How The Dutch Obtained Their Land
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The first time that I crossed the old Rhine, I had stopt on the bridge, asking myself whether that small and humble stream of water was really the same river that I had seen rushing in thunder over the rocks at Schaffhausen, spreading majestically before Mayence, passing in triumph under the fortress of Ehrenbreitstein, beating in sonorous cadence at the foot of the Seven Mountains; reflecting in its course Gothic cathedrals, princely castles, fertile hills, steep rocks, famous ruins, cities, groves, and gardens; everywhere covered with vessels of all sorts, and saluted with music and song; and thinking of these things, with my gaze fist upon the little stream shut in between two flat and desert shores, I had repeated, "Is this that Rhine?"
The vicissitudes which accompany the agony and death of this great river in Holland, are such as really to excite a sense of pity, such as is felt for the misfortunes and inglorious end of a people once powerful and happy. From the neighborhood of Emmerich, before reaching the Dutch frontier, it has lost all the beauty of its banks, and flows in great curves through vast and ugly flats, which seem to mark the approach to old age. At Millingen it runs entirely in the territory of Holland; a little farther on it divides. The main branch shamefully loses its name, and goes to throw itself into the Meuse: the other branch, insulted by the title of the Dannerden canal, flows nearly to the city of Arnehm, when it once more divides into two branches. One empties into the Gulf of Zuyder-Zee ; the other still called, out of compassion, the Lower Rhine, goes as far as the village of Durstede, where it divides for the third time; a humiliation now of old date.
One of these branches, changing its name like a coward, throws itself into the Meuse near Rotterdam; the other still called the Rhine, but with the ridiculous surname of "curved," reaches Utrecht with difficulty, where for the fourth time it again divides; capricious as an old man in his dotage. One part, denying its old name, drags itself as far as Muiden, where it falls into the Zuyder-Zee; the other, with the name of Old Rhine, or simply the Old, flows slowly to the city of Leyden, whose streets it crosses almost without giving a sign of movement, and is finally gathered into one canal by which it goes to its miserable death in the North Sea.
But it is not many years since this pitiful end was denied it. From the year 839, in which a furious tempest had accumulated mountains of sand at its mouth, until the beginning of the present century, the Old Rhine lost itself in the sand before reaching the sea, and covered a vast tract of country with pools and marshes. Under the reign of Louis Bonaparte the waters were collected into a large canal protected by three enormous sluicegates, and from that time the Rhine flows directly to the sea. These sluices are the greatest monument in Holland and, perhaps, the most admirable hydraulic work in Europe.
The dikes which protect the mouth of the canal, the walls, pillars, and gates, present altogether the aspect of a Cyclopian fortress, against which it seems that not only that sea, but the united forces of all seas, must break as against a granite mountain. When the tide rises the gates are closed to prevent the waters from invading the land; when the tide recedes they are opened to give passage to the waters of the Rhine which have accumulated behind them; and then a mass of three thousand cubic feet of water passes through them in one minute. On days when storms prevail, a concession is made to the sea, and the most advanced of the sluicegates is left open; and then the furious billows rush into the canal, like an enemy entering by a breach, but they break upon the formidable barrier of the second gate, behind which Holland stands and cries, "Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther!" That enormous fortification which, on a desert shore, defends a dying river and a fallen city from the ocean, has some-thing of solemnity which commands respect and admiration. . . .
Napoleon said that it [Holland] was an alluvion of French rivers—the Rhine, the Scheldt, and the Meuse—and with this pretext he added it to the empire. One writer has defined it as a sort of transition between land and sea. An-other, as an immense crust of earth floating on water. Others, an annex of the old continent, the China of Europe, the end of the earth, and the beginning of the ocean, a measureless raft of mud and sand; and Philip II. called it the country nearest to hell.
But they all agreed upon one point, and all exprest it in the same words :—Holland is a conquest made by man over the sea—it is an artificial country—the Hollanders made it-it exists because the Hollanders preserve it—it will vanish whenever the Hollanders shall abandon it.
