The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age

Schama, Simon

Knopf, 1987

pp. 17-21

When Amsterdam’s Tugthuis [prison] opened in 1595 prisoners were admitted and released anonymously so that upon release their adjustment would not be compromised by stigma.  In fact, in the earliest days prisoners were sometimes admitted under cover of darkness.  But by the 1630s the public was admitted by payment to see the sloths and idlers at hard labor in sawing brazil wood, and the females (prostitutes, vagrants, thieves) spinning.  At carnival time admission was free. Throngs could gawk and jeer.  (P. 21) “Thus the original attempt to protect prisoners from public ignominy had been completely abandoned. Instead, a rival ethic–both humanist and more bleakly Calvinist–held that the shame incurred in exhibition could be the herald of self-improvement.  Worst, the prison had one measure held in reserve for idlers who could not be induced to work by deprivation of meat rations, by whipping with a bull’s penis, or other measures.  This was the ‘water house’ or ‘drowning cell,’ where prisoners were tethered like asses and forced to pump out the constantly rising water lest they drown in it.  It was up to them whether they wanted to work.  One visiting economist congratulated the Dutch on ‘so admirable a contrivance.’  Peculiarly appropriate to the Dutch: a kind of moral geography. The punishment was a microcosm of the Dutch experience: ‘the struggle to survive rising waters.’”