History of Holland
By George Edmundson
Public Domain Books
Chapter XXX: The Kingdom of the Netherlands–union of Holland and Belgium, 1815-1830
The autocratic powers that were conferred upon King William by the Fundamental Law rendered his personality a factor of the utmost importance in the difficult task which lay before him. William’s character was strong and self-confident, and he did not shrink from responsibility. His intentions were of the best; he was capable, industrious, a good financier, sparing himself no trouble in mastering the details of State business. But he had the defects of his qualities, being self-opinionated, stubborn and inclined, as in the matter of the vote of the Belgian notables, to override opposition with a high hand. He had at the beginning of his reign the good fortune of being on the best of terms with Castlereagh, the British Foreign Minister. To Castlereagh more than to any other statesman the kingdom of the Netherlands owed its existence. The Peace of Paris saw Great Britain in possession by conquest of all the Dutch colonies. By the Convention of London (August 13, 1814), which was Castlereagh’s work, it was arranged that all the captured colonies, including Java, the richest and most valuable of all, should be restored, with the exception of the Cape of Good Hope and the Guiana colonies–Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo. In the latter the plantations had almost all passed into British hands during the eighteen years since their conquest; and Cape Colony was retained as essential for the security of the sea-route to India. But these surrenders were not made without ample compensation. Great Britain contributed £2,000,000 towards erecting fortresses along the French frontier; £1,000,000 to satisfy a claim of Sweden with regard to the island of Guadeloupe; and £3,000,000 or one-half of a debt from Holland to Russia, i.e. a sum of £6,000,000 in all.
One of the most urgent problems with which the Sovereign-Prince had to deal on his accession to power was the state of the finances. Napoleon by a stroke of the pen had reduced the public debt to one-third of its amount. William, however, was too honest a man to avail himself of the opportunity for partial repudiation that was offered him. He recalled into existence the two-thirds on which no interest had been paid and called it “deferred debt” (uitgestelde schuld); the other third received the name of “working debt” (werkelijke schuld). The figures stood at 1200 million florins and 600 million florins respectively. Every year four millions of the “working debt” were to be paid off, and a similar amount from the “deferred” added to it. Other measures taken in 1814 for effecting economies were of little avail, as the campaign of Waterloo in the following year added 40 million florins to the debt. Heavier taxation had to be imposed, but even then the charges for the debt made it almost impossible to avoid an annual deficit in the budget. It was one of the chief grievances of the Belgians that they were called upon to share the burden of a crushing debt which they had not incurred. The voting of ways and means for ten years gave the king the control over all ordinary finance; it was only extraordinary expenditure that had to be submitted annually to the representatives of the people.
The dislike of the Catholic hierarchy in Belgium to Dutch rule had been intensified by the manner in which the king had dealt with the vote of the notables. Their leader was Maurice de Broglie, Bishop of Ghent, a Frenchman by birth. His efforts by speech and by pen to stir up active enmity in Belgium to the union aroused William’s anger, and he resolved to prosecute him. It was an act of courage rather than of statesmanship, but the king could not brook opposition. Broglie refused to appear before the court and fled to France. In his absence he was condemned to banishment and the payment of costs. The powerful clerical party regarded him as a martyr and continued to criticise the policy of the Protestant king with watchful and hostile suspicion. Nor were the Belgian liberal party more friendly. They did not indeed support the clerical claim to practical predominance in the State, but they were patriotic Belgians who had no love for Holland and resented the thought that they were being treated as a dependency of their northern neighbours. They were at one with the clericals in claiming that the Belgian representation in the Second Chamber of the States-General should be proportional to their population. But this grievance might have been tolerated had the king shown any inclination to treat his Belgian subjects on a footing of equality with the Dutch. He was, as will be seen, keenly interested in the welfare and progress of the south, but in spirit and in his conduct of