The Belgian Revolution (French: Révolution belge, Dutch: Belgische Revolutie/opstand/omwenteling) was the conflict which led to the secession of the southern provinces (mainly the former Southern Netherlands) from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and the establishment of an independent Kingdom of Belgium.
The people of the south were mainly Flemings (speakers of low Franconian dialects) and Walloons (speakers of langue d’oil dialects). Both peoples were traditionally Roman Catholic as contrasted with the largely Protestant (Dutch Reformed) people of the north. Many outspoken liberals regarded King William I’s rule as despotic. There were high levels of unemployment and industrial unrest among the working classes.
On 25 August 1830, riots erupted in Brussels and shops were looted. Theatregoers who had just watched the nationalistic opera La muette de Portici joined the mob. Uprisings followed elsewhere in the country. Factories were occupied and machinery destroyed. Order was restored briefly after William committed troops to the Southern Provinces but rioting continued and leadership was taken up by radicals, who started talking of secession.
Dutch units saw the mass desertion of recruits from the southern provinces and pulled out. The States-General in Brussels voted in favour of secession and declared independence. In the aftermath, a National Congress was assembled. King William refrained from future military action and appealed to the Great Powers. The resulting 1830 London Conference of major European powers recognized Belgian independence. Following the installation of Leopold I as “King of the Belgians” in 1831, King William made a belated attempt to reconquer Belgium and restore his position through a military campaign. This “Ten Days’ Campaign” failed because of French military intervention. The Dutch only accepted the decision of the London conference and Belgian independence in 1839 by signing the Treaty of London.
For the Belgian Revolution of 1789-1790 look here.
The United Kingdom of the Netherlands
After the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the Congress of Vienna created a kingdom for the House of Orange-Nassau, thus combining the United Provinces of the Netherlands with the former Austrian Netherlands in order to create a strong buffer state north of France; with the addition of those provinces the Netherlands became a rising power. Symptomatic of the tenor of diplomatic bargaining at Vienna was the early proposal to reward Prussia for its fight against Napoleon with the former Habsburg territory.
When Great Britain insisted on retaining the former Dutch Ceylon and the Cape Colony, which they had seized while the Netherlands was ruled by Napoleon, the new kingdom of the Netherlands was compensated with these southern provinces (modern Belgium).
The Causes of the Revolution
The revolution was due to a combination of factors, the main one being the difference of religion (Catholic in today’s Belgium, Protestant in today’s Netherlands) and the general lack of autonomy given to the south.
Other important factors also played a role in the independence, which include:
- The under-representation of today’s Belgians in the General Assembly (62% of the population for 50% of the seats).
- Most of the institutions were based in the North and public burdens were unevenly distributed.
- Only one minister out of four was Belgian. There were four times as many Dutch people in the administration as Belgians.
- There was a general domination of the Dutch over the economic, political, and social institutions of the Kingdom.
- The public debt of the north (higher than the one of the south) had to be supported by the south as well.
- The original debts were initially of 1.25 billion guilders for the United Provinces and only 100 million for the South.
- The action of William I in the field of education (construction of schools, control of the competence of teachers and the creation of new establishments, creation of three State universities) placed it under the total control of the State, which displeased Catholic opinion.
- The contingent imposed on Belgium by the recruitment of militiamen was proportionally high, while the proportion of Belgians among the officers was low, the high staff being mainly composed of former officers of the French army or of the British army.
- Only one officer out of six would be from the South.
- Most Belgian soldiers were therefore commanded by officers who were not originally from the Southern Netherlands.
- Moreover, the Dutch language would have become the sole language of the army of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1823/24, which was an additional grievance on the part of the francophone elites and the Walloon people who spoke romance dialects.
- The unsatisfactory application of freedom of the press and freedom of assembly were considered by Belgian intellectuals as a means of control of the South by the North.
- Belgian merchants and industrialists complained about the free trade policy pursued from 1827 onwards.
- The separation of France had caused the industry of the South to lose a large part of its turnover.
- On the other hand, the colony of the East Indies was experiencing a long period of revolt and British products were competing with Belgian production.
- With the end of the continental blockade, the continent was invaded by cheap British products, appreciated by the North, still mainly agricultural, but which excluded the productions of the South.
- A linguistic reform in 1823 was intended to make Dutch the official language in the Flemish provinces.
- This reform was met with strong opposition from the upper classes who at the time were mostly French-speaking whether from current Flanders or Wallonia but also from the Flemish speakers themselves, since albeit close to their language, Flemish people didn’t master standard Dutch at the time and were not considering this language as theirs.
- On 4 June 1830, this reform was abolished.
- The conservatives in the northern Netherlands were pushing for only followers of the former (Protestant) State Church to be appointed to the government, while the Belgian conservatives wanted to re-establish Catholicism as the state religion in Belgium.
- The coexistence of two state religions throughout the kingdom was unacceptable to both sides.
- Until 1821 the government used the opposition of the Catholics to the Basic Law to maintain the Protestant character of the state apparatus through the appointment of civil servants.
- William I himself was a supporter of the German Lutheran tradition, according to which the sovereign is the head of the church.
- He wanted to counter the Pope’s authority over the Catholic Church.
- He wanted to be able to influence the appointment of bishops.
‘Night at the Opera’
Catholic partisans watched with excitement the unfolding of the July Revolution in France, details of which were swiftly reported in the newspapers. On 25 August 1830, at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, an uprising followed a special performance, in honor of William I’s birthday, of Daniel Auber’s La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici), a sentimental and patriotic opera set against Masaniello’s uprising against the Spanish masters of Naples in the 17th century.
