Helder – Holland

THE definition that has been given of Holland, as a “sort of transition from land to sea,” refers to no part of the country more appropriately than to the space which lies between Alkmaar and Helder. You travel, to be sure, in going from one city to the other, on land; but on land so broken, threatened, and undermined by the sea, that, looking at it from the railway carriage, you could easily fancy yourself on board ship. Not far from Alkmaar, between the two villages of Kamp and Petten, in the direction of the North Sea, and over a long tract where one of the mouths of the Rhine anciently existed, the chain of downs is interrupted, and the coast is furiously beaten by the sea, which, in spite of the strong defensive works which oppose it, continually gnaws into the bosom of the land. A little further on there is a large inundated polder, across which the great Northern canal passes. Beyond this polder, and around the village of Zand, extends a great desert plain, sprinkled with brushwood and stagnant pools, and with a few peasants’ huts with pyramidal roofs that, at a distance, look like grave-stones. Beyond the village of Zand there is a vast polder (called Anna Paolovna, in honor of the wife of William II. of Orange, a Russian Grand Duchess) which was drained between 1847 and 1850. Then came vast plains, brush-wood, and pools, to the extreme point of North Holland, where stands, veiled in fogs and beaten by wind and wave, the youthful and solitary city of Helder, the dead sentinel of the Low Countries.

Helder has this peculiarity, that when you are in it, you look for the city and fail to find it. It may be described as one single very long street, bordered by two rows of little red houses, and protected by a gigantic dyke, forming a sort of artificial beach on the North Sea. This dyke, which is one of the most wonderful works of modern times, extends a length of almost ten kilometres from the Nieuwediep, (where is situate the entrance to the great Northern canal,) as far as the fort of the Hereditary Prince (which is at the opposite extremity of the city) ; and it is constructed entirely of granite from Norway and Belgian limestone. It has a fine carriage-road on the top, and descends towards the sea with an inclination of forty degrees, and is sixty metres in depth. At various points it is rein-forced by smaller dykes, composed of beams, fascines, and earth, which advance two hundred metres’ into the sea. The highest tides do not wet its top, and the indefatigable wave spends itself in vain upon the monstrous bulwark that rises against it, in an attitude of defiance rather than defence.

The Nieuwediep, which opens at one of the extremities of Helder, is an artificial port which protects, with its great moles and robust dykes, the ships which enter the Northern canal. The gates of the basin, called fan-gates, the largest in Holland, close of themselves under the pressure of the water. In this harbor a great number of vessels are lying at anchor, many of which are English and Swedish; and there is also a large part of the Dutch war fleet, composed of frigates and smaller vessels, cleaner than the cleanest of the houses at Broek.

On the left-hand shore of the Nieuwediep there is a large naval arsenal, with a Vice-Admiral in residence.

At the end of the last century none of these things existed. Helder was nothing but a fishing village, and its name was scarcely mentioned on the maps. The opening of the great Northern canal, and a brief passage made by Napoleon in a fisherman’s boat from Helder to the island of Texel, which is seen distinctly from the top of the dyke, transformed the village into a city. Observing the tract of sea comprised between that island and the shore of Holland, Napoleon conceived the idea of making out of Helder a ” Gibraltar of the North,” and began by commanding the construction of two forts, one called at that time Lasalle, and now Hereditary Prince, and the other King of Rome, now Admiral Dirk. Events prevented the carrying into effect of his grand design; but the work begun by him was slowly carried on by the Hollanders, and Helder is, at this day, the first strong city of the State, capable of holding thirty thousand de-fenders, and of preventing the entrance of a fleet into the Northern canal or the gulf of Zuyder Zee; and besides being defended at a great distance by a bulwark of rocks and sand-banks, it is so fortified as to be able, in case of need, to inundate the whole province that lies at its back.