affairs he proved himself to be an out-and-out Hollander. The provision of the Fundamental Law that the seat of government and the meetings of the States-General should be alternately from year to year at the Hague and at Brussels was never carried out. All the ministries were permanently located at the Hague; and of the seven ministers who held office in 1816 only one, the Duke d’Ursel, was a Belgian, and he held the post of Minister of Public Works and Waterways. Fourteen years later (at the time of the revolt) six out of seven were still northerners. The military establishments were all in Holland, and nearly all the diplomatic and civil posts were given to Dutchmen. Nor was this merely due to the fact that, when the union took place, Holland already possessed an organised government and a supply of experienced officials, while Belgium lacked both. On the contrary, the policy of the king remained fixed and unwavering. In 1830 out of 39 diplomatists 30 were Dutch. All the chief military posts were filled by Dutchmen. Nor was it different in the civil service. In the home department there were 117 Dutch, 11 Belgians; in the war department 102 Dutch, 3 Belgians; in finance 59 Dutch, 5 Belgians. Such a state of things was bound to cause resentment. Parties in the Belgic provinces were in the early days of the Union divided very much as they have been in recent years. The Catholic or Clerical party had its stronghold in the two Flanders and Antwerp, i.e. in the Flemish-speaking districts. In Walloon Belgium the Liberals had a considerable majority. The opposition to the Fundamental Law came overwhelmingly from Flemish Belgium; the support from Liège, Namur, Luxemburg and other Walloon districts. But the sense of injustice brought both parties together, so that in the representative Chamber the Belgian members were soon found voting solidly together, as a permanent opposition, while the Dutch voted en bloc for the government. As the representation of north and south was equal, 55 members each, the result would have been a deadlock, but there were always two or three Belgians who held government offices; and these were compelled, on pain of instant dismissal, to vote for a government measure or at least to abstain. Thus the king could always rely on a small but constant majority, and by its aid he did not hesitate to force through financial and legislative proposals in the teeth of Belgian opposition. It is only fair, however, to the arbitrary king to point out how earnestly he endeavoured to promote the material and industrial welfare of the whole land, and to encourage to the best of his power literary, scientific and educational progress. In Holland the carrying-trade, which had so long been the chief source of the country’s wealth, had been utterly ruined by Napoleon’s Continental System. On the other hand, Belgian industries, which had been flourishing through the strict embargo placed upon the import of British goods, were now threatened with British competition. The steps taken by the energy and initiative of the king were, considering the state of the national finances, remarkable in the variety of their aims and the results that they achieved. The old Amsterdam Bank was transformed into a Bank of the Netherlands. A number of canals were planned and constructed. Chief among these was the North Holland Canal, connecting Amsterdam with the Helder. The approaches to Rotterdam were improved, so that this port became the meeting-point of sea-traffic from England and river-traffic by the Rhine from Germany. But both these ports were quickly overshadowed by the rapid recovery of Antwerp, now that the Scheldt was free and open to commerce. Other important canals, begun and wholly or in part constructed, during this period were the Zuid-Willemsvaart, the Zederik, the Appeldoorn and the Voorne canals. Water communication was not so necessary in the south as in the north, but care was there also bestowed upon the canals, especially upon the canal of Terneuzen connecting Ghent with the western Scheldt, and many highways were constructed. To restore the prosperity of the Dutch carrying-trade, especially that with their East Indies, in 1824 a Company–de Nederlandsche Handekmaatschappij–was founded; and at the same time a commercial treaty was concluded with Great Britain, by which both nations were to enjoy free trade with each other’s East Indian possessions. The Handekmaatschappij had a capital of 37 million florins; to this the king contributed four millions and guaranteed to the shareholders for 20 years a dividend of 4 1/2 per cent. The Company at first worked at a loss, and in 1831 William had to pay four million florins out of his privy purse to meet his guarantee. This was partly due to the set-back of a revolt in Java which lasted some years.
