Monthly Archives: September 2011

History at the Coalface

A couple of years ago I was one of a group of academics who wrote a study of coal in Australia for the American mining giant Peabody.  It was a scholarly study, with good research, bringing together people from different fields to produce a detailed perspective on Australian coal mining, past, present and future.

In retrospect, Peabody probably felt it did its dough.  The company had planned to use the report in its fight with the Rudd government over the forthcoming Emissions Trading Scheme.  At the time, they probably expected they would need hard evidence about the significance of the coal industry as ammunition in the debate, whereas it turned out that all the mining companies needed to spook the government was a few million dollars worth of advertising.  Who knew?  Well, they know now – as does every other company with an axe to grind with government.

My part in the report was to supply some background history.  I learnt a lot from the experience, not least that it’s possible to find anything interesting once you start researching it – even coal.

Coal mines of Newcastle

Coal mines of Newcastle

Australia has been mining coal since 1797, when some marines chasing escaped convicts stumbled on a coal seam next to the Hunter River.  The town of Newcastle was established in 1804, and working at the ‘Coal River’ became a secondary punishment for convicts who had committed further crimes in New South Wales.  The Hunter Valley mines were based on 19th century technology, as were the mines on the West Moreton field at Ipswich, west of Brisbane.

Labour relations were modelled on 19th century conditions too.  In my research, I came across The Coalminers of New South Wales: a history of the union, 1860-1960 (1960) by Robin Gollan.  Gollan had been a communist in his earlier days; he left in 1957, along with so many others, following the Hungarian uprising.  His work was strongly influenced by the British Marxists, especially Harold Laski, who supervised his PhD, and by E. P. Thompson, whose book The Making of the English Working Class uncovered the lost world of working class customs.

The Grimethorpe Colliery Band has been touring Australia recently, having outlived the Grimethorpe colliery by nearly 20 years.  In his book, Gollan describes a world straight out of Brassed Off.  He uncovers a rich cultural life in the mining towns – but it was a claustrophobic, sexist world as well, full of male bonding rituals and devotion to old fashioned union politics, where ‘to do your darg’ was to do a decent day’s work.

It was also a world of Us and Them.  During industrial clashes – and there were many – violence flared.  During a lockout at Rothbury in 1929, police fired on union demonstrators and killed an innocent bystander with a ricocheting bullet.

The unions were strong because the mines were dangerous, and miners needed whatever protection they could negotiate, though there was nothing to be done about ‘black lung’.  As early as convict times, men had been invalided out with ‘asthma’– almost certainly silicosis.

Ipswich was a union town too, but less radical than the Hunter Valley, with a working class culture that tended more towards Methodism and Welsh choirs.  Perhaps because it is only an hour away from Brisbane by train, Ipswich was a less claustrophobic mining town.

World War II poster

World War II poster

However they did participate in the great strikes of the late 1940s. Power shortages affected everyone during these strikes.  By World War II, Australian industry relied on electricity, and electricity relied on coal-fired generators.  Besides, electricity had become essential in the home, for light, cooking and heating.  My parents married during one such strike in 1946.  The wedding reception was held by candlelight – very romantic, until my mother’s bridal veil caught fire.

In one of the defining moments in labour history, the Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley called in the army to get the coal moving again. The wonder of it is that Chifley – originally a train driver from Bathurst – could have imagined that the army could do the work.  Underground mining was far too dangerous to hand over to untrained soldiers.

Open cut mining is another world entirely.  The State Electricity Commission in Victoria first experimented with open cut in the 1920s at Yallourn in the La Trobe Valley.  Environmentally it can be a disaster.  Yallourn’s coalmine eventually gobbled up the town itself in the unremitting hunger of the SEC for coal.  Mining can and does move mountains, and reclamation is expensive.  But while the old deep-sunk mines of Newcastle and Ipswich were miserable places to work, open cut is safer.  Since the early 1960s, with the opening of the Bowen Basin in Queensland, it has become the norm.

