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There were banks of sand, broken here and
there by layers of peat, and downs which the wind blew about and
scattered over the country; large expanses of muddy land, destined, as
it seemed, to eternal barrenness. Iron and coal, the first elements of
industry, were lacking; there was no wood, for the forests had already
been destroyed by storms before agriculture began; there was neither
stone nor metal. Nature, as a Dutch poet has said, had denied all its
gifts to Holland, and the Dutch were obliged to do everything in spite
of her. They began by fertilizing the sand. In some places they made
the ground fruitful by placing on it layers of soil brought from a
distance, just as a garden is formed; they spread the rubble from the
downs over the sodden meadows; they mixed bits of the peat taken from
the water with the earth that was too sandy; they dug up clay to give
a fresh fertility to the surface of the ground; they strove to till
the downs; and thus, by a thousand varied efforts, as they continually
warded off the threatening waters, they succeeded in cultivating
Holland as highly as other countries more favored by Nature. The
Holland of sands and marshes, which the ancients considered barely
habitable, now sends abroad, year by year, agricultural products to
the value of a hundred million francs, possesses about a million three
hundred thousand head of cattle, and may be rated in proportion to its
size among the most populous countries in Europe.

Now, it is obvious that in a country so extraordinary the inhabitants
must be very different from those of other lands. Indeed, few peoples
have been more influenced by the nature of the country they inhabit,
than the Dutch. Their genius is in perfect harmony with the physical
character of Holland. When one contemplates the memorials of the great
warfare which this nation has waged with the sea, one understands that
its characteristics must be steadfastness and patience, conjoined with
calm and determined courage. The glorious struggle, and the knowledge
that they owe everything to themselves, must have infused and
strengthened in them a lofty sense of their own dignity and an
indomitable spirit of liberty and independence. The necessity for a
continual struggle, for incessant work, and for continual sacrifices
to protect their very existence, confronts them perpetually with
realities, and must have helped to make them an extremely practical
and economical nation. Good sense necessarily became their most
prominent quality; economy was perforce one of their principal
virtues. This nation was obliged to excel in useful works, to be sober
in its enjoyments, simple even in its greatness, and successful in all
things that are to be attained by tenacity of purpose and by activity
springing from reflection and precision. It had to be wise rather than
heroic, conservative rather than creative; to give no great architects
to the edifice of modern thought, but many able workmen, a legion of
patient and useful laborers. By virtue of these qualities of prudence,
phlegmatic activity, and conservatism the Dutch are ever advancing,
although step by step. They acquire slowly, but lose none of their
acquisitions;--they are loth to quit ancient usages, and, although
three great nations are in close proximity to them, they retain their
originality as if isolated. They have retained it through different
forms of government, through foreign invasions, through the political
and religious wars of which Holland was the theatre--in spite of the
immense crowd of foreigners from every country who have taken refuge
in their land, and have lived there at all times. They are, in short,
of all the northern nations, that one which has retained its ancient
typical character as it advanced on the road toward civilization. One
recalling the conformation of this country, with its three and a half
millions of inhabitants, can easily understand that although fused
into a solid political union, and although recognizable amongst the
other northern nations by certain traits peculiar to the inhabitants
of all its provinces, it must nevertheless present a great variety.
Such, indeed, is the case. Between Zealand and Holland proper, between
Holland and Friesland, between Friesland and Gelderland, between
Groningen and Brabant, although they are closely bound together by
local and historical ties, there is a difference as great as that
existing between the most distant provinces of Italy and France. They
differ in language, in costume and in character, in race and in
religion. The communal _régime_ has impressed on this nation an
indelible stamp, because nowhere else has it so conformed to the
nature of things. The interests of the country are divided into
various groups, of whose organization the hydraulic system is an
example. Hence association and mutual help against the common enemy,
the sea, but freedom of action in local institutions. The monarchical
_régime_ has not extinguished the ancient municipal spirit, which
frustrated the efforts of all those great states that tried to absorb
Holland. The great rivers and deep gulfs serve both as commercial
roads which constitute a national bond between the various
provinces, and as barriers which defend their ancient traditions and
provincial customs. In this land, which is apparently so uniform, one
may say that everything save the aspect of nature changes at every
step--changes suddenly, too, as does nature itself, to the eye of one
who crosses the frontier of this state for the first time.

