Thursday, August 08, 2013

Dutch Fungus Gun

Friends and relatives told me before I visited it last month that I would surely find Amsterdam and the Netherlands very agreeable, and I must report that I agree with them.  The Dutch are (generally)
friendly to tourists, speak passable to good English, and have a sensible attitude toward matters such as gay marriage and soft drugs.  Amsterdam, or the parts of it I visited, was a jewel: clean and charming, with beautiful houses and churches, ample flowers and public parks, and so many canals (a relic of 17th century town planning) that it is easier to move around the city by boat than by car.  Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. allegedly said that Paris was the city where good Americans went when they died, but I am persuaded that, in the 21st century at least, Amsterdam has taken Paris's place in that sentiment.

Of the city's cultural sites, the most popular with foreign tourists, judging from the length of the lines, are the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House.  My petite amie and I, however, found ourselves more enthralled with the Rijksmuseum, which contains several galleries of 17th and 18th century Dutch art - including masterpieces such as Rembrandt's Night Watch and Vermeer's Milkmaid - and displays of historical artifacts from other eras. Fond as I am of 17th century Dutch art, which focuses more on secular themes (children at play, tavern carousers, landscapes*) than the religious themes typical of contemporary Italian art, the one room in the Rijksmuseum that really caught my eye was a massive display of firearms from the 17th century.  The collection included a large number of wheellock pistols and muskets - wheellocks being a fussy and expensive, but useful, form of handgun which one could use from a prone position, unlike the more common matchlock gun ** - and an example of something I'd never heard of, a tinderlock gun, which used smoldering dried fungus as the firing element.  An appropriate weapon, I suppose, for people who once used peat moss as a primary source of heat.

One might think that a display of firearms, or of model ships (which one could find in the next gallery over), had little place in a museum of art and culture, but of course both things had much to do with the efflorescence of Dutch art in the 17th century.  Between their war for independence against the Spanish in the 1500s and their decline in the 18th century (when the English knocked them down and took their lunch money), the merchant-adventurers of the Netherlands enjoyed a century of global economic predominance.  This rested on their maritime skills, their well-armed merchant fleet, and their merchants' investment in the sort of disreputable commodities mentioned by David Graeber in DEBT: THE FIRST 5,000 YEARS: slaves, soft drugs like coffee and sugar and tobacco (the Dutch didn't grow much themselves but shipped a lot from the English colonies), and firearms.  According to David Silverman, the Netherlands were the center of the European arms export industry in the 17th century, and Dutch wheellocks and flintlocks were in demand throughout the Atlantic world.  The guns displayed in the Rijksmuseum were thus a sample of the sort of wares that enriched the Dutch merchant class, and they in turn financed the paintings and objets d'art that beautified the Netherlands' "Golden Age."

(The photos above, taken by the author, show a) the placard for the aforementioned tinderlock gun, b) a sample wheellock musket, and c) a very heavy musket, approximately 1.5 meters in length, that the Dutch probably used to shoot through schools.***)

* This is actually the English spelling of a Dutch word; the Dutch largely invented the landscape painting and were the first to create a market for them.
** Matchlocks used a smoldering length of cord, or "match," to light their powder charges.  One can see an example of one in the 1991 film Black Robe.
*** H/t Johnny Dangerously.

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