Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands/Chapter III

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Holland, Zealand, Friezland and Groninguen, are seated upon the Sea, and make the Strength and Greatness of this State: The other three, with the conquered Towns in Brabant, Flanders, and Cleve, make only the Outworks or Frontiers, serving chiefly for Safety and Defence of these. No Man can tell the strange and mighty Changes, that may have been made in the Face and Bounds of Maritime Countries, at one time or other, by furious Inundations, upon the unusual concurrence of Land-Floods, Winds, and Tides; And therefore no Man knows, whether the Province of Holland may not have been, in some past Ages, all Wood, and rough unequal Ground, as some old Traditions go; And levell'd to what we see, by the Seas breaking in, and continuing long, upon the Land; since, recovered by its recess, and with the help of Industry. For it is evident, that the Sea for some space of years, advances continually upon one Coast, retiring from the opposite; and in another Age, quite changes this course, yielding up what it had seized, and seizing what it had yielded up, without any reason to be given of such contrary motions. But, I suppose, this great change was made in Holland, when the Sea first parted England from the Continent, breaking through a neck of Land between Dover and Calais; Which may be a Tale, but I am sure is no Record. It is certain, on the contrary, that Sixteen hundred years ago, there was no usual Mention or Memory of any such Changes; and that the face of all these Coasts, and nature of the Soil, especially that of Holland, was much as it is now, allowing only the Improvements of Riches, Time, and Industry; which appears by the description made in Tacitus, both of the limits of the Isle of Batavia, and the nature of the Soil, as well as the Climate, with the very Names, and course of Rivers, still remaining[1].

'Tis likely, the Changes, arrived since that Age in these Countries, may have been made by stoppages grown in time, with the rolling of Sands upon the mouths of three great Rivers, which disimbogued into the Sea through the Coasts of these Provinces; That is, the Rhine, the Mose, and the Scheld. The ancient Rhine divided, where Skencksconce now stands, into two Rivers; of which, one kept the name, till, running near Leyden, it fell into the Sea at Catwick; where are still seen, at low Tides, the Foundations of an ancient Roman Castle that commanded the mouth of this River: But this is wholly stopt up, though a great Canal still preserves the Name of the Old Rhine. The Mose, running by Dort and Rotterdam, fell, as it now does, into the Sea at the Briel, with mighty issues of Water; But the Sands, gather'd for three or four Leagues upon this Coast, make the Haven extreme dangerous, without great skill of Pilots, and use of Pilot-boats, that come out with every Tide, to welcome and secure the Ships bound for that River; And it is probable, that these Sands, having obstructed the free course of the River has at times caused or encreased those Inundations, out of which so many Islands have been recovered, and of which, that part of the Country is so much composed.

The Scheld seems to have had its issue by Walcheren in Zealand, which was an Island in the mouth of that River, till the Inundations of that, and the Mose, seem to have been joyned together, by some great Helps, or Irruptions of the Sea, by which, the whole Country was overwhelmed, which now makes that Inland-Sea, that serves for a common passage between Holland, Zealand, Flanders, and Brabant; The Sea, for some Leagues from Zealand, lyes generally upon such Banks of Sand, as it does upon the mouth of the Maze, though separated by something better Channels than are found in the other.

That which seems likeliest to have been the occasion of stopping up wholly one of these Rivers, and obstructing the others, Is the course of Westerly Winds, (which drive upon this Shore) being so much more constant and violent than the East: For, taking the Seasons, and Years, one with another, I suppose, there will be observed three parts of Westerly for one of Easterly Winds; Besides, that these generally attend the calm Frosts and fair weather; and the other, the stormy and foul. And I have had occasion to make experiment of the Sands rising and sinking before a Haven, by two Fits of these contrary Winds, above four Foot. This, I presume, is likewise the natural reason of so many deep and commodious Havens found upon all the English side of the Channel, and so few, (or indeed none) upon the French and Dutch: An advantage seeming to be given us by Nature, and never to be equall'd by any Art, or Expence, of our Neighbours.

