Should the Term ‘Golden Age’ be Used to Describe a Historic Period of Economic Success?

By Clara Tipper

‘The Golden Age’ is a term most commonly used to describe periods of intellectual, cultural or economic prosperity. In Europe, the latter is often associated with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which saw many empires expanding, both geographically and economically. Amongst economic historians, much ink has been spilled discussing the use of the term and its colonial connotations. Most recently, a renowned Dutch art gallery changed its name from ‘The Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age’, to ‘The Portrait Gallery of the 17th Century’. The debate sparked a reaction from several other Dutch galleries and museums, each of which responded in various ways.

The use of the phrase ‘Golden Age’ is part of a much wider debate surrounding the idea of decolonisation. Academics, including historians and economists, since the late twentieth century, have been aware of the colonial legacy in Western language and ideology. Consequently, academics have been scrutinising terminology, particularly within the public sphere, in an effort to decolonise contemporary scholarship. The Dutch Golden Age, on which this article will focus, witnessed The Netherlands become one of the world’s greatest economic powers. Economic historians have pointed towards several determining factors of the ‘Dutch Miracle’, including religious and geographical components. Following the Reformation, The Netherlands became a Calvinist state, as a result, the country experienced a surge in skilled Protestant migrants from other parts of the Low Countries.[1] Geographically, The Netherlands were favourably placed, however, they lacked natural resources. Thus, due to a reliance on trade, the shipping industry thrived, and by the seventeenth century, they imported the majority of their food.[2] This dependence on trade evolved into expertise, which culminated in the formation of the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch West India Company. Most notably, The Dutch became the only Western power to trade with Japan prior to the opening of the country in the nineteenth century.[3] However, a large part of Dutch economic success was owed to slavery. In an effort to establish commercial hegemony in Indonesia, the Dutch East India Company massacred almost all of the inhabitants of the Banda Islands.[4] In their pursuit of spices, thousands of indigenous communities were disrupted, and often enslaved. Thus, the ‘Dutch Golden Age’ was fuelled by a colonial agenda, and its violent history cannot be separated from its economic success. 

In 2019, The Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age announced that it would be renaming the institution in order to increase its diversity and inclusivity. Tom van der Molen, the curator of The Portrait Gallery, asserted that the term concealed the other side of the colonial story; he stated: “But positive associations with the term such as prosperity, peace, opulence and innocence do not cover the charge of historical reality in this period. The term ignores the many negative sides of the 17th century such as poverty, war, forced labour and human trafficking.”[5] On the other hand, right-wing members of parliament have interpreted this change as an attempt to rewrite the past and erase parts of Dutch history.

The curators of the museum argue that the concept of ‘the Golden Age’ is fundamentally misunderstood. In their opinion, the term is rooted in the colonial mindset, and does not do justice to those who were exploited and oppressed in the process. The idea of something being ‘golden’ may suggest to visitors that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a period of peace and contentment, but this was only the case for a very small margin of society. Therefore, those in favour of ditching the term believe that ‘the Golden Age’ is actually inaccurate terminology. Jörgen Tjon A. Fong was responsible for a recent exhibition at the gallery called, ‘Dutch Masters Revisited’, which displayed images of Dutch celebrities as people of colour that were known to have lived through the so-called ‘Golden Age’.[6] Fong intended to curate a wider, more accurate vision of the Dutch past that would help to uncover popular misconceptions surrounding Dutch society. He puts it succinctly: “People in Holland were stricken by poverty, there were internal wars going on, and on top of that there was slavery as well. The people in the Netherlands today are not just descendants of that 1 percent; they’re descendants of the 99 percent as well.”[7] 

However, not all academics approved of the gallery’s rebranding. For example, the Rijksmuseum, another famous Dutch gallery, responded to the news by claiming that they would not be following suit. The institution insisted that an explanation and acknowledgement of the Netherland’s ‘dark history’ would suffice, rather than a name change.[8] This year, the Rijksmuseum have opened an exhibition dedicated to displaying personal accounts of the slave trade in The Netherlands. The exhibit demonstrates how slavery permeated all levels of society through a complex supply chain, and how this affected attitudes towards race in Europe. The museum hopes to challenge ‘historical narrow-mindedness’ by amplifying the voices of the indigenous people who were trafficked and enslaved by Dutch traders.[9] 

Overall, the dispute over the use of the term reflects the commonly held belief that the West must take responsibility for their colonial legacy. Institutions have responded in distinct ways; some argue that redefining historical terms will encourage inclusivity and decolonisation ‘from above’. Others have contended that erasing certain terms might look like an attempt at rubbing out Europe’s bleak history. Either way, responsibility must be taken. In my opinion, addressing colonial language is a step in the right direction. However, if we are not told why these changes are being made, name-changing is pointless and performative. Eradicating the use of the term, ‘the Golden Age’, should be viewed as an opportunity to educate Europeans on the reality of colonialism. It does not diminish national histories, but rather, creates more accurate ones. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

Image source: The New York Times

[1] Weststeijn, Arthur. “Republican Empire: Colonialism, Commerce and Corruption in the Dutch Golden Age.” Renaissance Studies 26, no. 4 (2012): 491–509.

[2] Ronald Findlay and Kevin H.O’Rourke, ‘​Commodity Market Integration, 1500–2000​’, In Bordo, Michael D.; Taylor, Alan M.; Williamson, Jeffrey G. (eds.), ​Globalization in Historical Perspective​ (Chicago, 2003), pp. 13–64

[3] Mikiso Hane, Japan: A Short History​ (London, 2013), p. 84.

[4] Vink, Markus. “‘The World’s Oldest Trade’: Dutch Slavery and Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean in the Seventeenth Century.” Journal of World History 14, no. 2 (2003): 131–77.






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