It’s Complicated

In the month of July, I celebrate three national holidays: American Independence Day which falls, of course, on July 4; Bastille Day, July 14, which commemorates the storming of a hated symbol of feudal oppression; and July 21, a national holiday in Belgium which commemorates an important event that occurred during the Belgian Revolution of the early 1830s.

Belgian rebels on the barricade of the Place Royale facing Brussels Park (1830)

After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, an international Congress was held in Vienna for the purpose of reordering the political landscape of a post-Napoleonic Europe. During the Napoleonic wars, the kingdom of Netherlands, for a variety of reasons, aligned themselves with the French in opposition to the British and a coalition of opposing forces. During this time the Dutch were in possession of a number of colonies. One of those possessions was the Cape Colony (South Africa,) and during the war, the British took over. Following 1815, the British had become enamored with King William of the Netherlands and in compensation for having taken away the Cape colony, it was decided that the territory that had formally belonged to Austria, had been in French possession for the past 20 years, and was known as the Southern Netherlands (a.k.a. les provinces belges), would now become a part of the Kingdom of the United Netherlands.

An Episode of the Belgian Revolution of 1830, Gustaf Wappers

This was a marriage made in hell. It was not as crazy as Northern Ireland or maybe Lebanon, but differences in religion, language, and culture made for an unhealthy relationship. Basically, it boiled down to your typical oppressed nation laundry list of grievances, as the Belgians accused the Dutch of mistreating them religiously (attempts were made to prevent Catholics from holding office), linguistically (attempts were made to make Dutch the official language), and lack of representation in the government both politically and militarily.

After a period of growing unrest, the Belgian Revolution forced Dutch forces out of the country between August and October 1830. By November, the different revolutionary factions had coalesced around the idea of national independence and began drafting a constitution for an independent Belgian state. It was decided that it would become a constitutional and popular monarchy, reflecting the romantic nationalism popular at the time.

Leopold, King of the Belgians

The discussion of the possibility of the Southern Netherlands becoming a Republic or being annexed to France was quickly squashed because those options would be considered an automatic declaration of war by Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia.

Searching for a monarch, the revolutionaries decided on Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha who was a German aristocrat popular in the United Kingdom. Leopold arrived in Brussels in early July 1831 and, on 21 July, swore allegiance to the constitution, becoming the country’s first monarch. 21 July 1831 is thus considered to mark the start of the modern Kingdom of Belgium.

If choosing a German as Belgium’s hereditary monarch seems sketchy, consider that at that time there was no unified Germany. There were a number of large to tiny political entities in the region that is now known as the GDR. Also, the royal family of Great Britain was of German descent. Leopold was uncle Leopold to his niece Victoria. He was also very popular in the United Kingdom. Years before he had been married to Princess Charlotte, the daughter of George IV. Tragically, the young woman died while giving birth to their first child. After Leopold became King of the Belgians, he married the daughter of King Louis Philippe of France. Their daughter, Carlotta, was named after Leopold’s first wife. She married Maximilian of Austria, the man who became the failed Emperor of Mexico in the 1860s.

Leopold was a very popular king and he is the namesake of my grandfather, Dr. Leopold DeBacker.

Leopold’s son, Leopold II was not as popular as his father, especially after he became embroiled in his private colony in Africa, the Congo.

Leopold taking the constitutional oath (Gustaf Wappers, 1831)

So instead of celebrating something radical and revolutionary like a declaration of independence or the storming of a fortified prison, the staid, conservative Belgians focus on the day the newly invested monarch swore allegiance to the Constitution.

The Belgian national anthem on the other hand does celebrate a revolutionary event. The Brabantine Revolt of 1789. Inspired by the French Revolution, the very conservative Belgians revolted against reforms that had been imposed on them by the reform-minded Austrian Emperor Joseph II. That revolt failed; however it did set the revolutionary tone in Belgium for the next 30 or 40 years.

Belgian National Anthem – “La Brabançonne” (FR/DE/NL/EN)


On a lighter note, here is Belgian singing sensation of the 80s and the beyond, Lio, singing in her nightie. (The Belgians are not as conservative as they used to be.)

Lio – Amoureux Solitaires

Lio’s First Album from 1980

Amicalement vôtre – 0
J’obtiens toujours tout que je veux – 2:46
Comix Discomix – 5:21
La panthère rose – 9:20
You Go to My head – 12:35
Amoureux solitaires – 15:13
Si belle et inutile – 18:55
Bébé vampire – 22:23
Speedy Gonzalez – 25:05
La petite amazone – 28:22
Le banana split – 31:37
Oz – 34:10

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