The staunch royalist Willem III depicted on the 10 guilder gold coin
Born in 1817, Willem III succeeded his father as King of the Netherlands in 1849. With a military background, Willem was a simple man, a conservative figure that loved the army and disapproved of any limitations to royal power. Whilst he was popular with the common person, the more liberal layers of Dutch society were less fond of him.
Disregarding King Willem’s personality, what really marked his reign was the Netherlands’ rapid economic expansion from 1850 to 1900. Prior to the mid-19th century, the Netherlands had been plagued by several economic crises, epidemics and natural disasters that had left it somewhat backward compared to other countries of Europe. This, however, changed during Willem’s reign. By 1890, industrial production had almost doubled from the levels of the 1820s, and, coupled with reforms that set out to boost exports, the country became highly specialised in agricultural products – an industrial hallmark that remains to this day. In order to transport the goods, more than 2,000 km of railway track were laid, ports were built and vast canal networks were constructed. By the end of the century, the Netherlands had recaptured lost ground, so King Willem’s reign became firmly associated with a favourable period in the country’s history. Willem ruled until his death in 1890, leaving the throne to this daughter and future queen, Wilhelmina.
Throughout history, nations that successfully used their comparative advantages would expand in terms of both wealth and territory. And although the Netherlands was no different in this regard, its founding history as a maritime and colonial power began with a rather unusual, though tasty, resource: fish.
As the North Sea contained vast amounts of this resource, the Dutch became effective fishermen. In order to capitalise as much as possible on the plentiful supply, they perfected their shipbuilding techniques, leading them to build fast and sturdy freight carriers. The Dutch fluyts could carry more cargo with less crew than those of their rivals, and yet they were still cheaper to produce – a consequence of a 16th century technological breakthrough: the wind-powered sawmills which the Dutch had invented. This invention turned timber into lumber more efficiently, thus greatly reducing the cost of shipbuilding.
By 1670, the Dutch had amassed a huge merchant shipping fleet; they had more ships than Britain, France, Germany and Spain combined. As the Dutch were traders at heart, they established shipping routes to the Americas and the Far East, creating multiple colonies in the process (from which they profited immensely), whilst cementing the reputation of the Dutch Republic, as one of the world’s key commercial hubs.
Naturally, to facilitate this trade, a medium of exchange was required, prompting the Dutch to issue a large variety of gold and silver coins. Dutch ducats, stuivers, cavaliers and ducatons, to name just a few, became popular trade coinage that was spread throughout the world by the Dutch merchant fleet. The guilder, on the other hand, had a slightly different role to fulfil.
Following the establishment of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815, which incorporated all the previous Dutch provinces under one rule, the guilder was introduced to serve as the new kingdom’s official currency, a role it held until 1933. The guilder, or gulden in Dutch, meaning “golden”, was struck in denominations of 5, 10 and 20 gulden, with 10 gulden proving the most popular. In fact, besides minor tweaks made to its design (in general the same design was applied throughout its lifetime), the coin’s purity of 21.6 karats and its dimensions stayed the same for 115 years, a definite testimony to its popularity. The most issued guilders were those that depicted King William III and Queen Wilhelmina.