Holland or the Netherlands… What’s the difference?

Are you going on a holiday to the Netherlands or to Holland? Why are there two names for the same country and do they mean the same thing? In this blog I will explain the difference and talk a little about how the Dutch feel about this.

The Kingdom of the Netherlands

Officially we call our country “Koninkrijk der Nederlanden“, which translates as “Kingdom of the Netherlands”. That’s what it says in our passports. But nobody would say it like that in everyday speech. We will say “Nederland“, in English “the Netherlands”. It looks like this.

Netherlands map
The Netherlands

The kingdom also contains the Caribbean islands Aruba, CuraƧao, Bonaire, St Eustatius, Saba and the southern part of the island St Martin. The European part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands has had its present shape since 1830, not considering some minor border changes after World War II. It has been an independent kingdom since 1815.

Then what is Holland?

Officially Holland is the northwestern part of the Netherlands. Presently is consists of two provinces: Noord Holland and Zuid Holland (meaning North and South Holland). This is the area where you will find the 3 major cities: Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague.

Holland
Holland is part of the Netherlands

Why do people call The Netherlands Holland?

It’s as if we would call the United States California. So why do most English speaking people talk about Holland? And even stranger: why do many Dutch people say they’re from Holland, even if they live outside of the province of Holland?

The Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries

To answer this question we need to go back to the 16th and 17th centuries. In that time Europe was a mosaic of little kingdoms, duchies etc. That was the case too in the area that is now the Netherlands. This consisted of many small entities with their own local rulers, who in their turn were ruled by the kings of the House of Habsburg.

Because of a mixture of economic and religious reasons people who lived in the low countries revolted against this king, who lived in Spain. They proclaimed a republic in 1588 and in 1648 this was officially recognized. This republic was the “Republiek der Zeven Verenigde Nederlanden“, which translates as “Republic of the Seven United Netherlands”. As the name suggests, this was a confederate state. Look at the map below (which is by the way not topographically correct, but gives you an idea. For a more topographically correct map check wikikids.)

A very short note on the workings of the confederacy

You may think: i count 9 provinces!!! Why did they call it the Republic of the 7 United Netherlands? This is because there were 7 independent provinces that ruled themselves and sent their representatives to The Hague to discuss common matters and take decisions. Staats Brabant and Drenthe weren’t independent provinces. They didn’t get to send representatives to the central government, but were ruled by it! Just like some other smaller areas that I didn’t sign in on the map.

Apart from the position of Drenthe and Staats Brabant, this all sounds pretty egalitarian. However, in reality the province of Holland was by far the most powerful and rich province. It contained the economic powerhouse of Amsterdam and the court of government in The Hague. This was where the big ships sailing to the East and West Indies came from. For foreigners, Holland became pretty much a synonym for The Republic.

The name Holland stuck (in many languages)

Through the ages, as The Republic transformed into a kingdom, and the confederacy changed into one nation state with additional territories in the south, the name Holland lingered. So much so that Dutch people tend to say they’re from Holland when they talk to foreigners. Even if they don’t live in the province of Holland.


Feelings of the Dutch about “Holland”

Historically, Holland is the richest and most powerful province of the Netherlands. Some people from the provinces of Holland (it is split in two now!) may feel a little superior to people from the more remote provinces. For example they make fun of the accents of people who live in the south. This causes a slight inferiority complex with some people from other provinces. That’s why they don’t always like you to call their country Holland. This goes especially for people from the province of Friesland, who speak their own language and have quite strong regional feelings. If you are a tourist, you will be forgiven. Of course you will score points if you say it correctly!

At the same time, people have been moving around between the provinces since the beginning of times. People from all over the Republic moved to the west for jobs, people from the west have moved eastward for nature and clean air. That continues to the present day. Students move to the big cities, meet up with other students from different areas and later on may stay in the west or move to another place altogether. People mix and move around. For this reason, many Dutch people won’t be bothered too much about how you name their country.


Why is this blog called Exploring Holland, not “Exploring the Netherlands”?

Honestly, I thought Holland sounded better. Next to that, I would like people who’re travelling to my country to find my blog. And if they call it Holland, so should I.

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