Holland History And Its People

WHOEVER looks for the first time at a large map of Holland, wonders that a country so constituted can continue to exist. At the first glance, it is difficult to say whether land or water predominates, or whether Holland belongs most to the continent or to the sea. Those broken and compressed coasts, those deep bays, those great rivers that, losing the aspect of rivers, seem bringing new seas to the sea; and that sea, which, changing itself into rivers, penetrates the land and breaks it into archipelagoes; the lakes, the vast morasses, the canals crossing and recrossing each other, all combine to give the idea of a country that may at any moment disintegrate and disappear. Seals and beavers would seem to be its rightful inhabitants ; but since there are men bold enough to live in it, they surely cannot ever sleep in peace.

These were my thoughts as I looked for the first time at a map of Holland, and experienced a desire to know something about the formation of so strange a country ; and as that which I learned induced me to write this book, I put it down here, with the hope that it may induce others to read it.

What sort of a country Holland is, has been told by many in few words.

Napoleon said that it was an alluvion of French rivers, —the Rhine, the Scheldt, and the Meuse,—and with this pretext he added it to the empire. One writer has defined it as a sort of transition between land and sea. Another, as an immense crust of earth floating on the water. Others, an annex of the old continent, the China of Europe, the end of the earth and the beginning of the ocean, a measureless raft of mud and sand ; and Phillip II. called it the country nearest to hell.

But they all agreed upon one point, and all expressed it in the same words :—Holland is a conquest made by man over the sea—it is an artificial country—the Hollanders made it—it exists because the Hollanders pre-serve it—it will vanish whenever the Hollanders shall abandon it.

To comprehend this truth, we must imagine Holland as it was when first inhabited by the first German tribes that wandered away in search of a country.

It was almost uninhabitable. There were vast tempestuous lakes, like seas, touching one another; morass beside morass ; one tract covered with brushwood after another ; immense forests of pines, oaks, and alders, traversed by herds of wild horses; and so thick were these forests that tradition says one could travel leagues passing from tree to tree without ever putting foot to the ground. The deep bays and gulfs carried into the heart of the country the fury of the northern tempests. Some provinces disappeared once every year under the waters of the sea, and were nothing but muddy tracts, neither land nor water, where it was impossible either to walk or to sail. The large rivers, without sufficient inclination to descend to the sea, wandered here and there uncertain of their way, and slept in monstrous pools and ponds among the sands of the coasts. It was a sinister place, swept by furious winds, beaten by obstinate rains, veiled in a perpetual fog, where nothing was heard but the roar of the sea, and the voices of wild beasts and birds of the ocean. The first people who had the courage to plant their tents there, had to raise with their own hands dykes of earth to keep out the rivers and the sea, and lived within them like shipwrecked men upon desolate islands, venturing forth at the subsidence of the waters in quest of food in the shape of fish and game, and gathering the eggs of marine birds upon the sand.

Caesar, passing by, was the first to name this people. The other Latin historians speak with compassion and respect of those intrepid barbarians who lived upon a “floating land,” exposed to the intemperance of a cruel sky, and the fury of the mysterious northern sea; and the imagination pictures the Roman soldiers, who, from the heights of the uttermost citadels of the empire, beaten by the waves, contemplated with wonder and pity those wandering tribes upon their desolate land, like a race accursed of heaven.

Now, if we remember that such a region has become one of the most fertile, wealthiest, and best regulated of the countries of the world, we shall understand the justice of the saying that Holland is a conquest made by man. But, it must be added, the conquest goes on for ever.

To explain this fact, to show how the existence of Holland, in spite of the great defensive works constructed by the inhabitants, demands an incessant and most perilous struggle, it will be enough to touch here and there upon a few of the principal vicissitudes of her physical history, from the time when her inhabitants had already reduced her to a habitable country.