To comprehend this truth, we must imagine Holland as it was when first inhabited by the first German tribes that wandered away in search of a country. It was almost uninhabitable. There were vast tempestuous lakes, like seas, touching one another; morass beside morass; one tract covered with brushwood after another; immense forests of pines, oaks, and alders, traversed by herds of wild horses; and so thick were these forests that tradition says one could travel leagues passing from tree to tree without ever putting foot to the ground. The deep bays and gulfs carried into the heart of the country the fury of the northern tempests. Some provinces disappeared once every year under the waters of the sea, and were nothing but muddy tracts, neither land nor water, where it was impossible either to walk or to sail. The large rivers, without sufficient inclination to descend to the sea, wandered here and there uncertain of their day, and slept in monstrous pools and ponds among the sands of the coasts. It was a sinister place, swept by furious winds, beaten by obstinate rains, veiled in a perpetual fog, where nothing was heard but the roar of the sea, and the voice of wild beasts and birds of the ocean.
Now, if we remember that such a region has become one of the most fertile, wealthiest and best regulated of the countries of the world, we shall understand the justice of the saying that Holland is a conquest made by man. But, it must be added, the conquest goes on forever.
To drain the lakes of the country the Hollanders prest the air into their service. The lakes, the marshes, were surrounded by dikes, the dikes by canals; and an army of windmills, putting in motion force-pumps, turned the water into the canals, which carried it off to the rivers and the sea. Thus vast tracts of land buried under the water, saw the sun, and were trans-formed, as if by magic, into fertile fields, covered with villages, and intersected by canals and roads. In the seventeenth century, in less than forty years, twenty-six lakes were drained. At the beginning of the present century, in North Holland alone, more than six thousand hectares, or fifteen thousand acres, were thus redeemed from the waters; in South Holland, before 1844, twenty-nine thousand hectares; in the whole of Holland, from 1500 to 1858, three hundred and fifty-five thousand hectares. Substituting steam-mills for windmills, in thirty-nine months was completed the great undertaking of the draining of the lake of Haarlem, which measured forty-four-kilometers in circumference, and for ever threatened with its tempests the cities of Haarlem, Amsterdam, and Leyden. And they are now meditating the prodigious work of drying up the Zuyder-Zee, which embraces an erea of more than seven hundred square kilometers.
But the most tremendous struggle was the battle with the ocean. Holland is in great part lower than the level of the sea; consequently, everywhere that the coast is not de-fended by sand-banks, it has to be protected by dikes. If these interminable bulkwarks of earth, granite, and wood were not there to attest the indomitable courage and perseverance of the Hollanders, it would not be believed that the hand of man could, even in many centuries have accomplished such a work. In Zealand alone the dikes extend to a distance of more than four hundred kilometers. The western coast of the island of Walcheren is defended by a dike, in which it is computed that the expense of construction added to that of preservation, if it were put out at interest, would amount to a sum equal in value to that which the dike itself would be worth were it made of massive copper.
Around the city of Helder, at the northern extremity of North Holland, extends a dike ten kilometers long, constructed of masses of Norwegian granite, which descends more than sixty meters into the sea. The whole province of Friesland, for the length of eighty-eight kilo-meters, is defended by three rows of piles sustained by masses of Norwegian and German granite. Amsterdam, all the cities of the Zuyder Zee, and all the islands—fragments of vanished lands—which are strung like beads between Friesland and North Holland, are protected by dikes. From the mouths of the Ems to those of the Scheldt Holland is an impenetrable fortress, of whose immense bastions the mills are the towers, the cataracts are the gates, the is-lands the advanced forts; and like a true fortress, it shows to its enemy, the sea, only the tops of its bell-towers and the roofs of its houses, as if in defiance and derision.
Holland is a fortress, and her people live as in a fortress on a war-footing with the sea. An army of engineers, directed by the Minister of the Interior, spread over the country, and ordered like an army, continually spy the enemy, watch over the internal waters, foresee the bursting of the dikes, order and direct the defensive works. The expenses of the war are divided; one part to the State, one part to the provinces; every proprietor pays, besides the general imposts, a special impost for the dikes, in proportion to the extent of his lands and their proximity to the water. An accidental rupture, an inadvertence, may cause a flood; the peril is unceasing; the sentinels are at their posts upon the bulwarks at the first assault of the sea; they shout the war-cry, and Holland sends men, material, and money. And even when there is not a great battle, a quiet, silent struggle is for ever going on.
The innumerable mills, even in the drained districts, continue to work unresting, to absorb and turn into the canals the water that falls in rain and that which filters in from the sea.
But Holland has done more than defend her-self against the waters; she has made herself mistress of them, and has used them for her own defense. Should a foreign army invade her territory, she has but to open her dikes and unchain the sea and the rivers, as she did against the Romans, against the Spaniards, against the army of Louis XIV., and defend the land cities with her fleet. Water was the source of her poverty, she has made it the source of wealth. Over the whole country extends an immense net-work of canals which serve both for the irrigation of the land and as a means of communication. The cities, by means of canals, communicate with the sea; canals run from town to town, and from them to villages, which are themselves bound together by these watery ways, and are connected even to the houses scattered over the country; smaller canals surround the fields and orchards, pastures and kitchen-gardens, serving at once as boundary-wall, hedge, and roadway; every house is a little port. Ships, boats, rafts move about in all directions, as in other places carts and carriages. The canals are the arteries of Holland, and the water her life-blood.
But even setting aside the canals, the draining of the lakes, and the defensive works, on every side are seen the traces of marvelous undertakings. The soil, which in other countries is a gift of nature, is in Holland 'a work of men's hands. Holland draws the greater part of her wealth from commerce; but before commerce comes the cultivation of the soil; and the soil had to be created. There were sand-banks, interspersed with layers of peat, broad downs swept by the winds, great tracts of barren land apparently condemned to, an external sterility. The first elements of manufacture, iron and coal, were wanting; there was no wood, because the forests had already been destroyed by tempests when agriculture began; there was no stone, there were no metals.
Nature, says a Dutch poet, had refused all her gifts to Holland; the Hollanders had to do everything in spite of nature. They began by fertilizing the sand. In some places they formed a productive soil with earth brought from a distance, as a garden is made; they spread the siliceous dust of the downs over the too watery meadows; they mixed with the sandy earth the remains of peat taken from the bottoms; they extracted clay to lend fertility to the surface of their lands; they labored to break up the downs with the plow; and thus in a thousand ways, and continually fighting off the menacing waters, they succeeded in bringing Holland to a state of cultivation not inferior to that of more favored regions. That Holland, the sandy, marshy country that the ancients considered all but uninhabitable, now sends out yearly from her confines agricultural products to the value of a hundred millions of francs, possesses about one million three hundred thousand head of cattle, and, in proportion to the extent of her territory, may be accounted one of the most populous of European states.
But however wonderful may be the physical history of Holland, her political history is still more so. This small territory invaded from the beginning by different tribes of the Germanic races, subjugated by the Romans and the Franks, devastated by the Normans and by the Danes, desolated by centuries of civil war with. all its horrors, this small people of fisher-man and traders, saves its civil liberty and its freedom of conscience by a war of eighty years against the formidable monarchy of Philip II., and founds a republic which becomes the ark of salvation to the liberties of all the world, the adopted country of science, the Exchange of Europe, the station for the commerce of the world; a republic which extends its domination to Java, Sumatra, Hindustan, Ceylon, New Holland, Japan, Brazil, Guiana, the Cape of Good Hope, the West-Indies, and New York; a republic which vanquished England on the sea, which resists the united arms of Charles II. and Louis XIV., and which treats on equal terms with the greatest nations, and is, for a time, one of the three Powers that decide the fate of Europe.