Agriculture received equal attention. Marshy districts were impoldered or turned into pasture-land. More especially did the Maatschappij van Weldadigheid, a society founded in 1818 by General van den Bosch with the king’s strong support, undertake the task of reclaiming land with the special aim of relieving poverty. No less zealous was the king for the prosperity of Belgian industries; Ghent with its cotton factories and sugar refineries, Tournai with its porcelain industry, and Liège with its hardware, all were the objects of royal interest. The great machine factory at Seraing near Liège under the management of an Englishman, Cockerill, owed its existence to the king. Nor was William’s care only directed to the material interests of his people. In 1815 the University at Utrecht was restored; and in Belgium, besides Louvain, two new foundations for higher education were in 1816 created at Ghent and Liège. Royal Academies of the Arts were placed at Amsterdam and Antwerp, which were to bear good fruit. His attention was also given to the much-needed improvement of primary education, which in the south was almost non-existent in large parts of the country. Here the presence of a number of illiterate dialects was a great obstacle and was the cause of the unfortunate effort to make literary Dutch into a national language for his whole realm.
Nevertheless the king’s political mistakes (of which the attempted compulsory use of Dutch was one) rendered all his thoughtful watchfulness over his people’s welfare unavailing. Great as were the autocratic powers conferred upon the sovereign, he overstepped them. Plans, in which he was interested, he carried out without consulting the States-General. His ministers he regarded as bound to execute his orders. If their views differed from his, they were dismissed. This was the fate even of Van Hogendorp, to whom he owed so much; Roëll and Falck also had to make way for less competent but more obsequious ministers.
The chief difficulty with which the king had to contend throughout this period was the ceaseless and irreconcilable opposition of the Catholic hierarchy and clergy to the principle of absolute religious equality established by the Fundamental Law (Articles CXC-CXCIII). Their leader, Maurice de Broglie, Bishop of Ghent, actually published a jugement doctrinal in which he declared that the taking of the oath to the Constitution was an act of treason to the Catholic Church. In this defiance to the government he had the support of the Pope, who only permitted the Count de Méan to take the oath on his appointment to the Archbishopric of Malines on the understanding that he held Articles CXC-CXCIII to refer only to civil matters. From this time to take the oath “dans le sens de M. Méan” became with the ultra-clerical party a common practice.
Other measures of the government aroused Catholic hostility. In this year, 1819, a decree forbade the holding of more than two religious processions in a year. In such a country as Belgium this restriction was strongly resented. But the establishment in 1825 by the king of a Collegium Philosophicum at Louvain, at which all candidates for the priesthood were by royal decree required (after 1826) to have a two-years’ course before proceeding to an episcopal seminary, met with strenuous resistance. The instruction was in ancient languages, history, ethics and canon-law; and the teachers were nominated by the king. The first effect of this decree was that young men began to seek education in foreign seminaries. Another royal decree at once forbade this, and all youths were ordered to proceed either to the Collegium or to one of the High Schools of the land; unless they did so, access to the priesthood or to any public office was barred to them. This was perhaps the most serious of all the king’s mistakes. He miscalculated both the strength and the sincerity of the opposition he thus deliberately courted. His decrees were doomed to failure. The bishops on their part refused to admit to their seminaries or to ordination anyone who attended the Collegium Philosophicum. The king, in the face of the irrevocable decision of the Belgian hierarchy, found himself in an untenable position. He could not compel the bishops to ordain candidates for Holy Orders, and his decrees were therefore a dead letter; nor on the other hand could he trample upon the convictions of the vast majority of his Belgian subjects by making admission to the priesthood impossible. He had to give way and to send a special envoy–De Celles–to the Pope in 1827 to endeavour to negotiate a Concordat. It was accomplished. By Article III of the Concordat, there were to be eight bishops in the Netherlands instead of five. They were to be chosen by the Pope, but the king was to have the right of objection, and they were required to take the oath of allegiance. The course at the Collegium Philosophicum was made optional. William thus yielded on practically all the points at issue, but prided himself on having obtained the right of rejecting a papal nominee. The Pope, however, in an allocution made no mention of this right, and declared that the decree about the Collegium was annulled, and that in matters of education the bishops would act in accordance with instructions from Rome. The government immediately issued a confidential notice to the governors of provinces, that the carrying-out of the Concordat was indefinitely postponed. Thus the effort at conciliation ended in the humiliation of the king, and the triumph of the astute diplomacy of the Vatican.
