The Zuyder Zee – Holland

I had yet to see ancient Frisia, Home’s indomitable rebel, the land of handsome women, big horses, and invisible skaters, the most poetic of the Netherland provinces; and in going there I was to satisfy another lively wish of mine, that of crossing the Zuyder Zee, the latest-born of seas.

This great basin of the North Sea, which bathes five provinces, and has an extent of more than seven hundred square kilometres, six hundred years ago was not in existence. North Holland touched Friesland, and where the gulf now extends there was a vast region sprinkled with fresh-water lakes, the largest of which, the Flevo, mentioned by Tacitus, was separated from the sea by a fertile and populous isthmus. Whether the sea by its own force broke through the natural dykes of the region, or whether the sinking of the land left it free to invasion, is not certainly known. The great transformation was completed during the course of the thirteenth century.

In 1205 the island of Wieringen, posted at the extremity of North Holland, still made part of the continent; in 1251 it was already separated from it. In its later invasions, the sea submerged various parts of the isthmus which separated its waters from those of the lake of Flevo, until in 1282, opening for itself a breach in that shattered bulwark, it broke into the lakes, invaded the land, and enlarging as it proceeded, formed the vast gulf now known as the Zuyder Zee, or Southern Sea, which sends an arm, the Y, as far as Beverwijk and Haarlem. About the formation of this gulf there has collected a varied and confused history of cities destroyed and people drowned, to which has been added in later times another history, of new cities rising on new shores, becoming powerful and famous, and being in their turn reduced to poor and mean villages, with streets overgrown with grass, and sand-choked ports. Records of great calamities, wonderful traditions, fantastic horrors, strange usages and customs, are found upon the waters and about the shores of this peculiar sea, born but yesterday, and already encircled with ruins and condemned to disappear; and a month’s voyage would not suffice to gather up the chief of them ; but the thought alone of beholding from a distance those decrepit cities, those mysterious islands, those fatal sand-banks, irresistibly excited my imagination.

I left Amsterdam towards the end of February, in beautiful weather, on board one of the steamboats that go to Harlingen. I knew that it was the last time I should see the capital of Holland. Leaning over the railing at the prow as the vessel left the port, I contemplated for the last time the great city, trying to impress indelibly on my memory its fantastic aspect. In a few minutes I saw nothing but the black irregular outline of its houses, above which rose the dome of the palace and a forest of shining steeples. Then the city sank ; the steeples vanished one after another; the highest point of the cathedral, visible for a moment above the rest, sank in its turn into the sea; and Amsterdam was nothing but a memory.

The steamboat passed between the gigantic dykes that shut in the gulf of the Y, rapidly crossed the ” Pampas,” the great sand-bank that nearly ruined the trade of Amsterdam, and entered the Zuyder Zee.

The shores of this gulf are all meadows, gardens, and villages, which, in the summer, present an enchanting aspect ; but seen from the steamboat, and in February, show only as a faint streak of dull green separating the sea and sky. The shore of North Holland is the finest, and along this our vessel steamed.

After crossing the Pampus, we turned to the left and passed at a short distance the island of Marken.

