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93 On September 20, 1787, residents of Brussels rose in protest against the reforming zeal of their ruler, Joseph II of Austria, building barricades and obliging the local garrison to make a forced withdrawal from their city. This blow to the pride of imperial forces was merely the opening salvo in the Belgian people’s arduous forty-year struggle to cast off the yoke of foreign domination and regain their national independence. It is impossible to say with utter certainty where or when barricades first appeared outside their country of origin. I can only attest to the fact that by the time they reappeared in Paris on July 14, 1789, after a hiatus of more than 150 years, they had already sprung up in the neighboring capitals of Brussels and Geneva.1 Thus, barricades first spread to regions immediately adjacent to French territory and to societies with which France had close linguistic, cultural, economic, and political ties. Furthermore, diffusion occurred in a period when profound social changes had begun to overwhelm the adaptive capacity of traditional institutions. The same forces that produced the eighteenth-century anticolonial revolts in America and the Netherlands and helped spawn the French Revolution also made the Belgian provinces (and, to a lesser extent, the Frenchspeaking cantons of the Swiss confederation) fertile ground for social upheaval. It was in this context that the barricade, a tactic previously employed only within the confines of France, first spread. 5 Barricades in Belgium, 1787-1830 The people’s alarm instantly became general. They immediately began tearing up the pavement in several streets and notably on the square before the Hôtel de Ville. The merchants closed their shops, and men and women transported paving stones to their attics so that they could crush any troops that came near their houses. . . . Fearing that they would be surrounded, some 1,200 militia volunteers had rallied, taken up positions in close formation on the Grande-Place, and blocked the adjoining streets with chains. French Chargé d’affaires Yves Hirsinger on the 1787 barricades in Brussels 94 Barricades in Belgium THE BRABANT REVOLUTION In the 1780s, Brussels was the seat of government for the whole of the Austrian Southern Netherlands. The region known as Brabant had experienced several centuries of foreign dominion. In the fourteenth century, much of this territory fell within the sphere of influence of England, which, through its domination of the textile market, exercised effective economic and political control over districts nominally ruled by the duke of Brabant. The prospect, in 1356, of the duke’s title and possessions passing into foreign hands brought the local population to a state of extreme agitation that was only relieved with the granting of a special charter known as the Joyeuse Entrée (Joyous Entry), which not only guaranteed certain individual liberties but also granted the province a set of privileges and immunities that amounted in most respects to self-rule.2 The provisions of this charter—in effect, a written constitution—were gradually extended to the neighboring provinces and became the cornerstone of the social contract between the Belgian people and its long succession of foreign rulers. By the start of the sixteenth century, this region had passed into the hands of the Spanish branch of the House of Habsburg. In 1556, the less populous Protestant region to the north began a revolt against Spanish rule that eventually led to independence for the United Provinces (or what we know today as Holland). The staunchly Catholic southern region continued under Spanish rule until 1713, when the treaty of Utrecht transferred sovereignty to the Austrian Habsburgs. These territories, corresponding roughly to present-day Belgium, resisted assimilation by their more powerful partner, managing to retain the privileged status guaranteed by their ancient charter. Thanks to their preeminence in textile production, the Austrian Netherlands became one of the richest regions in Europe in the eighteenth century; and thanks to the attentive but respectful management of local affairs by Empress Maria Theresa, her forty-year reign was something of a golden age. In return for this period of peace and unprecedented prosperity, her Belgian subjects rewarded her with their sincere devotion. Regrettably, this relationship would take an emphatic turn for the worse with the accession of her son, Joseph II, in 1780. Reforms from on High For those more familiar with the history of the French Revolution, the situation in Brabant presents a series of apparent parallels that conceal more fundamental divergences. In France, the efforts of...


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