Zeeland – Holland

IF before I had made up my mind to go to Holland some professor of geography had stopped me in the. street and demanded suddenly—Where is Zeeland ? I should have remained speechless ; and I think I am not mistaken in supposing that numbers of my fellow-citizens to whom the question might be put would not easily find an answer. Zeeland is a mystery even for the Hollanders themselves ; very few of them have been there, and of these the greater part have only passed through it in a boat; consequently it is seldom spoken of, and always as a very distant country. The first words that reached my ears among the travellers who came on board the vessel with me, and who were almost all Belgians and Dutch, informed me that they also were about to visit that province for the first time; we were all, therefore, full of curiosity, and the ship had not left her moorings when we entered into conversation, and questions which no one could answer passed from one to another.

The ship sailed at sunrise, and for a time we enjoyed the spectacle of the steeple of Antwerp Cathedral, made out of Mechlin lace, as Napoleon, who was in love with it, used to say; and after having touched at the fortress of Lille and the village of Doel, we came out of Belgium and entered Zeeland.

At the moment of passing for the first time the frontier of a state, although it is evident that the prospect will not change all at once, everyone seems to imagine that it must do so. We all, therefore, stood at the side of the vessel to behold the apparition of Zeeland.

But for a good while our expectations were deluded: nothing was to be seen but the green flat shores of the Scheldt, wide as an arm of the sea, and sprinkled with sand-banks, upon which alighted flocks of screaming sea-gulls ; and the pure, clear sky did not seem the sky of Holland. The ship sailed in between the island of Zuid-Beveland and that strip of land which forms the left bank of the Scheldt, called Flanders of the States, or Flemish Zeeland.

The story of this strip of land is very curious. For the stranger entering Holland it is, as it were, the first page of that great epic which is entitled—the battle with the sea. In the middle ages there was nothing here but a vast gulf with a few scattered islets. In the beginning of the sixteenth century this gulf no longer existed ; four hundred years of slow and patient labour had changed it into a fertile plain defended by dykes, intersected by canals, and populated with villages, under the name of Flemish Zeeland. When the war of independence broke out, the inhabitants of Flemish Zeeland, rather than give it up to the Spaniards, cut their dykes, let in the sea, and destroying in one day the labour of four centuries, it became once more the gulf of the middle ages. The war of independence over, the work of reformation was again commenced, and in three hundred years Flemish Zeeland again emerged from the waters, and was restored to the continent, like a daughter that had been dead and was alive again. Flemish Zeeland, divided from Belgian Flanders by a double political and religious barrier, and separated from Holland by the Scheldt, preserves its customs and its faith as they were in the sixteenth century. The traditions of the war with Spain are as speaking and vivid as any event of the day. The soil is fertile, the inhabitants enjoy a more than ordinary prosperity, they have .schools and printing-presses, their manners are severe and simple, and they live peaceably on their fragment of country, risen from the sea but yesterday, until the day when the sea shall once more claim it for its third burial. A Belgian fellow-passenger, who gave me this information, called my attention to the fact that the inhabitants of Flemish Zeeland, when they inundated their country and rose against the Spanish domination, were still Catholics; consequently the strange circumstance occurred that while they went down into the waters good Catholics, they rose to the surface Protestants.

To my great amazement, the ship, instead of continuing to descend the Scheldt and skirting the island of Zuid-Beveland, when it reached a certain point, entered a narrow canal which cuts that island into two parts and joins the two branches of the river which are made by the island itself.

It was the first Dutch canal that I had seen, and the impression was a new one. It is bordered by two lofty dykes which hide the country; the ship glided along as if it were in ambush and meant to rush out at the other end to somebody’s confusion; and as there was not a boat on the canal nor a living being on the banks, the silence and solitude gave a still more piratical air to the proceeding,

Issuing out into the eastern branch of the Scheldt we were in the heart of Zeeland. To our right lay the island of Tholen; to the left, that of North Beveland; behind, that of South Béveland; before, that Schonwen¬. Except the island of Walcheren, all the principal islands of the mysterious archipelago were around us.

The mystery lay in the fact that the islands were only to be divined, not seen. To the right and left of the wide river, before and behind our vessel, the straight lines of the dykes lay like green strips upon the waters ; and beyond these strips, here and there, the tops of trees and steeples and the red roofs of houses seemed rising up to peep at us.

