Empire of Liberty: De Diefstal

“The rise of the Dutch Republic must ever be regarded as one of the leading events of modern times, perhaps surpassed only by the momentous events of de bijlage.” 

-John Lothrop Motley

Excerpt from Dr. Jonas de Bruijn’s “Holland: A History”, University of Amsterdam Press, 2017

“For decades it had been the Dutch Republic that pioneered new systems, economics and institutions within the often sclerotic societies of continental Europe. Amsterdam. Leiden, Rotterdam, Groningen and other localities had been leaders in religious and philosophic thought, colonization and mercantilism. For a time, Amsterdam, not London or Paris, stood at the center of the European economic world. Dutch ships ruled the seas and William of Orange checked the might of Louis XIV and then led the Glorious Revolution in England that ushered in an ascendent age of British imperialism and prosperity.

While some consider the successes of William of Orange as the high point of the old Dutch Republic, they often overlook the problems his endeavors created. William’s constant wars and the intrigues of England sapped the finances and military strength of the United Provinces [1]. He lived long enough to embroil the Dutch in the War of the Spanish Succession but died in 1702, just in time for the war to bog down. Despite all of the spent treasure and blood, the Dutch came out with little to show at the end of the war. William’s death also marked another long period where the Republic found itself without a stadtholder, leaving the country rudderless at the worst possible time [2]. The Dutch gained little from the War of the Austrian Succession as well as the American Revolutionary War. The slow decay of the once powerful and innovative state caused the Dutch people to simmer with discontent.

The decay led to the Patriottentijd, a brief era where the enlightenment inspired Patriot Party came to control the Republic in the 1780’s. The Patriots opposed the stagnation, blamed the House of Orange (and the current Stadthoder William V) and wanted to reinvigorate the empire, merchants and industries that had slowly declined over time. In a way, the Patriottentijd, was a symbol of the times. Many of its leaders were inspired by the American Revolution, the general spirit of enlightenment in Europe, and their movement helped to inspire the French Revolution. Indeed, when the French revolutionaries invaded the Republic, they found considerable support amongst the former Patriots.

In 1787 the movement became such a threat to the established order and William V that he invited a Prussian army (Prussia was led by Fredrick William II, William V’s brother-in-law) to assist in returning control of the Republic to the stadtholder. Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick invaded and the Patriots were scattered.

Yet, the Patriots were not defeated.

Two years later as the French Revolution began, the revolutionaries found some of the most ardent supporters among the former Patriots living in northeast France. A bitterly cold winter froze many of the rivers and marshes that historically defended the frontier of the Republic as revolutionary forces invaded. Furthermore, the locals saw the French and Dutch as liberators, especially with the recent context that their own stadtholder would invite a Prussian army into the Republic to put down his own people’s political movement.

The Treaty of The Hague in 1795 swept away the Dutch Republic and established the new Batavian Republic. Despite the tacit alliance between the revolutionaries, the French leaders imposed a harsh treaty. The Dutch transferred the territories of Maastricht, Venlo, and Zeelandic Flanders to Paris and agreed to co-dominion over the port of Flushing. The Dutch agreed to pay an indemnity of 100 million guilders for their part in the war and gave Paris a low-interest loan. Finally, in a secret clause, the Dutch agreed to pay for a French army of occupation of 25,000 until the end of the war. In effect, the treaty shrunk the Dutch Republic and made it a client state of France where before it essentially acted as a client to Prussia and England.

Domestically though, the Dutch, not the French, largely plotted their own internal political course. The revolutionaries picked up where the former Patriot Party left off. They reformed the States-General, emancipated minorities and democratized entrenched interests. Like the French Revolution, the internal politics began to sort participants into a conservative patriot camp and a radical republican camp. Conservatives, which mostly combined the old patriots and heavily influenced by the ideals of what the republic should have been, desired to reform institutions, maintain some traditions and fix that which they deemed broken. Radical republicans, a new breed inspired by Paris and the seemingly infinite possibilities of societal egalitarianism, desired to sweep the whole mess into the dustbin of history and start anew. Inspired by the egalitarian rhetoric of the enlightenment both conservative patriots and radical republicans worked towards common goals such as abolishing the old guilds and reducing the power of the reformed church. Local assemblies and clubs began supplanting the power of the States-General and soon the old legislative body had no choice but to transition itself out of existence less the situation break down into bloodshed.

