THE NEUTRALITY OF BELGIUM
A PAGE FROM BELGIUM'S EARLIER HISTORY
The history of the territories known in modern times as Belgium was never in any marked degree shaped by their inhabitants but by the nations surrounding those territories.
Since the close of the middle ages, the main features of that history have been: on the one side, the ever latent desire of Belgium's neighbors, particularly of France, to annex those territories; and on the other side, England's firm determination not to allow them to fall into the hands of a strong Power which might use them as a base against the British Isles. England has not coveted the formal possession of Belgium; but she has looked at that country as her Continental bulwark and, during centuries, shaped its fate in such a manner that her safety was in no way endangered,---regardless of what that country's own interests demanded. The question of the possession of the mouths of the Scheldt has always been considered by England as one of her most vital questions.
The following utterances of four prominent men, belonging to different periods of history, illustrate the deep and particular interest which England has always attached to her Belgian policy.
The famous Dutch jurist, Hugo Grotius, who is often called the "Father of International Law," remarks in a letter to his brother, in 1632: "The King of England will stand anything save the passing of the ports of Flanders into the hands of the French."(1) In quite the same strain Lord Castlereagh, English Premier, writes to Lord Aberdeen, British Ambassador at Vienna, in November, 1813: "To leave Antwerp in the hands of the French would impose on us the necessity of a perpetual state of war."(2) At the outbreak of the Franco-German War of 1870, Mr. Disraeli, one of England's greatest statesmen, said in the House of Commons: "It is of the highest importance to this country that the whole coast from Ostend to the North Sea should be in the possession of free and flourishing communities from whose ambition the liberty and independence of England nor of any other country can be menaced."(3)
And in our own times, Lord Kitchener is credited with the following significant words: "The British Empire's frontier in Europe is not the Channel, but the Meuse line."(4)
A short historical review of the Anglo-Belgian relations will show how skillfully England has pursued what may be called her Continental bulwark policy.
Towards the end of the XVth century, Belgium, as a part of the Lowlands, became, by right of marriage and inheritance, a crown-dominion of the house of Hapsburg, which then ruled not only over Austria but, shortly afterwards, succeeded to the throne of Spain.
The northern parts of the Lowlands, consisting of seven provinces, gained their independence in 1648, after a terrible war lasting for eighty years, and formed the Dutch Republic, under the hereditary "stadtholders" of the house of Orange-Nassau.
The southern provinces, commonly called the "Catholic Netherlands," consisting of most of modern Belgium and the northern districts of present-day France, remained for nearly three hundred years under the rule of the house of Hapsburg, and formed part of the Holy German Empire, the colors of which, as a reminder of former times, Belgium flies to this day as her national flag.
After 1556, there were two branches of the house of Hapsburg, the older one occupying the throne of Spain, whilst the rulers of the younger branch reigned over Austria and were, at the same time, German Emperors. The Catholic Netherlands belonged at first to the Spanish branch, but, after its extinction in 1700, passed over to the Austrian line. In both cases they formed outlying possessions of their rulers, far apart from the latter's principal dominions, which fact largely accounts for the peculiar rôle they played in the European history of the XVIIth and XVIIIth century, with England as the decisive factor.
England's Continental policy during earlier times had rested on the possession of a "bridge-head" on the Continental shores of the Channel. This bridgehead, the citadel of Calais, England had been forced to evacuate in 1558. A century later, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, tried to revive the old scheme when France's ever latent desires of annexing the Catholic Netherlands assumed, under her Prime Minister Cardinal Mazarin, such a threatening character that England's safety seemed in jeopardy. Cromwell showed great diplomatic ability. Both England and France being in a state of war with Spain, the Lord. Protector made an agreement with Mazarin for concerted action in the Spanish Netherlands. In 1658, the combined Anglo-French forces captured Dunkirk, which then belonged to the Netherlands. King Louis XIV of France was allowed to make his solemn entrance into the city. But he and his Prime Minister found themselves outwitted by the English, who, upon Cromwell's orders, with superior forces, erected almost at once a powerful citadel in that place, which action was sufficient to make the French give up the campaign.