Not a hill, not a bit of rising ground, not a house could be descried on any side; everything seemed hidden, immersed in the water; the islands might have been on the point of sinking into the depths of the waves ; we appeared to be traversing a country on the day of a great flood, and were sensible of some consolation at the thought that we were in a ship. Now and then the vessel stopped to let out a passenger who got into a small boat and was rowed to shore. I was myself very curious to see Zeeland, and yet I looked at these people with a feeling of compassion, as if those objects which seemed islands were really only monstrous whales that would vanish under the waters at the boat’s approach.

The captain of our ship, a Hollander, stopping to look at a small map of Zeeland which I was studying, I seized the occasion to bombard him with questions. Fortunately I had fallen upon one of those few Dutchmen who, in common with us Latins, have the weakness of loving the sound of their own voices.

” Here in Zeeland,” said he, with the gravity of a schoolmaster giving a lesson, ” the dykes are, even more than in the other provinces, a question of life and death. At high tide all Zeeland is under water. At every broken dyke an island would vanish. And the worst of it is that the dykes have to resist not only the direct attack of the waves, but still another even more dangerous force. The rivers throw themselves into the sea, the sea rushes against the rivers, and in this continual struggle under-currents are formed which gnaw at the base of the dykes, so that they crumble in all at once like a wall that has been undermined. The Zeelanders have to stand ever on the alert. When a dyke is in peril, they build another one within it, and await the assault of the waters behind that, and so gain time, until they can either rebuild the first dyke or continue to strengthen those within, and the current diverges and they are saved.”

“And may it not be,” said I, always hungry for poetic possibilities, that some day Zeeland may no longer exist?”

” Quite the contrary,” he answered, to my great regret ; ” the day may come in which Zeeland will be no longer an archipelago, but terra firma. The Scheldt and the Meuse constantly bring down deposits of mud which remain at the bottom of the arms of the sea, and which, gradually rising, enlarge the islands and enclose within the land cities and villages which were once upon the shore and had their ports. Azel, Goes, Veere, Arneminden, Middelburg, were once maritime towns, and are such no longer. A day will come when Zeeland shall be divided by no waters but those of her rivers, and when a network of railways shall extend over the whole country, which will be joined to the mainland as Zuid-Beveland is joined. Zeeland grows greater in her battle with the sea. The sea may succeed in doing something in other parts of Holland, but here it will get the worst of it. You know the arms of Zeeland, do you not? A lion swimming, and the motto, Luctor et emergo.”

Here he was silent for a moment, and a gleam of pride sparkled for a moment in his eye, and was quenched; then he began again with all his former gravity:

“Emergo; but not always immersed. Everyone of the islands of Zeeland, one after the other, slept for more or less time under the waters. Three centuries ago Schonwen was inundated by the sea, drowning inhabitants and cattle from one end to the other, and leaving it a desert. North Beveland was entirely submerged a short time after, and for several years only the tops of her steeples could be seen above the water. South Beveland had the same fate in the middle of the fourteenth century. Tholen the same in 1825. Walcheren the same in 1808; and in Middelburg, her capital city, several miles distant from the coast, the water was up to the roofs of the houses”

What with hearing for ever of water and floods, of countries submerged and people drowned, I began to think it strange that I was not drowned myself. I asked the captain what sort of people those were, who inhabited the invisible islands with water under their feet and over their heads.

“Agricultural people and shepherds,” he ‘answered: “In point of agriculture Zeeland is e richest province in the low countries. The soil is one of wonderful fertility. Grain, flax, colza, madder, grow as in few other places. There are fine large cattle and colossal horses ; bigger than the Flemish horses. The people are strong and well made, preserving their ancient customs and living con-tented in their prosperity and peace. Zeeland is a hidden paradise.”