The financial situation, as we have seen, was from the outset full of difficulty. The king was personally parsimonious, but his many projects for the general welfare of the land involved large outlay, and the consequence was an annual average deficit of seven million florins. At first the revenue was raised by the increase of customs and excise, including colonial imports. This caused much dissatisfaction in Holland, especially when duties were placed on coffee and sugar. The complaint was that thus an undue share of taxation fell on the maritime north. In order to lighten these duties on colonial wares, other taxes had to be imposed. In 1821 accordingly it was proposed to meet the deficit by two most unwise and obnoxious taxes, known as mouture and abbatage. The first was on ground corn, the second on the carcases of beasts, exacted at the mill or the slaughter-house–in other words on bread and on butcher’s meat. Both were intensely unpopular, and the mouture in particular fell with especial severity on the Belgian working classes and peasantry, who consumed much more bread per head than the Dutch. Nevertheless by ministerial pressure the bill was passed (July 21, 1821) by a narrow majority of four–55 to 51. All the minority were Belgians, only two Belgians voted with the majority. It is inconceivable how the government could have been so impolitic as to impose these taxes in face of such a display of national animosity. The mouture only produced a revenue of 5,500,000 fl.; the abbatage 2,500,000 fl.
This amount, though its exaction pressed heavily on the very poor, afforded little relief; and to meet recurring deficits the only resource was borrowing. To extricate the national finances from ever-increasing difficulties the Amortisatie-Syndikaat was created in December, 1822. Considerable sources of income from various public domains and from tolls passed into the hands of the seven members of the Syndicate, all of whom were bound to secrecy, both as to its public and private transactions. Its effect was to diminish still further the control of the Representative Chamber over the national finances. The Syndicate did indeed assist the State, for between 1823 and 1829 it advanced no less than 58,885,443 fl. to meet the deficits in the budget, but the means by which it achieved this result were not revealed.
Yet another device to help the government in its undertakings was the million de l’industrie, which was voted every year, as an extraordinary charge, but of which no account was ever given. That this sum was beneficially used for the assistance of manufacturing and industrial enterprise, as at Seraing and elsewhere, and that it contributed to the growing prosperity of the southern provinces, is certain. But the needless mystery which surrounded its expenditure led to the suspicion that it was used as a fund for secret service and political jobbery.
The autocratic temper of the king showed itself not merely in keeping the control of finance largely in his own hands, but also in carrying out a series of measures arousing popular discontent by simple arrêtésor decrees of the Council of State without consultation with the representative Chamber. Such were the decree of November 6,1814, abolishing trial by jury and making certain other changes in judicial proceedings; that of April 15, 1815, imposing great restrictions on the liberty of the press; that of September 15, 1819, making Dutch the official language of the country; that of June 25,1825, establishing the Collegium Philosophicum; and finally that of June 21, 1830, making the Hague the seat of the supreme court of justice. All these produced profound discontent and had a cumulative effect.
The language decree of 1819 was tentative, declaring a knowledge of Dutch obligatory for admission to all public offices, but it was followed by a much more stringent decree in 1822 by which, in the two Flanders, South Brabant and Limburg, Dutch was to be used in the law-courts and in all public acts and notices. Although the operation of this decree was confined to the Flemish-speaking districts, it must be remembered that, from the time of the Burgundian dukes right through the Spanish and Austrian periods, French had always been the official language of the country, the upper classes only spoke French, and with few exceptions the advocates could only plead in that language. This was a great hardship upon the Belgian bar, which would have been greatly increased had the royal decree (June 21,1830), placing the court of appeal for the whole kingdom at the Hague, been carried into effect.