Thereupon Louis XIV tried to obtain Belgium by other means. He made his peace with King Philip IV, and married his eldest daughter, the Infanta Maria Theresia. Altho she had to renounce all rights of succession to the lands of the Spanish crown, Louis claimed for her, upon her father's death, in 1665, the succession in the Belgian provinces, in preference to her half-brother, King Charles II of Spain, basing her claims on a certain Belgian traditional right of "devolution," according to which a daughter of first marriage has the right of inheritance before sons of subsequent marriages. The three "Wars of Conquest" were the consequence. In the first of them, France occupied the Flanders and the Hainault, but was obliged to relinquish nearly all of the occupied territory by the Peace of Aix-la- Chapelle, in 1668, as England, which had been in a state of war with Holland since 1664, speedily ended her feud against the Dutch, to save Antwerp from falling permanently into French hands.
Four years later, Louis XIV renewed his endeavors to annex Belgium, having this time previously concluded a treaty of alliance with the weak King Charles II of England, who had, carelessly, sold him Dunkirk, for five million livres. But the English people vigorously opposed this un-British policy of its king, forced the "Cabal Ministry" to resign, made peace with Holland, and, by the Peace of Nijmwegen (1678) forced the King of France to give up all the Belgian provinces conquered by him.
The same thing happened after the third War of Conquest. Again the French, having beaten the Dutch in three big battles, held all Belgium in their possession; but William III of Orange, Stadtholder and King of England in one person, simply forced his great antagonist, by the Peace of Ryswijk (1697), to renounce the conquered Belgian territory, or to go on fighting.
It is significant that, at each of these three occasions, England allowed a few inland towns, like Lille, Tournai, Valenciennes and Cambrai, then forming part of the Netherlands, to remain in the hands of the French while she took good care to keep the French away from the coast districts north of Dunkirk.
In the European war which, in 1701, upon the death of Charles II of Spain, ensued for the succession to the Spanish throne, England's attitude was primarily, if not exclusively, determined by considerations with regard to her Continental bulwark. King Charles II had, by a formal act, appointed Philip of Anjou, grandson of the reigning King of France, as his successor; however, Austria, as the younger branch of the house of Hapsburg, claimed the Spanish throne for Archduke Charles. As the Belgian provinces were, then practically a Spanish crown-dominion, England was afraid that they would get under French control if the lawful French heir was allowed to succeed to the Spanish throne. Consequently, England took up arms in favor of the Austrian candidate, and sent her famous General Marlborough to the Netherlands, where he waged a most successful war against the French. But subsequently the situation changed. Archduke Charles' elder brother, Emperor Joseph I, having died without issue during the progress of the war, Charles became himself German Emperor, whereby the danger arose that, if the Hapsburg claims to the Spanish throne should meet with success, that monarch would unite in his hands the Spanish realms, as well as the German Empire.
Since that was not in the interests of England, she ended her struggle with France, consenting, by the Peace of Utrecht (1713), to the Bourbon succession in Spain, whilst France agreed that the Belgian provinces should be handed over to Austria, and, moreover, specially acknowledged the so-called Barrier Treaty, concluded between England and Holland at the Hague in 1709, whereby the latter had been entrusted with the right of permanently garrisoning the Belgian frontier forts erected against France.
This treaty, which may justly be called a masterstroke of English diplomacy, was confirmed by the Treaty of Rastatt (1714), by which Emperor Charles VI acknowledged the Bourbon succession in Spain, and by the Convention of Antwerp of 1715, concluded between Austria and Holland, according to which eight Barrier-Forts on the Franco-Belgian border were to be permanently occupied by Dutch troops, for the safety of England, against an annual payment of half a million thalers by Austria.
The Barrier Treaty rendered wonderful services to England, especially during the Anglo-French war of 1755-1763, and was to a large extent instrumental in gaining for England gradually the position of the first colonial and naval Power of the world, since, during all that time, the Belgian bulwark, well protected, guarded the British Isles against Continental invasions and gave England the opportunity to use all her resources for her operations over sea.