Whilst the captain talked, the ship entered the canal of Keete, which divides the islands of Schonwen and Tholen, famous as having been. forded by the Spaniards in 1575, as the eastern arm of the Scheldt is famous for the ford of 1572. All Zeeland is full of memorials of that war. This little sandy archipelago, half buried in the sea, was the very hotbed of war and heresy, both because of its connection with William of Orange, hereditary lord of many of the islands, and because of the impediments of every kind which it opposed to the invader, and the Duke of Alva burned to get possession of it. Consequently the most obstinate struggles went on upon its shores with all the mingled horrors of land fights and sea fights. The soldiers forded the canals at night, holding on to each other, with water up to their necks, in peril from the tides, beaten by the rain, fired at from the shores; horses and artillery sank into the mud ; the wounded were caught by the currents and buried alive in the quagmires ; the air resounded with the voices of Germans, Italians, Flemings, Walloons; torches illuminated here and there the great arquebuses, pompous plumes, strange visages, and the battle seemed a fantastic funeral; and it was indeed the funeral of the great Spanish monarchy, which was being slowly drowned in the waters of Holland and covered with mud and maledictions. He who is guilty of any overwhelming tenderness for Spain has only to go to Holland. There never, perhaps, existed two nations who had better cause to hate each other with all the strength of their souls, or who have proved it with more furious wrath.

The ship now passed between the island of Schonwen and the smaller one of San Philipsland, and in a few moments came out into the large arm of the Meuse called Krammer, which divides the island of Overflakkee from the mainland. We appeared to be sailing through a chain of large lakes. The shores were distant and presented the same aspect as those of the Scheldt : long perspectives of dykes, tops of trees, steeples and roofs behind them. Only upon some projection of the shore, forming a sort of breach in the immense bastion of the islands, could be seen a sort of sketch of a Dutch landscape, a colored house, a windmill, a boat, looking like the revelation of a hidden thing, made to sharpen the curiosity of travellers,, and to delude it.

Going towards the prow of the vessel I made a pleasant discovery. There was a group of peasants, men and women, wearing the costume of Zeeland, I do not remember of which island, for the costume .differs, as does the dialect, which is a mixture of Dutch and Flemish, if that may be said of two languages which differ but slightly from each other. The men wore round felt hats with an embroidered band; jackets of dark cloth, short and tight, and opening in front to display a sort of vest bordered with red, yellow and green, buttoned with a row of silver buttons, so close together as to resemble a chain ; short breeches of the same colour as the jacket, bound round the waist by a belt, furnished with a large stud or buckle of chased silver; a scarlet cravat, and fine woollen stockings coming to the knee. One of them had coins for buttons, a not uncommon custom. The women wore a straw hat in the shape of a truncated cone, very tall, something like a bucket turned upside down, with a quantity of blue ribbons fluttering about it ; a dark-coloured gown open on the bosom over an embroidered chemise ; their arms bare to the elbow; and enormous gold or gilded ear-rings that projected nearly over the cheeks.

Although I did my best to copy Victor Hugo, and ” admire everything like a brute,” I could not succeed in persuading myself that that fashion of dress was beautiful. But I was prepared for this sort of contrariety. I knew that in Holland one seeks the new rather than the beautiful, and the good rather than the new ; and therefore I was more disposed for observation than enthusiasm. I comforted myself for the disappointment of my taste for the picturesque with the thought that all those peasants certainly knew how to read and write; that they had, perhaps, that very evening committed to memory some of the verses of their great poet, Jacob Catz ; and that probably they were then going, with their excellent pro-gramme in their pockets, to some rural meeting, where some of them were to confute with the arguments of their modest experience the propositions of a learned agronome of Goes or Middelburg.

Ludovico Guicciardini, a Florentine gentleman, and author of a fine work on the Low Countries, printed in Antwerp in the sixteenth century, says that in Zeeland there is scarcely a person of either sex who speaks French or Spanish, but that many speak Italian. This, which was perhaps an exaggeration even in his time, is now an absolute fable; but it is certain, however, that there is an extraordinary amount of intellectual culture among them, superior to that of the French, Belgian, or German peasant, and superior also to that of the other parts of Holland.

The ship skirted the island of San Philipsland, and we were out of Zeeland.