Work began on a constitution that would end the States-General and create a National Assembly, or Nationale Vergadering. Conservatives tended to seek a federalist solution while the republicans sought a more unitarian and centralized state. By the end of the century, the republicans triumphed in this debate. The revolutionary concepts of equality and nationalism worked to defeat federalism in this regard. Unitarians argued that since the Dutch people were one nation, there would be no need for the old divisive federal provinces. This argument promoted equality under a centralized government that could not play favorites and stoked nationalist sentiment. The debates also touched on many of the same discussions playing out in other young democracies. For example, the question of popular sovereignty versus independent representation dominated discussions in Paris and Philadelphia in this era just as much as they dominated the lowlands. Questions of citizenship also played out. Under the revolution, Jews and Catholics received their rights as Dutch citizens but, interestingly, women, paupers receiving state aid and supporters of the stadtholder found themselves denied those same rights. Like the active and passive citizenry concepts in the United States and France, the Dutch set their threshold for citizenship as those citizens who should be legally and financially independent and capable of making decisions.

These discussions reflect the monumental location of the Dutch Revolution in world history. Dutch revolutionaries, whether intentionally or unintentionally, appeared to bridge the gap between the old world and the new. Like their American and French predecessors, the Dutch drew on republican histories from classical Greece and Rome, as well as their own long history as a republic. Many leaders in Amsterdam and The Hague were as well versed in Rosseau and Montesquieu as Jefferson or Lafayette. Like the Articles of Confederation and the Philadelphia Constitution, or the numerous constitutions of revolutionary France, the Dutch revolution was in its growing pains as an old society (quickly) transitioned into a new society. Unbeknownst to anyone, the work would bear tremendous fruit decades down the line.

In the short term, these debates led to a tedious and painfully slow drafting process. Republicans flipped conservative drafts and the conservatives stalled the republicans with mind-numbing procedural tactics. The final result created a bicameral legislature and a five-member committee to act as the executive. Drafters adopted the constitution on May 10, 1797 and submitted the work to a national referendum, which failed in the fall of that year.

The revolution found itself back at the starting line.

To understand the rejection of the proposed constitution one must understand Dutch society in the late 18th century. A tremendous pessimism permeated the country as its merchant and economic glory faded. The stadtholder’s invitation for Prussian interference to put down the Patriottentijd only cemented the thoughts in many minds that the Dutch ruling elite were corrupt. In 1791, IJsbrand van Hamelsveld, the author of The Morals and Manners of the Dutch Nation at the End of the Eighteenth Century argued that luxury and corruption had brought the republic to the brink of disaster. He wrote:

“People corrupted by luxury and obsessed with their self-interest are unable to maintain noble liberty, while they have lost their own worth.”

Even the concept of commerce, so close to the identity of what it meant to be Dutch in those days, was not immune from questioning. Samuel Wiselius, a prominent republican theorist, observed in 1793:

“That a people seeks its highest good in earning money, that a country whose only pillar of support is, must become more bestial by the day and will in the end only be fit to patiently endure the harshest yoke of slavery.”

It can be argued that evolving Dutch morals about commerce, mercantilism, empire and slavery helped push more than a few prominent merchants out of Amsterdam and towards London, helping to facilitate the British annexations occurring around the world.

To many Dutchmen, the proposed constitution and the Nationale Vergadering simply did not address their underlying concerns with the direction of Dutch society. Consternation about corruption, moral decay, and political gridlock all undermined the proposed document.

In addition, the Republic felt the pressure of foreign events. The French grew impatient with their neighbors. Despite an end to the Franco-British part of the War of the First Coalition, the British dragged their feet with the Dutch as the Royal Navy picked off isolated and defenseless Dutch colonies.

Excerpt from Jeremy Carver’s “The Making of the Commonwealth”, University of Oxford Press, 1987

As Prime Minister, one of William Pitt the Younger’s chief goals was to reinvigorate the British colonial system. The loss of so much territory in North America infuriated the British ruling class and created an economic crisis that destroyed the influence of many powerful families. Half-hearted British attempts to counter the French during the War of the First Coalition led to little gain. The British mainly provided what funds they could to continental powers, content to let those armies wage the war for them, and harassing the French at sea. British acquisitions of French overseas territory, namely Guadeloupe and St. Lucia, were a nice bonus but did not make up for the failure of the war and the disastrous invasion of Saint Domingue (modern Haiti). The failures nearly cost Pitt his position until the French invaded Holland and sent hundreds of powerful Dutch merchants, and the stadtholder, to exile in England. William V, the exiled stadtholder, requested to Pitt that the British take over the Dutch colonies so the French could not utilize them. Pitt readily agreed but William had no idea that he had just ordered the destruction of his own empire.

