The Southern Netherlands

The Brabant Revolution of 1789-1790

In Flemish called the Brabantse Omwenteling, in French La Revolution Brabanconne

A.) The Pre-History of the Rebellion

The southern Netherlands, since 1713, were ruled by the Austrian branch of the Habsburg Dynasty, which resided in Vienna. The southern Netherlands were economically very important, but strategically unfavourably located - from an Austrian perspective. During the many wars of the 18th century, most of which saw Austria and France as enemies, Austria mostly was incapable of defending the southern Netherlands and much of it was occupied by the French.
Emperor Joseph II. in 1784/1785 contemplated to swap the Southern Netherlands for parts of Bavaria, a plan which did not materialize. Yet Joseph II. was adamant when it came to political reforms he regarded as enlightened; these reforms included the closure of numerous monasteries and the cancellation of regional privileges. The century old privilege of the Estates of Brabant, the BLIJDE INKOMSTE, was cancelled on June 18th 1789.

When thorough administrative reforms were implemented on January 1st 1787, the Council of Brabant being replaced by a supreme court, a resistance movement called the STATISTS emerged, lead by Brussels lawyer H.C.N. VAN DER NOOT. Another faction, originally supportive of the reforms of Joseph II., was lead by JAN-FRANS VONCK., hence called the VONCKISTS.

Misharvests and subsequent famine have contributed to the revolutionary mood. It has to be noted that the revolution in Brabant politically was more directed against reforms implemented by Joseph II., while the revolution in Liege was more directed against the Ancien Regime.

B.) The Course of the Revolution

The cancellation of the Blijde Inkomste on June 18th 1789 alienated the Vonckists, who now acted in cooperation with the Statists. In October 1789, the MANIFESTO OF THE PEOPLE OF BRABANT was published, proclaiming the province's independence; the Habsburg forces were expelled. The ESTATES GENERAL met on January 11th 1790 and proclaimed the ETATS BELGIQUES UNIS / DE VERENIGDE STATEN VAN BELGIE (United States of Belgium).
Emperor Joseph II. died in February 1790. The Brabant coalition of revolutionaries broke up, the Vonckists being chased out of offices and persecuted. In the REICHENBACH AGREEMENT Prussia promised not to support the revolutionaries. On Dec. 3rd 1790, Austrian troops occupied Brussels, ending the short-lived United States of Belgium.

C.) Structure of the Revolutionary Southern Netherlands

The revolutionaries were against reforms which were centralistic in essence and deprived regional nobles, lawyers, clergy, estates of a say in the affairs of the land. The Habsburg Netherlands, since the times of the Dukes of Burgundy (14th century) were federalistic, the individual territories (BRABANT, FLANDERS, HAINAUT, NAMUR, LIMBURG, LUXEMBURG and - not Habsburgian - the PRINCE-BISHOPRIC OF LIEGE) having their own traditions, laws, identity.
The revolution of 1789 is generally referred to as the BRABANT REVOLUTION. Similar events took place in the other territories; and a federation was formed - the United States of Belgium - as described above. The United States of Belgium not only lacked strong central institutions such as military leadership, but also unity within the revolutionary coalition within an individual territory.

For instance there was the REVOLUTION LIEGOISE : on Aug. 18th 1789 the revolutionaries in the Prince-Bishopric of Liege expelled bishop Hoensbroek and even defeated Prussian troops which supported the bishop. The Estates of Liege declared the abolition of noble privileges and equality in front of the law. Liege later joined the United States of Belgium and their fate.

D.) The Legacy

Habsburg rule came back, but was of short duration, the Habsburg administration now being very cautious in the implementation of reforms. The revolution returned in form of the French army and French annexion in 1795. Yet the French, too, had to experience public resistance when implementing thorough reforms, the strongest being the FLEMISH PEASANTS WAR 1798 (Boerenkrijg).
Belgium continued to be a battlefield for European wars; Napoleon's fate was ultimately decided at WATERLOO just south of Brussels, in Brabant. At the Vienna Congress in 1815 Belgium was traded as an item no party really wanted to take - first it was forced on Prussia (1814), then on the King odf the Netherlands. Whoever took it, had to defend it against France. In 1830 there was another revolution in Brussels, this time resulting in Belgian independence.

Biography Jan Frans Vonck (1743-1792), by Ron Vonck, in Dutch, very detailed; J.F. Vonck was a leader of the Brabant Revolution.
Mijlpalen uit onze geschiedenis (Timetable of the history of Tongerlo Abbey), from Tongerlo Abbey, scroll down for Abbey's participation in Brabant Revolution, in Dutch, with images
De Brabantse Omwenteling 1790-1792, from De Geschiedenis van Brussel (The History of Brussels), in Dutch
Historie van Oud-Limburg : Revolutionair Frankrijk 1795-1815, from Oud, on the revolution in Liege, in Dutch
DOCUMENTS Image of a 1790 coin of the United States of Belgium, from Coins of the French Revolution and the First Empire
Map of the Austrian Netherlands in 1792, from Gardiner's Atlas of English History, 1892
Geschiedenis : de zuidelijke Nederlanden, from munten geslagen in de Zuidelijke Nederlanden (1419-1794), scroll down for beautiful coin Brabantse Omwenteling, in Dutch
REFERENCE Chronique des Revolutions Belgique et Liegoise 1789-1790 , ed. by La Patience (Chronicle of the Belgian and Liege Revolutions 1789-1790, in French, with numerous documents

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2001, last revised on November 19th 2004

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