Holland: Historical Sketches

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Holland: Historical Sketches

The Romans managed to subdue the pagan tribes of Holland (Frisians and Batavians), but it took time. They frequently rebelled. E.g. the Frisians refused to pay Roman taxes because they felt they were already spending too much just maintaining their dykes. When they finally accepted Roman rule, they became one of the most loyal of Rome's subjects. Frisians furnished soldiers for Rome — stout fighters called socii. Holland was on the frontier of the empire, so few permanent buildings were left. But their settlements became Dutch cities: e.g. Leiden (which we're coming to) was Lugdunum, Utrecht was Trajectum. Germanic invaders came in when Romans left — the Saxons. Only the tough Frisians withstood their attacks. By the early Middle Ages, there were three ethnic groups in Holland: Frisians in the North, Saxons in the East, and Franks (Celtic) in the South. These tribes were separated by marshlands, lakes and rivers, so they maintained their distinctive characteristics. These can be seen today in three types of Dutch farms. In the North, the Frisian-type farmhouses are large, with huge roofs. In the East, the Saxon farm is a small, one-room house, where farmers live with animals. In the South, the Frankish farm is in the roman style, with a central courtyard (cf. Roman atreum). Dutch family names show these influences too: Dutchmen of Saxon ancestry have names ending in -ing or -ink. (E.g. Bishop Alfrink.) Those of Frisian ancestry end in -ma, -ga, -stra (e.g. "Blocksma", "Hofstra").

The Frisians — though warriors against the sea— resisted Christian missionaries at first. Finally the great Charlemagne extended his rule over them, but after his death his Dutch domains fell into a patchwork of small dukedoms and principalities. Quarrelled with each other. Some were ruled by nobles, others by bishops. The most powerful of the nobles was the Count of Holland, who extended his rule over other parts of the country. The name "Holland" comes from these times. The country has traditionally been called, not Holland, but the Low Countries (or the Netherlands — Nederland): "low" in the sense of low elevation. "Holland" was simply one country among others.

But the military success of the Count of Holland caused the word to be applied to all of the Low Countries (except Belgium to the South). Even today, "Holland" is technically only one province — or rather two, North Holland and South Holland (we're now in South Holland — one of the oldest parts of the country). There are 11 provinces in all, and when the polders of the Zuider Zee are finished, they will be the 12th. (In no other country has a new province been added without conquering someone else's territory!) Note the historical analogy with Britain: one of its parts, England, which dominated the rest, was once a separate kingdom. But because of its political dominance, the name "England" came to be applied loosely to the whole of Britain, just as "Holland" is applied to all of the Netherlands.

In the 15th century, Holland fell under foreign rule. First the Burgundians, based in eastern France. The Burgundian Grand Duke Philip the Good Built up quite an empire, including most of Belgium and Holland. Through a series of complicated marriages, Holland fell under the Austrians, and then under the Spanish. The country was known as the Spanish Netherlands. Under the Spanish king Philip II (who launched the Armada against England in 1588), religious persecution took place. The Dutch were mainly Protestant, but Philip II was determined to impose Catholicism. Many Dutch were burnt at the stake. Widespread rebellion, ruthlessly crushed by the Spanish Duke of Alba — a name with dire associations in Holland. Dutch nobles resisted by becoming privateers — pirates legally recognized by anti-Spanish kings. These privateers preyed on Spanish shipping — became popular heroes to the Dutch. Known as "sea-beggars" (because they had been forced to give up their family fortunes when leaving Holland for the sea). Sometimes these sea-beggars landed and liberated a whole city. The Dutch people, resisting Spanish rule, rallied around William the Silent, Prince of Orange, who became Holland's first native king. The present Dutch royal family is descended from him.

Finally, a 12-years' truce (1609) granted Holland independence, and the country's Golden Age (17th century) began. Land reclamation works pushed ahead, with dyke and windmill building. Huge trading fleet developed, dominating the North Sea. Commerce passed through the country from England to Germany; large fortunes made. Banks of Amsterdam founded. Painters (Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Franz Hals) and writers added to intellectual life. A colonial empire grew up, as Dutch navigators and settlers went to the ends of the earth: Formosa, Indonesia, Ceylon, Cape of South Africa, and Dutch West Indies. This meant a wealth of raw materials. Trade wars with England marred the 17th century, but a great event took place in 1688: the king of Holland, William III, ascended the English throne with his wife Mary, replacing the despotic Catholic king James II, who was driven out by a bloodless revolt.

Decline set in during the 18th century, and Holland was conquered by the French after the French Revolution. The French established a "Batavian Republic" in Holland, but it was only a puppet state. Unfortunately, this brought English reprisals — seizure of Dutch ships and colonies, destruction of trade. Napoleon made his brother Louis "King of Holland". Louis was actually sympathetic to the Dutch, and granted them so many freedoms that Napoleon took the country away from his and annexed it to France. Efficient French administration actually helped Holland: sugar-beet raising, Civil Code, religious freedom. Napoleon laid the basis of the modern Dutch state. After Napoleon's defeat, there were other problems: Belgium was given to Holland at the Congress of Vienna (1815), but the Belgians resisted. Finally Holland gave Belgium its independence in 1830.

Holland shared in 19th century industrial boom, as shipyards were built, banks accumulated capital, and colonial trade was restored. Holland was neutral in WW I, but was invaded by the Germans in 1940. Dutch resisted Nazi occupation, often at great cost. Worst moment came in late-1944, when Allied stopped short of Holland. Winter of 1944-45 was terrible; people tore up planking from streets to burn for fuel, and starvation was widespread. After the war, the country came back to life quickly. Holland was the first country to give up American aid (1953), being economically self-sufficient. Dutch took the initiative in forming an economic union with Belgium and Luxembourg (Benelux), which still continues; and Benelux is an important partner in the Common Market and in NATO. The Dutch motto is a fitting close to this historical sketch: "I will endure". Fighting the sea, invaders, religious strife, and the Nazis, the Dutch have more than endured. They have triumphed.

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