The true history of the Belgian revolution

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Historical facts are more complex than we think. Revolutions are not created from nothing. Often there are hidden political and economic interests that disguise themselves as romanticism.

Julius Caesar already mentioned the name of Belgium in his conquest of Gaul. But it was much larger than current Belgium. The Seventeen Provinces was the name given during the 16th century to the 17 territories that comprised the present countries of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, the North of France and a small part of the Netherlands. This territory was also called at that time Pays-Bas, Nederland, Belgia, the Netherlands. In 1549, the Pragmatic Sanction established that the boundaries of the Netherlands would form a unified territorial entity, the Seventeen Provinces. Charles V created the title of Lord of the Netherlands (Heer der Nederlanden).

The wars of religion between Catholics and Calvinists destroyed this unity, with the separation of the Netherlands from the Spanish Low Countries. In practice, the northern territories would be the United Provinces: Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel, Friesland and Groningen, as well as parts of Brabant, Flanders and Limburg. And the southern territories under Habsburg sovereignty formed the Spanish Netherlands: Flanders, Artois, Hainaut, Namur, Luxembourg, Brabant, Antwerp, Mechelen, Limburg. And let us not forget the bishop of Liege, which was independent until the later revolutions.

After the war of Spanish succession, the Austrians replaced the Spanish Ausburgs, and the Austrian stage of Belgium began. It was at the end of this period that the first Belgian revolution began, called the Brabançone, which is not the name of a woman, but a song. This revolution, also known as the Counter-Revolution (Révolution brabançonne or contre-révolution in French) took place, between 1787 and 1790, under the reign of Joseph II of Habsburg and led, in 1790, to the creation of the United Belgian States, which did not reach the year of life. 

Here began the first conspiracy. It seems that it was the Prussians who sent arms, instructors and money to incite the revolt. In those days Prussia was an ascendant power with a clear enemy: Austria. A rebellion in the European far west was very useful to them in weakening their rival in central Europe. Remember that a few years earlier Prussia had taken the rich Silesian region from Austria. The principality of Liège also had its revolution in an anticlerical style to expel the prince bishop


This revolt triumphed, but the total absence of international support and the withdrawal of the Prussian advisers allowed the Austrians to recover all the territory. The province of Namur capitulated on 27 November 1790. The Austrians also intervened to restore Prince Bishop Hoensbroeck. The revolutionaries of Liège took refuge in France, just as the defeated Belgians fled to France, like Vonck to Lille, and Walckiers and their supporters to Paris were formed a legion to relaunch the revolution.


 In politics, and in general, in all historical processes, the enemies of today will be the friends of tomorrow. That is what happened between Austria and Prussia. The French Revolution was the great enemy of old Europe. A republican monster, anti-religious and anti-monarchist. In other words, the devil for the kings of the continent.

The French revolution came to sweep away the recently recovered Austrian Low Countries and Liège itself. But the Belgians soon discovered that their French Republican friends were not so magnificent. Their main interest was not to export the revolutionary ideals but to plunder all the country's possible riches. Nevertheless, Napoleon invested a lot in the country, especially in Antwerp. A city he considered to be like a gun pointed at the heart of England.

Napoleon lost his last battle at Waterloo, and the congress in Vienna confirmed a newly united country: The Netherlands, which encompassed what is now the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. The great nation of the 15th century recovered again and with a bright future. It had everything to succeed in the new Europe of restoration: overseas colonies supported by the vast Dutch fleet, powerful textile industry in Flanders and a mining and iron Wallonia. These times were the beginnings of the industrial revolution in Europe.

Between 1815 and 1848, the victorious countries that defeated Napoleon devised a new international order to prevent new revolutionary adventures which they called The Restoration. The aim was to prevent the aggrandisement of France and the spread of extremist ideas by creating buffer states (Holland, Westphalia, Switzerland, Piedmont) and restoring absolute monarchies (Spain, Portugal, Naples..) This Holy Alliance became the police of Europe with the mission to intervene militarily against any revolutionary attempt in Europe and America. And the system worked fine at first. In 1820 Commander Riego rebelled in Spain and forced the king to restore the 1812 Constitution. In only three years the powers send to Spain the "One Hundred Thousand Sons of Saint Louis", who restore King Ferdinand VII, the worst king Spain ever had. Insurrections in Naples, Sicily and Piedmont were quelled. In Russia the military conspiracy of December 1825 was harshly suppressed by Tsar Nicholas I.

In 1830 there was another wave of revolutions in France, Belgium, Italy, Germany. All were destroyed except the Belgian one.

Why did it triumph in this country? The only explanation is the foreign plot (especially the French-British one, but with strong Prussian support). We will explain it step by step.

In August 1830, stimulated by the communist revolt in Paris, a revolutionary process began in Brussels which was not succeeded in being quelled by the intervention of the Dutch army (12 September). On 4 October, independence was declared, which received decisive support from the United Kingdom and Prussia at an international conference convened for the purpose in London (20 December).

That is the official version, but let's break down the political interests at stake.

France: After Napoleon's defeat, it renounced the revolution and returned to the monarchical rule. But the old ideas of grandeur were still alive, especially the dream of reaching the "natural" borders of France: the Rhine. For almost all French people, Belgium was part of France itself, and they were just waiting for the moment to get it back. Separating it from Holland was the first step towards this ultimate goal.

England: It was the country that could lose the most with a strong Holland. Let's think in an economical way coming back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The only country that could compete and take over the world's commercial market was the New unified Holland. They had a large fleet and colonies on several continents. The textile industry in Flanders was very powerful, they only needed ships to export their products. And finally (and most seriously) Wallonia had a new and powerful industry that could openly compete with England. In fact, it was the first industrialised country on the continent to produce iron and coal. Its factories could produce cheaper than the English ones and sell it on the five continents with the help of the crucial Dutch fleet. The old Latin motto divide et vinces is the most logical and practical way to maintain power in Europe for England. Curiously, the Belgian motto is the opposite: L'union fait la force. Ironies of fate.

Now let's return to the revolutionary myth. A play at the Brussels Opera House with a patriotic theme made the spectators take to the streets and attack the house of the Dutch governor, soon after they occupied the whole city. The theatre's capacity was less than 1000 people. How could so few people stage such a coup d'état?

Hardly anyone mentions the mercenaries who arrived in Brussels, dressed in rags but with the best weapons of the time. 200 volunteers from Liège under Rogier's command entered in the capital and stationed themselves at the entrances to the city. They made it very difficult for the Dutch troops when they tried to attack. And they managed to surround them in the royal park. Professional snipers who decimated the Dutch troops. They were so effective that the British extended their contract and from Ostend they embarked for Portugal, where they participated in the civil war between the recent King Miguel de Bragança and the aspiring Pedro (future Pedro IV of Portugal. ) On 8 July Pedro disembarked on the beach of Memory, near Porto, taking the city the next day. English support was decisive in enthroning a new king, perfectly aligned with English policies.

Returning to Belgium, the determined English and French support made possible the new state that adopted a liberal regime of parliamentary monarchy, putting on the throne a German prince closely linked to the English royal house: Leopold I.

Without this Franco-English economic and military support, the Netherlands would surely have recovered the territories and formed a single country until the German invasions of the 20th century. Although perhaps history would have changed radically. A robust Dutch empire would have helped its former Boer colonists in South Africa and maybe the first world war would have been continental Europe against the British Empire.

Leaving speculation aside, the truth is that the Franco-British plot was decisive in the creation of the Belgian state with a monarchy related to the English one. The dream of Queen Victoria, the hemophiliac grandmother of Europe's royal families.