But there are no Welsh male choirs or Grimethorpe Bands in the Bowen, or Surat, or Galilee Basins.  The old world of working class practices has gone – and on the whole a good thing too.  But in the world of fly-in, fly-out mining, the social capital that gave men a sense of cooperative purpose and pride in a dangerous, dead end job, has gone as well.  Men no longer expect to spend a lifetime down the coalmines – and it is the owners, not the workers, engaged in a game of brinkmanship with government today.

Note: a shorter version of this post first appeared in the Weekend Australian on 16 July 2011.

Food riots

Food prices are rising at the moment.  Everyone is feeling the pinch, but for the vast majority of us in Australia, it’s not a matter of life and death.  And while we may grizzle in the supermarket or on talk back radio, we’re not rioting in the streets about the price of bananas – you can put a mandarin in the kids’ lunch boxes instead.

Others don’t have the luxury of choice – of foods or of governments.

Rising food prices recently helped to trigger the Arab spring, just as they played a role in the French – and many other – revolutions.  Revolutionary ideas are all very well, but ‘a hungry belly has no ears’, as a Turkish proverb has it.  In other words, people who are hungry won’t – and can’t – listen to reason.  But they make a fine back up mob for those who do.

Food security, which has always been a source of anxiety for the poor, is becoming a global concern again.  The term may be new – but the concept is as old as Famine, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

A few staple foods – bread or rice, and cooking oil – account for most of the diet of the urban poor, and most of their disposable income.  This limited diet makes minor perturbations in price far more critical than they are in the developed world.  Whether in 18th century France or in 21st century Egypt, when food prices rise, people starve.

One of the key components of the French Revolution was the rising cost of bread.  At a rough estimate, about 80 percent of the income of workers in Paris was spent on food, and about 80 percent of that food was bread.  These figures are roughly comparable with those for the urban poor across the Middle East.

Histoire des Revolutions Sociale

Amedee Charles-Henri de Noe, n.d., from Yale Digital Commons

So when successive harvests failed and prices rose, tensions rose too.  Revolutions tend to occur in the spring and early summer, when heat drives people out of their tenements into the streets, and when food is scarce ahead of the next harvest.  Bastille Day was 14 July.

Food riots have a long history.  In pre-industrial Europe, they followed a traditional pattern.  The riots were – and are – an urban phenomenon. A dispersed rural population is less likely to riot, because you need a critical mass of people to form a mob.  There were surprisingly few food riots in rural Ireland during the Potato Famine, though mobs sometimes rallied to fight evictions.

Women's March on Versailles

The Women March on Versailles, from Wikimedia Commons

Women usually played an important role in food riots, too.  In traditional societies, feeding the family is women’s work – so rallying against rising food prices was women’s work too.  Besides, while the authorities might try to contain and control a riot, most ordinary soldiers baulk at shooting women – they have mothers too.  It was women who marched out to Versailles to bring the King and Queen – ‘the baker and the baker’s wife’ – back to Paris.

In pre-revolutionary France, the authorities knew that the people were hungry, and that high bread prices meant trouble.  But what could the state do in the face of civil disobedience?  The traditional responses were (and largely still are): bring in food from elsewhere, bring in price control on staples, and crack down hard on the opposition.

These solutions are only temporary expedients.  They didn’t work for Louis XVI in the end – or for Hosni Mubarak.  Price control can only work if farmers are subsidised, or they have no incentive to continue production.

The Roman Emperors kept the urban mob at bay by subsidising bread (and circuses) but at a ruinous cost, relying on grain shipments from Egypt, ironically enough.  Egypt has no surplus grain these days, and effectively there is no ‘elsewhere’ from which to import food.  Today individual states have little control over food supplies, for markets are global and food prices are set by supply and demand.

And food supplies are under pressure again: the heat wave in Russia last year – and a heat wave now threatening the harvest in America this northern autumn.  Grain is also used as animal fodder, to meet the growing demand for meat in those parts of the world where incomes are rising.

