The Historical and
Political Aspect of Belgium's
A PAGE FROM BELGIUM'S EARLIER
The history of the
territories known in modern times as Belgium was never in any marked degree shaped by their
inhabitants but by the nations surrounding those territories.
Since the close of the
middle ages, the main features of that history have been: on the one side, the
ever latent desire of Belgium's neighbors, particularly of France, to annex those
territories; and on the other side, England's firm determination not to allow
them to fall into the hands of a strong Power which might use them as a base
against the British Isles. England has not coveted the formal possession of Belgium; but she has looked at that country as her
Continental bulwark and, during centuries, shaped its fate in such a manner
that her safety was in no way endangered,—regardless of what that country's own
interests demanded. The question of the possession of the mouths of the
14 THE NEUTRALITY OF BELGIUM
Scheldt has always been
considered by England
as one of her most vital questions.
The following utterances of four prominent men,
belonging to different periods of history, illustrate the deep and particular
interest which England has always attached to her Belgian policy.
The famous Dutch jurist, Hugo Grotius,
who is often called the "Father of International Law," remarks in a
letter to his brother, in 1632: "The King of England will stand anything
save the passing of the ports of Flanders into the
hands of the French."1 In quite the same strain Lord Castlereagh, English Premier, writes to Lord Aberdeen,
British Ambassador at Vienna,
in November, 1813: "To leave Antwerp in the hands of the French would impose on us the
necessity of a perpetual state of war."2 At the
outbreak of the Franco-German War of 1870, Mr. Disraeli, one of England's
greatest statesmen, said in the House of Commons: "It is of the highest
importance to this country that the whole coast from Ostend
to the North Sea should be in the possession of free and flourishing
communities from whose ambition the liberty and independence of England nor of
any other country can be menaced."3
1 Quoted by R. Dollot,
Les Origines de la Neutraliti
de la Belgique et le Systeme
de la Barriere, Paris, 1902.
2 Quoted by R. Dollot.
3 Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, 3d ser. 203, page 1703.
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And in our own times, Lord
Kitchener is credited with the following significant words: "The British Empire's frontier in Europe is not the Channel, but the Meuse line."1
A short historical review
of the Anglo-Belgian relations will show how skillfully England has pursued what may be called her Continental
Towards the end of the XVth century, Belgium, as a part of the Lowlands, became,
by right of marriage and inheritance, a crown-dominion of the house of
Hapsburg, which then ruled not only over Austria but, shortly afterwards,
succeeded to the throne of Spain.
The northern parts of the Lowlands, consisting of seven provinces, gained their
independence in 1648, after a terrible war lasting for eighty years, and formed
the Dutch Republic, under the hereditary "stadtholders"
of the house of Orange-Nassau.
The southern provinces, commonly called the
"Catholic Netherlands," consisting of most of modern Belgium and the northern districts of present-day France, remained for nearly three hundred years under
the rule of the house of Hapsburg, and formed part of the Holy German Empire,
1 Quoted from F. Delaisi La querre qui vient, Paris (1911), page 25. ("La frontiere de l'Empire britannique en Europe, ce n'est pas le Pas de Calais, c'est la ligne de la Meuse.")
16 THE NEUTRALITY OF BELGIUM
ors of which, as a
reminder of former times, Belgium flies to this day as her national flag.
After 1556, there were two
branches of the house of Hapsburg, the older one occupying the throne of Spain, whilst the rulers of the younger branch reigned
over Austria and were, at the same time, German Emperors. The
Catholic Netherlands belonged at first to the Spanish branch, but, after its
extinction in 1700, passed over to the Austrian line. In both cases they formed
outlying possessions of their rulers, far apart from the latter's principal
dominions, which fact largely accounts for the peculiar role they played in the
European history of the XVIIth and XVIIIth century, with England as the decisive factor.
England's Continental policy during earlier times had
rested on the possession of a "bridge-head" on the Continental shores
of the Channel. This bridge-head, the citadel of Calais, England had been forced to evacuate in 1558. A century
later, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, tried to revive the
old scheme when France's ever latent desires of annexing the Catholic Netherlands assumed,
under her Prime Minister Cardinal Mazarin, such a
threatening character that England's safety seemed in jeopardy. Cromwell showed
great diplomatic ability. Both England and France being in a state of war with Spain, the Lord Protector made
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an agreement with Mazarin
for concerted action in the Spanish Netherlands. In 1658, the combined
Anglo-French forces captured Dunkirk, which then belonged to the Netherlands. King Louis XIV of France was allowed to make his solemn entrance into the
city. But he and his Prime Minister found themselves outwitted by the English,
who, upon Cromwell's orders, with superior forces, erected almost at once a
powerful citadel in that place, which action was sufficient to make the French
give up the campaign.