So this province, mysterious before we entered it, appeared s till more mysterious when we got out of it. We had been through it, but we had not seen it. We went in and came out with our curiosity ungratified. The only thing we had seen was the fact that Zeeland was invisible. But it would be a mistake to suppose that it is a country of mystery merely because it is hidden. Everything in Zeeland is mysterious. In the first place, how was it formed? Was it a group of very small islands, separated by canals and uninhabited, which, as some believe, joined themselves together and became large islands ? or was it, as others believe, terra firma when the Scheldt emptied itself into the Meuse? But leaving the question of its origin, in what other country in the world do the things happen which happen in Zeeland? In what other country do the fishermen catch a Siren in their nets, and the husband, having in vain entreated with tears that she should be restored to him, catches up a handful of sand and throws it at them, prophesying at the same time that that sand shall choke up the city ports, and the prophecy is accomplished? In what country, as on the shores of the island of Walcheren, do the souls of the dead, lost at sea, come and wake up the fishermen, and oblige them to carry them in their boats to the English coast? In what country do the tempests bring, as on the shores of the island of Schonwen, corpses from the Polar seas, of monsters, half man, half boat, mummies dressed in trunks of trees that float? and is there not one to be seen now in the Municipal Hall of Zeirikzee? In what country, except near Wemeldinge, does it happen to a man to fall head first into a canal and remain under one hour, during which time he sees his dead wife and children, who con-verse with him from Paradise, and he is then taken out alive, and relates the prodigy to Victor Hugo, who believes it true and writes a commentary upon it, concluding that the soul may leave the body for a time and return to it again ? In what country, save Domburg, do they fish up at low water antique temples and statues of unknown divinities? In what country, except at Wemeldinge, does the sword of a Spanish captain, Mondragone, serve as a lightning-rod to a tower ? In what country but the island of Schonwen, do they make unfaithful wives walk naked through the streets, with two stones tied to their necks, and an iron cylinder upon their heads ? But come, this last wonder is no more to be seen; but the stones exist still, and anyone may see them in the Town Hall of Brauwershaven.

The ship now entered that portion of the southern branch of the Meuse, which is called Vokerak; the scene was still the same : dykes, and again dykes, tops of steeples, roofs of houses, here and there a vessel. One thing only was changed—the sky.

I saw there for the first time the sky of Holland under its usual aspect, and looked on at one of those battles of light, proper to the Low Countries, which the great Dutch landscape painters rendered with such unrivalled excellence. Until then the sky had been serene, a lovely summer’s day, the waters blue, the shores bright green, the air warm, and not a puff of wind. Suddenly a dense cloud hid the sun, and in less time than it takes to write it, everything changed its aspect, as if in one instant season, latitude, and time had changed. The water became dark, the green of the shores grew dull, the horizon hid itself behind a grey veil, every object appeared surrounded by a dim light that softened and confused the outlines, and a malignant breeze arose that froze one’s very bones. It seemed December, and we felt the damp chill of winter, and that uneasiness which is brought by any sudden, unexpected change in nature. Then, from the whole circle of the horizon, leaden clouds began to rise, moving with great rapidity, seeming to seek with a sort of painful impatience a direction and a form, and the water became agitated, streaked with luminous reflections, broad, greenish, violet, whitish, clay-colored, and black strips; and at length the irritation of nature resolved itself into a thick, heavy rain, confusing sea and land and sky into one grey mass, hardly interrupted by a slightly darker shade where lay the distant shore, or where the sails of some vessel stood up here and there like a dim phantom on the waters of the rivers.

” We are now really in Holland,” said the captain to a group of passengers who stood contemplating the scene. “These sudden changes are seen nowhere but here.”

Then, in answer to a question from one of us, he added :

” Holland has a meteorology of her own. The winter is long, the summer short, the spring nothing but the end of winter, and now and then, as we see, winter looks back at us even in summer. There is a saying among us that we may see the four seasons in one day. We have the most inconstant sky in the world, and we are for ever talking about the weather. The atmosphere is the most variable spectacle that we can boast. But it is a dreary climate. The sea sends rain from three quarters, and the winds sweep over us without resistance; even on the finest days the earth exhales vapors that obscure the horizon; for many months the air has no transparency. See the winter; there are days when it seems as if we should never see the sky again; the darkness comes from above, like the light ; the northwest wind brings the icy air from the poles and lashes the sea into a fury that seems capable of destroying the coast.” Here he turned to me with a smile, and said : ” You are better off in Italy.” Then he became grave again, and added : “But every country has its good and its evil.”