Marken is as famous among the islands of the Zuyder Zee as Broek is among the villages of Holland ; but with all its fame, and although distant but one hour by boat from the coast, few are the strangers, and still fewer the natives who visit it. So said the captain as he pointed out the light-house of the little island, and added that in his opinion the reason was, that when a stranger arrived at Marken, even if he were a Dutchman, he was followed by a crowd of boys, watched, and commented upon as if he were a man fallen from the moon. This unusual curiosity is explained by a description of the island. It is a bit of land about three thousand metres in length and one thousand in width, which was detached from the continent in the thirteenth century, and remains to this day, in the manners and customs of its inhabitants, exactly as it was six centuries ago. The surface of the island is but little higher than the sea, and it is surrounded by a small dyke which does not suffice to protect it from inundation. The houses are built upon eight small artificial elevations, and form as many boroughs, one of which—the one which has the church—is the capital, and another the cemetery. When the sea rises above the dyke, the spaces between the little hills are changed into canals, and the inhabitants go about in boats. The houses are built of wood, some painted, some only pitched; one only is of stone, that of the pastor, who also has a small garden shaded by four large trees, the only ones on the island. Next to this house are the church, the school, and the municipal offices. The population is about one thousand in number, and lives by fishing. With the exceptions of the doctor, the pastor, and the schoolmaster, all are native to the island ; no islander marries on the continent ; no one from the mainland comes to live on the island. They all profess the reformed religion, and all know how to read and write. In the schools more than two hundred boys and girls are taught history, geography, and arithmetic. The fashion of dress, which has not been changed for centuries, is the same for all, and extremely curious. The men look like soldiers. They wear a dark grey cloth jacket ornamented with two rows of buttons which are in general medals, or ancient coins, handed down from father to son. This jacket is tucked into the waistband of a pair of breeches of the same color, very wide about the hips and tight around the leg, fastening. below the knee; a felt hat or a fur cap, according to the season ; a red cravat, black stockings, white wooden shoes, or a sort of slipper, complete the costume. That of the women is still more peculiar. They wear on their heads an enormous white cap in the form of a mitre, all ornamented with lace and needlework, and tied under the chin like a helmet. From under the cap, which completely covers the ears, fall two long braided tresses, which hang over the bosom, and a sort of visor of hair comes down upon the forehead, cut square just above the eyebrows. The dress is composed of a waist without sleeves, and a petticoat of two colors. The waist is deep red, embroidered in colors and costing years of labor to make, for which reason it descends from mother to daughter, from generation to generation. The upper part of the petticoat is grey or blue striped with black, and the lower part dark brown. The arms are covered almost to the elbow with the sleeves of a white chemise, striped with red. The children are dressed in almost the same way, though there is some slight difference between girls and women, and on holidays the costume is more richly ornamented.

Such is the costume—a mixture of the oriental, the warlike, and the sacred ; and the customs and manner of life of the inhabitants are quite as strange. The men are extraordinarily sober, and live to a great age. They leave the island every Sunday night with their boats, pass the week fishing in the Zuyder Zee, and return on the Saturday. The women educate the children, cultivate the ground, and make the clothing for the family. Like all the other Dutch women, they love cleanliness and ornament, and in their cabins also are to be seen the inevitable white curtains, glass cups, embroidered bed-covers, looking-glasses, and flowers. The greater part of them never see any other land than that of their little island. They are poor; but knowing nothing of any better condition, and having no wants or desires that cannot be satisfied, they are unconscious of their own poverty. Among them there is neither change of fortune nor distinction of class. Everybody works, nobody serves. The only events which vary the monotony of. their lives are births, marriages, deaths, an abundant catch of fish, the arrival of a stranger, the passage of a vessel, a tempest on the sea. They pray they love, they fish. Such is their life; and so generation succeeds to generation, preserving unaltered, like a sacred heirloom, the innocence of their manners, and their ignorance of the world.

Passing beyond the island of Marken we see on the North Holland side a steeple, a group of red houses, and some sails. It is Monnickendam, a village of three thousand inhabitants, formerly a flourishing city, which, in conjunction with Hoorn and Enckhuysen, conquered and took prisoner the Spanish Admiral Bossu, and took from him, as a trophy, the collar of the Golden Fleece ; the other two cities had his sword and his drinking-cup.

After Monnickendam is seen the village of Volendam, and after Volendam the small city of Edam, from which the famous cheese with the red rind takes its name, lama super etera notus.

