It is a long-standing romantic idea that the creation of the Kingdom of Belgium was directly triggered by an opera on 25 August in 1830, on the last of a three-day festival celebrating the Dutch King William I’s 15 year reign. La muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) was indeed about nationalistic sentiments. In it, the spectators saw the inhabitants of Naples freeing themselves from Spanish rule in 1647 out of “holy love for the fatherland”.
This hugely popular opera had been forbidden by King William I for a month since the Parisian uprising in July. Its performances had also caused earlier outbursts of protest. However, this sensitive opera was again allowed in Brussels on the last day of the celebrations. Tensions were already rising. For safety reasons, other festivities in Brussels on 25 August were cancelled. The performance of the opera turned out to be the main gathering place for protestors, Belgians – as they had called themselves for years.
The theatregoers watching the opera at the Théâtre de la Monnaie (Muntschouwburg) in Brussels were said to be fuelled by patriotic sentiments. After hearing the aria “Amour sacré de la patrie”, they left early and joined the mob in the streets. From this day on, an uprising spread quickly in the south.
The very site of the Belgian Revolution in 1830: Théâtre de la Monnaie (Muntschouwburg).
Was the birth of the Kingdom of Belgium the fulfilment of the will of a people throughout the ages, was it pure coincidence or an initiative of just a few of the elite? Is Belgium a historical nation or an invented one (as often popularly said), mainly installed as a buffer between the other powers and uniting two unrelated peoples (the Dutch speaking Flemish and the French speaking, later called, Wallonians) – bound for possible disaster? It is a rather complex history, both before and after the crucial year 1830 – and is still being written.
Nationalism as a historical process
The concept of nationalism, of a nation as a bonding factor, is indeed a product of the romantic movements of the 19th century, as can clearly be seen in the case of Belgium. In fact, the lands on which the new state was to be born consisted initially of several fiefdoms and had known different transformations. They needed to unite before they could move and act together. The lands had to undergo several unifications, centralisations, all externally imposed, before any sense of a nation could exist.
Language was never a unifying factor before the 19th century. It has often been said that the Belgian people was tired of being ruled by rulers from abroad. However, this never posed a problem when their privileges were respected and their grievances met.
The first signs of the formation of a Belgian nation are seen as early as the so-called Burgundian Netherlands (1384-1482). By heritage, war and acquisitions, a number of the more or less connected fiefdoms fell into the hands of the Burgundian dukes, in a personal union. Duke Philip the Good was the first to implement unitary policies to cement his power.
The Duchy of Burgundy and the Burgundian Netherlands in the north on a map from 1912.
The Burgundian period would lead up to the Seventeen Provinces (1543). It referred to the provinces (the former fiefdoms) that fell into the hands of the Habsburg dynasty, culminating in the rule of Emperor Charles V and King Philip II. They styled themselves Lord of the Netherlands – uniting them only in name but seeing them as indivisible.
An uprising against the Spanish crown under Philip II would lead to the Peace of Munster in 1648 and end the Eighty Years War. This caused the north to break away from the south, as the Republic of the Seven Netherlands, while the south remained under Spanish rule as the Habsburg Netherlands.
These Habsburg Netherlands came under the strong influence of Catholicism, which eventually would become a national factor. The original Burgundian institutions, more a façade for unity during the reign of the dukes, still formed the central institutions. Provincialism (provincial thinking and interests) was however still dominant. It was stronger than any national idea and therefore a real unifying structure was still completely lacking.
From 1740 on, the reign of Maria Theresia rationalised and centralised the institutions in the Austrian Netherlands, as it had fallen in the hands of her branch of the Habsburg dynasty from 1714 on. A government was set up in Brussels, forming a central administration under the watchful eye of the Council of the Netherlands in Austria. Her government in Brussels became a highlight of administrative centralisation.
Coin (liard, oord) by Maria Theresia, “Ad usum Belgii Austr 1751” used in the Austrian Netherlands.
Besides other reforms, a national history was written about the Austrian countries to promote nation building. The Netherlands were pointed out for their individuality. Although Maria Theresia supported the unity of the Austrian Netherlands, the vernacular languages were not stimulated. French remained the cultural language, which again promoted a certain form of unity.
The Austrian Netherlands, however, still lacked a few crucial aspects to really form a nation. There was no legal equality between its provinces, because differences in status still existed. Moreover, it was not a unitary state at all. The provincial differences were still huge.