The ship now coming out of the Volkerak, passed before the fortress of Willemstadt, built in 1583 by the Prince of Orange, and entered the Hollandsdiep, a large branch of the Meuse with separates South Holland from North Brabant. A great stretch of water, two dark lines to right and left, and an ash-colored sky, were all that could be seen from the vessel. A French lady, amid the general silence, exclaimed with a yawn : ” How lovely Holland is ! ” and everybody, but the Hollanders, laughed.

“Ah, Captain,” said a little old gentleman, a Belgian, one of those pillars of the café who are for ever airing their political opinions, “every country has its good and its evil side, and we Belgians and Hollanders must at least be persuaded of this truth, and sympathise with each other in order to live in peace and harmony. When we think that we are a State of nine millions, we with our manufactures, and you with your commerce, with two capitals like Amsterdam and Brussels, and two commercial cities like Antwerp and Rotterdam ! we should count for something in the world, eh, Captain ? ”

The captain made no reply. Another Dutchman said : “To be sure; with religious wars going on twelve months in the year.”

The little old Belgian, rather disconcerted, continued in a low voice to me :

” It is a fact, Signor mio. It is a trifle, especially on our side. You will see in Holland : Amsterdam is not Brussels; no, indeed, and the country is as flat and as tiresome as it can be; but as for prosperity, you will see. They spend a florin, which is more than two francs, where we spend a franc. You will find that out in the hotel hills. They are twice as rich as we are. The blow was given by William I., who wanted to make a Dutch Belgium, and pushed us to extremities. You know how things went on,” &e.

In the Hollandsdiep we began to see large boats, fishing vessels, and some large ships from Hellevoetsluis, a great maritime port on the right bank of the Meuse, near the mouth, where all the vessels that make the voyage to India stop. The rain ceased, the sky gradually, almost unwillingly, cleared in part, the water and the shores again took on their fresh and vivid colors, and we were in summer once more.

In a short time the ship was off the village of Moerdigk. There is to be seen one of the largest bridges in the world. It is an iron bridge, one mile and a half in length, over which passes the railway to Dordrecht and Rotterdam. From a distance it presents the aspect as of fourteen enormous buildings of equal size placed across the river, these edifices being the piers of the arches which sustain the rails. Passing over it, as I did some months afterwards, one sees nothing but sky and water. It is not a pleasant sensation. The ship turned to the left in front of the bridge and entered a narrow arm’ of the Meuse, called Dordshe kil, bordered by dykes, and having more the look of a canal than a river. It was the seventh turn she had made since we crossed the frontier. We now began to see around us something like the appearance of a great city. Long piles of trees upon the banks, bushes, small houses, canals on either side, and a coming and going of boats large and small. The name of Dordrecht was in everybody’s mouth, and all seemed making ready for some spectacle. The ship turned for the eighth time and entered the Oude-Maas, or old Meuse, and in a few minutes we saw the first houses of the environs of Dordrecht.

It was like the sudden apparition of Holland, the instantaneous satisfaction of all our curiosity, the revelation of all the mysteries that tormented our imaginations ; we awakened in a new world.

On every side we saw very high windmills with their long arms; houses were sprinkled along the river, of a thou-sand strange forms, villas, pavilions, kiosks, with red roofs, black walls, and walls of rose, blue, and ash color, the windows and doors surrounded by broad snow-white bands, Canals great and small divided these houses„ and were bordered by rows of trees; ships lay all along; boats before every door; sails gleamed at the bottoms of the streets ; pennons, ships’ flags, and arms of windmills rose confusedly above the trees and roofs; bridges, small stairways, gardens hanging over the water, and a coming and going of men, women, and children on the banks of the canals and over the bridges, making a lively and varied spectacle. There was something of theatrical and childish, a little Chinese, a little European, a little of no country, mingled with an air of blessed peace and innocence.

So appeared to me Dordrecht for the first time, one of the oldest as well as one of the freshest and gayest of Dutch cities ; queen of commerce in the middle ages ; fertile mother of painters and learned men; honoured by first assembly of deputies from the United Provinces in 1572; the seat at different times of memorable synods; and especially famous for that assembly of Protestant theologians in 1618, which was a sort of (Ecumenical Council of Reform, which fixed the form of the national religion, and caused the beginning of that series of agitations and persecutions which ended with the fatal execution of Barnevelt and the bloody triumph of Maurice of Orange.