A curious legend, represented in an old bas-relief over one of the doors, belongs to this place. Some hundreds of years ago some young girls of Edam, who were walking on the beach, saw a strange-looking woman swimming in the sea, and stopping every now and then to look curiously at them. They called to her, and she drew near ; they made signs to her to come out of the water, and she stepped out upon the beach. She was a beautiful woman, naked as she was born, except for the mud, and the sea-weed that grew upon her skin as moss grows on the bark of trees. Some think that she had a fish’s tail, but a grave chronicler, who had heard the fact related by an eye-witness, declares that her legs were like those of other women. They questioned her, and she did not understand, but answered in a sweet voice and a language unknown to them. They took her home, scraped the sea-weed from her skin, dressed her like a Dutch woman, and taught her to spin. It is not known how long she remained in her new condition, but the legend goes on to say that, however scraped and clothed, she felt herself drawn towards the sea by a potent instinct, and that after having tried several times in vain to return to her native element, and although watched by a hundred eyes, she one day succeeded in getting away, and was never heard of again. Whence came she? Whither went she ? Who knows ? The fact is that on the shores of the Zuyder Zee everybody knows about the marine weir an of Edam, and talks of her to this day, and that to dare to say, as some do, in a group of peasants, that the woman must have been a seal, is to be treated as an impertinent person ; and I think that the peasants are right, for who can pronounce upon a fact which they did not see ? Edam, which in the old time was a flourishing city of more than twenty-five thousand inhabitants, has had the same fate as the other cities of the Zuyder Zee, and is now no more than a village.

From Edam to Hoorn the coast is scarcely visible, and so I turned my attention to the sea. In the gulf of Zuyder Zee may be seen reflected, as in a mirror, the marvellous mobility of the skies of Holland. It is the youngest of the seas of Europe, and it presents in its aspect all the caprice, the restlessness, and the inexplicable and unexpected changes of youth. On that day, as almost always, the sky was covered with clouds that dissolved and gathered again perpetually, so that in one hour there succeeded one another every variation of light which in our country is scarcely seen in the course of a day. At one moment the sea was black as pitch, with a distant edge of shining white, like a border of quicksilver. All at once the black was gone, and the gulf became covered with great green tracts, like patches of vegetation, the vessels leaving long blue wakes behind them, reminding one of the meadows and canals of the continent. Then all the vivid green died out, and was replaced by a muddy yellow giving to the sea the look of a vast and filthy bog, in which deformed and hideous animals might wallow. For an instant the steeples and windmills on the shore showed through the fog like distant and almost invisible phantoms, and it seemed that at that point it was dark and raining. A moment more, and mills, steeples, and houses appeared close at hand, and gleaming golden in the sun. Beside the vessel, along the shore, in the midst of the gulf, light and shadow, color, black darkness and noonday light, smiling sunshine and threatening tempest, continually followed each other, until it seemed as if it all had some mysterious meaning, some signification beyond human understanding, which invisible spectators above alone could explain. Here and there glided a boat with black sails, looking like a floating bier for the transportation of the dead.

The vessel passed within sight of Hoorn, the ancient capital of North Holland, where in 1416 the first great herring-net was made, and where that intrepid Schonten was born who was the first to go round the extreme southern point of America ; and then we turned towards Enckhuysen. On that part of the coast that lies between the two cities there extends a chain of villages composed of little wooden and brick houses, with varnished roofs and carved doors, before which stand trees with painted trunks. From the steamboat nothing of these villages can be seen except the roofs, looking as if they emerged from the water or were floating upon it. The red color of these roofs, a few steeples, the wings of windmills, are the only colors and forms which vary here and there the long thin line of coast, like the profile of a very slender isthmus. A little before reaching Enckhuysen is seen the little island of Urk, which is believed to have once been a part of that of Schokland, placed at a short distance from the mouth of the Yssel. Urk is still inhabited; Schokland was deserted a few years ago, its inhabitants finding it impossible to contend against the sea.

The vessel stopped at Enckhuysen.

Enckhuysen is the most dead of all the dead cities of the Zuyder Zee. In the sixteenth century it contained forty thousand inhabitants, sent one hundred and forty boats to the herring fishery, had a fine harbor, twenty ships of war, a large arsenal, and sumptuous edifices. Now the harbor is choked with sand, the population reduced to five thousand souls; one of its ancient gates is at a quarter of an hour’s distance from the first houses in the town, its streets are grass-grown, its houses ruined and abandoned, its people poor and scattered. The one sole glory that remains to it is that of having been the birthplace of Paul Potter. The steamboat stopped a few minutes before this shade of a dead city. On the landing-pier there were but one or two sailors; of the city nothing could be seen save a few houses half hidden by the dykes, and one tall steeple, which at that moment was ringing slowly out, like the tolling of a death-bell, the air from ” William Tell,” O Matilde, t’ amo, e vero. The shore was deserted, the port silent, the houses closed, and a great black cloud banging over the town seemed like a pall slowly descending to cover it up for ever. It was a spectacle to excite both compassion and dread.

