Review of Grattan’s ‘History of the Netherlands’ (1855)

Written by Dyami Millarson

What portion of Dutch history does this book cover? That was one of the first questions I had when I saw the book title. The period covered in The History of the Netherlands, which is written by Thomas Colley Grattan and published in New York in 1855, stretches from 50 BC to 1815 AD when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. I found it interesting to see a 19th-century American account of Dutch history shaped by the living memory of the Napoleonic Wars, and particularly its take on historical and contemporary Dutch and Belgian identity as seen within this 19th-century context.

Curiously, the book adopts the definition of the Kingdom of the Netherlands as given in article 66 of the 1815 Treaty of Vienna (Traité de Vienne in French which is the language that documents of grave importance were drafted in at that time), which, by 1855, did not anymore reflect the political reality of the Netherlands. However, the author adopted a balanced geographic, historical, cultural and linguistic perspective for defining what he regarded as ‘the Netherlands’, which, according to his definition which matched that of the historical legal document of Traité de Vienne, included Belgium. While there were no clear geographic or historical barriers between the Netherlands and Belgium in his mind except those ‘produced by political and religious institutions’, he noted ‘the extent of the [Dutch] kingdom could only be determined by convention; and it must at all times subject to arbitrary and varying influence of European policy’. We should bear in mind that Grattan’s history stops at 1815 AD when the Traité de Vienne was signed, which declared that Belgium was an integral part of the Netherlands and forbade it from seceding based on its legal definition of what the Netherlands was to be. The Benelux, which came into being in the 20th century and continues to exist up to this day, practically hearkens back to that definition.

The book describes the Dutch and Belgians as speakers of ‘Low German’, which translates to ‘Nederduitsch’ in 19th-century Dutch, and that is how grammarians and others designated the Dutch language at the time, while they felt the Dutch language had a close affinity with German and they regarded themselves as speakers of a kind of German language belonging to a physically low region of the European continent, while the Prussians were regarded as speakers of a German language that was spoken in a high region, therefore designated as High German by the Dutch, who are the originators of this geography-based high-low distinction, as both the Prussians and the Dutch regarded themselves as German, namely Deutsch and Duitsch in their respective languages, and this is why the inhabitants of the Netherlands are still called Dutch today by the English.

It is worth noting that the book characterises the speakers of French in Belgium as warlike, and this is apparently a contemporary perspective with the living memory of the Napoleontic Wars. From a sociological perspective, it is worth reflecting upon the fact that how the speakers of French were perceived as warlike in the 19th century in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars is comparable to how the speakers of High German were perceived as warlike in the aftermath of World War I and II. These are both instances of history-based sentiments about entire ethnolinguistic groups. I can imagine tribes on the European continent of yore held similar sentiments about each other in the aftermath of intertribal wars.

In contrast to the speakers of French, Grattan characterises the speakers of Dutch or ‘Low German’ if you will as peaceful folks and likens them to the English in terms of talents: ‘agriculture, navigation and commerce’. What Grattan says about the Dutch talents still holds true today, because the Dutch are the world’s 2nd largest agricultural exporter, Rotterdam is home to the world’s 2nd largest harbour and the Dutch are formidable dyke and terp builders (terp is a word loaned from Dutch by the way, which loaned it from Frisian) since ancient times and they excel at water technology even today. So the Dutch were and are definitely people who have an affinity with farming, water and trade, and this unique combination of ‘talents’ as Grattan would call it is still reflected in the Dutch language today, as we have many folk wisdoms based on our collective experiences with farming, water and trade that we accumulated as a culture throughout the ages.

Grattan himself notes that ‘the soil, equally low and moist, is at once fertilized and menaced by the waters’. This is a recurring theme in Dutch history. The close relationship with the water has been a boon as well as a source of misfortune to the Netherlands. The Dutch know like no other that the water is a bringer of death as well as life. However, overall, the Dutch historical relationship with the water has been positive, the Dutch may rightfully be seen as a ‘water people’ (watervolk in Dutch) and their language as a ‘water language’ (watertaal in Dutch) as it has been shaped by all the Dutch cultural experiences with the water and unique wet landscape of the Low Countries, and indeed, Njörth, the Lord of the Sea and Dispenser of Wealth, has been generous to the Dutch. Grattan says about the remote past: ‘the country formed but one immense morass’. For sure, it is vitally important to remember that the Netherlands was a huge wetland in the past and the Dutch gradually transformed the landscape over the course of the centuries to make it more suitable for the Dutch. To put it more succinctly, this country started out as a ‘useless’ morass landscape and its inhabitants turned it into highly valuable real estate. The Dutch are proud of their history of land reclamation (landwinning in Dutch). As the Dutch term for land reclamation suggests, the Dutch have become victorious over the the land in their constant war against the water, they have conquered the immense morass after generations of hard work, terraforming the Netherlands was a truly Dutch intergenerational project, of which the Frisians up North had their own equivalent as they also laboured tirelessly against the water and this shaped the landscape of the Frisian-speaking province officially and locally called Fryslân, which belongs to the contemporary Kingdom of the Netherlands under the House of Orange (also the national colour of the Netherlands and which is also the reason why modern carrots, originally cultivated in the Netherlands, are orange).

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