I remember no mention in ancient Authors of that, which is now call'd the Zudder-Sea; Which makes me imagine, That may have been form'd likewise by some great Inundation, breaking in between the Tessel-Islands, and others, that lye still in a line contiguous, and like the broken remainders of a continued Coast. This seems more probable, from the great shallowness of that Sea, and flatness of the Sands, upon the whole extent of it; From the violent rage of the Waters breaking in that way, which threaten the parts of North-Holland about Medenblick and Enchusen, and brave it over the highest and strongest Digues of the Province, upon every High Tide, and Storm at North-west. As likewise from the Names of East and West-Friezland, which should have been one Continent, till divided by this Sea: For, in the time of Tacitus, no other distinction was known, but that of Greater or Lesser Frisons, and that only from the measure of their numbers, or forces; and though they were said to have great Lakes among them, yet that Word seems to import they were of fresh Water, which is made yet plainer by the Word Ambiunt[2], that shews those Lakes to have been inhabited round by these Nations; From all this I should guess, that the more Inland part of the Zudder Sea, was one of the Lakes there mention'd, between which and the Tessell and Ulie Islands, there lay anciently a great Tract of Land, (where the Sands are still so shallow, and so continued, as seems to make it evident:) But since covered by some great irruptions of Waters, that joyned those of the Sea, and the Lake together, and thereby made that great Bay, now called the Zudder Sea, by favour whereof, the Town of Amsterdam has grown to be the most frequented Haven of the World.

Whatever it was, whether Nature or Accident, and upon what occasion soever it arrived, The Soil of the whole Province of Holland is generally flat, like the Sea in a calm, and looks as if after a long contention between Land and Water, which It should belong to, It had at length been divided between them: For to consider the great Rivers, and the strange number of Canals that are found in this Province, and do not only lead to every great Town, but almost to every Village, and every Farm-House in the Country; And the infinity of Sails that are seen every where coursing up and down upon them; One would imagine the Water to have shar'd with the Land; and the People that live in Boats, to hold some proportion with those that live in Houses. And this is one great advantage towards Trade, which is natural to the Scituation, and not to be attained in any Country, where there is not the same level and softness of Soil, which makes the cutting of Canals so easie work, as to be attempted almost by every private Man; And one Horse shall draw in a Boat more than fifty can do by Cart, whereas Carriage makes a great part of the price in all heavy Commodities: And by this easie way of Travelling, an industrious Man loses no time from his Business, for he Writes, or Eats, or Sleeps, while he goes; whereas the Time of Labouring or industrious Men, is the greatest Native Commodity of any Country.

There is, besides, one very great Lake of fresh Water still remaining in the midst of this Province, by the name of Harlem Maer, which might, as they say, be easily drained, and would thereby make a mighty addition of Land to a Country, where nothing is more wanted; and receive a great quantity of People, in which they abound, and who make their Greatness and Riches. Much Discourse there has been about such an Attempt, but the City of Leyden having no other way of refreshing their Town, or renewing the water of their Canals, but from this Maer, will never consent to it. On the other side, Amsterdam will ever oppose the opening and cleansing of the old Channel of the Rhine, which they say, might easily be compassed, and by which, the Town of Leyden would grow Maritime, and share a great part of the Trade now engrossed by Amsterdam. There is in North-Holland an Essay already made, at the possibility of draining these great Lakes, by one, of about two Leagues broad, having been made firm Land, within these Forty years; This makes that part of the Country called the Bemster, being now the richest Soil of the Province, lying upon a dead flat, divided with Canals, and the ways through it distinguisht with ranges of Trees, which make the pleasantest Summer-Landschip of any Country I have seen, of that sort.