Then there is biofuel.  Making alcohol from sugar cane trash may be a sensible use of a wasted resource, but in America and Brazil, most biofuel comes from corn.  French aristocrats fed grain to their horses while the people starved; biofuels similarly prioritise transport over people.

In the long term, strong states kept a reserve of food for emergency distribution.  In the centre of Florence is the church of Orsanmichele.  Inside, the church looks like a normal Renaissance church dedicated to St Michael; go outside, and you can see that the church has an upper level, a hidden granary where Republican Florence stockpiled the city’s grain, discreetly protected by God from rats and its always hungry workers.  When supplies ran short, and prices rose high enough to trigger violence, the city rulers could release grain to keep prices within limits.  This month the Chinese released stockpiled supplies of pork, on the same principle, after pork prices rose over 50 percent.

But it takes a strong government to hold back food in this way – and an honest one as well, that won’t sell the stockpile for armaments, as has happened in the Horn of Africa.  Sometimes the rats come in a human form.

Note: a version of this post appeared in The Weekend Australian on 6 August 2011.  As a result, I received the following comment from Prof Lindsay Falvey:

Dear Marion
Your piece in the Australian about Food Prices and such related matters as historical and current food-induced riots is apposite. The global situation is precarious. Two central issues that international agencies charged with addressing food security (that’s real food security – very basic often unappetising food necessary to sustain life in famines where Western food surpluses may not be available) form the basis of my recent book. I mention it since it opens with an historical picture – a free pdf version is available at
Also, Julian Cribb’s excellent book, ‘The Coming Famine’ and his blog aim to motivate some responsible action.
Thanks for raising the matter in a public forum
Lindsay Falvey
(C/-Former Dean and Chair of Agriculture, University of Melbourne, 3010 Australia, or Life Fellow, Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, Hershel Rd, Cambridge UK.)

[I would also add another good book on the history of hunger: David Arnold, Famine: Social crisis and historical change (1988) – Marion]

Lindsay Falvey’s website is

Whaling, then and now

It’s very sad that a baby humpback that beached itself on Bribie Island the other week had to be put down, but there’s no doubting the care and concern of the many volunteers who turned out to try to save it.   These days, the general public turns out in droves to see whales.  They have long been a staple of the tourist industry, but there’s nothing quite like the delight of seeing whales arrive of their own accord in Sydney Harbour.

It was different for the whale that swam up the Derwent into central Hobart in 1852.  The Colonial Times reported that

‘On Wednesday morning last much excitement was caused on the wharves by the novel appearance of a black whale which was first seen to approach Battery Point, thence swim along the New Wharf to Constitution Dock.  Crowds of people gathered, shouting ‘There he is’ and ‘Here he is’ as a whale moved along the waterfront.’  Immediately, those who could do so took to their boats to give chase.  ‘They were the first to ‘get fast’ and to plunge the harpoon into the monster of the deep.’

The dead whale was hauled alongside, and cut up for its oil.  It measured 40 feet, and was expected to yield 5 tons of oil.  Attitudes change.  In the last few days there have been reports that Japan may finally be reassessing its ‘scientific whaling’.

Beached whales were a useful, if erratic, food source for Aborigines, arriving during the winter months when other supplies were sometimes scarce.  In September 1790, Governor Phillip and his men came across people feasting on a stranded whale at Manly, and when Bass and Flinders visited Twofold Bay, they met a group eating whale.  Flinders wrote on 7 October 1798:

Soon afterward a man made his appearance.  He was of middle age, unarmed, except for a whaddie, or wooden scimitar, and came up to us seemingly with careless confidence.  We made much of him, and gave him some biscuit; and he in turn presented us with a piece of gristly fat, probably of whale.  This I tasted; but watching an opportunity to spit it out when he should not be looking, I perceived him doing precisely the same thing with our biscuit.