But leaving aside its strategical importance Helder is a city worth seeing for its amphibious character, which leaves it always dubious whether one is on a continent or a group of rocks and islands a thousand miles distant from the European coast. In whatever direction you turn your steps you always come out in view of the sea. The town is crossed and surrounded by canals as broad as rivers, which the inhabitants cross on rafts. Behind the great dyke lies a mass of apparently stagnant water which rises and falls with the tide, as if it had subterranean communication with the sea. On every side there is water, imprisoned, indeed, between two banks, but high and threatening, and looking as if it watched for the moment when it might reconquer its dreadful liberty. The land all about the town is hare and desolate, and the sky, almost always cloudy, is crossed by great flocks of aquatic birds. The town itself, with its one row of houses, looks as if it were conscious of its dangerous situation, and expected hourly some catastrophe. When the wind howls and the sea roars, it seems as if every good citizen of Helder could only shut himself up in his house, say his prayers, cover his head with the bed-clothes and wait for God’s decree.

The population, eighteen thousand in number, is as singular in its way as the town. It is a mixture of merchants, government clerks, naval officers, soldiers, fisher-men, people arriving from India, people about to leave, and relations coming and going, who come there to give the first embrace or the last farewell ; because this is the extreme angle of Dutch territory which the sailor salutes at parting, and the first which he greets on his return. But the town being so long and narrow, few people are visible at a time ; and no sound is heard but the lamentable chant of the sailors, oppressing the spirits like the cry of shipwrecked men afar off.

Although so young, Helder is as rich in grand historical records as other Dutch cities. She saw the Grand Pensionary De Witt cross for the first time, in a small boat, the straits of Texel, sounding with his own hands the depth of the water, and demonstrating, to the pilots and captains who would not venture it, the possibility of the passage for the fleet sent to fight England. In those days Admirals de Ruyter and Van Tromp held front against the united French and English fleets. Not far from thence, in the polder called the Zyp, in the year 1799, the English general Abercrombie repulsed the assault of the French and Batavian army commanded by Brome. And lastly, since it seems that by some natural law every Dutch city must have some strange and in-credible experience, Helder witnessed a sort of amphibious combat between land and sea, a name for which is wanting in military language; it saw in 1795 the cavalry and light artillery of General Pichegru gallop across the frozen gulf of Zuyder Zee to attack the Dutch fleet which was imprisoned in the ice near the island of Texel, and surrounding it as if it were a fortress, call upon it to surrender, which it did.

This island of Texel, which, as has been said, can be distinctly seen from the top of the dykes of Helder, is the first of a chain of islets which extends in the form of a bow across the opening of the Zuyder Zee as far as the province of Groningen; and which, before the existence of the great gulf, is believed to have formed a continuous coast, which served as a bulwark to the Low Countries.

This island of Texel, which has only six thousand in-habitants scattered about in a few villages, has a harbor where ships of war and Indiamen can lie at anchor. It was from here that, at the end of the sixteenth century, the vessels of Heemskerk and Barendz set sail for that memorable voyage which furnished to the poet Tollenz the subject of his fine poem, “The Winter of the Hollanders in Nova Zembla.”

And here, briefly, is the sad and solemn story, as it is told by Van Kampfen, and sung by Tollenz.

At the end of the sixteenth century, the Dutch, not being able to struggle front to front with the Spaniards and Portuguese for the mastery of the East Indian trade, bethought themselves of finding a new road through the Arctic seas, by which they might reach in less time the ports of China and Eastern Asia. A company of Dutch merchants confided the enterprise to an expert sailor named Barendz, ‘who sailed with two ships from the island of Tex el, on the 6th of June 1594, towards the pole. The vessel commanded by him reached the northern point of Nova Zembla, and returned to Holland. The other ship took the better-known way of the straits of Waigatz, pushed its way through the ice of the gulf of Kara, and arrived in an open blue sea, from which the Russian coast turned towards the north-east was visible. ‘The direction of this coast made them believe that the vessel had passed beyond Cape Tabis, designated by Pliny (an authority at that time uncontested) as the northern extremity of Asia, and that, therefore, they could from there, by a short voyage, reach the eastern and southern ports of the continent. It was not known that, after the gulf of the Obi, Asia still extended for one hundred and twenty degrees in an easterly direction within the polar circle. The news of the supposed discovery caused great joy in Holland. Six large ships were immediately loaded with merchandise for the people of India, a smaller vessel was sent to accompany the squadron until it had sailed beyond the supposititious Cape Tabis, when it was to return with the news to Holland; and the fleet sailed. But this time the voyage did not answer to their hopes. The Dutch vessels found the straits of Waigatz all en-cumbered with ice, and after having in vain tried to open a passage, returned to Holland.

