Of Corn Biters and Beggar Pirates: Part 2

(This is the second in a two-part series on a very short history of Dutch Flanders/Zeeuws Vlaanderen and my family’s relation to it. You can catch the first part here.)

Meanwhile in Antwerp …

While England and France took a century to sort out their beef, the harbor that made Bruges rich continued to silt up. It just so happened that this coincide with the European “Age of Exploration,” aka Age of Conquest, aka Age of Colonization, take your pick. Bruges no longer cut it as a hub for trade, but Antwerp, the next ready port to the north (and east) stood ready.

It wasn’t just Antwerp’s diamond district that made it legendary (I’ve written about that here and here) and one of Europe’s busiest ports. It was sugar. Spain and Portugal grew cane on plantations in the new world and sent it back to Antwerp in muscovado form, where it was refined and reold around Europe in powery white form that we’ve all come to know and love.

Antwerp in the 1500s

One other thing to know about Antwerp: it didn’t have home rule. It was a part of the Spanish Habsburg empire, and thus overseen by Catholic rulers. For centuries, it had been part of the Holy Roman Empire, and overall this seemed to have served Antwerp well. But things were starting to change.

Antwerp hadn’t just come into some spare pocket change. It had also developed a mind of its own. Its people were increasingly sympathetic to the Protestant cause, something the Spanish ruling class could not tolerate. Back in 1566, a bunch of Protestant-leaning Dutch nobles approached the Spanish-appointed governor in Brussels, Duchess Margaret of Parma, and asked for greater religious freedom.

This was the same Spanish royal family, mind you, that had kicked off the Inquisition by requesting it of the pope. Not only was she disinclined to give in, she called them a bunch of beggars and sent them on their way. But the Dutch weren’t about to give up just because they had been insulted.

Sea beggars and pirate princes

The Protestant leaders regrouped back home in Zeeland. Rather than being ashamed of being called beggars, they adopted it as their name. And since many of them traveled the coastline by ship, they came to be known as the Sea Beggars. They began to harass the Spanish ships and forces wherever they found an opportunity, and soon, the commoners joined in. Eventually, they proved to be more than just a nuisance. In 1572, they surprised themselves by retaking the seaside town of Brielle. Less than three weeks later, they repeated their victory in the neighboring town of Vlissingen.

William II de la Marck (1542-1578), a leader of the Sea Beggars.

The battle for Dutch independence was on.

The Scheldt — the waterfront of Antwerp, the greatest harbor in Europe at that time — became the frontline that war. It was disastrous for business, particularly after the forces allied against the Spanish enacted a blockade in an attempt to strangle the Spanish forces bring Dutch rule to the city.

And Antwerp, now under the leadership of the Spanish “Iron Duke” of Abla, had declared the city to, indeed, be Catholic. In 1585, anyone who wasn’t was given four years to get the heck out of town. It was a shocker for a city that to that point had been a forerunner to the modern multicultural urban center. Not only was it home to Protestants of many stripes, but also communities of Jews as well, despite its status as a Spanish holding (who understandably booked out of town once the Spanish decided their tolerance had gotten out of hand). Non-Catholics were given four years to settle their affairs and leave town or to convert to Catholicism — quite generous compared to Jews, who were given just four months when a similar edict was issued back in Spain.

Great numbers of people began to emigrate elsewhere. Many ended up in Amsterdam, including the diamond cutters who kicked off the industry there. But others did settle down in nearby Zeeland. You know, where my great-grands were. And I can’t help but wonder if some of my ancestors were among them, because the town they come from happens to be the very first Dutch-held town across from the Spanish frontline.

Revolving around an Axel

My forebears lived through that time period in and around a town called Axel in Zeeuws Vlaanderen, just fourteen miles from Antwerp. At the time of the 80 Years War, Axel wasn’t just a town, it was an island, as it would remain until the mid-1800s, when land finally built up around it.

The isle of Axel in the 1500s.

On July 17, 1586, Axel was the setting of a significant battle in the 80 Years War. The town was held by Spain, but combined Dutch and English forces aimed to take it. Keep in mind, the Dutch had surrendered nearby Antwerp a year earlier, so this was something of a comeback rally. And it worked. But it came at a terrible price:

The capture of Axel by the Sea Beggars.

The areas of Zeeland-Flanders have received the most attention in terms of military flooding and its connection with the so-called verdronken landen (drowned lands). One scholar estimates that nearly 90 percent of the coastal area lay under water after fighting in the area in the mid-1580s and was not repaired until three years after the war ended in 1648 Adriaan de Kraker has probably written the most expansively on this topic. In his article on Axel in North Flanders he demonstrates how the sea dikes around the town were already in disrepair at the outset of the Dutch Revolt, a situation which became exacerbated by depopulation caused by looting and plundering. As the sea dikes were already in a poor condition the rebel factions began cutting them in order to open up an all-water passage to towns which lay further inland in Flanders. In the process Axel became a veritable island. He notes that resurgence which historians argue occurred in Axel after the inundations only appear as growth and prosperity because the military flooding had been such a nadir.

Wrestling with Neptune: The Political Consequences of the Military Inundations during the Dutch Revolt – Robert Tiegs, 2016 Dissertation, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/13a3/f526e38b28601fb1e2cfb49a981692295629.pdf

Those were my people and they endured.

Where’s Waldo – Vlaanderen edition

So I can see now that there’s a bit more to my family history that dike building, cow herding and cheese making. My great-grands had a front-row seat to a wide sweep of history. Maybe they got caught up in the social movements and major battles of their time. They helped shape the country borders that exist to this day.

The captivating Axel style.

They had colorful names like Korenbijter, which means exactly what you think it does: corn biter. Delightful! Or how about the rather fashionable surname Broekhoven, which as far as I can tell means “court pants.” Always important to impress the judge!

And they wore distinctive costumes like this one, which were only ever worn in the town of Axel. If you thought the 1980s gave women power shoulder pads, honey, you’ve seen nothing yet.

… grandpa?

And if that’s not enough, I have great artists to vouch for the interesting character of the Flemish country people, too. I mean, why would Pieter Bruegel, who lived in Antwerp for big chunks of his life, waste so much time painting them if he didn’t find something of value in their rustic village faces and their country customs?

In my most recent trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts, I came face-to-face with Bruegel’s “Wedding Dance” and just stared at it a while, wondering if I was looking at any of my progenitors or their hometown. It’s a rather strange thing to contemplate. Especially when some of the fat noses, weak chins and plump bellies are a little too, too familiar.

…. grandpa??? (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Village Wedding Dance)

And if that’s not bad enough, here comes Heironymus Bosch, who was originally known as Heironymus van Aken, which means his family came from Aachen … which is my mother’s stomping grounds. But then he lived in and around ‘s-Hertogenbosch, about twenty-five miles from where I had relatives. And looking at his “Garden of Earthly Delights” and pondering that I might be related to any of those people is one heck of a head trip.

But anyway. Zeelanders. Especially the ones that are Flemings. Flems? Flams? Vlamings? Cool people. Much more than I gave them credit for.

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