Australia has a long history of whaling.  Some of the ships of the First Fleet were whalers, and until the 1830s, whale oil was a more valuable export than wool.  It continued to be important throughout the 19th century.  In the 20th century, kerosene replaced whale oil, and plastics replaced whalebone, but the industry continued on a limited scale for another 70 years.

Oswald Brierly, Whalers off Twofold Bay

Oswald Brierly, Whalers off Twofold Bay, from Wikimedia Commons. Although the painting is dated 1867, it illustrates bay whaling in the 1840s, when Brierly was manager at Twofold Bay, near Eden.

Whale numbers were already declining in the 19th century, and the situation grew worse with the development of new, post-Moby-Dick technologies such as factory boats and mechanical harpoons.

In the 1930s nations began to demand regulation of whaling.  The League of Nations supported a Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, but over 46,000 whales were killed in the southern oceans in one year, 1937-8.  In 1939 a 10-year moratorium on killing humpbacks was declared.  The naval war probably protected whales more effectively – except for those occasionally mistaken for submarines and killed by depth charges.

The International Whaling Commission was established in 1948.  The original aim of the IWC was not to outlaw whaling, but to regulate it.  Mathematical models attempted to estimate how many whales could be killed sustainably.  Australia set up a commission to regulate the industry when humpback whaling began again in 1949, with whaling stations at Albany (WA), Eden and Byron Bay (NSW) and Moreton Island (QLD).  Inspectors visited regularly during the winter season.

At that point, the humpback population was estimated at approximately 10,000.  However the IWC’s modeling seemed wrong for throughout the 1950s, the numbers of whales continued to fall.  By 1960, Tangalooma couldn’t find enough whales to meet its allocated quota, and closed in 1962, and the final station, Albany, in 1973.

Why were the models wrong?  It was only in the 1990s, when the old Soviet archives were opened, that zoologists discovered that during the 1950s and 1960s, a Soviet whaling fleet was operating in Antarctic waters, killing large numbers of whales without any respect for the quotas imposed by the IWC.  This slaughter made the mathematical model irrelevant, and whale numbers plummeted.

Eventually, in the Antarctic as well, the numbers of whales fell so low that harvesting became unprofitable.  Since the 1970s the numbers of most species have been rising, but in some species, the selective slaughter of the largest animals has probably affected the gene pool so that individual animals are smaller than the average size in earlier centuries.

For one baby humpback, the natural risks of life proved too great, but the man-made risks are no longer a worry, and fortunately his (or her) species is doing pretty well these days.  I hope this continues.


A shorter version of this post appeared in the Weekend Australian here on 13 August 2011.

Qantas – and home thoughts from abroad

Qantas, we are promised, will still call Australia home.  This is encouraging, but there’s no doubt that the flying kangaroo, and particularly its iconic kangaroo route to London, is in serious trouble.  Many things have be blamed: rising fuel costs, the rising $A, the rise of Asia as a destination and the rise of Middle Eastern airlines such as Emirates and Etihad.

Home is such a tricky concept, anyway.  My grandmother called England ‘Home’, even though she never saw the place until she was over 60.  For Anglo-Australians born before the First World War, ‘Home’ (always capitalized) was a concept rather than a place, the term used by parents or grandparents who had left, and who never expected to see the place again.

In the early 20th century, international travel was costly, not just because a first or second class cabin was expensive, but because the trip was so slow.  A journey to England and back took 5 to 6 weeks each way, during which time passengers were out of the workforce.

This was not a problem for those paid to travel as part of their job, or for those living on investments, whose share portfolio would go on working, even if they did not.  But for the immigrants coming out in steerage, those 5 weeks of enforced idleness were often the longest period they would ever experience without an income coming in.  This cost, added to the discomfort of the trip, made it something to endure only once.

Brisbane-Singapore Air Service, 1948

Original in State Library of New South Wales, from The Commons, Flickr

When Qantas began its first commercial passenger flights to England at the end of the 1930s, most ocean travel remained either a one-way journey in steerage for immigrants, or the preserve of senior corporate or government men who today are still to be found up the pointy end of the plane.

