During the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648), there was an uprising against Spain in the Netherlands (roughly the current Netherlands and Belgium). Spain had taken possession of the land as a sort of inheritance. At first, the uprising was general, both in the north (in today’s Netherlands) and in the south (which is now called Belgium).
After 1585, only the north resisted and seceded in 1588 under the name “the Seven United Netherlands.” So the Netherlands were provinces. Hence the other name: “De Zeven Provinciën” for this area. Of course, it was not the case that Spain immediately agreed to this self-declared independence. This only happened after many years of struggle and war in 1648 when the Peace of Münster was signed.
In the meantime, Belgium remained in Spanish possession and seemed to be at peace with that. The Spaniards were, just like the Belgians, Roman Catholic, in contrast to the inhabitants of the Northern Netherlands. The majority were Protestant. And faith was very important at the time — and for some people even today. You didn’t just give up on that.
Belgium later came under Austrian possession (1713), and later still, after the French Revolution, it was conquered by France (1797). Another reminder that Belgium and the Netherlands once belonged together can be heard from the language: a part of the Belgian population speaks Dutch.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands
In 1815, after 20 years of aggressive wars of conquest, France was finally brought to its knees.
The victors redefined the borders of Europe at the so-called Congress of Vienna. To prevent France from going back again, they created a powerful state on France’s northern border: the Netherlands and Belgium were merged. Just like before in 1588.
The new state was named the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The head of state became King William I, the son of the last Dutch stadtholder Willem V. The Belgians (that’s what they called themselves only in 1830) were not at all happy to be reunited with their former compatriots.
The main difference between north and south remained the faith (although the language difference also played a role for the French-speaking Walloons), leading to frictions. But they had numerous other grievances (objections), and these became increasingly evident over the years. In turn, the “Dutch” had gradually had enough of their southern neighbors. And in 1830, it erupted.
The beginning of the Belgian Revolution
In August of that year, an opera about an uprising in Italy was performed in Brussels.
It was, of course, a play, but for some hotheads, stirred up by the French-speaking Walloons and some French, it triggered a real uprising in the streets against the authority of King William I. There was looting, and order was hardly restored. But that did not extinguish the fire of the revolution. The Southern Netherlands demanded independence from the north.
The king then ordered his second son, Prince Frederik, to occupy Brussels, but he could not get the situation under control, even after four days of fighting.
This had major consequences. The prince had to withdraw from Brussels, and the Southern Netherlands declared themselves independent under Belgium. William I then turned to the Great Powers, who had finally created the new state on France’s northern border in 1815. But they spoke out in London in 1831 for the independence of Belgium.
The Netherlands was given — they determined — the same borders as in 1790, was allowed to keep all of Luxembourg and Belgium had to take over about half of the national debt. These conditions were accepted by the Netherlands but rejected by the Belgians, knowing themselves supported by France. The powers then relaxed the conditions.
These were accepted by the Belgians (who in the meantime had chosen Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, later known as Leopold I, as their king), but this time not by the Netherlands. And it came to a real war between the Netherlands and Belgium: the so-called Ten-Day Campaign (2–12 August 1831).
The Ten-Day Campaign
The Dutch Army, with a size of 36,000 men, advanced against the Belgian army, which numbered 31,500 men.
The Belgians were devastated. The brand new kingdom of Belgium immediately threatened to collapse. To prevent this, a French army came to the aid of the Belgians.
Again, the decisions of 1815 turned out to be nothing. France and England offered a truce, after which the Dutch army withdrew. New conditions for secession from the Netherlands were established.
Although they were slightly more favorable to the Netherlands, King William I rejected them. The Belgian King Leopold I did accept them.
The Final Divorce
The definitive treaty on Belgian independence was not signed by William I until 1839.
The Netherlands gained a part of Limburg with Maastricht, the eastern part of Luxembourg, and Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, thus controlling the Western Scheldt. The latter meant that ships that wanted to reach Antwerp had to cross Dutch territory.
The Belgians themselves would have liked to have Zeeland Flanders and also all of Limburg. Throughout the 19th century, whenever there were political conflicts in Europe, they tried to get their way.
However, it was always in vain. Even after the First World War (1914–1918), they kept whining about it! And that, while the Netherlands, which itself did not participate in that war, had welcomed more than a million Belgian refugees! However, the Allies managed to put a stop to this conflict.