More serious in its results was the infringement of Art. CCXXVII of the Fundamental Law guaranteeing liberty of the press. The return of Napoleon from Elba, and the imminent danger to which the, as yet, unorganised kingdom of the Netherlands was exposed, led to the issue of an arrêté of the severest character. By it all persons publishing news of any kind, or giving information injurious to the State, or writing or distributing political pamphlets, were to be brought before a special tribunal of nine judges holding office at the king’s pleasure; and, if condemned, were liable to be sentenced to exposure in the pillory, deprivation of civic rights, branding, imprisonment, and fines varying from 100 to 10,000 francs. This harsh measure was possibly justifiable in an extreme emergency upon the plea that it was necessary for the safety of the State. When the danger was over, and the Fundamental Law was passed, there was no excuse for its further maintenance on the Statute-book. Yet before this court Abbé de Foere was summoned for having defended in the Spectateur Beige the jugement doctrinal of Bishop de Broglie, and he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. In the following year, 1818, the government obtained the approval of the States-General (with slight modification) for the continuance of this war-time censorship of the press. The penalties remained, but the court consisted of a judge and four assessors, all government nominees. Under this law a Brussels advocate, Van der Straeten, was fined 3000 fl. for a brochure attacking the ministers; and several other advocates were disbarred for protesting that this sentence was in conflict with the Fundamental Law. Prosecutions henceforth followed prosecutions, and the press was gagged.
As a result of these press persecutions, the two Belgian political parties, the clericals and the liberals, poles apart as they were in their principles, drew closer together. All differences of religious and political creed were fused in a common sense of national grievances under what was regarded as a foreign tyranny. This brought about in 1828 the formation of the Union, an association for the co-operation of Belgians of all parties in defence of liberty of worship, liberty of instruction and liberty of the press. The ultra-clericals, who looked to the Vatican for their guidance, and the advanced liberals who professed the principles of the French Revolution were thus by the force of events led on step by step to convert an informal into a formal alliance. The Abbe de Foere in the Spectateur and MM. D’Ellougue and Donker in the Observateur had been for some years advocating united action; and it was their success in winning over to their side the support and powerful pen of Louis de Potter, a young advocate and journalist of Franco-radical sympathies, that the Union, as a party, was actually effected. From this time the onslaughts in the press became more and more violent and embittered, and stirred up a spirit of unrest throughout the country. Petitions began to pour in against the moutureand abbatage taxes and other unpopular measures, especially from the Walloon provinces. These were followed by a National Petition, signed by representatives of every class of the community asking for redress of grievances, but it met with no response from the unyielding king. He had in the early summer of this year, 1828, made a tour in Belgium and had in several towns, especially in Antwerp and Ghent, met with a warm reception, which led him to underestimate the extent and seriousness of the existing discontent. At Liège, a centre of Walloon liberalism, he was annoyed by a number of petitions being presented to him; and, in a moment of irritation, he described the conduct of those who there protested against “pretended grievances” as infamous, “une conduite in-fâme.” The words gave deep offence; and the incident called forth a parody of the League of the Beggars in 1566, an Order of Infamy being started with a medal bearing the motto fidèles jusqu’ à l’infamie. The movement spread rapidly, but it remains a curious fact that the animosity of the Belgians, as yet, was directed against the Dutch ministers (especially Van Maanen the Minister of Justice) and the Dutch people, whose overbearing attitude was bitterly resented, rather than against the king or the House of Orange. William’s good deeds for the benefit of the country were appreciated; his arbitrary measures in contravention to the Fundamental Law were attributed chiefly to his bad advisers.
The month of December, 1829, was however to bring the king and his Belgian subjects into violent collision. A motion was brought forward in the Second Chamber (December 8) by M. Charles de Broukère, an eminent Belgian liberal supported by the Catholics under the leadership of M. de Gerlache, for the abolition of the hated Press Law of 1815. The motion was defeated by the solid Dutch vote, supplemented by the support of seven Belgians. The decennial budget was due, and opposition to it was threatened unless grievances were remedied–the cry was “point de redressements de griefs, point d’argent.” On December 11 came a royal message to the States-General which, while promising certain concessions regarding the taxes, the Collegium Philosophicum and the language decree, stated in unequivocal terms the principle of royal absolutism. To quote the words of a competent observer of these events:
The message declared in substance that the constitution was an act of condescension on the part of the throne; that the king had restrained rather than carried to excess the rights of his house; that the press had been guilty of sowing discord and confusion throughout the State; and that the opposition was but the fanatic working of a few misguided men, who, forgetting the benefits they enjoyed, had risen up in an alarming and scandalous manner against a paternal government.