Another advantage of their Scituation of Trade, is made by those Two great Rivers of the Rhyne and Mose, reaching up, and Navigable, so mighty a length, into so rich and populous Countries of the Higher and Lower Germany; which as it brings down all the Commodities from those parts to the Magazines in Holland, that vent them by their Shipping into all parts of the World, where the Market calls for them; so, with something more Labour and Time, it returns all the Merchandizes of other parts, into those Countries, that are seated upon these Streams. For their commodious Seat, as to the Trade of the Streights, or Baltique, or any parts of the Ocean, I see no advantage they have of most parts of England; and they must certainly yield to many we possess, if we had other equal circumstances to value them.

The lowness and flatness of their Lands, makes in a great measure the richness of their Soil, that is easily overflowed every Winter, so as the whole Country, at that season, seems to lye under Water, which, in Spring, is driven out again by Mills. But that which mends the Earth, spoils the Air, which would be all Fog and Mist, if it were not clear'd by the sharpness of their Frosts, which never fail with every East Wind for about four Months of the year, and are much fiercer than in the same Latitude with us, because that Wind comes to them over a mighty length of dry Continent; but is moistned by the Vapours, or softned by the warmth of the Seas motion, before it reaches us.

And this is the greatest disadvantage of Trade they receive from their Scituation, though necessary to their Health; because many times their Havens are all shut up for two or three Months with Ice, when ours are open and free.

The fierce sharpness of these Winds makes the changes of their Weather and Seasons more violent and surprising, than in any place I know; so as a warm faint Air turns in a night to a sharp Frost, with the Wind coming into the North-East; And the contrary with another change of Wind. The Spring is much shorter, and less agreeable, than with us; the Winter much colder, and some parts of the Summer much hotter; and I have known more than once, the violence of one give way to that of the other, like the cold Fit of an Ague to the hot, without any good temper between.

The flatness of their Land exposes it to the danger of the Sea, and forces them to infinite Charge, in the continual Fences and Repairs of their Banks to oppose it; Which employ yearly more Men, than all the Corn of the Province of Holland could maintain, (as one of their chief Ministers has told me.) They have lately found the common Seaweed to be the best Material for these Digues, which fastens with a thin mixture of Earth, yields a little to the force of the Sea, and returns when the Waves give back: Whether, they are thereby the safer against Water, as, they say, Houses that shake are against Wind; or whether, as pious Naturalists observe, all things carry about them that which serves for a Remedy against the mischiefs they do in the World.

The extreme moisture of the Air, I take to be the occasion of the great neatness in their Houses, and cleanliness in their Towns. For without the help of those Customs, their Country would not be habitable by such crowds of People, but the Air would corrupt upon every hot season, and expose the Inhabitants to general and infectious Diseases; Which they hardly escape three Summers together, especially about Leyden, where the Waters are not so easily renewed, and for this reason, I suppose, it is, that Leyden is found to be the neatest and cleanliest kept, of all their Towns.

The same moisture of Air makes all Metals apt to rust, and Wood to mould; which forces them, by continual pains of rubbing and scouring, to seek a Prevention, or Cure: This makes the brightness and cleanness that seems affected in their Houses, and is call'd natural to them, by people who think no further. So the deepness of their Soil, and wetness of Seasons, which would render it unpassable, forces them, not only to exactness of Paving in their Streets, but to the expence of so long Cawsies between many of their Towns, and in their High-ways. As indeed, most National Customs are the Effect of some unseen, or unobserved, natural Causes, or Necessities.


1^  Rhenus apud principium agri Batavi velut in duos amnes dividitur, ad Gallicam ripam latior & placidior verso cognomento Vahalem accolae dicunt, mox id quoque vocabulum mutat Mosâ flumine, ejusq; immenso ore eundem in Oceanum effunditur.
Cum interim flexu Autumni & crebris imbribus superfusus amnis palustrem humilemq; Insulam in faciem Stagni opplevit.

2^  A fronte Frisii excipiunt Majoribus Minoribusque Frisiis vocabulum, ex modo virium utraeque Nationes usque ad Oceanum Rheno praetexuntur *ambiuntq; immensos insuper lacus. Tacit. de Mor. Ger.