After this failure, the States General, while promising a reward of twenty-five thousand florins to whoever should succeed in the enterprise, refused to share in the expenses of a new voyage ; but the citizens were not to be discouraged. Amsterdam hired two ships, selected the bravest of her sailors, bachelors, so that the remembrance of their families might not weaken their courage in time of peril, and gave the command of the expedition to the valiant Heemskerk. The two vessels sailed on the 18th of May 1596. Barendz was master-pilot on board of one, and Van de Ryp, captain of the other. At first they could not agree as to the direction to be taken; but finally Barendz was persuaded by Van de Ryp to steer towards the north instead of the north-east. They arrived at the 74° of north latitude, near a small island, to which they gave the name of Bear Island in memory of a combat of several hours which they sustained against a troop of those animals. Around them there was nothing to be seen but high and broken rocks which seemed to close in the sea on all sides. They continued to steer towards the north. On the 19th of June they discovered a country which they called Spitzbergen because of its sharp-pointed rocks, and which they believed to be a part of Greenland; and there they saw great white bears, deer, reindeer, wild ducks, enormous whales, and foxes of all colors. From here, having arrived between the seventy-sixth and eightieth degrees of north latitude, they were to turn southwards and come to anchor once more near Bear Island. Barendz, however, would not follow any more the northern course pointed out by Van-de Ryp, and turned towards the southeast; Ryp made sail towards the north, and thus they were separated.

Barendz arrived on the 17th of July near Nova Zembla, followed the northern coast of that island, and continued to sail southwards. Then their adversities began. As they went on, the enormous masses of floating ice, becoming thicker, were joined together in vast strata, and piled up into steep and lofty mountains, so that in a short time the ship found herself in the midst of an icy continent, whose white peaks rose on the horizon all about her. Seeing that it was impossible to reach the eastern shore of Asia, they thought to turn back ; but it was now the 25th of August, and in those regions the summer was already at an end. They were not long in finding out that to go back was impossible. They were imprisoned in the ice, lost in a frightful solitude, surrounded by dense fog, aimless and hopeless, and every moment exposed to the danger of being crushed under the mountains of floating ice that groaned and thundered about the ship. One only chance of safety remained to them, or rather a means of delaying death : they were near the coast of Nova Zembla, they could abandon the ship, and attempt to pass the winter in that desolate island. It was a desperate resolution, requiring not less courage than to remain on board; but at least they would have action, struggle, a new form of danger. After some hesitation, they left the ship and landed on the island.

