Piet Hein Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: Hein aided substantially in the Netherlands’ breaking away from Spanish control. He defeated the Spanish and Portuguese several times in naval combat, including the most celebrated capture of treasure ships in the history of the Spanish Main.

Early Life

Piet Hein was born on November 15, 1577, in the small port town of Delfshaven on the Meuse River near Rotterdam. He was christened Pieter Pieterszoon Heyn but is known to history simply as Piet Hein. His father was an ordinary Dutch fisherman, but he secured additional income from privateering and trade and earned a modest living for his family. Piet learned seamanship from his father, whom he accompanied on voyages into the North Sea. The fishing boats of that period were small but were armed with two or three cannons and sailed in fleets for mutual protection against both Spanish and French corsairs.

The Dutch had declared their independence from Spain in 1581, but maintaining that independence took decades. Catholic Spain refused to accept the Reformed Protestant faith of the United Provinces or their self-governing constitutional autonomy. With valor and determination, the Dutch prevented the most powerful nation in the world in the sixteenth century from controlling the small country of Holland. In 1609, a Twelve Years’ Truce began, but war between Spain and Holland resumed in 1621, culminating in Hein’s celebrated capture of the combined treasure fleet in 1628 off the coast of Cuba. By then, the Spanish knew that they were not going to regain control of the Netherlands. Nevertheless, it was not until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that Spain officially recognized the independence of the Netherlands.

That was the international situation that faced Hein during his entire life. The Dutch had always been a seafaring people, but in the seventeenth century they had the largest merchant marine in the world, well in excess of the combined merchant fleets of Spain, Portugal, France, Scotland, and Germany. Spain, however, had a large navy while the Dutch relied on privateers, armed vessels that were also involved in fishing and trade. Some 10 percent of the adult male population of Holland made their living on the ocean.

Every time Hein ventured from shore, usually merely to catch fish to help support his family, he risked armed confrontation with the Spanish or with privateers authorized by the Spanish to attack Dutch ships. At the age of twenty, he was captured at sea and spent the next four years as a Spanish galley rower. He gained his freedom in 1601 in an exchange of Dutch and Spanish prisoners.

Life’s Work

Hein became a director of the Dutch West India Company in 1621, the same year Spain renewed hostilities with the Netherlands. In 1623, he was appointed vice admiral of the fleet of the Dutch West India Company and sailed with twenty-six ships with five hundred guns, sixteen hundred sailors, and seventeen hundred soldiers to attack São Salvador on the coast of Brazil. Spain ruled Portugal at the time, so Brazil was also controlled by Spain. The Dutch objective was to secure a base there for depredations against Spanish shipping in the Caribbean.

São Salvador was the first capital of Brazil and was strongly fortified by three forts. Fifteen large Spanish ships defended the bay. Into that strong position Hein led his column of ships and fought a three-hour gun battle and then boarded the Spanish ships. Seven Spanish ships were burned, but the Dutch captured the other eight. This sudden disaster enabled the intrepid Hein and his aggressive fighters to climb to the top of the nine-foot walls and,...

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Piet Hein’s creative versatility reflected his eclectic education. His father, civil engineer Hjalmar Hein, descended from a German-Dutch family; his mother, Estrid Hein, was a well-known Copenhagen ophthalmologist, a member of and prolific writer for the Danish women’s movement, and a cousin to the writer Isak Dinesen. Hein’s childhood home was located in Rungsted, north of Copenhagen, to which he returned to live for many years with his wife, Gerd Hein (1932-1968), an actress at The Royal Theater in Stockholm. Following her death in 1968, Hein moved to Poke Stoges in England; in 1976, he returned to Denmark and made his home at the Damsbo estate on the island of Funen.

Having received his high school and college education in Copenhagen, Hein passed his university entrance exams as a mathematics major in 1924. In 1925, however, after the obligatory examination in philosophy, he left Copenhagen for Stockholm to begin training as a painter at The Royal Academy of the Arts. In 1927, he returned to Copenhagen, where, until 1931, he studied philosophy and theoretical physics, both at the university and at the Niels Bohr Institute, without taking a degree. At the institute, Hein constructed a model that illustrated the principle of complementarity (formulated by Bohr in 1927), and his so-called atomarium, which, together with his participation in advanced colloquia concerning recent discoveries in atomic theory, earned him the greatest respect from his...

(The entire section is 411 words.)