French Revolution and Enlightenment
The French Revolution of 1789 had set something in motion in Western Europe. Since the French King could be deposed, others could too. For the first time a ruler would be held accountable. Some rulers were already under the influence of the ideas of the Enlightenment.
The Austrian Habsburg rulers Maria Theresia (1740 - 1780) and her son Emperor Joseph II (1780 - 1790) had implemented policy based on these ideas. Religious structures and institutions were taken down. Rule by the state was centralised and the law system simplified. Joseph II actually ruled as an enlightened despot; his rule was for the people, not by the people at all.
The success of the American Revolution, resulting in independence in 1776, inspired popular movements on the European continent. Opposition to Joseph II’s policies led to the Brabantian Revolution in 1789-1790, in which the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium of today) tried to make the Emperor listen to their grievances.
Traditionalist-conservatives led by Brussels lawyer Van der Noot wanted to restore the old system and its privileges. Another leader and Brussels lawyer, Vonck, was an adept of the ideas of a liberal Enlightenment. Neither the grievances of the conservatives nor the liberals were met with any favourable action by the Emperor and prompted them to recruit small armies.
Not surprisingly, their sudden reaction forced the troops of the Emperor to leave the Austrian Netherlands. However, the conservatives usurped power in coalition with the clerics. The liberals realised how fiercely the Catholics still opposed the ideas of the Enlightenment.
The resulting United States of the Netherlands (Foederati Belgii, Etats Belgiques unis) were short lived. It only survived the months of January until December 1790 and was reconquered by the Austrians. This confederacy did not include the Prince Bishopric of Liège, which was autonomous and had also deposed their ruler in a successful liberal revolution themselves.
Under French rule
The Austrian Netherlands were invaded by France in 1792 and officially annexed in 1795. They were restructured in newly drawn and named units, départements, in a total territorial break with the past and provincialism. They still live on geographically in Belgium today, but were renamed as provinces. The Prince-Bishopric of Liège was also annexed and divided among the three neighbouring départements.
After the Austrian Netherlands became an integral part of the French Empire, revolutionary policies and laws were fully implemented. The Republic of the Seven Netherlands (Netherlands of today), was finally annexed in 1810 after having been ruled as a satellite state before.
Jacobinian clubs were opened in the big cities. Here republican democrats could debate and form a strong national network. The most promising members could rise up to become civil servants. Their formation in the cities would feed nationalist sentiments. French rule aimed for a total break with the past and revolutionary ideas found their way to everyday life. However, the constant proclamations, the sensed loss of old society and the forced conscriptions for the ongoing revolutionary war in Europe contributed strongly to the unpopularity of the French among both the broad public and the elite.
Protests and nationalism in making
After the French Empire was weakened and ultimately defeated, the North was liberated in 1813 and became the Sovereign Principality of the United Netherlands (Netherlands of today). The Belgian départements were freed by an international alliance. The Belgians did not take part in the liberation itself. Napoleonic wars and conscriptions had already decimated and demoralised most of the men fit for war.
In a secret treaty, the Eight Articles of London of 21 June 1814, the South was allocated to the United Netherlands ruled by the Sovereign Prince William. The two countries were to be ruled as a “single state”. The King made a great effort to unite the two parts of his kingdom, with his policy of amalgamation – for a close and full union (union intime et complete). This would indeed lead to a strong buffer state between England and France as had been the intention.
However, the King met strong opposition for his politics from the southern part of his young state. Since the new generation had not experienced the French Revolution and its repercussions, they were less afraid of taking drastic measures. In December 1827, press campaigns were set up against the regime and in the winter of 1828-1829 all kinds of Belgian petitions were organised. The monarch, however, remained unwavering and repressed the opposition.
Map of 1816 detailing the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which includes modern day Belgium. The King also ruled the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg in a personal union. Note that the map shows the province of Limburg, before it was split between the two nations in 1839.
The protests took up full form from 1828 on, when they became well organised. Liberals and Catholics, traditional antagonists, now assembled against the King’s policies in a unionistic bond. A petition for the liberty of the press and education was started. 360,000 signatures were said to have been gathered.
