Austrian Netherlands, 1713-1789 Belgium under French Administration, 1795-1799

The Brabant Revolution

The Southern Netherlands, 1789-1795

Emperor Joseph II. was adamant in his policy to abolish age-old privileges and in the implementation of political reforms. The COUNCIL OF BRABANT was abolished on Jan. 1st 1787, replaced by a supreme court; the BLIJDE INKOMSTE (Joyeuse Entree), the privilege of the Estates of Brabant, abolished on June 18th 1789.
While tension was high in Brussels, Belgian exiles had formed a volunteer army at Breda (NL). Van der Meersch, a career officer, took command of this rag-tag army, crossed the border and defeated the Austrians in the Battle of Turnhout, Oct. 27th 1789. The Austrians withdrew to Luxemburg. In Brussels the PATRIOTS (the opponents of Austrian rule) were now in charge; their taking power is referred to as the BRABANT REVOLUTION. They were split in two main factions, the STATISTS or aristocrats, head by Hendrik van der Noot, who enjoyed considerable support among the lower classes, and the VONCKISTS or democrats, lead by Jan-Frans Vonck. While the statists rejected any reform and strove to restore pre-reform conditions, the Vonckists wanted to implement a reform policy. The Vonckists were mostly moderates - later, under French occupation, they associated with the Girondists in France - but radicals were among them.
The ESTATES GENERAL met, declared Joseph II. to be deposed (Oct. 24th 1789), declared independence (Jan. 11th 1790), proclaimed the UNITED STATES OF BELGIUM, which included the former Princebishopric of Liege, from where the princebishop had been expelled by the regional patriots. The constitution left considerable authority with the states, the federation only having command over the army, being responsible for international diplomacy. The provincial estates continued to be organized in three estates - clergy,nobility, burgesses. The two factions did not agree on thorough reforms, and much time was lost.

The revolution was short-lived; Austria signed the CONVENTION OF REICHENBACH with Prussia, obtaining the promise from the latter that they would not support the revolutionaries. On Dec. 3rd 1790 Austrian troops occupied Brussels, Liege on Jan. 11th 1791.
Joseph II. had died in 1790; he was succeeded by his brother LEOPOLD II. Under him, reforms were more cautiously implemented. Political prisoners were released, many exiles returned (early 1791). The Austrian administration found the Austrian Netherlands difficult to administrate; by the end of 1791, the estates refused the tax requested, and the Vonckists again began to agitate, from a base in northern France. The Vonckists sympathized with the Gironde; the Liege exiles in France, more radical, supported the Jacobins; they declared Bishop of Liege and Holy Roman Emperor deposed, and proclaimed the Belgian Republic, consisting of the Southern Netherlands with Liege annexed. Leopold II. died suddenly, March 1st 1792, succeeded by FRANCIS I. War between Austria and France followed almost immediately. First French attempts to invade the Austrian Netherlands were defeated (May 1792); then an Austro-Prussian force invaded France. The tide was turned at Valmy.
In Nov. 1792 French troops (Gen. Dumouriez), after defeating the Austrians in the BATTLE OF JEMAPPES (Nov. 6th 1792) occupied the Southern Netherlands. This war was rather an Austro-French affair. Generals Clerfayt and Beaulieu, who defeated the initial French invasion plans, were born in Belgium. The Belgian patriots on the French side, impatient to liberate their homeland, had been surrounded and cut down. The Belgian population neither supported the Austrian nor the French side. The French military administration declared the Schelde River to be opened.
The French troops were poorly supplied and fed; reports were that most of them went barefoot, which shabby uniforms. In order to make up for lacking rations, they made requisitions, they demanded contributions in money and food; in effect Belgium had to supply her force of occupation. Reacting on French pressure, the cities began to implement administrative reforms. Military governor Dumouriez was a Girondin, and, in his actions a moderate, sympathizing with the Belgians. Yet by that time, in Paris the Jacobins were in charge in Paris, and demanded a tougher course regarding the Belgian population. Jacobin agitation was spread in Belgium, calling for the confiscation of nobles' estates, of church property etc.
A commission consisting of the French Jacobins Danton, Lacroix, Camus and Gossuin decided to implement all the reforms of the French Revolution in Belgium; most Belgian provinces and municipalities rejected this decision (except Mons, Charleroi, the territory of Liege). Then the commission decreed elections to be held at a local level, for a body representing the Belgians; while most Belgians were suspicious of these elections, they were orchestrated by the French and their lackeys with the object of having 'representative bodies' applying for the annexation of Belgium into France. On March 1st 1793, the commission (of French Jacobins) formulated it to be the wish of the Belgians to see their country incorporated into France; furthermore they woyld 'desire' the introduction of the Assignats (paper currency, which in fact the Belgians, knowing of the French experience, did not want to have). With the Austrian troops approaching, the French than plundered everything they could lay their hands on. General Dumouriez, returning to Belgium, found that a chaos had been created, banned respectively arrested sone of the French officials who had been responsible for creating the chaos.
Austrian troops again occupied Belgium on March 18th 1793 after the BATTLE OF NEERWINDEN (March 18th). The Belgian population was relieved to the freed of the Jacobine yoke. The clubs were closed down, the trees of liberty taken down, the monasteries reopened. The old representative institutions - the Estates of Brabant etc. were restored, the Blijde Inkomste reinstated, a general amnesty proclaimed. These measures were welcomed, yet the Austrians were not loved by the population. When the Imperial administration wanted to raise a Belgian legion, few volunteered. On June 26th 1794 the Austrians were defeated by the French in the BATTLE OF FLEURUS. The new French military administration demanded the costs of the war to be paid by Belgium; the assignats were introduced; price caps were introduced, merchants were forced to accept assignats as pay. Capital flight set in. There were cases of farmers refusing to offer their produce on the market, of factory owners shutting down production. The French commissioners had the right to requisition food as well as war essentials. They made wide use of their authority. Church bells were molten and turned into cannons, even books removed from public libraries, documents from the archives. In the Flemish-speaking areas, the language of the municipal administration was switched to French. The cities were 'asked' to come up with significant sums in contribution - not in assignats, but in hard coin. In short, Belgium was plundered. During the extraordinarily cold winter 1794/1795, the prices for firewood, turf and food were, despite the price caps, at a high.Francophiles (docile persons) were appointed to the municipal administrations. October 15th 1794, a regular administration consisting of 20 members was appointed for the occupied southern Netherlands. While Belgium still had to face hard contributions, the new administrative structure was more transparent, less inviting to unscrupulous individuals to abuse the authority invested in them for the purpose of enriching themselves. Price caps and requisitioning were abolished in February 1795. Many Jacobins were removed from office. On October 1st 1795, Belgium was annexed by France, an annexion Austria recognized in the PEACE OF CAMPO FORMIO in 1797. According to Sleeckx, reasonable Belgians in 1795 saw merger with France as the only feasable way, at that time, to prevent a repetition of the chaotic situation of 1792-1795.