International travel was an expensive luxury, out of the reach of all but a very few – or, of course, the unlucky many men, and a few women, who travelled to Europe and (sometimes) back on troop ships during two world wars.

After World War II, travel opened up.  Renewed European immigration meant more ships coming out, and shipping lines were keen to attract a back cargo of mainly young Australians, venturing beyond their own shores for the first time.

Then there were those, like my grandmother, embarking on the journey of a lifetime: a costly pilgrimage to see the iconic places – Buckingham Palace, Nelson’s Column, Lords Cricket Club – that were part of their upbringing.

In Australia, air travel only gradually out-competed sea travel in the post-war period.  Then in 1967, the Arab-Israeli War shut the Suez Canal, which remained closed to shipping until 1975.  Some ships sailed around South Africa, but the journey was longer and more expensive.  Meanwhile other ports along the imperial shipping routes – Colombo in Sri Lanka, Aden in Yemen – were becoming politically unstable, as the old eternal verities of ‘Britain East of Suez’ gave way to post-imperial Britain, begging to be allowed into the Common Market.

In 1974, the Boeing 747 – the jumbo jet – arrived in Australia, airfares began to fall, and sea travel could no longer compete.  Qantas thrived on the new pilgrimage trade, as baby boomers flew the kangaroo route to London to buy an old Combi-van outside Australia House for their own once-in-a-lifetime European tour.

But it turned out that the boomers went on travelling.  Ironically, the once-in-a-lifetime journey is now likely to be a grey-nomad treck around Australia, while the pilgrimage sites overseas have changed.  Gallipoli or Zanzibar or Egypt are on the agenda now for repeat travellers, and going via London or Frankfurt makes no sense.

Meanwhile, when the children and grandchildren of post-war immigrants set out to see their own version of ‘Home’, they are heading to Greece or Italy, Lebanon or Vietnam.

Pilgrimage has always been one of the strongest motivating factors in travel.  In Christian Europe, people dreamed of making a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Rome or Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostella.  For Moslems, performing the Hajj remains a key objective for travel.  For a thousand years and more, Moslems have converged on Mecca, and its port of Jeddah on the Arabian Sea, bringing people from Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean.

All these journeys led to Arabia.

The Mercator projection, which we commonly use to convert a 3-dimensional globe into 2-dimensional maps, underestimates the centrality of the Arabian Peninsula.  This great chunk of land is far more central, marking the point where East African and Eurasian tectonic plates collide.  The pilgrim routes of the Hajj traced a hub and spoke pattern, coming from Mali or Java or Central Asia – or from Gallipoli or Zanzibar or Egypt.

The Middle East airlines, with their hub and spoke patterns based on Dubai or Abu Dhabi on the Arabian Peninsula, are doing well from changes in Australian patterns of travel.  Perhaps their greatest strength lies in geography, and there is absolutely nothing Qantas can do about that.

Acknowledgement: A lot of this comes from a conversation with my friend John Moorhead, long ago, based on a conversation he had with a mutual friend, the late Clayton Bredt, even longer ago.

Noble Hector

In art, dogs often represent loyalty and faithfulness, and quite right too.

In early May 1788, some of the last ships of the First Fleet left New South Wales, sailing north to China.  The ships’ crews were glad to get away to safer places and fresh provisions, but some at least felt regret for those they left behind in the tiny, precarious settlement at Port Jackson.

John Marshall, the master of the Scarborough, left behind a Newfoundland dog called Hector.  Who knows why?  Perhaps he thought the dog would be happier on dry land.  Certainly he cared enough to leave Hector in the care of his friend Zachariah Clark, the Assistant Commissary.