It was uninhabited; none of the northern races had ever put foot upon it; it was a desert of snow and ice, beaten by wind and sea, upon which the sun but rarely let fall a fugitive ray, without warmth or cheer. Nevertheless the poor shipwrecked men sent up a shout of joy when their feet touched the land, and knelt down in the snow to give thanks to Providence. They set to work at once to build a shelter. There was not a tree on the island; but by good fortune they found a quantity of floating wood brought by the sea from the continent. They went to work, returned to the ship, and brought away planks and beams, nails, pitch, boxes, and casks ; planted the beams in the ice, made a roof of what had been the deck, hung up their hammocks, lined the walls with sails, stopped up the holes with pitch. But as their work went on they suffered in unheard-of ways, and were in constant danger. The cold was so great that when they put nails in their mouths, they froze there, and could only be taken out by tearing the flesh and filling the mouth with blood. White bears, wild with hunger, assailed them furiously among the ice, around their cabin, even in the interior of the ship; and obliged them to leave their labor in order to defend their lives. The earth was frozen so hard that it had to be broken with the pick like .stone. Around the vessel the water was frozen to a depth of three and a half fathoms. The beer was solid in its casks, and had lost all flavor ; and the cold increased daily. At last they succeeded in rendering their cabin habitable, and were sheltered from the snow and wind. They lighted a fire and were able to sleep a few hours at a time when not wakened by the howls of the wild beasts that lingered about the cabin. They fed their lamps with the fat of the bears which they killed through the cracks of the walls, they warmed their hands in the bleeding bowels, they made coverings of the skins, and they ate foxes, and herrings, and biscuits from the ship’s stores. Meantime the cold increased so that the bears did riot leave their holes. Food and drink was frozen hard even when placed close to the fire. The poor sailors burned their hands and feet without feeling any heat. One night when from fear of the cold they had hermetically closed the cabin, they were within an ace of dying of suffocation, and were forced to brave once more that awful cold.

To all these calamities one more was added. On the 4th of November they awaited sunrise in vain ; the sun appeared no more ; the polar night had begun. Then these iron men felt their courage fail them, and Barendz, concealing his own anguish as he could, had to spend all the eloquence that he possessed in persuading them not to give way to despair. Food and fuel began to grow scarcer; the wood found upon the shore was thrown upon the fire with regret; the lamp hardly gave light enough to pierce the thick darkness. Notwithstanding all this, in the evening when they gathered about the fire, they still had some moments of cheerfulness. On the King’s birthday they made a little feast with wine, and flour paste fried in whale-oil, and drew lots as to which of them should wear the crown of Nova Zembla. At other times they played cards, told old stories, gave toasts to the glory of Maurice of Orange, and talked about their families. Every day they sang psalms together, kneeling on the ice, their faces lifted to the stars. Sometimes the aurora borealis broke the great darkness which surrounded them; and then they came forth from their cabin, running along the shore, and greeting with tender gratitude the fugitive light as a promise of salvation,

According to their computation, the sun should re-appear on the 9th of February 1597. They were wrong. On the morning of the 24th of January, exactly at a moment when they had reached the depths of sadness and discouragement, one of them, on awaking, saw an extra-ordinary light, gave a shout, sprang to his feet, woke his companions, and all went out of the cabin. There in the east the sky was illuminated by a clear radiance ; the moon was pale, the air limpid, the summits of the rocks and mountains tinged with rose; the dawn at last, the sun, life, the benediction of God, and the hope of once more seeing their country after three months of darkness and anguish. For a few minutes they stood silent and motionless, overcome by emotion ; then they broke into cries and tears, embraced each other, waved their ragged caps, and made those horrid solitudes resound with accents of prayer and joyful shouts. But their joy was brief. They looked in each other’s faces, and were filled with terror and pity the one for the other. Cold, sleeplessness, hunger, and anguish of spirit had so consumed and changed them that they were unrecognisable. And their sufferings were not yet over. In that same month the snow fell in such abundance that the cabin was almost completely buried, and they were obliged to go in and out by the opening of the chimney. As the cold diminished the bears reappeared, and the danger, the sleepless nights, the fierce combats began again. Their strength declined, and their hearts, a little lifted, fell once more. –

