A (very) abbreviated (unverified) history of the Netherlands and Belgium (sort of)

Today’s photo: A random shot from a bridge while meandering through Rotterdam last Friday evening. In all our wanderings, Ashley and I have been very good about taking shameless selfies, but somehow we completely forgot to take pictures in Rotterdam. This is all you get. Sorry.

Backstory: The whole reason Ashley is staying in Europe for the summer is that she figured out how to take all her summer courses online. Fortunately, that means she has plenty to keep her occupied while I’m at work. Unfortunately, that means she sometimes has to study on the weekends. Last Saturday, we stopped at Hopper Coffee in Rotterdam, so Ashley could get some work done. I took the opportunity to educate myself about the flat little country we were visiting for the weekend. Here’s what I accomplished in the three hours while Ashley was fighting with the (extremely uncooperative) Kindle version of her textbook:


Starting from the very beginning, we set a hard limit for the earliest point of any human history in the region English speakers often mistakenly call “Holland” but should actually call it “the Netherlands” and that the Dutch call “Nederland”, which literally translates to “low country”.

Paleontologists estimate that humans left Africa about 50,000-60,000 years ago. They probably took the route across Arabia and up through the Levant (present-day Syria and Iraq). If you’re just looking at a world map, it would seem most logical that they would then continue north to where they are now throughout the European peninsula. However, some research suggests that they continued north through the Caucuses and around the Black Sea to the north. Either way, best estimates put the first Homo sapiens settlements in present-day Europe at about 40,000 years ago. I used the species name intentionally. Homo sapiens were not the first humans in Europe. Homo neanderthalis were already here. There is strong evidence that H. sapiens interbred with H. neaderthalis throughout their journey from the Levant to Europe (whichever direction they took).

However, those first people to reach Europe may not have been our ancestors. Despite the continued interbreeding, we Europeans have no more Neanderthal blood than our cousins in Asia or the Americas. This suggests that the first people in Europe actually went extinct. There were probably a series of waves of humans, who were genetically similar enough to reproduce with one another, who populated Europe over the past 40,000 years.

These tribes of people lived in hunter-gatherer societies for thousands of years. The first people to start living in settled farming societies in the Netherlands are known as the Trechtervolk, who lived in the northeast of the Netherlands. Very little is known about these prehistoric people, but they had spread out throughout the Low Countries over the ensuing 3,000 years. As the beginning of the Common Era approached, the Romans began to expand their empire to the north, first led by Julius Caesar in his slaughter of the Belgae, the people of the Low Countries in Antiquity. They were brought under Roman control around 12BC under Caesar Augustus and remained part of the empire until the decline of the western Roman Empire in the fourth century.

When Western Rome fell, the Low Countries were mostly autonomous and under Frankish control. The Franks were the early kings of the people in the lower Rhineland region at the edge of Roman control (if your European geography is about as good as mine, you’ll need the hint that the Rhine river winds through the western German cities of Cologne, Dusseldorf, Bonn and Basel before draining into the sea at Rotterdam). They weren’t officially Roman, but some (the Salian Franks) were permitted to live within Roman territory. A military general names Childeric I is regarded as the first of the Merovingian line and fought for control with a seemingly autonomous Roman General for the Rhineland in the decade prior to the fall of Rome. He and his son Clovis I ruled in a form of kingship likely modeled on that of Alaric I, who was elected king of the Visigoths after the death of Emperor Theodosius in 395 (Theodosius was the one who first split the empire, and his sons basically started a civil war using Germanic tribes, and Alaric I was the one who sacked Rome during this sort of civil war).

As Rome receded to its new base in the East, the Low Countries occupied themselves in such local matters as to keep me from finding out really anything between the rise of Clovis I in the last decade fifth century and the first attempts at Christianisation by British missionaries in the eighth century.

The period of 800-888 CE is officially known as the Carolingian Empire, starting with the crowning of Charlemagne as Emperor of Rome, thus marking the revival of the Roman Empire. This empire encompassed most of modern-day France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, western Germany, and northern Italy. Obesity struck even in the early Middle Ages, and the empire split up after the death of Charles the Fat in 888. The empire was revived again in 962 with the rise of Otto I, now calling it the Holy Roman Empire. The empire encompassed basically the same borders minus France. I like to the think of the Holy Roman Empire as Germany in the Middle Ages.

The Hanseatic League of powerful merchants in the North Sea saw much power shift to the private sector in the Netherlands in the 14th century. This focus on seapower would lead to the Golden Age of the Netherlands in the 16th century with the massive fortunes brought in by the Dutch East India Company. 

In the middle of the 16th century, the Netherlands was still under the control of the Holy Roman Empire, now ruled by the Hapsburg family. Emperor Charles V abdicated, giving his son Philip II control of the Hapsburg Netherlands. Though technically under the control of the HRE, the Netherlands was mostly governed by a union of seventeen republics, who maintained similar legal codes (ones very friendly to trade and very much shifting power to local control). 

However, Philip was the son of the Queen of Spain, Isabella. She was, more importantly for the Netherlands, Catholic, and Philip was a mamma’s boy. He had no patience for the rise of Protestantism in the Netherlands and made it a point to reinstate the control of the Catholic church in the region through counter-reformation (an Inquisition in the Netherlands). Many Dutch nobles who stood to lose greatly because of the reorganization of the church, engineered the recall of the guy who was supposed to lead the whole reorganization. This coup was led by William, Duke of Orange, who is seen as the Father of the Netherlands. They tried to get Philip II to back off, but he refused. Protestant rebellion broke out and thus began the Eighty Years’ War.

During the war, the Republic of the Seventeen Provinces became more powerful and unified in their fight for independence. Unification would not last, and the Peace of Westphalia (1648) that ended of the war also divided the Netherlands into the Republic of the seven provinces (north) and the Spanish Netherlands (south; more or less the region we now call Belgium). The Republic was independent, but the south remained under Spanish control. The bankrupt Spanish empire consistently gave up territory to France (thus giving rise to French-speaking Wallonia) over the course of the seventeenth century. In the Netherlands, the Republic maintained control through most of the 18th century. In 1795, the French revolution spilled out of its borders and conquered the Netherlands to form the Batavian Republic. Britain capitalized, gobbling up most of what was left of the Dutch empire overseas. In 1806, Napoleon appointed his brother, Louis, King of the Netherlands, but he took back the decision in 1810 when Louis started being a bit too sympathetic to the locals. The British liberated the Netherlands in 1813 on the road to defeating Napoleon once and for all. With the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 (on the border between Flanders and Wallonia), the Netherlands was united from Groningen to the Ardennes for the first time in over 200 years under Kind Willem.

And everybody lived happily ever after.

Just kidding. Revolution broke out again in 1830, and Belgium formed its own sovereign state in 1839, thus relegating it to two hundred years of political infighting and developmental sluggishness.

That’s about as far as I got. I might finish the story, but I really should do Belgium first because it is about to become the country where I’ve had the longest residence since I left the US in 2015.