Austrian, French and Dutch occupation, independence and colonization

Austrian occupation (1713-1797)

France, with a growing coalition of European powers, continued the war with Spain. Throughout his long reign the French king, Louis XIV, refused to abandon his quest for the Spanish Netherlands. By the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659, France gained several frontier areas, and through subsequent conquests won possession of additional towns.

The Spanish Netherlands became an important pawn in the next major European conflict, the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). A settlement concluded at Utrecht in 1713 gave France part of Flanders, including Dunkerque and Lille. The bulk of the territory, however, came under the control of the Habsburg rulers of Austria, with a stipulation that its fortresses on the French border be garrisoned by the Dutch. Until the end of the 18th century, the area was generally known as the Austrian Netherlands.

During the War of the Austrian Succession in 1744, the country was occupied by the French, but it was restored to Austria by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. Except for this invasion, Belgium’s Austrian era was initially peaceful. This tranquillity was disrupted in 1781 when the Austrian emperor, Joseph II, decided to raze the border fortresses and reopen the Schelde estuary. The Dutch mounted an effective blockade and again closed the river to trade. Then, in 1787, as part of his effort to centralize the administration of the far-flung Habsburg domains, Joseph abolished provincial autonomy in the Austrian Netherlands. The loss of local control led to a general uprising, which coincided with the outbreak of the French Revolution (1789-1799). Most of the Austrian garrisons were forced to capitulate, and on January 11, 1790, a Belgian republic was proclaimed !

Quarrels between social and religious factions shook the new state from the outset, and within a year of Joseph’s death in 1790, his successor as Austrian emperor, Leopold II, reestablished control. A conciliatory and enlightened ruler, he revoked his predecessor’s decrees, but the new regime won little popular support. After Leopold was succeeded by Francis II in 1792, Austria became embroiled in war with the revolutionary government of France. Belgium was twice occupied by the French army, and the country was formally ceded to France by the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797.

French occupation (1797-1815)

The French regime was very unpopular with the populace, except with the bourgeoisie, that profited from French rule. The economy expanded after France conquered the prosperous city of Liège and annexed it to Belgian territory. Economically, after the French opened the Schelde River to shipping, Antwerp’s trade revived. New markets were also opened for local industry.

French occupation 2Wallonia became the most industrialized region in Europe, with the Verviers wool industry, the Walloon mines in the Borinage, Liège and the center. By 1810, Hainaut produced more than one million tons of coal per year ! Iron was very much in demand to build machines, which gave the metal industry a powerful impetus. The provinces of Liege, Namur and Hainaut yielded nearly one quarter of all the iron throughout the entire French Empire. The weapon industry in Liege was very important. In the province of Liege, the production of sheet metal grew strongly. New industries developed, including the manufacture of steel, tin and zinc.

In 1814 the entire country was occupied by allied armies. In 1815, the allied European armies (Austria, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia) defeated Napoleon Bonaparte in Belgium during the Battle of Waterloo.

Dutch occupation (1815-1830)

In 1815, the Congress of Vienna assembled to redraw the map of Europe in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat. The not-too-smart "world leaders" of those days reunited Belgium and the Netherlands, under the Dutch king William I, although the Belgian population had been thoroughly "Frenchified" during 230 years of separation, and despite the large differences in religion and language... Catholic Belgium, however, did not want a Protestant ruler, even though the country prospered under the Dutch.

The outbreak of a revolution in France in July 1830 inspired a Belgian uprising in August. Dutch troops were driven from Brussels, and on October 4, a coalition of the normally antagonistic Catholics and Liberals proclaimed Belgian independence. By then, the Powers-that-be became increasingly afraid of the growing power and influence of the Netherlands, and they decided to set up a buffer state between France and the Netherlands. The great powers - Austria, France, Britain, Prussia, and Russia - accepted Belgian independence, and the Dutch were unable to overcome this formidable pressure.

Independence and colonization (1830 - 1914)

The Belgians chose as their monarch Leopold I of Saxen-Coburg-Gotha. He was a model constitutional monarch with considerable political skills, that had actually been fishing for a while after the Greek crown... The Dutch finally agreed to recognize Belgium in 1839, and a peace treaty was signed. In its most important provision, the European powers confirmed Belgium as an "independent and perpetually neutral state".

However, the Frenchification of "La Belgique" continued unabated under the new regime, and prime Minister Charles Roger of the first government made it eminently clear by saying that "little by little we'll destroy the Germanic element in Belgium"... The economic decline that followed the separation from Dutch markets was halted by a national program of railroad construction, which connected all major Belgian towns by 1840. Belgium was the first country in continental Europe to industrialize, and it became politically and economically viable by 1865.

Under Leopold II, Belgium faced many domestic problems. Liberals and Catholics fought over control of education, and by 1885, industrialization and population density - the greatest in Europe - had produced truly appalling living conditions in the cities ! The workers, still not allowed to vote, began organizing in unions to obtain political equality. An 1893 general strike forced parliament to institute universal adult male suffrage, modified in true Belgian fashion to give more than one vote to university graduates, men over age fifty, and property owners...

Another problem was the lack of a common language. The country’s inhabitants were divided between Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons. Flemings outnumbered Walloons, but French was the language of the upper classes, who controlled much of Belgium’s wealth. Thus, Walloon interests were disproportionately represented in the government, and only a small segment of the Flemish could participate. The average Flemish John Smith (called Jan-met-de-Pet or John-with-the-hat...) was a non-educated but hard worker, who had no access to any improvement of his situation.

Early in his reign Leopold II personally financed an expedition up the Congo River in Africa and acquired personal control of the vast Congo basin. At the Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884 and 1885, he was recognized as sovereign of the Congo Free State, which supplied him with incalculable wealth in raw materials. After 1900, however, reports of mistreatment of the native Africans outraged the Belgian public opinion, which led to the transfer of control of this royal enterprise to the state in 1908. Afterwards, they were treated in exactly the same awful way, but this time the revenues flowed into other pockets, and so all was well again...

From then on, and until its independence in 1960, it was known as Belgian Congo. It was a source of great wealth for Belgium, if not so much for the Belgian citizens themselves, as for a few large companies and the Belgian political parties...

map of Belgian Congo stamp of Belgian Congo
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