Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic

Motley understand the political nature of war. An ambassador for the Union during the Civil War, he prevented European states intervening on the Confederate side.

One of the main sources of evidence for the secretive Trystero postal organisation, in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, is a footnote added to a copy of Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic. It tells how the organisation was founded during the Dutch Rebellion by a certain Hernando Joaquin de Tristero y Calavera. Seeing an opportunity in the postal market following the instability of European institutions caused by religious and political upheavals of the time, Tristero y Calvera’s enterprise quickly took over routes once monopolised by Thurn und Taxis through effective lobbying, competitive pricing and clandestine sabotage of their main rivals. More agile and quicker to respond to change, it is no surprise that the Trystero Company was the company to successful transplant to the new American colonies. As Pynchon writes, they were successful even into the twentieth century, where they carried the clandestine correspondence of a variety of underground organisations and individuals. It is likely they still continue in some form, although facing increasing competition from the internet.

In many ways, the Spanish War in the Netherlands threw up such characters. It was a war for both believers and opportunists; those there to defend their coreligionists and those there to enrich their pockets.

Motley’s book is a classic, with all that word implies. The book has its heroes and its villains, its set pieces and its denouements. Like Macaulay, Motley sees in his period later developments. The Rise of the Dutch Republic details not just the Dutch Republic’s defence of their liberties but also preshadows the great American rebellion of 200 years later.  Motley also contextualises the religious conflicts of the period within the slightly later immigrations to the New World, which led ultimately to the founding of the United States of America.


Spain’s Vietnam

Yet there is another comparison which is obvious to a modern audience, especially one who has just watched Ken Burn’s recent Vietnam WarIn summing up the Spanish War up to 1573, Motley writes what could have been a summary for American involvement in Vietnam in 1968:

It was, however, obvious, that if the reduction of Harlem were a triumph, it was one which the conquerors might well exchange for a defeat. At any rate, it was certain that the Spanish empire was not strong enough to sustain many more such victories. If it had required thirty thousand choice troops, among which were three regiments called by Alva respectively, the “Invincibles,” the “Immortals,” and the “None-such,” to conquer the weakest city of Holland in seven months, and with the loss of twelve thousand men; how many men, how long a time, and how many deaths would it require to reduce the rest of that little province? For, as the sack of Naarden had produced the contrary effect from the one intended, inflaming rather than subduing the spirit of Dutch resistance, so the long and glorious defence of Harlem, notwithstanding its tragical termination, had only served to strain to the highest pitch the hatred and patriotism of the other cities in the province. Even the treasures of the New World were inadequate to pay for the conquest of that little sand-bank. Within five years, twenty-five millions of florins had been sent from Spain for war expenses in the Netherlands.—Yet, this amount, with the addition of large sums annually derived from confiscations, of five millions, at which the proceeds of the hundredth penny was estimated, and the two millions yearly, for which the tenth and twentieth pence had been compounded, was insufficient to save the treasury from beggary and the unpaid troops from mutiny.


The Spanish war in the Netherlands was a bloody disaster. It supped the power of the Spanish Empire at a slightly higher rate than it supped the power of the Dutch estates. Motley seeks heroism amongst the conflict, yet ultimately his history is a list of tortures, executions, cities exchanging hands. It is as if Nineteenth Century Narrative History was written in the style of Games of Thrones. There are no real winners, except those who can stand the horror of times and not become overwhelmed by it.

Motley understand the political nature of war. An ambassador for the Union during the Civil War, he prevented European states intervening on the Confederate side. This achievement must not be underestimated. Several powerful interests in Europe were lobbying to intervene in some measure in favour of the slave states. In the UK, the Manchester Guardian was the mouthpiece for this vile continent of pure evil and mercurial self interest.

The Spanish War in the Netherlands became a theatre for the self-interest of European states. Catherine de Medici saw it as a place to spread her influence, whilst playing off Catholic and Protestant. Queen Elizabeth played off both Spain and the Netherlands without really committing to either side. The Holy Roman Empire had a non committal involvement. At times, facing great odds there was little left for the Dutch except to open their dykes and let the country be flooded. Most tellingly the conflict could have been avoided.

From the ashes of conflict, the Netherlands rose to become a powerful imperial and mercantile commonwealth. Sadly they did not learn restraint from their own experiences of colonialism, but they did become a beacon for religious tolerance and political freedom for many in the seventeenth century. Even today from around the world, people flock to these happy Dutch shores to enjoy the art of the Dutch Golden Age (which flourished a 100 years after the Spanish War) and the comfort and conviviality of Dutch hospitality.


When Pynchon began his study of the postal organisations of sixteenth century Europe in the 1960s California, the Vietnam War was just about to escalate. The underground world discovered by Oedipa Maas also exploded into the consciousness of America during this same period. It is hard to separate the two trends. The America of today was founded partly in Vietnam. Yet the American project goes back further and can claim to have also been founded, for better or worse, in Utrecht and Leiden, Brussels and Amsterdam, amongst several other places. Motley was prescience in understanding that the American Rebellion was answering the long needed liberty of human history, but also liberty once gained can be a bloody inheritance for any nation to bear.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics

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