Thereupon Louis XIV tried to obtain Belgium by other means. He made his peace with King
Philip IV, and married his eldest daughter, the Infanta
Maria Theresia. Altho she
had to renounce all rights of succession to the lands of the Spanish crown,
Louis claimed for her, upon her father's death, in 1665, the succession in the
Belgian provinces, in preference to her half-brother, King Charles II of Spain,
basing her claims on a certain Belgian traditional right of
"devolution," according to which a daughter of first marriage has the
right of inheritance before sons of subsequent marriages. The three "Wars
of Conquest" were the consequence. In the first of them, France occupied the Flanders and the Hainault, but was obliged to relinquish
nearly all of the occupied territory, by the Peace of Aix la Chapelle, in 1668, as England,
18 THE NEUTRALITY
which had been in a
state of war with Holland since 1664, speedily ended her feud against the
Dutch, to save Antwerp from falling permanently into French hands.
Four years later, Louis
XIV renewed his endeavors to annex Belgium, having this time previously
concluded a treaty of alliance with the weak King Charles II of England, who
had, carelessly, sold him Dunkirk, for five million livres.
But the English people vigorously opposed this un-British policy of its king,
forced the "Cabal Ministry" to resign, made peace with Holland, and, by the Peace of Nijmwegen
(1678) forced the King of France to give up all the Belgian provinces conquered
The same thing happened
after the third War of Conquest. Again the French, having beaten the Dutch in
three big battles, held all Belgium in their possession; but William III of Orange, Stadtholder and King
of England in one person, simply forced his great antagonist, by the Peace of Ryswijk (1697), to renounce the conquered Belgian
territory, or to go on fighting.
It is significant that, at
each of these three occasions, England allowed a few inland towns, like Lille, Tournai, Valenciennes and Cambrai, then
forming part of the Netherlands, to remain in the hands of the French while she
took good care to
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keep the French away from the coast districts north of
In the European war which, in 1701, upon the death of Charles II of Spain, ensued for the succession to the Spanish throne,
England's attitude was primarily, if not exclusively,
determined by considerations with regard to her Continental bulwark. King
Charles II had, by a formal act, appointed Philip of Anjou, grandson of the
reigning King of France, as his successor; however, Austria, as the younger branch of the house of Hapsburg,
claimed the Spanish throne for Archduke Charles. As the Belgian provinces were
then practically a Spanish crown-dominion, England was afraid that they would get under French
control if the lawful French heir was allowed to succeed to the Spanish throne.
Consequently, England took up arms in favor of the Austrian candidate, and sent her famous
General Marlborough to the Netherlands, where he waged a most successful war against the
French. But subsequently the situation changed. Archduke Charles' elder
brother, Emperor Joseph I, having died without issue during the progress of the
war, Charles became himself German Emperor, whereby the danger arose that, if
the Hapsburg claims to the Spanish throne should meet with success, that
monarch would unite in his hands the Spanish realms as well as the German
20 THE NEUTRALITY OF BELGIUM
Since that was not in the interests of England, she ended her struggle
with France, consenting, by the Peace of Utrecht (1713), to the Bourbon succession
in Spain, whilst France agreed that the Belgian provinces should be handed over
to Austria, and, moreover, specially acknowledged the so-called Barrier Treaty,
concluded between England and Holland at the Hague in 1709, whereby the latter
had been entrusted with the right of permanently garrisoning the Belgian
frontier forts erected against France.
This treaty, which may
justly be called a master-stroke of English diplomacy, was confirmed by the
Treaty of Rastatt (1714), by which Emperor Charles VI
acknowledged the Bourbon succession in Spain, and by the Convention of Antwerp
of 1715, concluded between Austria and Holland, according to which eight
Barrier-Forts on the Franco-Belgian border were to be permanently occupied by
Dutch troops, for the safety of England, against an annual payment of half a million
thalers by Austria.
The Barrier Treaty
rendered wonderful services to England, especially during the Anglo-French war of
1755-1763, and was to a large extent instrumental in gaining for England gradually the position of the first colonial and
naval Power of the world, since, during all that time, the Belgian bulwark,
well protected, guarded the British
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against Continental invasions and gave England the opportunity to use all her resources for her
operations over sea.