Newfoundland Dog
Newfoundland dog – from Wikimedia Commons

Hector would have worked for his keep as a ratter, and since the Commissariat was responsible for food supplies, he probably ate well – or at least as well as the rest of the settlement, which isn’t saying much.  But he wasn’t up to hunting kangaroos, as Surgeon White noted in his Journal of a Voyage to NSW (1790):

It has been reported by some convicts who were out one day, accompanied by a large Newfoundland dog, that the latter seized a very large Kangaroo but could not preserve its hold. They observed that the animal effected its escape by the defensive use it made of its tail, with which it struck its assailant in a most tremendous manner. The blows were applied with such force and efficacy, that the dog was bruised, in many places, till the blood flowed. They observed that the Kangaroo did not seem to make any use of either its teeth or fore feet, but fairly beat off the dog with its tail, and escaped before the convicts, though at no great distance, could get up to secure it.

Then in July 1790, the Scarborough returned with the Second Fleet.  David Collins, the Deputy Judge Advocate, told the story:

An instance of sagacity in a dog occurred on the arrival of the Scarborough, too remarkable to pass unnoticed; Mr Marshall, the master of the ship on quitting Port Jackson in May 1788, left a Newfoundland dog with Mr Clark, the agent… On the return of his old master, Hector swam off to the ship and getting on board recognised him and manifested in every manner suitable to his nature his joy at seeing him; nor could the animal be persuaded to quit him again, accompanying him always when he went on shore and returning with him on board. 

Newfoundland dog

Wet Newfoundland dog - from Wikimedia Commons

Newfies are good swimmers.  I really hope that Hector stayed on the Scarborough when it sailed.  Zachariah Clark, on the other hand, stayed on in NSW.  In 1802 he was arrested for incest with his adult daughter Ann, possibly on a trumped up charge.  He got off, but died in 1804 ‘from excessive drinking’.  He should have stuck to dogs.

In Flanders Fields

I’m travelling at the moment, and on Saturday I crossed one of the great fault lines of Europe.  Although on the TGV, it takes less than 90 minutes from Paris to Brussels, I’ve crossed many boundaries – of language, culture, politics – and perhaps most profoundly, from wine to beer!

Brussels brewery parade

Brewery cart at beer festival, Brussels

Belgium has now been without a government for nearly a year – over 250 days and counting – because the different political parties can’t reach agreement about a coalition.  The issue is language. Superficially, there’s not much evidence of this: to an outsider, the place looks thriving, but division over language is a chasm, because it affects our personal lives even more than religion, or food, or whether women were veils or bikinis.

Language affects people so profoundly: what do you speak at home? what language do your children speak at school? how will their education be affected if they can’t speak their mother tongue there?  Do you think differently, when you think in a different language?  Certainly, some research has suggested that children learn to count more quickly in languages with short words for numbers because they are subvocalizing as they learn.  This would make English a ‘better’ language for teaching maths than Welsh – but the research is disputed.

In Belgium, the two languages are Flemish (close to Dutch) and Walloon (close to French, and now largely replaced by it).  Brussels used to be a French speaking island in a Dutch speaking hinterland.  French is still the more important administrative language, because of the presence of the European Parliament and the greater global reach of French, but the balance of power has been shifting.  Flanders, which used to be a farming backwater, has benefited from the growth of high tech industries in the Netherlands, while the old French speaking elite is in decline.

With national frontiers obliterated by the EU, Dutch has become more dominant, and Belgium, a nation that only dates from 1830, seems to be dissolving into its component parts.  I’m struck by the fact that while I saw the French tricoleur wherever I went in France, I’ve hardly seen a single Belgian flag since I arrived, and few references to the country of Belgium.  Even the tourist office is Brussels is full of guides to Flanders.  Flanders has a much longer history than Belgium – Flemings were a distinct group in William the Conqueror’s army.

In my hotel (Ibis, a French chain), the women serving in the breakfast room spoke French, whereas the women on the reception desk spoke French when they answered the phone, word perfect English (and presumably German, Italian and Spanish!) to their customers, and Dutch to each other.

Just so, the Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), who grew up around here and was taught by a Dutchman, Erasmus of Rotterdam, said that he spoke Dutch to his friends, Spanish to God, and German to his horse.  (Or maybe he said it – the attribution is pretty shaky.)

