to the “Free State.”  The Orange Free State had, of course,been one of the two Boer Republics which went to war with Britain at the turn of the twentieth century.  These Boers were the descendants of Dutch settlers, and named themselves after the Dutch word for farmer.  Their ties to the land seem rather incongruous with the Dutch maritime power which circled the globe.

The Dutch were also the first Europeans to discover New Zealand, and are widely credited with being the frist Europeans to discover Australia.  The latter is in some doubt, due to rival claims by Portuguese explorers.  The west coast of Australia was the scene of a grisly shipwreck which resulted in a number of Dutch people being cast away on islands in the Houtmans Abrolhos.  While the commander of the vessel sailed away to Jakarta, Indonesia for assistance, the remaining survivors were subject to an ordeal which is absolutely horrifying.

This ordeal is described in detail in Mike Dash’s book Batavia’s Graveyard, which is a riveting read.  While in  Fremantle, Western Australia I visited the Shipwreck Galleries museum, which contains relics from this and other wrecks.  A part of the actual Batavia has been found and restored, and can be seen in a special temperature controlled room.  Much of the silver she was carrying was also found, some encrusted in coral which grew over it in the centuries since the shipwreck.

It was on my return to Ireland that I stopped off in Melaka, Malaysia, which was another Dutch colony later to be taken over by the British.  The importance of this site was that it controlled the straits of Malacca, linking west and east Asia.  The Dutch certainly had the knack for finding a good trading post, and the British proved rather adept at taking such colonies from them.  Many relics from the Dutch colonial period survived, including a bakery, administrative buildings and an old fort.  In an interesting twist of fate, the wife of Cape Town’s first governor, Jan van Reibeeck, was buried at Melaka.  Her body was later exhumed and reinterred in South Africa, at the request of the nationalist government which was in power during the 1950’s.

The Dutch certainly got around, certainly more so than I have.  In fact, they got there first and even founded the city where I grew up.  For those of you who live in New York, place names such as Haarlem and Brooklyn show the city’s Dutch origins.  Wall Street is said to take its name from the Wallen, an area of Amsterdam which is now home to the red light district.  The exploration of the world by the citizens of such a small country is amazing, and often forgotten.  When I return to Ireland in July I will be returning in time to see the Orange parades on the “glorious twelfth”, which celebrated the victory of William of Orange over James II.  It seems I’m never far from the Netherlands.

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