Newspapers in Liège and Ghent had been spreading their grievances and criticised the counteractions of the state for years. In fact, journalists merely questioning the King’s policies were prosecuted despite the official freedom of the press. Were the Belgian people finally finding common ground for unification and just waiting for a spark to happen? The King was unsuccessful in answering the protests in the ten Belgian provinces and acted quite stubbornly instead of letting the southern elites take part in the policies.
Uprising and independence
The historical differences between the northern and southern parts of the Kingdom ultimately turned out too big. The King’s promised reforms were never implemented and a revolt broke out on 25 August 1830. The King reacted by sending his two sons, both heading an army, to Brussels.
They would settle in and around the Warande Park, in front of the Royal Palace built for the King in 1826. On 23 September, a bloody battle for four days followed and 300 Liègeois came to the aid of the rebels in Brussels. The Dutch army was stranded in Brussels and was finally driven back.
This success gave rise and courage to militias of volunteers and patriots around the country. By October, the Belgian provinces were freed. On October 4, a revolutionary Provisional Government declared independence from the Kingdom of the Netherlands. In November, a constitutional monarchy was chosen by the National Congress as form of government. The crown was offered to Leopold I of Saksen-Coburg and Gotha who swore his constitutional oath on 21 July 1831 as King of the Belgians - not of Belgium - since he was chosen by the peoples’ representatives.
Already in February 1831, the Congress drafted its own Belgian constitution, in French, with its official counterpart in the Dutch language waiting until 1967. This Belgian constitution was the most democratic constitution for the time and formed the middle ground between strong authority and democracy. The real challenges in nation building could first now be addressed. In fact, the path was now free for the awakening of a Flemish nationalist movement, with its Wallonian counterpart, as a reaction, later on. It led to community reforms, further setting apart the two halves of Belgium, to this very day.
Economically, Belgium was well equipped for independence. Heavy industry played an important role because of European demand for its products. It was the most important steel producer, even topping France and Germany, during the first half of the 19th century. The Belgian railway network was already very dense in 1870. The political scientist K. W. Deutsche emphasised in his writings the importance of this national railroad network for nation building.
The Belgian revolution created its own historiography. Belgium acted quickly to link up history to affirm and legitimise the young nation. For the first grades in elementary schools on, textbooks on Belgian history would quickly be written and put in use. The state was presented by schoolteachers as the result of a long historical process, unavoidably leading up to the birth of a united nation state.
From a deterministic approach to history, one would think nation states are established by nations in their quest for freedom and democracy. In the Belgian case, it is a much more complex history of coincidences without any clear heroic story line. It was a combination of happenstance, dynastical marriages, wars, administrative reforms and religion, by people still strongly bound to their cities and local rulers.
|Belgian heroes in the 16th century
The monument of Counts Edmont and Hoorne, sculptured in 1864 by Charles Auguste Fraikin. Originally erected at the Grand Place in Brussels.
Shortly after its independence, Belgium became obsessed with putting up statues (statuomania) to satisfy the need to embellish the past and to celebrate it in public spaces like market squares and parks.
The statues of Lamoraal of Gavere, Count of Egmont and Philips of Montmorency, Count of Hoorne, were erected in the Grand Square of Brussels in 1864, in memory of their execution in 1568 on the very same spot. In 1879, the statues were moved to the Petit Sablon (Kleine Zavel), encapsulated in a small but appealing fenced park in 1890.
Along its fence, the park exhibits 48 columns and small bronze statues from the 16th century embellishing the traditional guilds and trades. It also contains 10 larger bluestone statues of 16th century historical figures of the southern Netherlands. In fact, the park is located in front of the former palace of the Count of Egmont. It was inaugurated at the eve of 21 July 1890 - now instated as a National Holiday - 60 years after Belgium’s independence.
Philips II had sent the feared Duke of Alva to the Netherlands (the Seventeen Provinces) to restore order. Although Egmont and Hoorne were devout Catholics and had repeatedly pledged obedience to the Spanish King, they were singled out and executed publicly for not being able to put an end to the rebellion.
Their execution sent shockwaves throughout the Netherlands, instead of a mere warning. It fuelled an outcry and led to the Act of Abjugation in 1581, breaking the north away and leaving the Habsburg Netherlands in south as its remnant. It left the south in the hands of Spanish and later Austrian Habsburg and thus separated the south from the north, leading up to the Belgian revolution more than 250 years later. So, maybe the Counts of Egmont and Hoorne were Belgian heroes after all.
By Tom Vanderstappen