Tradition speaks of a great inundation in Friesland in the sixth century. From that time every gulf, every island, and, it may be said, every city in Holland has its catastrophe to record. In thirteen centuries, it is recorded that one great inundation, besides smaller ones, has occurred every seven years; and the country being all plain, these inundations were veritable floods. Towards the end of the thirteenth century, the sea destroyed a part of a fertile peninsula near the mouth of the Ems, and swallowed up more than thirty villages. In the course of the same century, a series of inundations opened an immense chasm in northern Holland, and formed the Zuyder Zée, causing the death of more than eighty thousand persons. In 1421 a tempest swelled the Meuse, so that in one night the waters overwhelmed seventy-two villages and one hundred thousand inhabitants. In 1532 the sea burst the dykes of Zeeland, destroying hundreds of villages, and covering for ever a large tract of country. In 1570 a storm caused another inundation in Zeeland, in the province of Utrecht, Amsterdam was invaded by the waters, and in Friesland twenty thousand people were drowned. Other great inundations took place in the seventeenth century; two terrible ones at the beginning and the end of the eighteenth ; one in 1825 that desolated North Holland, Friesland, Over-Yssel, and Gueldres; and another great one of the Rhine, in 1855, which invaded Gueldres and the province of Utrecht, and covered a great part of North Brabant. Besides these great catastrophes, there happened in different centuries innumerable smaller ones, which would have been famous in any other country, and which in Holland are scarcely remembered ; like the rising of the lake of Harlem; itself the result of an inundation of the sea ; flourishing cities of the gulf of Zuyder Zee vanished under the waters; the islands of Zeeland covered-again and again by the sea, and again emerging; villages of the coast, from Helder to the mouths of the Meuse, from time to time inundated and destroyed ; and in all these inundations immense loss of life of men and animals. It is plain that miracles of courage, constancy and industry, must have been accomplished by the Hollanders, first in creating and afterwards in preserving such a country. The enemy from which they had to wrest it, was triple : the sea, the lakes, the rivers. They drained the lakes, drove back the sea, and imprisoned the rivers.

To drain the lakes the Hollanders pressed the air into their service. The lakes, the marshes, were surrounded by dykes, the dykes by canals ; and an army of windmills, putting in motion force-pumps, turned the water into the canals, which carried it off to the rivers and the sea. Thus vast tracts of land buried under the water, saw the sun, and were transformed, as if by magic, into fertile fields, covered with villages, and intersected by canals and roads. In the seventeenth century, in less than forty years, twenty-six lakes were drained. At the beginning of the present century, in North Holland alone, more than six thousand hectares (or fifteen thousand acres) were thus redeemed from the waters ; in South Holland, before 1844, twenty-nine thousand hectares ; in the whole of Holland, from 1500 to 1858, three hundred and fifty-five thousand hectares. Substituting steam-mills for windmills, in thirty-nine months was completed the great undertaking of the draining of the lake of Harlem, which measured forty-four kilometres in circumference, and for ever threatened with its tempests the cities of Harlem, Amster-dam, and Leyden. And they are now meditating the prodigious work of drying up the Zuyder Zee, which embraces an area of more than seven hundred square kilometres.

The rivers, another internal enemy, cost no less of labour and sacrifice. Some, like the Rhine, which lost itself in the sands before reaching the sea, had to be channelled and defended at their mouths, against the tides, by formidable cataracts; others, like the Meuse, bordered by dykes as powerful as those that were raised against the ocean; others, turned from their course; the wandering waters gathered together ; the course of the affluents regulated; the waters divided with rigorous measure in order to maintain that enormous mass of liquid in equilibrium, where the slightest inequality might cost a province; and in this way all the rivers that formerly spread their devastating floods about the country, were disciplined into streams and constrained to do service.

But the most tremendous struggle was the battle with the ocean. Holland is in great part lower than the level of the sea; consequently, everywhere that the coast is not defended by sand-banks, it has to be protected by dykes. If these interminable bulwarks of earth, granite, and wood were not there to attest the indomitable courage and perseverance of the Hollanders, it would not be believed that the hand of man could, even in many centuries, have accomplished such a work. In Zeeland alone the dykes extend to a distance of more than four hundred kilometres. The western coast of the island of Walcheren is defended by a dyke, in which it is computed that the expense of construction added to that of preservation, if it were put out at interest, would amount to a sum equal in value to that which the dyke itself would be worth were it made of massive copper. Around the city of Helder, at the northern extremity of North Holland, extends a dyke ten kilometres long, constructed of masses of Norwegian granite, which descends more than sixty metres into the sea. The whole province of Friesland, for the length of eighty-eight kilometres, is defended by three rows of piles sustained by masses of Norwegian and German granite. Amsterdam, all the cities of the Zuyder Zee, and all the islands—fragments of vanished lands—which are strung like beads between Friesland and North Holland, are protected by dykes. From the mouths of the Ems to those of the Scheldt Holland is an impenetrable fortress, of whose immense bastions the mills are the towers, the cataracts are the gates, the islands the advanced forts ; and like a true fortress, it shows to its enemy, the sea, only the tops of its bell-towers and the roofs of its houses, as if in defiance and derision.

