Martin Kettle: The Full Story of the British Empire is Yet to be Told

Roundup: Talking About History

Martin Kettle is an associate editor of the Guardian.

The first things the visitor sees are the treasure chests. Strong and functional yet ornately decorated, the ranks of chests against the wall are a silent reminder of an eloquent truth. The building of a global empire is principally about the commodity the original owners of these imposing boxes hoped to fill them with: money.

In Amsterdam, the city museum has just opened a fascinating new exhibition. They call it simply De Gouden Eeuw (The Golden Age). The age in question is the one that followed the 16th-century Dutch revolt against Spanish rule. The Netherlands became a world power within the space of not much more than a generation. It was also an age of Dutch enlightenment, the age of Rembrandt, Spinoza, Grotius and Huygens. In those years, Amsterdam was the capital of the world.

That era has long been called the Dutch golden age by historians. Yet an exhibition like this raises wider questions for all postcolonial European nations, including Britain. Can any age of empire, which this certainly was for the Netherlands, be described in something like an exhibition as a golden age? And, how should modern European nations like Britain and the Netherlands present their imperial past to the public? These are not just academic questions. Amsterdam's answer is full of lessons...

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