The Schelde river, a disputed boundary

The Low Countries owe their importance not only to political developments. Geographic conditions play a major role, too. The picture of the Netherlands as a country below sea-level in the Rhine and Meuse estuaries has become a cliché. More to the south another river, too, had formed a mighty estuary. The Schelde, in English often spelled Scheldt, and in French known as the Escaut, has formed an estuary in Flanders and in the Dutch province Zeeland. In particular the Westerschelde has played an important role in Dutch and Belgian history. Cities such as Ghent and Antwerp own part of their prosperity to their position on the Schelde river. The Westerschelde is at some points the border river between Belgium and the Netherlands. In this post I will look at a number of the conflicts around this river.

Scheldt River Collection, Peace Palace LibraryTracing the history of these conflicts has become easier thanks to the Peace Palace Library in The Hague which has created a digital Scheldt River Collection with some 300 publications, 35,000 digitized pages in all. These publications are not only in Dutch and French, but also in other languages. The Peace Library devoted in 2015 a Library Special on its website to the Schelde with a link to a report on the current situation of this river and a list of the main conflicts and events since 1585, The Scheldt estuary case: From conflict to cooperation. In this contribution I will look both at the history of conflicts about the Schelde and at the digital collection of the Peace Palace Library.

Centuries of conflicts

The navigation on the Schelde had been already an issue long before the Belgian independence in 1839. During the Dutch Revolt in the sixteenth century the blockade of the Schelde massively damaged the trade to and from Antwerp, and prompted many Flemish merchants to go to the North. Amsterdam’s growth in economic power around 1600 is to a substantial degree due to an influx of merchants from Flanders, their talents and networks. However, this period does not come into view in the digital collection. The Peace Palace Library has digitized books from its own collection. Apparently fifteen works from 1784 and 1785 are the earliest available. Among these works is a treatise by someone more famous for his role in French history. Honoré Gabriel de Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau (1749-1791) published a treatise with the title Doutes sur la liberté de l’Escaut, réclamée par l’empereur; sur les causes & sur les conséquences probables de cette réclamation (London 1785). It was this work that brought Mirabeau to the attention of the general public in France. The Peace Palace Library digitized also a contemporary Dutch translation of this treatise. Some of the digitized publications discuss the role of the Schelde in Dutch and Belgian history starting with the medieval period, for example Charles Terlinden’s study ‘The History of the Scheldt’, History 4 (1920) 185-197, 5 (1921) 1-10, which sparked immediately a reaction from a Dutch historian, F. de Bas, ‘Another version of the Scheldt history’, History 5 (1921) 159-170.

The rivalry between the Dutch North and the Flemish South has not been the only cause for conflicts. The Dutch neutrality during the First World War made matters even more acute. After the First World War the attempts at a new treaty about the Schelde and the proposals to build a canal between the Schelde and the Rhine-Meuse estuary failed in the end in 1927 after heated national debates. More than one hundred publications in the digital collection bear witness to this prolonged affair. Legal historians, too, looked at the Scheldt question. The digital collection contains two publications by Ernest Nys, ‘Les fleuves internationaux traversant plusieurs territoires : l’Escaut en droit des gens’, Revue de droit international et de législation comparée 5 (1903) 517-537 (1903), and L’Escaut en temps de guerre (Brussels 1910). In 1940 Eduard Maurits Meijers published his study ‘Des graven stroom’, Mededelingen van de Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie der Wetenschappen, Afdeling Letterkunde, new series, 3/4, pp. 103-205, in which he traced the medieval claims and jurisdictions on the several branches of the Schelde. Meijers thoughtfully added transcriptions of the main documents he discussed. In 1953 Chris van der Klaauw, between 1977 and 1981 the Dutch minister of foreign affairs, defended his Ph.D. thesis in history about the interwar relations between the Netherlands and Belgium [Politieke betrekkingen tussen Nederland en België, 1919-1939 (Leiden 1953)].