Holland is a fortress, and her people live as in a fortress, on a war-footing with the sea. An army of engineers, directed by the Minister of the Interior, spread over the country, and ordered like an army, continually spy the enemy, watch over the internal waters, foresee the bursting of the dykes, order and direct the defensive works. The expenses of the war are divided; one part to the State, one part to the provinces; every proprietor pays, besicles the general imposts, a special impost for the dykes, in proportion to the extent of his lands and their proximity to the water. An accidental rupture, an inadvertence, may cause a flood; the peril is unceasing; the sentinels are at their posts upon the bulwarks; at the first assault of the sea, they shout the war-cry, and Holland sends men, material, and money. And even when there is no treat battle, a quiet, silent struggle is for ever going on. The innumerable mills, even in the drained districts, continue to work unresting, to absorb and turn into the canals the water that falls in rain and that which filters in from the sea. Every day the cataracts of the bays and rivers close their gigantic gates against the high tide trying to rush into the heart of the land. The work of strengthening dykes, fortifying sand-banks with plantations, throwing out new dykes where the banks are low, straight as great lances, vibrating in the bosom of the sea, and breaking the first impetus of the wave, is for ever going on. And the sea externally knocks at the river – gates, beats upon the ramparts, growls on every side her ceaseless menace, lifting her curious waves as if to see the land she counts as hers, piling up banks of sand before the gates to kill the commerce of the cities, for ever gnawing, scratching, digging at the coast; and failing to overthrow the ramparts upon which she foams and fumes in angry effort, she casts at their feet ships full of the dead, that they may announce. to the rebellious country her fury and her strength.

In the midst of this great and terrible struggle Holland is transformed : Holland is the land of transformations. A geographical map of that country as it existed eight centuries ago is not recognisable. Transforming the sea, men also are transformed. The sea, at some points, drives back the land : it takes portions from the continent, leaves them, and takes them again ; joins islands to the mainland with ropes of sand, as in the case of Zeeland; breaks off bits from the mainland and makes new islands, as in Wieringen ; retires from certain coasts and makes land cities out of what were cities of the sea, as Leuvarde; converts vast tracts of plain into archipelagoes of a hundred islets, as Biisbosch;. separates a city from the land, as Dordrecht; forms new gulfs two leagues broad, like the gulf of Dollart; divides two provinces with a new sea, like North Holland and Friesland. The effect of the inundations is to cause the level of the sea to rise in some places and to sink in others; sterile lands are fertilised by the slime of the rivers, fertile lands are changed into deserts of sand. With the transformations of the waters alternate the transformations of labour. Islands are united to continents, like the island of Arne-land; entire provinces are reduced to island, as North Holland will be by the new canal of Amsterdam, which is to separate it from South Holland; lakes as large as provinces disappear altogether, like the lake of Beemster; by the extraction of peat, land is converted into lakes, and these lakes are again transformed into meadows. And thus the country changes its aspect according to the violence of nature or the needs of men. And while one goes over it with the latest map in hand, one may be sure that the map will be useless in a few years, because even now there are new gulfs in process of formation, tracts of land just ready to be detached from the mainland, and great canals being cut that will carry life to uninhabited districts.

But Holland has done more than defend herself against the waters ; she has made herself mistress of them, and has used them for her own defence. Should a foreign army invade her territory, she has but to open her dykes and unchain the sea and the rivers, as she did against the Romans, against the Spaniards, against the army of Louis XIV., and defend the land cities with her fleet. Water was the source of her poverty, she has made it the source of wealth. Over the whole country, extends an immense net-work of canals which serve both for the irrigation of the land and as a means of communication. The cities, by means of canals, communicate with the sea; canals run from town to town, arid from them to villages, which are themselves bound together by these watery ways, and are connected even to the houses scattered over the country; smaller canals surround the fields and orchards, pastures and kitchen-gardens, serving at once as boundary-wall, hedge, and road-way ; every house is a little port. Ships, boats, rafts move about in all directions, as in other places carts and carriages. The canals are the arteries of Holland, and the water her life-blood.

But even setting aside the canals, the draining of the lakes, and the defensive works, on every side are seen the traces of marvellous undertakings. The soil, which in other countries is a gift of nature, is in Holland a work of men’s hands. Holland draws the greater part of her wealth from commerce ; but before commerce comes the cultivation of the soil; and the soil had to be created. There were sand-banks, interspersed with layers of peat, broad downs swept by the winds, great tracts of barren land apparently condemned to an eternal sterility. The first elements of manufacture, iron and coal, were wanting; there was no wood, because the forests had already been destroyed by tempests when agriculture began ; there was no stone, there were no metals. Nature, says a Dutch poet, had refused all her gifts to Holland; the Hollanders had to do everything in spite of nature. They began by fertilising the sand.

In some places they formed a productive soil with earth brought from a distance, as a garden is made; they spread the siliceous dust of the downs over the too watery meadows ; they mixed with the sandy earth the remains of peat taken from the bottoms; they extracted clay to lend fertility to the surface of their lands; they laboured to break up the downs with the plough ; and thus in a thousand ways, and continually fighting off the menacing waters, they succeeded in bringing Holland to a state of cultivation not inferior to that of more favoured regions. That Holland, the sandy, marshy country that the ancients considered all but uninhabitable, now sends out yearly from her confines agricultural pro-ducts to the value of a hundred millions of francs, possesses about one million three hundred thousand head of cattle, and, in proportion to the extent of her territory, may be accounted one of the most populous of European states.