The treaty came to an end
in 1780, when Holland, having taken part in the so-called Armed
Neutrality, was attacked by England. Because at that time the latter's influence naturally
no longer supported the Dutch Republic, Joseph II of Austria did not hesitate
to abrogate the Convention of Antwerp—which fact is sufficient proof that it
had only been England which, for so many years, had made that singular
arrangement possible whereby, mainly for her own ends, a Continental state had
been obliged to garrison the buffer-country Belgium, which belonged to a third
The consequences of the
abrogation of the Barrier Treaty very soon became visible. In 1792, Dumouriez, General of the French National Convention,
occupied Belgium without difficulty, and the country was three years later incorporated
in the Batavian Republic. In 1803, William Pitt demanded that the French troops should evacuate Belgium, but to no avail, since the French knew only too
well that this was England's danger spot. Belgium was made part of the Kingdom of Holland which Napoleon created in favor of his brother Louis, and became the
headquarters from which the famous "Continental Blockade" was
22 THE NEUTRALITY
against the British Isles. This measure, which caused the greatest crisis
known to English foreign politics until the present war, was, however, so
ruinous for Holland that Louis renounced his throne in 1810,
whereupon Belgium, with the rest of the Kingdom of Holland, was incorporated into the French Empire.
Signs are not lacking that
the Belgian people were rather well contented with their annexation by France which, among other things, restored a measure of
prosperity to the national harbor, Antwerp. To England, however, the control of the Belgian provinces by
France was, doubtless, the most formidable part of the
Napoleonic danger. Belgium's liberation from the French "yoke"
became therefore one of the chief concerns of British statesmen.
The first decisive blows
against Napoleon were scarcely dealt by the Continental Allies, in October, 1813,
when England's Premier, Lord Castlereagh,
opened negotiations in St. Petersburg concerning the future fate of Belgium. In February of the following year, he succeeded
in obtaining the promise from Russia that the Belgian provinces, together with Holland, should be handed over as an independent kingdom
to Prince William of Orange-Nassau-Diez, son of the
last Dutch "stadtholder," who, during the
French revolution, had
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died in English exile. Soon afterwards, also, the
consent of the other Allies, Prussia and Austria, was secured to this scheme, which, significantly
enough, included the dismantling of the fortress of Antwerp.
At the conclusion of the Treaty of Paris of May
30, 1814, which ended the
great War of Liberation, excluded Napoleon from the French throne, and restored
France, in her former limits, to the Bourbon dynasty, the English proposal concerning
a permanent union between Belgium and Holland was, at Lord Castlereagh's
insistence, formally sanctioned by certain "Additional, Separate and
Secret Articles" to the Treaty of Paris, of May 30, 1814, one of which reads:
The establishment of a just Balance of Power in
Europe requiring that Holland should be so constituted as to be enabled to
support her Independence through her own resources, the Countries comprised
between the Sea, the Frontiers of France, such as they are defined by the
present Treaty, and the Meuse, shall be given up
forever to Holland.
upon the right bank of the Meuse shall be regulated according to the
24 THE NEUTRALITY OF BELGIUM
of Holland and her neighbours.
"balance of power"—wherever this watchword of British diplomacy
occurs, it always indicates a successful shifting of that balance in England's favor!—hardly required anything of the kind indicated in that secret
agreement. But England's interest demanded that the defense of her Continental bulwark should
be trusted to reliable hands again. For this reason, and none other, the
Belgian provinces had to be handed over, much against their will, to the Dutch,
serving, incidentally, as a small compensation to Holland for all the vast and
valuable colonies which England had been able to take from that country during
the Napoleonic era, colonies which included Ceylon and the Cape Colony.
On the strength of the
above-mentioned secret arrangements, England obtained the definite settlement
of the question of the Netherlands at the Congress of Vienna,—that great
assembly of practically all prominent statesmen of Europe which, from September
1814 till June 1815, was in session at the Austrian capital and determined anew
the frontiers and the status of the majority of the European states.
the meeting of the plenipotentiaries on Janu-
A PAGE FROM BELGIUM'S EARLIER HISTORY 25
ary 28, 1815, Lord Castlereagh,
the British delegate, presented a memorandum of his government which reminded
the representatives of her three former Allies of their countries' promises and
made the following significant demands concerning the Netherlands:
That no arrangement should be made with regard to
them, except with the full and entire consent of His Britannic Majesty.1
This demand can leave no doubt as to England's firm determination to prevent, under all
circumstances, a recurrence of a French occupation of the Netherlands. Also when, a few weeks later, Napoleon
unexpectedly returned from Elba to retake possession of the French throne, England took immediate steps for the defense of Belgium. The Duke of Wellington was despatched
there, at the head of one of the strongest military forces ever raised by England, which with the co-operation of the Prussian army
under Field-Marshal Blucher defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
Shortly before that
momentous day, on May
31, 1815, four identical treaties were signed at Vienna, by England, Austria, Russia and Prussia, by which the new "United Kingdom of the Netherlands,"
1 British and Foreign State Papers,
1814-15, No. 2,
Annexe 2 to Protocol of January 28, 1815.