In the late middle ages, the Netherlands and Belgium were part of the Duchy of Burgundy, one of the richest areas of Europe. Towns like Bruges/Brugge and Ghent/Gand were large cities based on trade.  (Note that we call them by their French names, though Antwerp (Flemish Antwerpen) is better known than French Anvers.)  The Duke of Burgundy’s court was famously sophisticated, spending lavishly on painting, illuminated manuscripts, romance literature and wonderful wood carvings.  They weren’t kings, but the Dukes played an independent role in the politics of the day – it was a Duke of Burgundy, for instance, who handed Joan of Arc over to his English allies during the Hundred Years’ War.

Then the last Duke died without a male heir, and his daughter, Mary of Burgundy, was married off to the Habsburg Maximilian of Austria.  (I’ve written about this elsewhere)

Mary’s grandson Charles V inherited Spain from his mother, and the Habsburg lands from Maximilian, so being Duke of Burgundy was only a small part of his life.  Nonetheless, Charles managed to hold the show together while he lived.  He spoke Dutch, and had a Dutch mistress.  But after he retired in 1555, Philip gradually replaced Dutch administrators with Spaniards, and the local population rebelled.

It’s known as the Dutch Rebellion, but it began in Brussels, where in 1568 2 leaders from the local nobility, Counts Egmont and Horn, were executed in the main square.  A third of the rebel leaders, William ‘the Silent’ of Orange, managed to escape to Germany.  There were many issues – taxes, religion, provincialism, competition for colonies – but 80 years later, after a war of independence that was also – like so many – a civil war, the United Provinces of the Netherlands were recognized by the rest of Europe.  A federal republic, its constitution became a model for the Americans; unlike the Americans (as yet?), the Dutch finally drifted into a hereditary monarchy – Queen Beatrix belongs to the House of Orange.  (That’s why Dutch fans at football matches look like escapees from Guantanamo Bay in their orange outfits.)

The southern, more Catholic, part of old Burgundy opted out of the new republic, remaining possessions of the Spanish, then the Austrian, Habsburgs, until in 1815 the Congress of Vienna added them to the Netherlands.  But in 1830, they rebelled.  They imported a king, Leopold I, from Germany, and became Belgium.  Now that religion is a less important unifying force than language, and everyone is bundled into the EU anyway, the logic behind these boundary lines variously drawn between 1648 and 1831 don’t seem to work well any more.

Rembrandt, Conspiracy of Julius Claudius Civilis

Rembrandt, Conspiracy of Julius Claudius Civilis

I’ve crossed another boundary line, too.  Unlike France, this area was never fully subjugated by the Romans.  The name Belgium comes from Gallia Belgica, the northern part of Gaul, but in the swamps and wetlands of the low countries, the Romans never conquered the local people.  One tribe in particular – the Batavians (Latin: Batavi) – fought back.  During the 17th century war of independence, the Dutch rediscovered the Batavian rebellion.  Rembrandt painted it, in the Conspiracy of Julius Claudius Civilis (Simon Schama discusses this painting in detail, available on YouTube).  The Dutch East India Company named their factory in Java ‘Batavia’ (now Jakarta), and it was the name of the ship wrecked on the Abrolhos Islands en route to Java in 1624.  During the French Revolution, the puppet government set up by the French in the 1790s was called the Batavian Republic, too.

Romans liked their wine – and the Roman frontier tends to follow the limits of where grapes will grow.  It’s too cold and damp here, and the growing season is too short, for good grapes.  So this is another boundary I’ve crossed – from wine into beer country.

I encountered this yesterday, when I went to the town square – the Grande Place / Grote Markt – where Horn and Egmont were executed back in 1568, to discover a beer festival in full swing, with a parade of brewery carts and carthorses circling the old city.  I don’t know what Charles V drank, probably both beer and wine, depending on where he was at the time, but his son Philip almost certainly preferred a good rioja.