Wednesday, 31 March 2010

A City Lost to Tulips

A simple conversation with a work colleague today stirred a memory of a story I heard long ago that had been lost to me, and suddenly sprang back when I least expected it. The best stories are not those created by the fantasy of fertile minds, but rather those that are so fantastical in their truth that even the most inventive of minds could not have made them up. This is the story of a city lost because of tulips.

As already touched on in previous entries, I am something of a history buff (albeit one with a very bad memory for dates, and thus glad that Wikipedia is my friend) and this story begins in the 17th century, not long after the magical time of pirates and privateers in what was then called the New World. It is the story of a Dutch colony, the fine city of New Amsterdam.

In those times, governers of settlements were very rich men, and rich men spent their money on tulips. A single botanist was charged with the frenzy for the flower and he grew many unique varieties, the creation of which has since been credited to the unwitting introduction of a virus to the plant that caused explosively-colourful variations in the petals. So prized was the humble tulip that individual bulbs were bought and sold for ten times the salary of a skilled craftsman.

The tulip market was noted even then for its extreme volatility and in what may have been the world's first example of a credit crunch, the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam was badly affected when the market collapsed in 1664. At the time, his country was at peace with England, but in a perfidious manner typical of the colonial powers at the time, the English sailed a number of frigates up the river into the settlement. The governor, unable to raise the funds to pay soldiers, had no choice but to ignominiously surrender his city to the English. New Amsterdam became New York, and the rest is history.

Of course, like all good stories, there is a certain amount of poetic license. Less than ten years later, the Dutch recaptured the city and renamed it again, only to cede it back to the English in return for the territory of Surinam. But in this instance I don't want fact to interrupt narrative. There is a certain wonder to a tale simply told, and I find this to be a wonderful story indeed.

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