It may be easily understood how the physical peculiarities of their country must influence the Dutch people ; and their genius is in perfect harmony with the character of Holland. It is sufficient to contemplate the monuments of their great struggle with the sea in order to understand that their distinctive characteristics must be firmness and patience, accompanied by a calm and constant courage. That glorious battle, and the consciousness of owing everything to their own strength, must have infused and fortified in them a high sense of dignity and an indomitable spirit of liberty and independence. The necessity of a constant struggle, of a continuous labour, and perpetual sacrifices in defence of their existence, for ever taking them back to a sense of reality, must have made them a highly practical and economical people; good sense should be their most salient quality, economy one of their chief’ virtues ; they must be excellent in all useful arts, sparing of diversion, simple even in their greatness ; succeeding in what they undertake, by dint of tenacity and a thoughtful and orderly activity; more wise than heroic; more conservative than creative; giving no great architects to the edifice of modern thought, but the ablest of workmen, a legion of patient and laborious artisans. And by virtue of these qualities of prudence, phlegmatic activity, and the spirit of conservatism, they are ever advancing, though by slow degrees ; they acquire gradually, but never lose what they have gained; holding stubbornly to their ancient customs; preserving almost intact, and despite the. neighbourhood of three great nations, their own originality ; preserving it through every form of government, through foreign invasions, through political and religious wars, and in spite of the immense concourse of strangers from every country that are always coming among them; and remaining, in short, of all the northern races, that one which, though ever advancing in the path of civilisation, has kept its antique stamp most clearly.

It is enough also to remember its form in order to comprehend that this country of three millions and a half of inhabitants, although bound in so compact a political union, although recognisable among all the other northern peoples by certain traits peculiar to the population of all its provinces, must present a great variety. And so it is in fact. Between Zeeland and Holland proper, between Holland and Friesland, between Friesland and Gueldres, between Groningen and Brabant, in spite of vicinity and ‘so many common ties, there is no less difference than between the more distant provinces of Italy and France : difference of language, costume, and character; difference of race and of religion. The communal regimé has impressed an indelible mark upon this people, because in no other country does it so conform to the nature of things. The country is divided into various groups of interests organised in the same manner as the hydraulic system. Whence, association and mutual help against the common enemy, the sea ; but liberty for local institutions and forces. Monarchy has not extinguished the ancient municipal spirit, and this it is that renders impossible a complete fusion of the State, in all the great States that have made the attempt. The great rivers and gulfs are at the same time commercial roads serving as national bonds between the different provinces, and barriers, which defend old traditions and old customs in each.

But however wonderful may be the physical history of Holland, her political history is still more so. This small territory, invaded from the beginning by different tribes of the Germanic races, subjugated by the Romans and the Franks, devastated by the Normans and by the Danes, desolated by centuries of civil war with all its horrors, this small people of fishermen and traders, saves its civil liberty and its freedom of conscience by a war of eighty years against the formidable monarchy of Philip II., and founds a republic which becomes the ark of salvation to the liberties of all the world, the adopted country of science, the Exchange of Europe, the station for the commerce of the world; a republic which extends its domination to Java, Sumatra, Hindostan, Ceylon, New Holland, Japan, Brazil, Guiana, the Cape of Good Hope, the West Indies, and New York ; a republic which vanquishes England on the sea, which resists the united arms of Charles II. and Louis XIV., and which treats an equal terms with the greatest nations, and is, for a time, one of the three Powers that decide the fate of Europe.

She is not now the great Holland of the seventeenth century; but she is still, after England, the first colonizing State in the world; instead of her ancient greatness, she has tranquil prosperity; she restricts herself to commerce acquired by agriculture; she retains the substance of the republican regimé although she has lost the form; a family of patriot princes, dear to the people, governs tranquilly in the midst of her liberties, ancient and modern. There is wealth without ostentation, freedom without insolence, and there are taxes without poverty. She is, perhaps, of all European states the one where there is most popular education and least corruption of manners. Alone, at the extremity of the continent, occupied with her dykes and her colonies, she enjoys in peace the fruits of her labours, with the comforting conviction that no people in the world have conquered at the price of greater sacrifices liberty of conscience and the independence of the State.

All these things I revolved in my mind to the stimulation of my curiosity, as at Antwerp one fine summer morning I went on board the ship which was to take me by the way of the Scheldt to Zeeland, the most mysterious of the provinces of the low countries.