Less 'Liberty leading the people', more 'some people milling around, a fat baby and an extraneous dog'.
It is La Fête de la Communauté Française today. Happy Fête, French Community. A radio item this morning explored how most people entitled to this holiday (basically only schoolchildren and municipal employees) and the people who are forced to take this day as holiday because they are responsible for members of the former group (me), do not have a clue what it commemorates. This is not, of itself, particularly surprising in the country where, in 2007, the Prime Minister didn't know the national anthem and most of the political class when interrogated by a television news crew was unable to explain what the National Holiday celebrates.
Nevertheless, in the spirit of self-improvement and also because there is arse all else to do (the children cannot be relied upon to leave me alone for more than ten minutes, so I can't work, but they do not particularly want me to prevail upon them to do anything either: Lashes is working on his novel (oh yes) and Fingers is.. actually I do not know what he is doing and long may that continue), I thought I would try and work out what on earth we are being forced to celebrate. Admittedly to date, our celebrations have included two hours of homework, a lengthy trip to the vet's, driving rain and lunch in the hospital canteen (it's a nice canteen, but you know). Nevertheless, here we go. I have a history degree. I can do this.
It would appear that in 1830 "Belgium" (then the Southern Netherlands) was part of Holland, a country ruled by William I.
NOTE: Even though he was a king called William and Holland is the country of orange, this William is not the William of Orange they sing about in parts of Northern Ireland and Glasgow. Confusingly, everyone who ever ruled Holland is called William and some of the Williams were also kings of other places, like England and Scotland, whilst keeping the same name (William) and changing number. The whole business is unspeakably sordid.
Holland was invented by the Congress of Vienna which was a Ferrero Rocher sponsored event designed to stop Napoleon causing further aggro around Europe, what with his shouting and his horses and his wife's terrible teeth. It did not work very well, because by 1830, the natives were getting restless in the "Southern Netherlands". William was Protestant, much of the "Southern Netherlands" were Catholic, the liberals wanted more liberal.. stuff, the harvest had failed, there were angry petitions. There was repression of dissent and calls for unpopular ministers with complex names to be replaced went unanswered. It was generally A Bad Scene.
William compounded Belgium's seething sense of outrage by coming to Brussels to celebrate his birthday, then understandably changing his mind and deciding it would be nicer to celebrate his birthday somewhere were the natives were not revolting, causing firework displays to be cancelled and generally making himself unpopular.
There followed a peculiar incident on August 25th just after William sloped off home to blow out his candles, in which spectators at an opera by Daniel Auber called "The dumb girl of Portici" at La Monnaie opera house in Brussels were apparently driven to start rioting following the aria "L'amour sacré de la Patrie".
There are two theories about this:
(i) The orthodoxy
Revolutionary fervour stirred up by themes of patriotism and struggle and in particular the stanza:
Amour sacré de la patrie
Rends nous l'audace et la fierté
A mon pays je dois la vie
Il me devra sa liberté.
Which is indeed quite stirring, though I doubt it would cause me to rip up and throw cobblestones, maybe just sway slightly. You can hear it here. If this is really the reason, I can only conclude that there wasn't a great deal of excitement to be had in early 19th century Brussels.
(ii) My theory
Revolutionary fervour stirred up by patrons having nothing to eat. Operas tend to be exceptionally long and La Monnaie only ever has about 3 tiny stale sandwiches between the many hundred patrons. Low blood sugar is a significant risk factor for revolution. Fact.
Regardless of the cause, there was rioting. Riots spread beyond Brussels, following a familar, comforting pattern of smashing up of factories, smashing of windows, and scrapping in parks. William sent in troops on 23 September who were met by fierce resistance from Brussels residents and - and this is important - Walloon volunteers who came to help out. After several days of fierce fighting, mainly in the Warande Park which seems to me rather a small place to fight over, but no matter, on 27 SEPTEMBER, YES THAT IS TODAY ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION troops led by Frederick, William's younger son, retreated from Brussels.
Because this was a time - and perhaps, let me suggest, a place - of highly bureaucratic revolt, there were then lengthy congresses attended by many men with elaborate facial hair, who finally decided that Léopold of Saxe-Coburg could have a go at being the king of the newly invented "Belgium".
(Incidentally, and for a bonus mark, the Belgian National Holiday, 21 July, marks the date in 1831 when Leopold I took his oath to ascend the newly invented throne of Belgium. You are now better informed on Belgian history than much of its political class, I hope you are grateful).
This riled William so much, he had a go at getting Brussels back with a Ten Day Campaign in 1831, but, after some intensive siege action in Antwerp, failed. The rest is .. Belgium.
In conclusion, as far as I can elicit, today we are celebrating:
- Beating the Dutch
- The brief show of unity between Brussels residents and the Walloons (ie. Francophone Belgians).
So there you go. I, at least, have learnt something today and it is: "do not try and understand Belgian history when you could be reading Scandinavian crime novels in front of the fire while your children beat each other with Wii controllers". And possibly also "opera is dangerous".