Dordrecht is still one of the most flourishing of the cities of the United Provinces, thanks to its easy communication with the sea, with Belgium, and the interior of Holland. At Dordrecht arrive the immense provisions of wood which come down the Rhine from the Black Forest and Switzerland, the wines of the Rhine, lime, cement, and stone; in her small port there is a continual coming and going of sails, clouds of smoke, and flags, bringing greetings from Arnhem, from Bois-le-Duc, from Nimegnen, Rotterdam, Antwerp, and all her mysterious sisters of Zeeland.

Our ship stopped a few minutes at Dordrecht, and I was strongly tempted to land and look about me, but reflecting that I should have better opportunities and more to see at Rotterdam, I refrained; and we presently turned (our ninth turning) into a narrow branch of the Meuse called De Noord, one of the thousand threads of the inextricable watery network that covers South Holland.

The position of Dordrecht is most singular. It is placed upon the extremity of a tract of land, separated from the continent, forming an island in the midst of land, surrounded by rivers, partly natural, partly artificial, of which one, the large stream called the New Merwede, was entirely formed by the hand of man. The imprisonment of this piece of land upon which Dordrecht stands is an episode of one of Holland’s great battles with the sea. The archipelago of Biesbosch did not exist before the fifteenth century, and in its place extended a beautiful plain, dotted with populous villages. On the night of the 18th of November 1421, the waters of the Waal and the Meuse burst the dykes, destroyed more than seventy villages, drowned a hundred thousand people, and broke up the plain into a hundred or so of small islands, leaving only one tower erect amid the ruin, some remains of which, called Casa Merwede, are still to be seen.

Thus was Dordrecht separated from the mainland, and the archipelago of Biesbosch made its appearance upon the earth, which, as if to show that it has some reason to exist, offers hay, canes, and reeds to a small village that is stuck like a swallow’s nest upon one of the surrounding dykes. But this is not all the singularity of Dordrecht.

Tradition relates that the entire city, with its houses, its mills, its canals, was, in the time of that memorable inundation, transported all in one piece from one place to another ; and that when the inhabitants of the neighbouring towns came to it after the catastrophe they could not find it. And this prodigy is explained by the fact that Dordrecht is founded upon a stratum of clay, and that this stratum of clay slid bodily down. with the city upon it. I write it as I heard it, or read it.

Before the ship left the canal of Noord my hope of seeing my first sunset in Holland was deluded by another sudden change of weather. The sky grew dark, the water became livid, and the horizon vanished behind a dense vapory veil.

At that point where the Meuse takes prisoner and carries with her the waters of the main branch of the Rhine, the Vaal, and receives those of the Leek and the Yssel, the width is very great, and the banks are crowned by long rows of trees, interspersed with houses, manufactories, workshops, and arsenals, that extend all the way to Rotterdam. The first time that one sees the Meuse, and thinks of the disasters, the transformations, the thousand calamities, and innumerable victims of that capricious and terrible river, one examines it with a sort of anxious curiosity, as if it were some famous brigand, and one’s eyes run along the dykes with a sentiment of grateful satisfaction, as when one beholds the famous bandit manacled and in the hands of the carabinieri. Whilst we stood expecting the first view of Rotterdam, a passenger told us that, when the Meuse is frozen, the current which comes from warmer regions bursts from beneath the ice that covers the stream, and with a terrible noise, piles it against the dykes in immense masses, thus arrestting the course of the water and making it overflow. Then begins a strange battle. To the threats of the Meuse the Hollanders reply with cannon, and charges of grapeshot break the towers and barricades of ice which choke the current into a tempest of briny and icy rain. ” I think,” concluded the passenger, “that we Hollanders are the only people who are forced to fight their rivers with cannon.”

When we arrived in sight of Rotterdam it rained and was foggy ; we could see, as through a veil, only an immense confusion of ships, houses, windmills, towers, trees, and people in motion on the dykes-and bridges; there were lights everywhere ; a great city with such an aspect as I had never seen before, and which fog and darkness soon hid from me altogether. When I had taken leave of my travelling companions, and had put my luggage in order, it was night. ” So much the better,” I thought, as I entered a carriage; “I shall see the first Dutch city by night, which must be a strange spectacle.” And, indeed, when M. Bismarck was at Rotterdam, he wrote to his wife that at night he saw spectres on the roofs.