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Flanders In 1848, poverty and misery created or were the result of a general economic crisis which posed a serious threat to the stability of the European politi cal system; both in liberal western states and in the autocratic eastern empires each of three domains, agriculture, industry, and finance were troubled. The serious situation produced hardships which could create a volatile political and social situation. In 1848 crises in all three of these areas occurred simultaneously in the western half of Belgium, historically referred to as Flanders. But sensitive and responsible leaders sought solutions in responsible compromises rather in than abstract do ctrines, thus safeguarding Flemish workers and peasants from revolution.

Unquestionably the agricultural depression underlay the predicament but in Flanders it was concurrent with the industrial crisis. Since 1845 a potato blight had struck the staple of the Flemish diet, producing near starvation conditions. Groups of peasant roamed the countryside by night, digging up with their hands and eating the raw seed-potatoes. The situation was worsened by the poor grain harvests due to a droug ht during the years 1846-47; but in Flanders the failure of harvests were only part of the story. For centuries Flemish peasants augmented their income in a cottage industry, the production of linen cloth. Between one-third and one-half of the population of the area was directly engaged in spinning and weaving. The industrial revolution should have closed down the Flemish cottage industry many years earlier, but both the French and Dutch regimes had protected the superannuated technique. By the 1840s, English competition made this protection unfeasible; British goods sold in Ghent and Brussels were cheaper than those produced in Flanders. The annual exportation of linen goods during the period 1842-1848 diminished by eleven million kilograms as compared with the period 1831-1841. Much mythotholgy grew up surrounding the linen industry, particularly among the uneducated classes. For example: it was popularly maintained that the saliva of the maidens of Flanders produced a superior threa d to that of a hot-water spout in an English factory. But such fables did not sell the product, even in the home market, while the highly protective tariffs had severely hindered Belgian markets abroad.

In 1830 the Belgian worker had reacted to economic hardships and mechanization by smashing machines and burning their production. In 1848, he did not follow this Luddite course despite misery and poverty far graver than in previous years. In 1847 seven hundred thousand people or one-thir d the population were on the public relief rolls in addition to the number on private charity. Those workers who still worked received about 18 centimes a day, a wage supporting slow starvation.

Faced with this situation the government created jobs for the unemployed by expanding public works: extending the railway system in Flanders, constructing a canal at Turnhout, and building hundreds of miles of new roads. Steps were also taken to modernize the textiles by introducing machinery that allowed revitalization of the linen industry. The passage of the Electoral Bill in February 1848 following the Paris revolution creating an impression that the government was interested in political reform. In addition, they increased funds for public relief and augment the number of apprenticeships in Flanders. There was considerable migration of persons towards Brussels and the less severely hit areas in the coal fields of southeastern Belgium. But perhaps two factors did more than anythin g else to calm the peasants: harvests of both potatoes and grain were good in 1848, and secondly, the peasants were conservative Catholics. In 1830 the clergy of Flanders had opposed the regime; in 1848 they did not.
John W. Rooney, Jr.


see Belgium

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