Belgium: A Young Nation
The country that Charlotte, Emily and Patrick Brontë were about to visit in 1842, had only existed as an independent sovereign state for 12 years. Belgium was the youngest nation of Europe, having achieved its independence in 1830 when the Belgians were finally separated from the Protestant Northern Netherlands. The two countries had been forced into a marriage that was fated to end in divorce.
After the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, a treaty was put together at the Congress of Vienna by the great European powers (Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia) whereby the Southern and Northern Netherlands were to form a single state, “the United Kingdom of the Netherlands”. It was merely a geographical union, aimed at creating a strong buffer state against any future French invasions.
Though officially it was now one country, it certainly wasn’t one nation. There was a great sense of difference and the Belgians felt dominated by the Dutch. (Dutch was now the official language and Dutch officials held four-fifths of the executive posts.)
The main causes of friction were religious, political and linguistic. Two main groups, the Catholics, mainly French-speaking Walloons representing the rural areas, and the Liberals, an upper-class bourgeois group, resisted the new Dutch rule and language.
The opposition of the Belgians to the absolutist Dutch King steadily gained ground. In 1828 the Catholics and Liberals formed an alliance, called ‘Unionism’, and drew up a joint set of demands. Within a few months they managed to gather support from all over Belgium and, with the help of the press, collected over 40,000 signatures in a first petition.
In 1829 the protesters collected over 300,000 signatures for a second petition and by 1830 the mutual grievances between the Belgians and the Dutch had reached a climax. A moral divorce had already effectively taken place and the Belgians now wanted to claim full independence.
In July 1830, just across the border in France, the French king, Charles X, had been deposed by Revolutionaries. Catholic partisans in Belgium followed the events with excitement and details of the uprising were soon reported in the newspapers. It sparked a flame that would lead to a revolutionary uprising against the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The opening phase was the night of 25th August 1830. During a performance of Daniel Auber’s patriotic opera La Muette de Portici in the Monnaie Theatre in Brussels, the words:
“Amour sacré de la Patrie
Rends-moi l’honneur et la fierté,
A mon Pays je dois la vie,
Il me rendra la liberté ”
engendered a riot that became the signal for the revolution.
When the bell tolled and the conductor Masaniello took up his hatchet and called “To arms” the public enthusiastically repeated his cry. Shouting patriotic slogans, the crowd erupted into the street and started on a rampage and burn down houses of eminent Dutch people. After this the Dutch lost control over Brussels.
King William I was unwilling to meet the demands of the revolutionaries and wanted to restore the status quo by force. The situation escalated. Four days in the following month, from 23 to 26 September, saw the bloodiest fighting in the streets of Brussels. Volunteers came from all corners of the land and from abroad. They formed companies and attacked the Dutch, who had their stronghold in the Park.
The stairs of the Passage de la Bibliothèque, connecting the Rue Royale and the Rue d’Isabelle, were the scene of heavy fighting. It has been claimed that M. Heger, who fought with the rebels, fired his gun from the roof of the Pensionnat, but this may be just a romantic story. It is certain though that he fought in the nearby Montagne du Parc.
The Dutch were beaten and the Belgians won their independence, at the cost of 1,300 wounded and 467 dead. The heroes who fell in the fighting, many of whom were volunteers, were buried underneath the Place des Martyrs, where a monument was erected to commemorate them.
click here to read more on the Place des Martyrs
The patriots were not only given a monument on the square, but were also appointed an honour flag. On 14 January 1831, the Provisional Government of Belgium created the honour star, which was awarded in token of gratitude to the citizens who had contributed to the country’s independence. Honour flags were to be awarded to the fallen and to the towns and municipalities which had supported the revolution.
A LA COMMUNE DE LIÈGE
LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE
On 27 September 1832, in the Place Royale in Brussels, King Leopold I handed out the flags to delegations saying, “I confide you this flag; the courage you showed is the evidence you will be able to defend it.”