The treaty came to an end in 1780, when Holland, having taken part in the so-called Armed Neutrality, was attacked by England. Because at that time the latter's influence naturally no longer supported the Dutch Republic, Joseph II of Austria did not hesitate to abrogate the Convention of Antwerp---which fact is sufficient proof that it had only been England which, for so many years, had made that singular arrangement possible whereby, mainly for her own ends, a Continental state had been obliged to garrison the buffer-country Belgium, which belonged to a third Power.
The consequences of the abrogation of the Barrier Treaty very soon became visible. In 1792, Dumouriez, General of the French National Convention, occupied Belgium without difficulty, and the country was three years later incorporated in the Batavian Republic. In 1803, William Pitt demanded that the French troops should evacuate Belgium, but to no avail, since the French knew only too well that this was England's danger spot, Belgium was made part of the Kingdom of Holland which Napoleon created in favor of his brother Louis, and became the headquarters from which the famous "Continental Blockade" was directed against the British Isles. This measure, which caused the greatest crisis known to English foreign politics until the present war, was, however, so ruinous for Holland that Louis renounced his throne in 1810, whereupon Belgium, with the rest of the Kingdom of Holland, was incorporated into the French Empire.
Signs are not lacking that the Belgian people were rather well contented with their annexation by France which, among other things, restored a measure of prosperity to the national harbor, Antwerp. To England, however, the control of the Belgian provinces by France was, doubtless, the most formidable part of the Napoleonic danger. Belgium's liberation from the French "yoke" became therefore one of the chief concerns of British statesmen.
The first decisive blows against Napoleon were scarcely dealt by the Continental Allies, in October, 1813, when England's Premier, Lord Castlereagh, opened negotiations in St. Petersburg concerning the future fate of Belgium. In February of the following year, he succeeded in obtaining the promise from Russia that the Belgian provinces, together with Holland, should be handed over as an independent kingdom to Prince William of Orange-Nassau-Diez, son of the last Dutch "stadtholder," who, during the French revolution, had died in English exile. Soon afterwards, also, the consent of the other Allies, Prussia and Austria, was secured to this scheme, which, significantly enough, included the dismantling of the fortress of Antwerp.
At the conclusion of the Treaty of Paris of May 30, 1814, which ended the great War of Liberation, excluded Napoleon from the French throne, and restored France, in her former limits, to the Bourbon dynasty, the English proposal concerning a permanent union between Belgium and Holland was, at Lord Castlereagh's insistence, formally sanctioned by certain "Additional, Separate and Secret Articles" to the Treaty of Paris, of May 30, 1814, one of which reads:
The establishment of a just Balance of Power in Europe requiring that Holland should be so constituted as to be enabled to support her Independence through her own resources, the Countries comprised between the Sea, the Frontiers of France, such as they are defined by the present Treaty, and the Meuse, shall be given up forever to Holland.
The Frontier upon the right bank of the Meuse shall be regulated according to the military conveniences of Holland and her neighbours.
The European "balance of power"---wherever this watchword of British diplomacy occurs, it always indicates a successful shifting of that balance in England's favor!---hardly required anything of the kind indicated in that secret agreement. But England's interest demanded that the defense of her Continental bulwark, should be trusted to reliable hands again. For this reason, and none other, the Belgian provinces had to be handed over, much against their will, to the Dutch, serving, incidentally, as a small compensation to Holland for all the vast and valuable colonies which England had been able to take from that country during the Napoleonic era, colonies which included Ceylon and the Cape Colony.
On the strength of the above-mentioned secret arrangements, England obtained the definite settlement of the question of the Netherlands at the Congress of Vienna,---that great assembly of practically all prominent statesmen of Europe which, from September 1814 till June 1815, was in session at the Austrian capital and determined anew the frontiers and the status of the majority. of the European states.