26 THE NEUTRALITY OF BELGIUM
consisting of Holland and Belgium, was officially recognized. On September 27, of the
same year, Prince William of Orange-Nassau-Diez, who
had also received the Grand-Duchy of Luxemburg at the Vienna Congress, was
solemnly crowned King of the United Netherlands at Brussels.
The year before, at the
occasion of a visit of the allied monarchs to the Court of London, it had been
arranged—and this arrangement speaks volumes!—that the Duke of Wellington
should be entrusted with looking after the military safety of the Belgian
provinces, which was secured by a rayon of fortresses, including Ypres, Menun, Tournai,
Mons, Charleroi, Namur, Philippeville, Marienbourg and
But even that measure
evidently was not considered by the British statesmen as affording absolute
security to their Continental bulwark. To gain the backing-up of their Belgian
policy by Russia, the only Great Power totally disinterested in Belgian affairs, they
did not hesitate to saddle their country with a heavy financial burden. Russia had presented a bill for fifty million florins to
the Netherlands for their liberation from the French yoke, and
had, at once, raised a loan for the said amount with a banking firm of Amsterdam. On May 19, 1815, the Kings of England and the Netherlands concluded a treaty with the Emperor of Russia by
A PAGE FROM BELGIUM'S EARLIER HISTORY 27
which the two first named monarchs
promised that their respective countries would pay to Russia twenty-five
millions of florins each, in annual instalments, with
the understanding that these payments would cease in case the "Belgic" provinces should ever be severed from the
Netherlands again, making it thereby a matter of importance for Russia that the
union of Holland and Belgium be maintained. The true portent of that agreement
was only disclosed by the Anglo-Russian Convention relative to the Russian-Dutch
Loan, of November 16, 1831,1 which
shows in its preamble that the object of the treaty of May
19, 1815, had been
"to afford to Great Britain the guarantee that Russia would, on all
questions concerning Belgium, identify her policy with that which the Court of
London has deemed the best adapted for the maintenance of a just Balance of
Power in Europe."
Thus, it had been English
gold which, at the Congress of Vienna, prompted Russia to lend her powerful influence to the carrying
out of England's Belgian schemes. And it was the same convincing
factor again which induced the Czar's Government to promise to uphold England's policy regarding Belgium when the latter country's affairs were
re-arranged, in 1831. The events of 1830, which will
Map of Europe by Treaty, Vol.
II, page 872.
28 THE NEUTRALITY
in the next chapter, having caused a temporary suspension of the English
payments, their resumption was arranged for by the above-mentioned Anglo-Russian
Convention of November 16, 1831, against the following promise:
In virtue of the said consideration His Majesty the
Emperor of All the Russias engages that if (which God
forbid!) the arrangements agreed upon for the Independence and the Neutrality
of Belgium, and to the maintenance of which the two High Powers are equally
bound, should be endangered by the course of events, he will not contract any
other engagement without a previous agreement with His Britannic Majesty and
his formal assent.
It is a strange coincidence that,
according to a financial statement quoted by Hertslet,1
England had to make annual payments into her sinking fund
for Russia's promise regarding Belgian neutrality until the year
1915! This alone would show the high value which England has always attached to her Continental bulwark
Surely, there can be no
question that England's policy regarding Belgium, logically pursued through
1 Map of Europe by Treaty,
Vol. II, page 874.
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three centuries, suits her purposes admirably and is
perfectly legitimate. But it is equally certain that the interests of Belgium were never in the least allowed to influence the
decisions of the British statesmen who decided the fate of the little country.
In all of England's political arrangements, then and now—in the following
chapter it will be shown that this applies particularly to the settlement of
the Belgian Question during the years 1831 to 1839—there was and is simply no
room for any consideration of Belgium's welfare. If ever it happened that any
part of England's political program happily coincided with the
wishes of the Belgian people, it can be safely asserted that that was merely
incidental and by no means a moving factor in England's decisions.