In his defense, Pitt was not aware either that he was about to steal 250 years of hard Dutch work. From 1795 until 1798, and then again throughout the first decade of the 1800’s, the Royal Navy and the East India Company stripped Dutch holdings in the Caribbean, Africa and the Indian Ocean. The Dutch Antilles, which included the islands off the coast of South America and some small scattered islands among the American dominated Lesser Antilles, provided some wealth but mostly poked the Americans which amused many MPs. London’s newspapers cheered the acquisition of the Cape Colony in 1795 but few knew how important the conquest would prove to be. The Dutch East Indies and its colonial holdings in India were the real prizes.

Rich in spices such as cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, the East Indies, arguably, sparked the initial age of European exploration in the 15th century. Historically more valuable than gold, these exotic crops trickled into Europe from the Near East via arduous overland routes and Indian and Arab merchants. When the Ottoman Empire finally defeated the ancient Byzantines and captured Constantinople in 1453, much of Europe found its access to spices either closed off entirely, or priced out. To counter Turkish control of eastern valuables, a few endeavoring Portuguese, Italian and Spanish explorers sailed into the unknown to find an alternative route. Three hundred years later, those expeditions led to a revolution that opened the Indian and Pacific Oceans, discovered the Americas and created empires that spanned from Patagonia to Pennsylvania and Port Louis to the Philippines.

In 1602, endeavoring Dutch traders created the Dutch East India Company (often abbreviated to “VOC” from its Dutch name Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) to gain access, and eventually supremacy, of the Asian spice trade from Portuguese and English competitors. From Amsterdam, the VOC’s “East Indiamen” merchant ships carried textiles, wines, arms, other European goods and silver and gold coins eastward to trade with the distant principalities of China, India and the East Indies. Over time the Dutch established forts, trading posts and warehouses across the Indian world including Mocca (Arabian Peninsula), Surat (Gujarat), Colombo and Galle (Ceylon), Calcutta (Bengal), Beijing, Macau and Canton (China), Deshima (Japan), Manilla (Philippines), and Malacca (Malaya). In their heyday, the VOC even established some outposts in the Americas (including what would become New York) and explored the coast of Australia. Rivalries by the British, Spanish, Portuguese and French eroded much of this empire by the 18th century but the heart of the Dutch Empire remained in the East Indies.

Previously united and Islamified under the Majapahits, the East Indies consisted of thousands of islands and hundreds of local tribes and principalities. Just a few of the many populations that the Dutch dealt with include the Achenese, the Minangkabau and the Batak of Sumatra, the Sundanese and the Betawi of West Java, the Cirebonese, the Javanese, the Makasarese and the Bugis of Sulawesi and Kalimantan, the Makassarese and Minahasan of Sulawesi, the Madurese of Madura, the Balinese, the Ambonese of Melaku and the Bandanese. Beginning in 1630, the VOC began entering into various alliances and intrigues with the many princes and kings of the region to gain access to trade. Over time, the Dutch constructed ports, forts and outposts and slowly Amsterdam found itself in control of a regional empire centered on the administrative center of Batavia (modern Jakarta).

By the time of the French and Dutch revolutions though, the VOC was bankrupt and its former glory broken. Amsterdam dissolved the Dutch East India Company and took direct possession but the advent of the revolution blurred the lines of control. The British East India Company, led by Governor-General William Hastings, took Batavia in 1797, followed by several other key ports and locations. They also captured Dutch ports along the coast of India including Trincomalee, the administrative center of Dutch India and strategic heart of Dutch Ceylon. The poaching continued, unhindered, until 1798 when Britain and the Dutch concluded a peace treaty that returned only the Cape Colony and even that would only last a few short years.

These initial holdings would prove invaluable to rebuilding the British Empire at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. In the Republic however, many citizens held up the exiled nobles and their former stadtholder as the embodiment of all that was wrong with old Europe. Notably, the brief re-acquisition of the Cape led to Amsterdam dispatching the young Colonel Jan Willem Janssens to South Africa as governor. He would lead the last Dutch defense of the colony in 1800 before upending his promising military career in favor of a much different path…

Excerpt from Dr. Jonas de Bruijn’s “Holland: A History”, University of Amsterdam Press, 2017

The Dutch people became more aware of the realities of their client state status. The revolution intended to restore Dutch glory and innovation, not kill it entirely.