Campaign Austrian Netherlands, 1794-1794, from : Land Forces of Britain, the Empire and Commonwealth
Biography Jan Frans Vonck (1743-1792), by Ron Vonck, in Dutch, very detailed; J.F. Vonck was a leader of the Brabant Revolution.
De Geschiedenis van Brussel, de Brabantse Omwenteling (1790-1792), from Digitaal Brussel, in Dutch
History of the Duchy of Bouillon, from Heraldica
Belgique 1789-1790, from La Patience, in French
De ˇ°Jacobijnse Clubˇ± voorwerp van spot in Brugge ("Jacobin Club" satire in Brugge), by A. v.d. Abeele, in Dutch; more publications by the same author on Belgium 1787-1815 here, scroll down; all in Dutch
DOCUMENTS Image of a 1790 coin of the United States of Belgium, from Napoleonic Medals
Medal celebrating the liberation of Belgium from the Austrian yoke in 1789, minted 1790, from Napoleonic Medals
List of coins issued by the United States of Belgium, 1790, by Leopold II., by Franz II., from, in Dutch, no images
Coins of the Austrian Netherlands 1744-1797, from Coins of Austria, many images
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
Battle of Jemappes (Nov. 6th 1792), from Napoleon Guide
Battle of Neerwinden (March 18th 1793), from Napoleon Guide
Documents relatifs au duche de Bouillon, 1484-1825, from Heraldica, in French
Documents on the Brabant Revolution, from Annuaire 1789-1815
REFERENCE Simon Schama, Patriots and Liberators : Revolution in the Netherlands, 1780-1813, reprint 1992
H.P.H. Jansen, Kalendarium. Geschiedenis van de Lage Landen in Jaartallen. (Calendarium. History of the Low Countries by Years), Utrecht 1979
Sleeckx, De Jacobijnen in Belgie (The Jacobins in Belgium), (1889), Gent : Geschiedkundige Heruitgeverij 2001, 66 pp. in Dutch

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First posted in 2000, last revised on November 11th 2004

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