by Jean-Jacques COURTEY, Doctor in Economic Geography, Ph. D
From 1593 till February 5th, 1637, tulips' onions rose up incredible heights in Amsterdam Futures Market.
But on February 6th 1637, the first historical Financial Bubble exploded, ruining a lot of speculators, florists and horticulturalists.
The flemish Charles de l'Ecluse (1525-1609), who founded horticulture, is the one said to have been at the origin of their introduction into the United Provinces. Tulips came originally from the Ottoman Empire and pleased immediately. So progressively, a kind of mania developped in Holland for tulip bulbs, to become a "tulip rush" similar to a "gold rush" during those 44 years, and the final fever of 1636-1637.
In a time of strict separation of social classes, people became quickly frentic about tulips. They allowed them to have a dream : becoming rich and respected, if not buying a nobility title ! They meant a "miraculous" change of life, short-circuiting the normal order of society.
So a lot of men abandonned everything and everybody, including their home and their wife, to cultivate tulips, to sell them, or just to speculate about them in the full-time stock exchange of Amsterdam.
The two most cherished ones were "Semper Augustus" and "Viceroy" tulips.
Their colour was remarkable : broken red for "Semper Augustus" and broken violet for "Viceroy" !
Those funny colours and appearances of the petals were connected to a virus : the "tulip breaking virus" which was causing a decoloration of the pigment, making some parts white and others red or violet. To be more precise, the drawings of 1637 are showing flowers looking like red ("Semper Augustus") or violet flames ("Viceroy") !
It was a bit as if fire was giving an extraordinary life, a kind of divine life, to those yet immobile flowers.
They were the ones looked for, in the futures market which appeared in Amsterdam for them !
With the price of a single tulip onion you could buy two houses at that time in Amsterdam, or an enormous amount of various goods. Some specialists made even lists of all the goods you could afford just with a single bulb. We effectively wrote "single", and not several, even it may look totally astonishing nowadays. People who have got tulips in their garden or at home, will watch those flowers with more reverence now.
The value rose to a spectacular amount, between 10 to 15 times the annual wages of a craftsman, depending on the type of tulip onion, either "Viceroy" or "Semper Augustus" !
Thus with two you were rich and with three very wealthy.
So then, tulip was considered as a rich flower for wealthy people and aristocrats, or even the Church. And it was a terrific symbol of opulence, which has never been really replaced, except by the Queen of gems of course, Diamond !
When the market collapsed on February 6th, 1637, it created a huge schock in the country, and some vacarm abroad !
All the people which wealth was connected to those tulip onions, became poor overnight. And many fortunes over suddenly vanished.
The situation has been compared by specialists to what happened in New-York during the financial crash of October 24th, 1929, or more recently the terrible one of September 15th, 2008 !
Strangely nobody quoted another similarity : the first historical crash happened in Amsterdam, and the two others in Wall Street of course, but more simply in a huge town previously called New Amsterdam (New York).
Some of them couldn't bear what was happening and suicided. Others became or rebecame nothing, and knew harsh poverty. To escape from it, some of them emigrated to America to join the Dutch colony of Governor Pieter Stuyvesant (ca. 1610 - 1672), called New Amsterdam. It's him who built in South Manhattan a wall of defence of the colony against the British, in the place now called in rememberance, "Wall Street". But after the overwhelming British conquest, New Amsterdam was renamed New York in 1664 and the wall demolished in 1699.
The Golden Age of tulip in Europe was over. And another type of Golden Age was going to rise up in America.
A lot of explanations have been given to the explosion of the first financial bubble of modern history.
But the excesses of speculation don't explain everything. The Habsbourg were still keeping an intrusive eye into those calvinists provinces, which rejected ultra-catholicism and Spanish centralization. They had still agents overthere. One thing sure is that it could have rang the knell for the 17 United Provinces, independent on the paper from Spain only since 1581 (Act of Den Haag, July 26th, 1581).
But the Dutch ability to recover from catastrophes, either natural or not, surely helped the country to face and get up. The United Provinces remained independent, and Spain never retook control of them. And Spanish influence vanished with the final recognition of Dutch independence after the war of 1643-1648.
We must never forget that The Netherlands have been gained methodically and almost miraculously on the water. And this victory of land on an adverse element in a country mostly below the sea level, is certainly a key to understand how the industrious and volunteer Dutch people made it possible.
At that time, the United Provinces were a republic with a "Stadhouder" (the chief magistrate, being a kind of President) often chosen in the Orange-Nassau family. And it remained so till the Batavian Republic imposed brutally by the French Revolution (1795) with its carpet-baggers and hired killers, and finally the advent of the Kingdom of Holland in 1806 under Louis I (1806-1810), a brother of Napoleon I (1804-1821). But the two brothers fell out and Holland was directly annexed by Napoleon to the French Empire in 1810.
We don't know if those royal varieties of tulips were also announcing far in advance the coming of a royal regime, firstly under the French influence, but it could be more than coincidental.
After Napoleon's defeat in Waterloo (June 18th, 1815), the throne fell to the Orange-Nassau dynasty ruling as Kings and Queens, and not anymore as Stadhouders. The Orange-Nassau Family recovered all its goods and Monarchy was established, in its a democratic form this time : it was judged by people as more suitable, fair, and efficient than an unsettled elective and clientelist republic, after the headaches and nightmares caused by the Puppet Batavian Republic - just established to demand notably 100 million florints to the Dutch people, as a tribute called "indemnity". Equalilly, the name of the Kingdom changed from Holland (just a part of the country in fact), to the Netherlands (including all the provinces).
Just recently (April 30th, 2013), the Netherlands changed the sovereign for the popular Willem-Alexander I (born in Utrecht in 1967).
And we remember nicely from a past train travel between Den Haag and Amsterdam in 2006, he was extremely concerned by the future of Earth, with a special dedication to Water, when he was a Crown Prince.
Nowadays, "Semper Augustus" and "Viceroy" tulips don't exist anymore.
But it doesn't mean it will be forever. Technically, it's totally possible to recreate them, if there was a call by the Market.
It would be then the only special thing happening this summer in Eurozone, not unsettled apparently by the vanguardist signs of some Italian banking upheavals - if not "somersault" !
Usually, you say tell it with flowers to smooth certain situations in life. In the language of flowers, tulip can be used to make a love declaration. But it doesn't mean an ordinary one. On the contrary, tulip is associated with the power of love, and then it implies a powerful, or even a very powerful one.
Tulip can be also a symbol of gained or regained prosperity, and in that way the Netherlands appear as a prosperous State of 16.8 million people for 41,543 sq. km, richer per inhabitant than France.
Freedom (which can be symbolised by a black tulip) is a noble and antic idea : that's why it has to be absolutely preserved, from those who proclaim it on a bombastic way to better violate it hypocritically. And against all odds, some bold and noble characters are able to preserve it !