Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Leaders Of The Belgian Revolution

Provisionary Belgian government after the 1830 revolution.
From left to right, seated, Alexandre Gendebien, Charles Rogier, Louis-Joseph de Potter,
Baron Feuillen de Coppin de Falaën, Comte Philippe de Mérode, standing André-Edouard Jolly, Jean-Sylvain van de Weyer, Joseph Van der Linden, Emmanuel Vanderlinden Baron d'Hoogvorst.

The territory that now encompasses Belgium saw itself pass between different hands quite a lot before its fight for independence started in mid-1830, mostly those of the French, Spanish (Hapsburgs) and Dutch. In fact, between 1794 and 1814, it had been part of the French Empire, before Napoleon lost his war and Belgium became part of the Southern Netherlands.

One of the reasons why so many people speak French in Belgium nowadays is due to this fact, as Napoleon's government installed many of its citizens in key civic positions around Dutch-speaking Flanders, Brabant and Limburg (it's also a reason why so many of the upper and middle classes at the time were also French-speaking).

Once Belgium was integrated into the French Empire, the industrial revolution reached Belgium, and the first steam-powered engines were clandestinely introduced into the country.
Other important changes introduced by Napoleon's reign: new judicial framework on civil rights (foundation for the future Belgian civil code); Wallonia became the most industrialized region of Europe; the port of Antwerp becomes extra-profitable; obligatory military service; zero political freedom; the use of Dutch is repressed in Flanders and nothing can be printed in that language either. (Source)
Needless to say, when Belgium became part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, it was suddenly left with little to no voice in the key areas as economic, political, and social policy. Compounding that problem was the fact that the majority of Belgium was Catholic, while the ruler in the Netherlands was Protestant.

In any case, some French immigrants ended up at the head of the Belgian revolution, namely Charles Rogier, the Comte Félix de Mérode, and Alexandre Gendebien. So who were these men?

Rogier leading the volunteers of Liege (Soubre, 1878)
Charles Rogier was the son of an officer in Napoleon's army. After the latter's death on the Russian front, the family settled in Liège where Rogier, unable to follow his dreams of becoming a lawyer from lack of financial resources, ended up becoming a professor. Later, he became a journalist who, as such, led assiduous campaigns against the Dutch rule and the Belgians' political apathy that allowed such rule to continue, while at the same time being an avid proponent of a constitutional regime. It is interesting to note here a passage Rogier underlined while reading the book The Historical Considerations of De Pradt on Belgium:

The Belgian is neither a Frenchmen, nor a German, nor a Dutchman. A Dutchman is a sophisticated Belgian. = If you want a people that is good, franc, hospitable, laborious, economical, loving of order and steadiness, you will find it in the Belgian: it is a people that is naturally moral. 
Belgium is a corner of the earth where work and industry have gathered together to make it one of the destinations the most suitable for man's happiness here on earth; it is un-ruinable
Revolutions don't happen there, they go there; it is a fixed-term birth. (1)

And when the sh*t hit the fan, so to speak, Rogier found himself leading a militia 300-men strong during the Belgian revolution. He was later rewarded by the future King Leopold I with the governorship of Antwerp.

Félix de Mérode
Félix de Mérode was the son of the mayor of Brussels while Belgium was under French rule, while he himself lived in Paris where he married none other than the niece of the Marquis de Lafayette (who, according to some, "helped work out plans to set up a revolution in Brussels"), Rosalie de Grammont.  He first spent his time in French politics, fighting for the rights of orphans, farmers, town laborers, and public education. He had just been in Belgium for a few days when the Belgian revolution hit in 1830. But that didn't stop him from being part of the revolutionary movement first, nor of working and financing the resistance against the Dutch who kept trying to regain its lost territory afterwards. In fact, the count himself was considered as a potential candidate for the newly-minted Belgian throne (his friends used to call him "the indigenous prince"), but he refused the position as he was but a count, and instead became a Minister of State.

Alexandre Gendebien
Alexandre Gendebien had actually worked as a lawyer in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, but felt more loyal to his French roots (though he himself was born in Mons, a Belgian town) and wished for Belgium to become once more a part of France. He was a member of the higher strata of the bourgeoisie, and his whole family had, for dozens of years, enjoyed numerous important governmental posts, including on the French National Congress. Though Gendebien had been disappointed in seeing the French flags (placed on windows by French secret agents)  replaced the next day by Belgian ones during the revolution, he nevertheless vehemently opposed himself against the dismembering of Belgium proposed in 1831 (whereby Liège would have gone to Prussia, Flanders and Antwerp to Great Britain, and Brussels and Wallonia to France), and instead helped found the Belgian government.

First Belgian flag which replaced the French ones
during the first days of the Belgian revolution.
(1) (Transl. from French:) Le belge n’est ni un français, ni un allemand, ni un hollandais. Un Hollandais est un belge perfectionné. = Voulez-vous un peuple bon, franc, hospitalier, laborieux, économe, ami de l’ordre et de la régularité, vous le trouverez dans le Belge : c’est un peuple naturellement moral. = La Belgique est un coin de terre dont le travail et l’industrie réunis ont fait un des séjours les mieux appropriés au bonheur de l’homme, qui existe sur terre : il est inruinable. = Les révolutions ne se font pas : elles arrivent ; c’est un enfantement à terme fixe.

A Throne in Brussels
Charles Rogier (1800-1885), d'après des documents inédits, Volumes 1-2
Charles Rogier Wiki
Felix de Merode Wiki

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