The Minister of Justice, Van Maanen, on the next day issued a circular calling upon all civil officials to signify their adherence to the principles of the message within 24 hours. Several functionaries, who had taken part in the petition-agitation, were summarily dismissed; and prosecutions against the press were instituted with renewed energy. From this time Van Maanen became the special object of Belgian hatred.
The threat of the Belgian deputies to oppose the decennial budget was now carried out. At the end of December the ministerial proposals were brought before the States-General. The expenditure was sanctioned, the ways and means to meet it were rejected by 55 votes to 52. The Finance Minister in this emergency was obliged to introduce fresh estimates for one year only, from which the mouture and abbatage taxes were omitted. This was passed without opposition, but in his vexation at this rebuff the king acted unworthily of his position by issuing an arrêté(January 8, 1830) depriving six deputies, who had voted in the majority, of their official posts. Meanwhile the virulence of the attacks in the press against the king and his ministers from the pens of a number of able and unscrupulous journalists were too daring and offensive to be overlooked by any government. Foremost in the bitterness of his onslaught was Louis de Potter, whose Lettre de Démophile au Roi was throughout a direct challenge to the autocratic claims advanced by the royal message. Nor was De Potter content only with words. An appeal dated December 11, of which he and his friend Tielemans were originators, appeared (January 31,1830) in seventeen news-papers, for raising a national subscription to indemnify the deputies who had been ejected from their posts and salaries for voting against the budget. Proceedings were taken against De Potter and Tielemans, and also against Barthels, editor of the Catholique, and the printer, De Nève, and all were sentenced by the court to banishment–De Potter for eight years, Tielemans and Barthels for seven years, DeNève for five years. These men had all committed offences which the government were fully justified in punishing, for their language had passed the limits not only of good order but of decency, and was subversive of all authority. Nevertheless they were regarded by their Belgian compatriots as political martyrs suffering for the cause of their country’s liberties. Their condemnation was attributed to Van Maanen, already the object of general detestation.
The ministry had meanwhile taken the wise step of starting an organ, the National, at Brussels to take their part in the field of controversy. But in the circumstances it was an act of almost inconceivable folly to select as the editor a certain Libri-Bagnano, a man of Italian extraction, who, as it was soon discovered by his opponents, had twice suffered heavy sentences in France as a forger. He was a brilliant and caustic writer, well able to carry the polemical war into his adversaries’ camp. But his antecedents were against him, and he aroused a hatred second only to the aversion felt for Van Maanen.
We have now arrived at the eve of the Belgian Revolt, which had its actual origin in a riot. But the riot was not the cause of the revolt; it was but the spark which brought about an explosion, the materials for which had been for years preparing. The French secret agent, Julian, reports a conversation which took place between the king and Count Bylandt on July 20,1823. The following extract proves that, so early as this date, William had begun to perceive the impossibility of the situation:
I say it and I repeat it often to Clancarty (the British Minister) that I should love much better to have my Holland quite alone. I should be then a hundred times happier.... When I am exerting myself to make a whole of this country, a party, which in collusion with the foreigner never ceases to gain ground, is working to disunite it. Besides the allies have not given me this kingdom to submit it to every kind of influence. This situation cannot last.
Another extract from a despatch of the French Minister at the Hague, Lamoussaye, dated December 26, 1828, depicts a state of things in the relations between the two peoples, tending sooner or later to make a political separation of some kind inevitable:
The Belgian hates the Hollander and he (the Hollander) despises the Belgian, besides which he assumes an infinite hauteur, both from his national character, by the creations of his industry and by the memories of his history. Disdained by their neighbour of the North, governed by a prince whose confidence they do not possess, hindered in the exercise of their worship, and, as they say, in the enjoyment of their liberties, overburdened with taxes, having but a share in the National Representation disproportionate to the population of the South, the Belgians ask themselves whether they have a country, and are restless in a painful situation, the outcome of which they seek vainly to discover.
From an intercepted letter from Louvain, dated July 30, 1829:
What does one see? Hesitation uncertainty, embarrassment and fear in the march of the government; organisation, re-organisation and finally disorganisation of all and every administration. Again a rude shock and the machine crumbles.
A true forecast of coming events.