under Maria Theresia
Age of Revolutions
Austrian Netherlands

The Austrian Netherlands under Joseph II., 1780-1790

A.) International Relations

In 1781 Joseph II., by ordering the Barrier fortresses (still occupied by Dutch forces) to be razed, in all effect cancelled the Barrier Treaty; Dutch troops were withdrawn. He also tried to force the opening of the Schelde, in vain; In 1785 Joseph II. threatened the Dutch Republic with war, unless she would open the Schelde River and cede the city of Maastricht; however the French refused to support Joseph II. in this matter; Austria and the Dutch Republic agreed on the mediation of Louis XVI.; on Nov. 10th 1785, peace was concluded at Fontainebleau; the Barrier Treaty formally was abolished. Actually, Emperor Joseph now again considered the plan exchanging the (rich) Austrian Netherlands for Bavaria (1784), in order to consolidate their possessions, a plan which never materialized, but indicated the Viennese administration's attitude toward the Austrian Netherlands.

B.) Economic Development

In 1781 Joseph II. declared OOSTENDE a free port; during the 4th Anglo-Dutch War (1780-1784) the port flourished. In 1781 the ASIATIC COMPANY was established at Antwerp, the centuries-old blockade of which Joseph II. intended to end (1785); the plan did not work out and the company went bankrupt in 1785.
In 1786 the city gates and walls of Antwerp, Luxemburg and other cities were razed.

C.) Society

Joseph II., solely in charge since 1780, regarded himself an enlightened ruler. He was determined to push through reforms and to cancel traditional privileges. Joseph made, incognito, an inspection tour of the Southern Netherlands (1781); he granted religious toleration to protestants (1781) and declared them qualified for public office, to enjoy civic rights, to attend universities, to construct their 'temples'. The Catholic bishops protested in vain. He also reduced the CORVEE peasants had to provide to landowners, be it nobles or the church, and thus acquired the byname of 'peasants' friend'. In 1784 the practice of burying the dead inside a church or on cemeteries located within a city was forbidden by decree; another decree placed marriages under the authority of worldly judges. In 1786, state-regulated priest seminaries were introduced.
Reforms, such as the abolition of the Council of Brabant and its replacement by a supreme court (1787), accompanied by a thorough reform of the entire judicial system, and the abolition (1789) of the BLIJDE INKOMSTE (Joyeuse Entree), the age-old privilege of the Estates of Brabant, were intended to modernize and centralize the administration. Many other regional and local privileges suffered the same fate. Joseph II. implemented an administrative reform, dividing the Aust. Netherlands in nine circles, thus creating the present provinces of Antwerpen, West and East Flanders.
The LAEKEN PALACE was constructed in 1782.

D.) The Situation in the Austrian Netherlands preceding the Brabant Revolution (1789-1790)

When Joseph II. assumed sole rule in 1780, he promised his Belgian subjects ''to take special care of their rights and privileges, and to do everything to improve their enlightenment, welfare and happiness'. His announcement of intending to open the Schelde created high expectations; his non-delivery caused disappointment, his (failed) negotiation to exchange the Austrian Netherlands for Bavaria proved, in the eyes of most Belgiand, Joseph II. to be not trustworthy, his many decrees ending traditions, terminating privileges, well-intended as they may have been, for the most part alienated influential persons and were perceived as arbitrary and erratic. Influential groups, such as the clergy, nobility, lawyers, were negatively affected, and thus alienated. The Estates of Brabant took position against the Edict of Toleration, against the abolition of torture. Anonymous pamphlets criticizing Joseph's autocratic rule appeared. The newly appointed Imperial intendents (circle administrators) were exposed to offense when they appeared in public; public opinion had taken position against Joseph II. The opposition came to be described as the PATRIOTS. Volunteer Corps formed and trained in the use of arms.
Sensitive of the explosive situation, Governor General Duke Albert von Sachsen-Teschen ordered halting the ongoing implementation of the judicial reform; Joseph II., furious, summoned the governor to Vienna. Vice Governor Count Murray, on Sept. 21st 1787, accepted the demands of the Estates of Brabant, which included declaring invalid any decrees/reforms by Joseph in violation with the Blijde Inkomste. Joseph II. was not willing to take this and entered the course of confrontation; he sent Count Belgiojoso, Count von Trautmannsdorff as special envoys to enforce his reforms. On Jan. 22nd 1788 the Estates of Brabant were ordered to approve all contested reforms within 24 hours; the mob assembling at various locations within Brussels was dissolved by the force of arms.
The Brabant Revolution of 1789-1790 is rather an anti-reaction to Joseph's ruling style than a grass-roots revolution.