The republicans, backed by the French, capitalized on this. They urged decisive action and an end to the political mundanities. The Dutch people needed leadership and reform so they could rebuild their fighting forces, reverse the societal decay and win back respect across Europe and with themselves. A strong Dutch military could restore independence in the midst of French influence. A reinvigorated Dutch Navy could put an end to “De Diefstal”, “The Theft”, that continued as the British picked off former Dutch colonies. Lastly, a strong Dutch society would reinforce the foundation of the political and social movements creeping across Europe.

Despite a bare conservative majority in the legislature, republicans, backed by the French government, staged a coup in 1798 that placed them in power. A rump assembly comprised only of republicans instigated much of the initial changes while other assembly members found themselves detained. They reformed the legislative body, reduced an existing constitutional commission down to seven republican members and created an interim executive directory modeled on France. The constitutional commission created a constitution that was surprisingly moderate given the circumstances and the coup. The constitution guaranteed universal suffrage for all men without fiscal qualifications, the right of revision of the constitution at quinquennial intervals by the voters, and the rejection of the principle of a bicameral legislature, in which each House would have a separate electoral base. The constitution favored economic liberalism and ended the guilds and other longstanding Dutch traditions that now hampered economic development. The constitution established a streamlined system of national taxation to replace the old provincial system. It also created a five-man Uitvoerend Bewind to act as an executive branch, with eight national Agenten, or government ministers, who would do the actual administrative work. The Agenten would oversee Dutch ministries of foreign affairs, police and interior, justice, finance, war, navy, national education, and national economy.

The constitution even attempted to address moral qualms and foster social and civic rejuvenation. Provisions for a national system of education existed and by the 1810’s several European observers noted that the Dutch boasted the finest system of public elementary education in the world. At the behest of Joan Derk van der Capellen tot den Pol, a former patriot spokesman, it included a right to bear arms which many saw as intertwined with the insurance of liberty. As the newspaper De Republikein published in that time “[armament constituted] the main bond between the Free Citizen, the State, and liberty”. The constitution even provided for:

“National Festivals to commemorate the Batavian Revolution and other noteworthy events on a yearly basis, and also to increase fraternity among the citizens and to bind them to the Constitution, the Laws, the Fatherland and Liberty.”

Despite the coup and the ramrodded nature of its creation, a national plebiscite occurred in April 1798 and the populace, by all accounts, truly adopted the constitution. That year, the Staatsregeling became the first Dutch constitution. A new “Constituent Assembly”, or Constituerende Vergadering, came to power where the Nationale Vergadering failed.

The Batavian Republic appeared grounded and accepted, ready to progress into the 19th Century. Unfortunately, the difficulties were not yet past. After all, the republicans already reacted to one theft with a theft of their own and who was to say they would not do it again to suit their needs.

———— Author’s Notes ————

[0]: Something that the author would not note but I want to is the state of the Dutch navy. In our timeline, much of the French fleet would be destroyed or damaged in the disastrous invasion of Ireland in 1796. They then ordered their Dutch “allies” to send their fleet to reinforce their position. This led the Battle of Camperdown where the Royal Navy destroyed the Dutch navy and the Dutch never regained their once formidable naval strength. Because, in this timeline, there is an earlier peace between France and Britain, there is no Irish Expedition so the French fleet is still intact. You would think this would give the French and Dutch the leeway to send the Dutch ships out to defend the colonies but France decides otherwise here and keeps the Dutch navy nearby for its own military purposes. We will get to this later.

[1]: Another name for the Dutch Republic.

[2]: The Stadtholder was the position for an official tasked with maintaining peace and provincial order in the early Dutch Republic. On occasion, the power of the stadtholder was so great that he became a de facto head of state for the Dutch Republic. Eventually after William of Orange it became a hereditary role and very similar to a monarch.

Source Materials

R. R. Palmer, “Much in Little: The Dutch Revolution of 1795,” The Journal of Modern History 26, no. 1 (Mar., 1954): 15-35.

Rutjes, M. “Door gelijkheid gegrepen: democratie, burgerschap en staat in Nederland 1795-1801,” University of Amsterdam (2012).

Oddens, J. “Pioniers in schaduwbeeld: het eerste parlement van Nederland 1796-1798,” University of Amsterdam (2012).

Velema, Wyger R.E. Much in Little Revisited: The Dutch Revolution of 1795 and the History of Republicanism. University of Amsterdam, 2012.

Pentecost, Kathryn. “A Brief History Of The Dutch East Indies – Part 1.” The Indo Project. Accessed December 13, 2017. https://theindoproject.org/a-brief-history-of-the-dutch-east-indies-part-1/.

Next Chapter: The Rise of Pitt the Younger

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