The Age of Flemish Enterprise (1450-1650): The Southern Netherlandish Merchant Diaspora and Early Modern Globalisation

A project by Christina M. Anderson, D.Phil.

Research Fellow, History Faculty & Ashmolean Museum, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Lucas van Uffelen

Anthony Van Dyck, Lucas Van Uffelen (died 1637), circa 1621-7, oil on canvas, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913.

(Reproduction of any kind is prohibited without express written permission in advance from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

those of our Netherlandish ‘nation’, above all others in the world, are inclined to travel, and visit foreign lands and peoples

Karel van Mander, Het schilder-boeck (1604)

The first collective study of Flemish (southern Netherlandish) merchant colonies dispersed across the globe between 1450 and 1650, this ambitious, interdisciplinary project will demonstrate the fundamental, yet neglected, importance of Antwerp and the southern Netherlanders to early modern globalisation. It will do this through a series of interwoven case studies or biographies of individual Flemish merchants in selected trading posts. These important merchants were remarkable innovators, but their significance has been overshadowed by the fall of Antwerp in 1585 to the Spanish and the rise of the Dutch commercial empire. However, as this project will demonstrate, Antwerp’s capitulation was actually its moment of greatness. As Flemish merchants left in large numbers, they gave an essential impulse to international commerce, not just in the United Provinces, but throughout Europe and the world.

Already in the fifteenth century, driven by curiosity and a keen commercial sense, Flemish merchants had left their homeland and infiltrated the territory of the Portuguese empire.  This project begins, then, with an investigation of the Flemish settlements in the Azores as well as southern Netherlandish involvement in the sugar trade on Madeira and elsewhere.

The heart of the project, and resultant book, will focus on the various branches of the Hellemans (Helman) family who, with a base in Antwerp, typify the spread of Flemish merchants across Europe into the Iberian peninsula, Germany, Italy, and beyond to South and North America, the Middle East and India. At the heart of their family business was the trade in gems, although they also dealt in a wide variety of other commodities. The diversity of sources available on the family, including notary documents and letters, means that it is possible not only to know the facts of their lives but also to enter into the psychology of these Flemish merchants and understand their struggles and triumphs on a more personal level.

The project will end with an investigation into individuals such as Lucas van Uffelen (see left) who were the children and grandchildren of those who fled Antwerp. They illustrate the continuation of the cosmopolitan commercial culture of Antwerp and the southern Netherlands into the seventeenth century, particularly in the field of collecting.

This project is currently funded by the British Academy. Research in Venice is supported by the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation. Additional research travel has been sponsored by the John Fell/OUP fund at Oxford University. Some initial work was made possible by the Drapers' Company through a fellowship at Hertford College, Oxford.

Christina has lectured on the Flemish merchant diaspora at the Belgian Embassy in London as part of the series 'Episodes in the History of the Belgians' sponsored by the Belgian ambassador and the Anglo-Belgian Society in early 2013.

For more about Christina Anderson and her work at Oxford, please click on the links below.

About Christina Anderson Daniel Nijs Contact

© Christina M. Anderson