Home Moving to Belgium Society & History The history of Belgium: Part five
Last update on June 15, 2020

Onto modern times and Belgium enters its most shameful period with the exploitation of the Congo, a legacy which some would say the country has yet to come to terms.

Union with the Netherlands 1815–1830

To ensure equality of power, two capitals – Brussels and Den Haag – were established where equal numbers of deputies would alternately sit in the governing body, the Estates General. Most importantly, in view of their historical relations, freedom of worship was guaranteed.

Economically the partnership was ideal with Belgium’s powerful industry (particularly as it was now separated from its French market) complementing Holland’s shipping trade with its wealthy colonies. Unfortunately, the Belgians had not been consulted and considered themselves being treated as second-class citizens.

They were disgruntled that the lesser-populated Dutch country enjoyed an equal number of votes in the Estates General. They were soon complaining that there were a disproportionate number of Dutchmen in the civil service (though this was in reality due to a high illiteracy rate in the Flemish countryside resulting in fewer trained Belgians available).

King William created prosperity by reorganising and revitalising industry, trade and credit (he established the industrial bank, the Société Générale), bringing unbelievable wealth to the Belgian south. Unfortunately he made little effort to be popular. An excellent economist, he was authoritarian, disliked any parliamentary system and consistently refused advice.

Belgians revolt 1830

King William caused serious resentment in the early to mid 1820s by establishing Dutch as the official language and taking anti-clerical measures by control of education and the seminaries. By the end of the decade the situation had become explosive.

The opposition was demanding freedom of education and the press, industry stagnated throughout Europe and unemployment rose drastically. The workers’ purchasing power was waning rapidly with frozen wages and rising food prices. With an enormous increase in population, workers’ sons were out on the streets demanding jobs, and the middle-class was clamouring for reform and political power through a parliament.

A minor disruption by young unemployed workers outside the Opera House, Théâtre de la Monnaie, in Brussels following a performance for the King’s birthday on 23 August 1830 set off a series of small skirmishes including the bombardment and burning of Antwerp (though no one believed or wanted it to be the start of a revolution). During this confusing period a number of provisional governments were set up and while elections followed, an indignant Europe readied itself to restore the power to William or see the division of the country.

An independent Belgium

Power politics now came to the fore. To maintain the balance of power and deter an incipient general war in Europe, the major nations agreed to the independence of Belgium. Its congress elected Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the throne of Belgium, but the new King Leopold had barely made his ceremonial entry into Brussels in July 1831, when Holland launched an attack. Nearly defeated, but saved by the French army, Belgium was to remain in a state of war with Holland for the next nine years.

Enter Leopold I

King Leopold I came to the throne of Belgium with very influential connections and a rather extraordinary past. Already in 1830, he had accepted and then refused the throne of Greece.

A very handsome, shrewd and dignified man with an appealing personality, he moved in the highest ranks of European society. A brother-in-law of the Czar’s brother, he had married the heiress presumptive to the English crown, Princess Charlotte (who had broken her engagement with the Prince of Orange, his future adversary, King William I).

He thus became an English citizen, and briefly, the Prince Consort of England. Following Charlotte’s death and that of their baby one year later, he stayed on at Kensington. Another sister’s subsequent marriage to the Duke of Kent placed him in the royal family once more, becoming the favourite uncle to the future Queen Victoria. Remaining in close contact through letters throughout his life, she married his nephew by an elder brother, Prince Albert. Eventually, he became the son-in-law of the King of France, his second wife Louise Marie, daughter of King Louis Philippe.

Establishment of a parliamentary system

At the same time, the parliamentary system, though somewhat weak, was becoming firmly established with two major political forces: the Catholics (largely rural and dominating education) and the Liberals (mainly from the big cities) who struggled for domination throughout the 19th century. Voting rights were extended, the government becoming more centralised, while reforms were being made in public education, credit and free trade.