The Austrian Netherlands, in : Article The Netherlands, from Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913 edition; scroll down
The Ancien Regime, from Life in Flanders in the 18th and 19th Centuries by Marcel Blanchaer
History of the Duchy of Bouillon, from Heraldica
Geschiedenis van Brussel : De Oostenrijkers in Brussel (1700-1790), from Digitaal Brussel, in Dutch
Bruno Blonde, Ilja van Damme, Consumer and Retail "Revolutions", Perspectives from a Declining Urban Economy. Antwerp in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century, IEHC 2006
DOCUMENTS Map Southern Netherlands in the 18th century, from Museum voor Vaderlandse Geschiedenis / Mees, Historische Atlas 1865
Coins of the Austrian Netherlands, 1744-1797, from Coins of Austria, many images
Flag of the Austrian Netherlands (1781-1786), from FOTW
Map : Les sept Provinces Unies des Pays-Bas, ou la Hollande avec les Pays-Bas Autrichiens, from Bonne, Atlas Encyclopedique, 1787-1788, low resolution
List of coins minted for the Austrian Netherlands under Joseph II., from muntstukken.be, in Dutch, no images
Inventory : Aziatische Compagnien in de Zuidelijke Nederlanden en de familie Proli, from Nederlandsch Economisch-Historisch Archief
Documents relatifs au duche de Bouillon, 1484-1825, from Heraldica, in French
REFERENCE H.P.H. Jansen, Kalendarium. Geschiedenis van de Lage Landen in Jaartallen (History of the Low Countries by Years), Utrecht : Prisma (1971) 4th edition 1979, in Dutch [G]
Memo from Belgium. Documents illustrating the History of Belgium, Vol.1 : from prehistoric times to 1830, Brussels 1978 : docs 108, 109, 110, 111, 112, 122, 123, 127, 128, 129, 131, 132, 134
Le Regime Autrichien (1713-1792), pp. 115-123 in : Atlas Culturel et Historique de Belgique, Brussels : Elsevier 1954, in French [G]
L. van Ruckelingen, Geschiedenis der Oostenrijksche Nederlanden. Maria Theresia, 1740-1780. Antwerpen : J.P. van Dieren, 4th edition, undated (c.1859) (History of the Austrian Netherlands : Maria Theresia, 1740-1780) 137 pp., in Dutch [G]
J. Laenen, Joseph II. en zijne regering in de Nederlanden (Joseph II. and his government of the (Austrian) Netherlands), Antwerpen : De Nederlandsche Boekhandel, 1908, 40 pp., in Dutch [G]
Jaerboeken der Oostenryksche Nederlanden van 1780 tot 1814, opgesteld door eenen Tydgenoot (Yearbooks of the Austrian Netherlands 1780-1814, compiled by a contemporary), Gent (1818) Geschiedkundige Heruitgeverij 2002, in Dutch [G]
Sleeckx, Jozef II. en zijne Regering (Joseph II. and his government), Gent (1888) : Geschiedkundige Heruitgeverij 2001, in Dutch [G]
Sleeckx, De Patriottentijd (The Patriot Period), Gent (1889) : Geschiedkundige Heruitgeverij 2001, in Dutch [G]
D. Destanberg, Gent onder Josef II., 1780-1792, Gent (1910) : Geschiedkundige Heruitgeverij 1998, in Dutch (Gent under Joseph II.) [G]

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First posted in 2000, last revised on June 18th 2008

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