After the duet, “Amour sacré de la patrie”, (Sacred love of Fatherland) with Adolphe Nourrit in the tenor role, many audience members left the theater and joined the riots which had already begun. The crowd poured into the streets shouting patriotic slogans. The rioters swiftly took possession of government buildings. The following days saw an explosion of the desperate and exasperated proletariat of Brussels, who rallied around the newly created flag of the Brussels independence movement which was fastened to a standard with shoelaces during a street fight and used to lead a counter-charge against the forces of Prince William.
William I sent his two sons, Crown-Prince William and Prince Frederik to quell the riots. William was asked by the Burghers of Brussels to come to the town alone, with no troops, for a meeting; this he did, despite the risks. The affable and moderate Crown Prince William, who represented the monarchy in Brussels, was convinced by the Estates-General on 01 September that the administrative separation of north and south was the only viable solution to the crisis. His father rejected the terms of accommodation that Prince William proposed.
King William I attempted to restore the established order by force, but the 8,000 Dutch troops under Prince Frederik were unable to retake Brussels in bloody street fighting (23-26 September). The army was withdrawn to the fortresses of Maastricht, Venlo, and Antwerp, and when the Northern commander of Antwerp bombarded the town, claiming a breach of a ceasefire, the whole of the Southern provinces was incensed.
Any opportunity to quell the breach was lost on 26 September when a National Congress was summoned to draw up a Constitution and the Provisional Government was established under Charles Latour Rogier. A Declaration of Independence followed on 04 October 1830.
The European Powers and an Independent Belgium
On 20 December 1830, the London Conference of 1830 brought together five major European powers: Austria, Great Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia.
At first the European powers were divided over the Belgian cry for independence.
The Napoleonic Wars were still fresh in the memories of the major European powers, so once the French, under the recently installed July Monarchy, supported Belgian independence, the other European powers unsurprisingly supported the continued union of the Provinces of the Netherlands.
Russia, Prussia, Austria, and the United Kingdom all supported the Netherlands, since they feared that the French would eventually annex an independent Belgium (particularly the British). However, in the end, none of the European powers sent troops to aid the Dutch government, partly because of rebellions within some of their own borders (the Russians were occupied with the November Uprising in Poland and Prussia was saddled with war debt).
Britain would come to see the benefits of isolating France geographically with the new creation of a new Belgian buffer state between France, the Netherlands, and Prussia. It was for this reason that Britain would eventually sponsor the creation of Belgium.
The Accession of King Leopold
In November 1830, the National Congress of Belgium was established to create a constitution for the new state. The Congress decided that Belgium would be a popular, constitutional monarchy. On 07 February 1831, the Belgian Constitution was proclaimed. However, no actual monarch yet sat on the throne.
The Congress refused to consider any candidate from the Dutch ruling house of Orange-Nassau. Eventually the Congress drew up a shortlist of three candidates, all of whom were French. This itself led to political opposition, and Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who had been considered at an early stage but dropped due to French opposition, was proposed again. On 22 April 1831, Leopold was approached by a Belgian delegation at Marlborough House to officially offer him the throne. At first reluctant to accept, he eventually took up the offer, and after an enthusiastic popular welcome on his way to Brussels, Leopold I of Belgium took his oath as king on 21 July 1831.
21 July is generally used to mark the end of the revolution and the start of the Kingdom of Belgium. It is celebrated each year as Belgian National Day.
The Ten Days’ Campaign
King William was not satisfied with the settlement drawn up in London and did not accept Belgium’s claim of independence: it divided his kingdom and drastically affected his Treasury. From 02-12 August 1831 the Dutch army, headed by the Dutch princes, invaded Belgium, in the so-called “Ten Days’ Campaign”, and defeated a makeshift Belgian force near Hasselt and Leuven.
Only the appearance of a French army under Marshal Gérard caused the Dutch to stop their advance. While the victorious initial campaign gave the Dutch an advantageous position in subsequent negotiations, the Dutch were compelled to agree to an indefinite armistice, although they continued to hold the Antwerp Citadel and occasionally bombarded the city until French forces forced them out in December 1832.
William I would refuse to recognize a Belgian state until April 1839, when he had to yield under pressure by the Treaty of London and reluctantly recognized a border which, with the exception of Limburg and Luxembourg, was basically the border of 1790.
The 1839 Treaty of London
On 19 April 1839 the Treaty of London signed by the European powers (including the Netherlands) recognised Belgium as an independent and neutral country comprising West Flanders, East Flanders, Brabant, Antwerp, Hainaut, Namur, and Liège, as well as half of Luxembourg and Limburg. The Dutch army, however, held onto Maastricht, and as a result the Netherlands kept the eastern half of Limburg and its large coalfields.
Germany broke the treaty in 1914 when it invaded Belgium, dismissing British protests over a “scrap of paper.”
As early as 1830, a movement started for the reunification of Belgium and the Netherlands, called Orangism (after the Dutch royal color of orange), which was active in Flanders and Brussels. But industrial cities, like Liège, also had a strong Orangist faction.
The movement met with strong disapproval from the authorities. Between 1831 and 1834, 32 incidents of violence against Orangists were mentioned in the press and in 1834 Minister of Justice Lebeau banned expressions of Orangism in the public sphere, enforced with heavy penalties.
Cinquantenaire (50th Anniversary)
The golden jubilee of independence set up the Cinquantenaire park complex in Brussels.
175th Anniversary Commemoration
In 2005, the Belgian revolution of 1830 was depicted in one of the highest value Belgian coins ever minted, the 100 euro “175 Years of Belgium” coin. The obverse depicts a detail from Wappers’ painting Scene of the September Days in 1830.