The Ports of Amsterdam

The Fairies Spread their Wings

As the name suggests, Amsterdam was built around a dam. In this case the dam was of the traditional kind, on the river Amstel. There are records of “people living near the Amstel dam” going back to the thirteenth century. As the fortunes of the Netherlands waxed and waned (and the ownership/occupation passed from this power to that), Amsterdam continued to thrive.

Business boomed not only as a fishing port, but also as major importers of beer (the Amsterdammers had first wrested the beer import monopoly from Hamburg), but, later on as a financial centre (a very large percentage of all investment in Europe going through Amsterdam). It also gained a reputation as a tolerant city largely due to it’s treatment of political dissenters and religious refugees.Amsterdam was learning how to have a good time.

In the next phase of its development, Amsterdam turned from importer to exporter and the first thing it exported was itself, when Henry Hudson sailed up the Hudson river in the name of the Netherlands and named what he found there New Amsterdam.

What he also found there were some extremely accommodating creatures that were truly the stuff of dreams (although after a sea-voyage of two-and-a-half months he was already having difficulty separating dreams from reality). These creatures, fairies of course, came aboard the Half-moon (with a name like that how could they not!).While some of their number were happy to lie back and provide an extended welcome, others (of a more serious and forward-looking nature) began to negotiate a passage to Europe. The fairies had business in an ancient land, and Old Amsterdam seemed like a good place to start. So it was then that, with hearts in their mouths and theodolites in their hands, a contingent of fairies set out for Europe on a survey of great import.

17th century Europe was not a nice place to be. Dirty, dark, and disease-ridden, it was not to fairy taste. However, after having recently suffered the rigours of an ocean voyage which featured rats, weevils, sweat and sea-sickness, the fairies were, first and formost, just pleased to be somewhere. Although now on dry land their newly found sea-wings were not entirely useless, as money coming from the new trading companies (The Dutch East Indies Company and, later, the West Indies Company) was being used to fund an expansion of the city and many of the famous canals were soon to be built, as well as housing for an increasing (and increasingly diverse – more so since the arrival of the fairies) population.  This era was also the start of Amsterdam’s reputation as an important centre for the arts, as many artists (mostly painters) chose Amsterdam as their base.

As much of the art was commissioned, bought and sold by the newly rich merchants, the subject matter became more diverse. Common, everyday scenes heavy on symbolism were generally the order of the day: plenty of Calvannist allegory (we like to have a good time but we want you to know that we know we’ll have to pay for it later – also a common fairy theme). The newly imported merchant’s goods were also common subjects for painting, and flowers and fruit (often a sexual metaphor) abounded.Fairy models (heavily disguised)  appeared in many paintings (notably coming out of Delft) ironically in scenes of everyday life: these quotidian scenes are now thought of as a genre but at the time the Dutch merely considered them life (much as the Chinese think of Chinese food as ‘food’) and contented themselves by grouping them by their settings (courtyard, bordello etc.)

So whereas some of the travelling fairies opted to bask in this Golden Age, other more single-minded (and responsible)  individuals (in so much as fairies can be thought of as individual) set off for across the water in search of the henges of Albion.

(An excerpt from The Fairies of New York by Tim Shreeve)

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