Despite economic difficulties in its beginning years, the country surged to even greater heights of prosperity. This was the age of iron and steel. Innovations and tremendous expansion of metal working led to lower prices which in turn led to vastly increased demand. Belgium was turning into an industrial giant.

This development had little in way of benefit for the workers, however, whose situation was steadily worsening. Wages remained incredibly low, child labour was at its height, and to meet the demand for workers, already impoverished peasants moved into the factories.

Leopold and the Belgian Congo

King Leopold II, who succeeded his father in December 1865, took little interest in internal politics being concerned mainly with developing Belgium’s commercial strength. Considering it vital for an industrial state to have colonies supplying the needed raw materials, he set about finding one.

From about 1870 to 1905, he employed his army officers (available to him as Supreme Commander) for exploration, his diplomats for European negotiations, and his own immense wealth (a financier, through shrewd investments he’d vastly increased the substantial wealth he’d inherited from his father) to establish the Congo as a personal domain. He hired the services of the English explorer Stanley (who had discovered the upper course of the Congo) to sign treaties with some 500 local chieftains. He manipulated the competing colonial nations to recognise the new independent Congo and finally, himself as its Chief of State in 1885.

The Congo was uniquely his personal property, comprising some 1.25 million square miles. It was a financial monarchy of state monopolies, with forced labour and controlled commercialism. The eventual public outcry on the exposure of abuses of forced labour and exploitation of the native peoples at the turn of the century led to the international demand the Congo be annexed to Belgium, which, after great reluctance, Parliament did in 1909.

Belgium: The empire strikes back

The King employed his influence and often his own wealth in the interest of Belgian ventures worldwide. With his support, the country acquired a financial empire of 3,800 miles of railroad track in South America, 1,900 miles in China, a monopoly of public services and electrical supply in 75 major foreign cities throughout Europe and Russia. Belgium’s extensive, worldwide investment included 56 large firms in Germany, 68 in Spain and 70 in France.

Leopold II was one of the dominating figures of the 19th century, yet despite his prodigious efforts for Belgium’s expansion, he was not popular at home. Aloof, outspoken and unhappily married to Marie-Henriette, Archduchess of Austria and Princess Royal of Hungary (who lived apart in the Ardennes), his trysts with numerous women in Paris scandalised his conservative, catholic kingdom.

He lost his only son early, treated his four daughters harshly (the lovely Stephanie married the Archduke and heir to the Austrian throne, Rudolf, of Mayerling fame) and died lonely and embittered at having to give up the Congo.

All this time, the country concerned itself with internal politics, notably the heightened struggle between the Catholic and Liberal parties over education.

The rise of socialism

During the long battle over the establishment of free state schools by the Liberals to reduce the Catholic’s control of education through church schools, the politicians on both sides paid little attention to the misery of the peasants and workers. Belgium was the richest country in Europe, yet wages remained at bare subsistence levels. When foreign competition threatened its industry, it was considered a logical step to lower wages to reduce production costs.

Socialism’s rise was slow and cautious, but inevitable. Regular peaceful mass marches of workers demanded universal suffrage, and finally in 1890 they brought the two major parties to compromise on an increase in the electorate from 137,000 voters to 1.350 million (all males over 25). But these included 500 thousand privileged voters as fathers of families, taxpayers and holders of university degrees with extra votes totalling 1.24 million against the remaining 850 thousand. Thus the system heavily favoured the petty bourgeoisie and the Catholic peasantry, resulting in the Catholics sweeping the surprised Liberals out in the next elections. Though steadily losing ground, the Catholic party remained in power for 30 years, while the Socialist party starting with 30 seats maintained it’s goal of universal suffrage.

By the end of Leopold II’s 44-year reign in the first decade of the 20th century, the population had grown to 7.5 million from four million in 1830, with farm workers decreasing to 23 percent (lower than US). Belgium, with the world’s most advanced railroad system, had become the fourth greatest industrial power and was exporting a third of its production.