They had still, however, one slight thread of hope. It being hopeless to think of getting their vessel out of the ice, they had brought ashore a boat and a shallop, and little by little, always defending their lives against the bears, who attacked them even on the threshold of their hut, they had succeeded in repairing them. With these two small boats they intended to try and reach one of the small Russian ports, by running along the northern coast of Nova Zembla and Siberia, and crossing the White Sea; to make, in short, a voyage of at least four hundred German miles. During the whole month of March the variable weather kept them between hope and despair. More than ten times bad they seen the sea cleared of ice up to the shore, and had made ready to depart; and as many times a great increase of cold had again piled up the ice and shut them in. April and May passed in this way. At last, in June, they were able to make ready to depart. After having drawn up a minute relation of all their adventures, a copy of which they left in the cabin, on the morning of the 14th of June, with beautiful weather, and the open sea on every side, after nine months’ sojourn in that fearful place, they set sail towards the continent. In two open boats, exhausted by protracted sufferings, they went to brave the furious winds, the long rains, the mortal cold, the whirling ice-fields of that immense and terrible sea where it seemed a desperate enterprise to venture with a fleet. For a long time during the voyage they had to repulse the attacks of the white bears; they suffered from hunger, feeding on birds which they killed with stones, and eggs found upon the desolate shore; they hoped and despaired, they were cheerful or they wept, sometimes bewailing themselves that they had abandoned Nova Zembla, sometimes invoking the tempest and praying for death. Often they had to drag their boats over fields of ice, to tie them down lest they should be carried away by the wind, to gather themselves together in a close group in the midst of the snow in order to resist the cold, to call to each other through the dense fog, and hold together in the fear of being scattered and lost, and to gather courage from each other’s touch. All did not resist such tremendous trials of their strength. Barendz himself, who was not well when he embarked, felt, after a few days, his end approaching, and told his companions. He never ceased, however, to direct their course, and to make every effort to shorten for those unfortunate men the tremendous voyage, the end of which he knew he could not live to see. Life left him as he was examining a map ; his arm fell stiffly in the act of pointing out the distant land, and his last words were those of encouragement and counsel. In the bay of Saint Lawrence they met, it may be imagined with what joy, a Russian bark, which gave them some provisions, some wine, and lime-juice, a remedy against the scurvy, from which several of the sailors were suffering, and which speedily cured them. They coasted along Siberia, and met other Russian vessels more and more frequently, from them receiving fresh provisions and thus gradually restoring their strength. At the en-trance of the White Sea a dense fog separated the two boats, which, however, both weathered Cape Caudnoes, and, favored by the wind, made one hundred and twenty miles in thirty hours, after which they met again with shouts of joy. But a still greater joy awaited them at Kilduin. They found there a letter from Von de Ryp, captain of the other ship which had sailed with them from Texel, announcing his safe arrival. In a short time the two boats rejoined the ship at Kola. It was the first time that the shipwrecked men from Nova Zembla had seen the flag of their country since their departure from Bear Island, and they greeted it in a perfect delirium of oy. The crew of Von de Ryp and the companions of poor Barendz embraced each other with tears, relating their adventures, lamenting their dead comrades, and forgetting their past sufferings in the joy of meeting. All set sail for Holland, where they arrived safe and sound on the 29th of October 1597, three months after their departure from the hut at Nova Zembla. Thus ended the last at-tempt of the Dutch to open a new road for the East Indian trade across the Polar seas. Almost three centuries later, in 1870, the captain of a Swedish vessel, thrown by a tempest on the coast of Nova Zembla, found there the carcass of a ship and a hut. In the last were two copper kettles, a pendulum, a gun-barrel, a sword, a hatchet, a flute, a Bible, and some boxes full of tools and. rotten fragments of clothing. These objects, recognised by the Hollanders as having belonged to. the crews of Barendz and Heemskerke, were carried in triumph to the Hague, and are exhibited as sacred relics in the naval museum.

With all these images in my mind, in the evening, on the dyke at Helder, by the light of the moon that now abruptly hid herself behind a cloud, and now showed her-self in all her glory, I could not tire of looking at the sandy shore of that island of Texel, and that great North Sea, which on that side has no boundary but the Polar ice; the sea which the ancients believed to. be the end of the universe—” ilium usque tantum natura,” as Tacitus says; the sea on which, in days of tempest, the gigantic forms of the German divinities appeared ; and as my eyes wandered over the immense and sinister waste, I could only express to myself my mysterious dread by exclaiming in an undertone, ” Barendz ! Barendz ! ” and listening to the sound of that name as if brought by the wind from an immense distance.