On this day in history, the Provisional Government of Belgium, a committee of revolutionaries, proclaimed Belgium independent from the Netherlands.
On December 20, 1830 a conference in London brought together the major European powers who recognized the success of the Belgian revolution and permanently guaranteed Belgian independence. On February 7, 1831, the Belgian Constitution was proclaimed. On July 21, 1831, the date now celebrated as Belgian Independence Day, Leopold of Saxe-Cobourg swore allegiance to the new Belgian constitution, thus becoming the first King of the Belgians. The king’s vow marked the start of the independent state of Belgium under a constitutional monarchy and parliament.
Belgium, officially called the Kingdom of Belgium, is a federal monarchy of some 11 million people in Western Europe. It is a founding member of the European Union and hosts the EU’s headquarters as well as those of several other major international organizations such as NATO.
Belgium is unusual in many ways. First, it is home to two main linguistic groups: the Dutch-speaking, mostly Flemish community, which makes up about 59% of the population, and the French-speaking, mostly Walloon population and Brussels inhabitants, comprising 41% of all Belgians. Additionally, there is a small group of German-speakers who are officially recognized.
The Dutch-speaking region of Flanders is in the north of Belgium and the French-speakers are in the southern region of Wallonia. The Brussels-Capital Region, officially bilingual, is a mostly French-speaking enclave within the Dutch-speaking Flemish Region. The German-speaking Community is primarily in eastern Wallonia.
Historically, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (now also called “Benelux”) were known as the Low Countries. In the Belgian Revolution of 1830, Belgium seceded from the Netherlands. (Although there were a number of reasons the revolution occurred, the immediate precipitating event was a performance of Auber’s “La Muette de Portici” at the Brussels opera house of La Monnaie. The crowds spilled out onto the streets singing patriotic songs, and violent street fighting broke out.)
Belgium continues to have internal differences between the north and the south. However, there is one area in which Belgians are in agreement. Currently, Belgium ranks 18th globally on the list of beer consumption by country per capita. On average, each Belgian drinks 19.5 gallons of beer every year. (In 1900, that total was closer to 53 gallons each a year, but with the advent of soft drinks, the numbers dropped.)
Belgium has more individual styles of beer per capita than any other country in the world. In 2011, they produced 1,132 distinct types of beer. In 2013, that number rose to 3,043 different beers brewed throughout the ten provinces of Belgium. The Flemish province of Brabant alone makes 457 of those beers.
Beer making began in earnest in the 10th Century when the Catholic Church sanctioned the use of abbeys to brew and distribute beer to generate funds for their upkeep. There are only 10 authentic Trappist breweries in the world, and six of those are in Belgium. Westvleteren XII, a Trappist beer brewed not far from the city of Ypres, is often called the best beer in the world. It has a perfect 100 rating on both beeradvocate.com and ratebeer.com and has been voted as the #1 beer by several beer and consumer polls.
Belgium is also known for “lambic” beer, which is a spontaneously fermented beer. In spontaneous fermentation, the malt and hops are left to cool in the open air. This introduces wild yeast into the mixture, giving the brew a quality that is unique to the region where it was brewed, since it depends on the natural yeasts in the air to start the fermentation. Lambic is made exclusively in Belgium’s Zenne valley, where the wild yeasts Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Brettanomyces lambicus thrive. The result is a unique beer type known as Geuze (pronounced like “goose”).
In Bruges, the De Halve Maan brewery is separated from its bottling plant, opened in 2010 in the outskirts of Bruges. So many trucks are used to transport the beer from one place to the other than the brewery’s truck fleet accounts for 85 percent of Bruges’s current commercial traffic. This will change soon, however, with the construction of an underground beer pipeline that will run 1.8 miles under the city and pump 26 gallons of freshly brewed beer every minute.
The current holder of the Guinness World Record for most available beers on the menu is Delirium Cafe, located in Belgium’s capital city of Brussels. They have 3,162 beers available on their shelves. You’d have to drink 8.5 beers every day for a year just to taste them all.
Perhaps they drink to forget their less than laudatory past.
At the end of the 19th Century, the race was on by Europe to colonize Africa. A conference was convened in Berlin in 1884-1885 to divvy up the spoils. The Congo basin was designated as a free-trade zone, but Belgium’s King Leopold II and his single-shareholder “philanthropic” organization received a large share of territory to be organized as a corporate entity called the Congo Free State. The state included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo and existed from 1885 to 1908. It was privately controlled by Leopold II through a non-governmental organization, the Association Internationale Africaine. Leopold directed the extraction of ivory, rubber, and minerals in the upper Congo basin for sale on the world market.
Leopold’s control of the Congo is notorious for the large number of atrocities committed against the natives.
To enforce the rubber quotas, a military force was created. Their techniques included imprisonment, executions, and severing of limbs. During the period between 1885 and 1908, as many as ten million Congolese are believed to have died through exploitation and disease in addition to outright murder. One view is that the forced labor system directly and indirectly eliminated 20% of the population. In addition, women were systematically raped, and the local populace subjected to kidnapping, looting and village burnings.
Following reports from missionaries a moral outrage campaign emerged, particularly in Britain and the United States. The loss of life and the horrific nature of the crimes inspired literature such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and The Crime of the Congo by Arthur Conan Doyle.
By 1908, public pressure led to the end of Leopold II’s rule and to the annexation of the Congo as a colony of Belgium, known as the Belgian Congo. Executive power rested with the Belgian Minister of Colonial Affairs, and the Belgian parliament exercised legislative authority over the Belgian Congo. While the most brutal practices in the Congo were curbed, forced labor continued, and many of Leopold’s administrators in the Congo remained in their jobs. The Congo was not officially separated from Belgium until 1960.
Additionally, there then ensued the “Great Forgetting” as Adam Hochschild wrote in King Leopold’s Ghost. Most Belgians in the 20th and 21st centuries remember Leopold II as the “Builder King” for his extensive public works projects, and many remain unaware of his role in the atrocities in the Congo.
There is also chocolate for forgetting. Jean Neuhaus invented the pralines chocolate in Brussels in 1912. Belgium produces the equivalent of 48.5 pounds of chocolate per inhabitant annually. The world’s biggest chocolate selling point is Brussels National Airport.