Leaving Enckhuysen, the steamboat reached in a few minutes the entrance to the Zuyder Zee, between the town of Stavoren, the most advanced point on this coast of Friesland, and Medemblijk, another decayed city of North Holland, which was the capital of the province before the foundation of Hoorn and Enckhuysen. At that point the gulf is about half as wide as the straits of Calais. When the gigantic undertaking for the draining of the Zuyder Zee shall be carried into effect, it is at this point that the enormous dyke will be placed which is to keep out the North Sea. The dyke will extend from Stavoren to Medemblijk, leaving in the middle a wide canal for the movement of the tides, and the flowing off of the waters of the Yssel and the Vecht; and behind it, the great gulf will be gradually transformed into a fertile plain, North Holland will be joined to Friesland, all the dead cities of the coast will be revived and animated with new life, islands destroyed, manners and customs changed, dialects commingled, a province, a people, a world created. This great work will cost, according to the calculations made, one hundred and twenty-five millions of francs ; the studies for it have been going on for many years, and perhaps it will soon be commenced; but alas ! before it is completed, we who were born towards the middle of the nineteenth century will be lying with folded hands, and the violets growing over us.

Just after passing Medemblijk, the steeples of Stavoren on the opposite side of the gulf came into view, the most ancient of the Frisian cities, its name, as the etymologists tell us, derived from the god Stavo, adored by the ancient Frisians. The city, which is now no more than a small village of melancholy appearance, surrounded by great bastions and marshes, was, in the times when Amsterdam did not exist, a great, beautiful, and populous city, the residence of the King of Frisia, and into it flowed the merchandise of the East and the West, so that it had gained the glorious title of the Nineveh of the Zuyder Zee. A strange legend—which is, however, founded upon a fact, the choking of the port with sand—gives the first explanation of its miserable decadence. The inhabitants, having grown immensely rich by commerce, had become vain, proud, and dissipated, and had pushed their foolish ostentation so far as even to gild the railings, the doors, the locks, and the humblest utensils of their houses. This was displeasing to God, who deliberated as to how He should best inflict a solemn castigation on the insolent city, and soon found the occasion to do so. A rich female merchant of Stavoren hired a vessel and sent it to Dantzic for a cargo of I know not what precious goods. The captain of the vessel arrived at Dantzic, but did not succeed in finding the merchandise which the female merchant desired, and not wishing to return without a cargo, loaded his ship with grain. When he came to Stavoren the female merchant, who was waiting for him at the port, asked what he had brought. The captain humbly answered that he had brought nothing but grain. “Grain!” cried the haughty woman, in an accent of anger and contempt. “Throw it at once into the sea !” The captain obeyed, and the anger of God burst forth. At the very point where the grain fell into the sea, there was formed before the port a great sand-bank, which gradually extinguished the commerce of the city. The sand-bank is there to this day, and is called Vrouwensand, or the Woman’s Sand-bank, and is such an impediment that the smallest trading-vessels have to steer with great caution, in order not to run upon it; nor did a great mole, which was constructed to remedy this evil, in any way change the fate of the condemned city.

The sun was setting when the steamboat left Stavoren, but, in spite of the hour and the season, the weather was so mild that I was able to dine on deck, and, inspired by the grand idea of the draining of the Zuyder Zee, drain to its last drop a bottle of old Bordeaux wine, without having to blow upon the ends of my fingers. The passengers were all below, the sea perfectly calm, the sky all golden, the wine exquisite, and my soul at peace. Meantime, before me lay spread out the coast of Friesland, defended by two rows of piles, sustained by enormous blocks of German and Norwegian granite and basalt, giving to the country the look of a vast entrenched camp. We passed near Hindelopen, another decayed city, which has about a thousand inhabitants who still wear the absurd costume of centuries ago ; we skirted a series of small hidden villages which gave token of their presence by raising above their dykes the iron finger – of their steeples, and arrived at last at Harlingen—the second capital of Friesland—still illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun.