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French armies and the Batavian Republic: 1795-1806

When the French republican armies sweep through the Austrian Netherlands, in 1793, their natural next target is the United Provinces to the north. In that year France formally declares war on the feeble stadholder, William V of Orange. He lacks support in his own republic and has even had to live in exile for two years (1785-7) when power is briefly taken by a new party, the Patriots, demanding reform and greater elements of democracy.

When the French invasion eventually comes, in 1795, there is little resistance. William V and his family escape to England. The Patriots welcome the French republicans who have helped them achieve their own political programme.

Economically the upheaval of 1795 has serious consequences. It brings the Netherlands into the French camp and thereby exposes Dutch commercial interests around the world to the British navy. Sri Lanka and the Cape colony in south Africa are both seized by the British during 1795.

The Netherlands acquires a new name as the Batavian Republic, one of the 'sister republics' now being established by France wherever possible in Europe. Its form of government at first reflects that of the Directory, in power in France from 1795. On the same basis, after 1799, Napoleonic reforms are introduced. And in 1806 another drastic political change results from Napoleon's new status as emperor.

Kingdom of Holland and French rule: 1806-1813

Napoleon declares in 1806 that Holland is to be a kingdom, with his 28-year-old brother Louis Bonaparte as king. Much to the surprise of the emperor, Louis takes his royal responsiblities seriously and attempts to rule in the interests of the Dutch. In particular he enrages his elder brother by not taking sufficiently strenuous measures to prevent trade between the Dutch ports and Britain, thus leaving a loophole in the Continental System.

By 1810 Napoleon has had enough. He abolishes the kingdom of Holland and incorporates the region under direct rule within his French empire. The Dutch now find themselves administered in departments with names such as Bouches-de-l'Yssel and Yssel-Supérieur.

With strict censorship, the teaching of French in all primary schools, the rule that a third of all officers in the Dutch army must be French and the appointment of French-speaking Belgian Catholics to many high administrative posts, the fiercely independent and Protestant Dutch find themselves living under an alien dictatorship.

Not surprisingly, news of Napoleon's defeat at Leipzig in October 1813 is followed by a national uprising. The head of the house of Orange (now William VI, whose father has died in 1806) is invited to return - no longer merely as stadholder but as William I, the sovereign prince of the Netherlands.

William accepts this title in December 1813. A few months later, after the defeat and first abdication of Napoleon, there is international discussion of a wider role for the Dutch sovereign. The Austrian Netherlands, now liberated from the French, is not inclined to return to Austrian rule. It is suggested that all the Netherlands should be united under William.

The matter becomes urgent when news arrives, early in March 1815, that Napoleon has escaped from Elba and landed in France. On March 16 William proclaims himself monarch of a new kingdom of the Netherlands, comprising the United Provinces and the Austrian Netherlands. Its existence, and his rule of it, is confirmed later in the year by the congress in Vienna.

Kingdom of the Netherlands: 1815-1830

It is a much argued question among historians whether the political unity imposed from above in 1815 on the entire region of the Netherlands has a natural validity and could have lasted. The recent centuries of European history have seen, for the most part, the emergence of nations with a clear geographical identity.

Geography unites the entire Netherlands, a region of low-lying land (as the name states) in the delta of the Rhine. But history has contributed deep divisions - of language (the closely related Dutch and Flemish in the north, French in the south) and of religion (Protestant in the north, Catholic in the south). To complicate matters further, the linguistic and religious boundaries are not the same.

These historical problems, and the distrust arising from them, complicate the efforts of William I to rule the entire area. Suitable gestures are made. The seat of government is to alternate annually between The Hague and Brussels. Dutch is made the official language (being spoken by all in the north and by many in the south), but this rule is only enforced in the Flemish regions.

Inevitably there is much to complain about. Religious liberty, standard in the north and now imposed on the south, pleases southern liberals but offends southern Catholics. The north, with a smaller population, has as many seats in the states general as the south. And French Catholics are being ruled by a Dutch Protestant king.

William I benefits in the early 1820s from an increase in prosperity in both parts of his kingdom and from bitter disagreement in the south between the liberal and Catholic factions. But in 1828 the two sides come together in a pact known as the 'union of parties'. Together they sponsor a petition drawing attention to southern grievances. By the end of 1829 it has more than 300,000 signatures, representing a tenth of Belgium's population.

Unrest is therefore already in the air when news from Paris, in July 1830, raises the tension in Brussels - and sets off the events which finally divide the Netherlands into two independent nations.

This History is as yet incomplete.

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