Map of the Schelde estuary, 1784

The search function for this digital collection is rather restricted. There is only a free text search field. A bit more disturbing is the chronological order of presentation. At the very end of the chronological list you will find some publications with the year of publication marked 19XX and also those with the year of publication between parentheses. All digitized publications are only available as PDF’s. It would be very helpful to have a map of the Schelde estuary, or better, a series documenting not only the changing Dutch and Flemish frontiers, but also the changing shapes of the various isles of Zeeland, lands newly reclaimed and added as polders, and the changing river branches. Mirabeau already added a map to the first edition of his treatise in 1784. The second edition mentioned the presence of a map explicitly in the title. As a solace I offer here a screen print of the map in the digitized copy of the first edition. If you want to pursue a search for digitized old maps you might want to look about my contribution of last year about 200 years Dutch cartography and historical-geographic information systems.

Banner EHB

How wide is the coverage of this digital collection? I could not help thinking of visiting the website of i-Hilt, the center for the History of International Law at Tilburg University. In July 2016 the center launched a new version of its online bibliography, a PDF with nearly 400 pages. I had not expected to find just one publication referring directly to the Schelde, Alain Wijffels, ‘Flanders and the Scheldt Question. A Mirror of the Law of International Relations and its Actors’, Sartoniana 15 (2002) 213-280. It might look like a classic example of having a famous case almost at your doorstep – the distance from Tilburg to the Schelde is some fifty kilometers – and somehow almost overlooking it… Randall Lesaffer provides very useful basic reading lists for the history of international law, including historiography and methods. The links section of i-Hilt is also worth checking. I checked the Digitale Bibliografie voor de Nederlandse Geschiedenis, and alas I could find just thirty publications about the Schelde, and even less for studies dealing with the conflicts. One of the articles not to be missed is by Frits Doeleman, ‘Zeggenschap op de Honte’, Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis 43 (1975) 24-43. Its very title is a warning to look beyond the mere word Schelde! Cardholders of the Dutch Royal Library and users at subscribing institutions can use the bibliographical and iconographical database of the former NCRD, with for the Schelde nearly 70 items, most of them publications, but alas since some ten years not updated. Of course I looked also at the Belgian counterpart of the DBNG, the Bibliographie de l’Histoire de Belgique / Bibliografie van de Geschiedenis van België – BHB-BGB with its trilingual interface and more relevant results than in the DBNG. These bibliographies can be found at the portal European Historical Bibliographies. Returning to the question of this paragraph I think it is safe to conclude that the Peace Palace Library performs a real important service for scholars in presenting this digital collection.

I checked also for the presence of digitized books concerning the Schelde in Delpher, the digital library of the Dutch Royal Library, but I noticed only few of the books now available online thanks to the Peace Palace Library. At Delpher in particular the relevant works published around 1785 are present, and they can be viewed in more ways. The library catalogue of the Zeeuwse Bibliotheek contains only a few books dealing with the Schelde problems, and unfortunately I could not reach the website of this fine library in Middelburg. The Zeeuws Archief has in fact more relevant publications in its holdings. The archival collection concerning pilots on the Schelde is particularly interesting [Rijksloodswezen, 6e District, Monden van de Schelde, (1808) 1835-1950 (1966)].

In Belgium you should look in particular at the websites of the Felixarchief, the municipal archive of Antwerp, the Erfgoedbibliotheek Hendrik Conscience, and the Museum aan de Stroom, situated on a quay of the Schelde. These websites have multilingual interfaces. The Anet meta-catalogue enables you to search with one action in many libraries at Antwerpen, including the university library. The Flemish digital library Flandrica, too, contains some items documenting Flemish history around the Schelde river. The Short-Title Catalogue Vlaanderen (STCV) helps you tracing books printed in Flanders between 1500 and 1800.

After looking at this new digital collection I am aware much more can be said about the Dutch province Zeeland which indeed is a province of islands and sea. Floods took sometimes a great toll on the areas adjacent to the several branches of the Schelde. Whole polders have thus disappeared. Ironically there is a modern dispute about the last polder reclaimed from the Westerschelde, the Hedwigepolder. The history of international law is one of the many possible approaches to the history of a river which both connected and divided the Low Countries. The Schelde connects and divides even today in some respects.


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