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History student wins thesis prize: ‘Look for the stories that didn’t make the history books’

Envoys jumping out of windows, fights, and illegal diplomacy: history student Tessa de Boer encountered them all while writing her master's thesis on Amsterdam as a diplomatic city during the 17th and 18th centuries. For her thesis, she was awarded the Uitgeverij Verloren/Johan de Witt thesis prize for history.

Tessa got the idea for her thesis topic during a lecture. The lecturer told her that all diplomacy had to go through the States General in The Hague. ‘I couldn’t imagine that 17th century Amsterdam said: "That's alright. Strip us from all our diplomatic rights. They may all be transferred to The Hague and we have nothing to do with it." After all, they had so many international connections and had to protect that trade,' she explains.

Covert diplomacy in Amsterdam

In the end, it turned out that Amsterdam didn’t hand over just everything. The city had various ways of doing this. ‘They had a lot of contacts with the Staatse envoys in The Hague and abroad. They used them to achieve their own goals,' Tessa says. This happened both legally and illegally. ‘If the envoys couldn’t get something done in The Hague, they knocked on Amsterdam's door to ask if Amsterdam could do it for them instead.’ But that wasn’t all, as foreign powers also realised the importance of Amsterdam. ‘That’s why many foreign envoys were stationed there. Historiography is limited to The Hague, while I discovered that there were actually many diplomatic activities in Amsterdam.’

Thesis prize

For these new findings, Tessa received the Uitgeverij Verloren/Johan de Witt thesis prize for history and a cash prize of 1500 euros. Tessa says she considers it a great honour: 'I was grateful that someone thought: "This might be something". Of course, it's always nice when there's recognition for the academic research you do.’

Back to the source

For students who have yet to start their theses, Tessa has some advice: 'It might sound cliché but choose a subject you’re passionate about. One that you feel want to discover things about. Truly enjoying what I do has always helped me with my research’ She also has specific advice for history students: 'Dive into the archives. When you stick to the books that have already been written about your topic, a lot of information has already been filtered. But if you go back to the original sources, you’ll find what hasn’t made it into the books – which is often a lot more interesting. Take diplomacy, for example; it's about congresses and envoys, but the books don't discuss envoys jumping out of windows and getting beaten up by their neighbours. Look for the stories that didn't make it into the books.'

Tessa de Boer is a PhD candidate at the Institute for History. Her research focus is on early modern Dutch firms and their exploitation of the French colonial empire, with a specific interest in the role of diplomatic networks.

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