At the meeting of the plenipotentiaries on January 28, 1815, Lord Castlereagh, the British delegate, presented a memorandum of his government which reminded the representatives of her three former Allies of their countries' promises and made the following significant demands concerning the Netherlands:
That no arrangement should be made with regard to them, except with the full and entire consent of His Britannic Majesty.(5)
This demand can leave no doubt as to England's firm determination to prevent, under all circumstances, a recurrence of a French occupation of the Netherlands. Also when, a few weeks later, Napoleon unexpectedly returned from Elba to retake possession of the French throne, England took immediate steps for the defense of Belgium. The Duke of Wellington was despatched there, at the head of one of the strongest military forces ever raised by England, which with the co-operation of the Prussian army under Field-Marshal Blücher defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
Shortly before that momentous day, on May 31, 1815, four identical treaties were signed at Vienna, by England, Austria, Russia and Prussia, by which the new "United Kingdom of the Netherlands," consisting of Holland and Belgium, was officially recognized. On September 27, of the same year, Prince William of Orange-Nassau-Diez, who had also received the Grand-Duchy of Luxemburg at the Vienna Congress, was solemnly crowned King of the United Netherlands at Brussels.
The year before, at the occasion of a visit of the allied monarchs to the Court of London, it had been arranged---and this arrangement speaks volumes!---that the Duke of Wellington should be entrusted with looking after the military safety of the Belgian provinces, which was secured by a rayon of fortresses, including Ypres, Menun, Tournai, Mons, Charleroi, Namur, Philippeville, Marienbourg and Luxembourg.
But even that measure evidently was not considered by the British statesmen as affording absolute security to their Continental bulwark. To gain the backing-up of their Belgian policy by Russia, the only Great Power totally disinterested in Belgian affairs, they did not hesitate to saddle their country with a heavy financial burden. Russia had presented a bill for fifty million florins to the Netherlands for their liberation from the French yoke, and had, at once, raised a loan for the said amount with a banking firm of Amsterdam. On May 19, 1815, the Kings of England and the Netherlands concluded a treaty with the Emperor of Russia by which the two first named monarchs promised that their respective countries would pay to Russia twenty-five millions of florins each, in annual instalments, with the understanding that these payments would cease in case the "Belgic" provinces should ever be severed from the Netherlands again, making it thereby a matter of importance for Russia that the union of Holland and Belgium be maintained. The true portent of that agreement was only disclosed by the Anglo-Russian Convention relative to the Russian-Dutch Loan, of November 16, 1831,(6) which shows in its preamble that the object of the treaty of May 19, 1815, had been "to afford to Great Britain the guarantee that Russia would, on all questions concerning Belgium, identify her policy with that which the Court of London has deemed the best adapted for the maintenance of a just Balance of Power in Europe."
Thus, it had been English gold which, at the Congress of Vienna, prompted Russia to lend her powerful influence to the carrying out of England's Belgian schemes. And it was the same convincing factor again which induced the Czar's Government to promise to uphold England's policy regarding Belgium when the latter country's affairs were rearranged, in 1831. The events of 1830, which will be discussed in the next chapter, having caused a temporary suspension of the English payments, their resumption was arranged for by the above-mentioned Anglo-Russian Convention of November 16, 1831, against the following promise:
In virtue of the said consideration His Majesty the Emperor of All the Russias engages that if (which God forbid!) the arrangements agreed upon for the Independence and the Neutrality of Belgium, and to the maintenance of which the two High Powers are equally bound, should be endangered by the course of events, he will not contract any other engagement without a previous agreement with His Britannic Majesty and his formal assent.
It is a strange coincidence that, according to a financial statement quoted by Hertslet(7), England had to make annual payments into her sinking fund for Russia's promise regarding Belgian neutrality until the year 1915! This alone would show the high value which England has always attached to her Continental bulwark policy.
Surely, there can be no question that England's policy regarding Belgium, logically pursued through three centuries, suits her purposes admirably and is perfectly legitimate. But it is equally certain that the interests of Belgium were never in the least allowed to influence the decisions of the British statesmen who decided the fate of the little country. In all of England's political arrangements, then and now---in the following chapter it will be shown that this applies particularly to the settlement of the Belgian Question during the years 1831 to 1839---there was and is simply no room for any consideration of Belgium's welfare. If ever it happened that any part of England's political program happily coincided with the wishes of the Belgian people, it can be safely asserted that that was merely incidental and by no means a moving factor in England's decisions.
Chapter Two: The London Conference and the Quintuple Treaty
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