[Illustration: Dutch Fishing Boats.]

But, however wonderful the physical history of Holland may be, its
political history is even more marvellous. This little country,
invaded first by different tribes of the Germanic race, subdued by the
Romans and by the Franks, devastated by the Danes and by the Normans,
and wasted for centuries by terrible civil wars,--this little nation
of fishermen and merchants preserved its civil freedom and liberty of
conscience by a war of eighty years' duration against the formidable
monarchy of Philip II., and founded a republic which became the ark of
salvation for the freedom of all peoples, the adopted home of the
sciences, the exchange of Europe, the station of the world's commerce;
a republic which extends its dominion to Java, Sumatra, Hindostan,
Ceylon, New Holland, Japan, Brazil, Guiana, the Cape of Good Hope, the
West Indies, and New York; a republic that conquered England on the
sea, that resisted the united armies of Charles II. and of Louis XIV.,
that treated on terms of equality with the greatest nations, and for a
time was one of the three powers that ruled the destinies of Europe.

It is no longer the grand Holland of the eighteenth century, but it is
still, next to England, the greatest colonizing state of the world. It has
exchanged its former grandeur for a quiet prosperity; commerce has been
limited, agriculture has increased; the republican government has lost its
form rather than its substance, for a family of patriotic princes, dear to
the people, govern peaceably in the midst of the ancient and the newer
liberties. In Holland are to be found riches without ostentation, freedom
without insolence, taxes without poverty. The country goes on its way
without panics, without insurrections,--preserving, with its fundamental
good sense, in its traditions, customs, and freedom, the imprint of its
noble origin. It is perhaps amongst all European countries that nation in
which there is the best public instruction and the least corruption.
Alone, at the extremity of the continent, occupied with its waters and
its colonies, it enjoys the fruits of its labors in peace without
comment, and can proudly say that no nation in the world has purchased
freedom of faith and liberty of government with greater sacrifices.

Such were the thoughts that stimulated my curiosity one fine summer
morning at Antwerp, as I was stepping into a ship that was to take me
from the Scheldt to Zealand, the most mysterious province of the
Netherlands.




ZEALAND.


If a teacher of geography had stopped me at some street-corner, before
I had decided to visit Holland, and abruptly asked me, "Where is
Zealand?" I should have had nothing to say; and I believe I am not
mistaken in the supposition that a great number of my fellow-citizens,
if asked the same question, would find it difficult to answer. Zealand
is somewhat mysterious even to the Dutch themselves; very few of them
have seen it, and of those few the greater part have only passed
through it by boat; hence it is mentioned only on rare occasions, and
then as if it were a far-off country. From the few words I heard
spoken by my fellow-voyagers, I learned that they had never been to
the province; so we were all equally curious, and the ship had not
weighed anchor ere we entered into conversation, and were exciting
each other's curiosity by questions which none of us could answer.

The ship started at sunrise, and for a time we enjoyed the view of the
spire of Antwerp Cathedral, wrought of Mechlin lace, as the enamoured
Napoleon said of it.

After a short stop at the fort of Lillo and the village of Doel, we
left Belgium and entered Zealand.

In passing the frontier of a country for the first time, although we
know that the scene will not change suddenly, we always look round
curiously as if we expect it to do so. In fact, all the passengers
leaned over the rail of the boat, that they might be present when the
apparition of Zealand should suddenly be revealed.

For some time our curiosity was not gratified: nothing was to be seen
but the smooth green shores of the Scheldt, wide as an arm of the sea,
dotted with banks of sand, over which flew flocks of screaming
sea-gulls, while the pure sky did not seem to be that of Holland.

We were sailing between the island of South Beveland and the strip of
land forming the left bank of the Scheldt, which is called Flanders of
the States, or Flemish Zealand.

The history of this piece of land is very curious. To a foreigner the
entrance of Holland is like the first page of a great epic entitled,
The Struggle with the Sea.



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