Belgium, a country of W. Europe, bounded on the N. by.the North Sea and Holland, on the E. by Prussia and Luxemburg, and on the S.W. by France. The name is derived from the Belgae, a Celtic-speaking race who once inhabited the whole region W. of the Rhine known to the Romans as Gallia Belgica, of which the Belgium of to-day is only a fraction. This is among the smallest of the European states, its area being only 11,373 square miles, or about one-eighth of that of Great Britain. Its greatest length (N.W. to S.E.) is 174 miles, and its greatest breadth 105 miles. The general aspect of the country is level, presenting few natural features of particular importance. The highest hill, Baraque Michel, is 2,230 feet, but the mean elevation of Belgium is not more than 536 feet. Belgium is remarkably well watered, the principal rivers being the Maas, or Meuse, of which 115 miles are Belgian, and the Scheldt, or Escaut, with 108 miles in Belgium, both navigable throughout; the Yzer is navigable for about 26 miles; the Lesse, one of the tributaries of the Meuse, traverses in its course the beautiful stalactite grotto of Han, nearly a mile in length. The country W. of the Meuse and its tributary the Sambre is low, flat, and fertile, but the region at the foot of the Ardennes, in the E., is much less productive. Mineral springs are found in several districts; the most celebrated are those of Spa, Chaudefontaine, and Tongres.
History. The Belgium of to-day can scarcely be said to have a history, since it dates only from 1831. Prior to the revolution which preceded (in September, 1830) its establishment on its present basis, the country formed a part of the Netherlands, and shared with what is now Holland the vicissitudes of many wars, failing, however, to shake off the Spanish yoke with the Dutch Republic. The Austrian Netherlands, as they then came to be called, acknowledged the supremacy of the House of Hapsburg until the all-devouring empire of the first Napoleon reduced them to French provinces. On his fall the Netherlands were once more united as a kingdom under the sceptre of William of Orange-Nassau, son of the last Stadtholder of the Seven United Provinces. The revolution of 1830 put an end to this union, and a "National Congress" in the following year elected Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg Gotha as king of the Belgians. On his death, in 1865, his son succeeded him as Leopold II. In consequence of its geographical situation, interposed between two of the great European powers, Belgium has been the theatre of many campaigns in which politically it had little concern. The number of its battle-fields has acquired for it the unenviable title of "the cock-pit of Europe." The campaigns of Marlborough, with the battles of Ramillies (1706) and Oudenarde (1708), and Wellington's victories of Quatre Bras and Waterloo (1815), may be cited as the most familiar examples.
The Constitution, as fixed by the law of 1831, provides for a king, a senate, and a Chamber of Representatives. The last-named is elected by all citizens over 21 years of age who pay not less "than 40 francs (32s.) in direct taxation, and serves for 8 years. A considerable extension of the franchise is, however, contemplated (1891). The maximum number of members is in the proportion of one to every 40,000 of the population; the actual number in 1889 was 138. The Senate, chosen by the same electorate as the Chamber, serves for four years only, and numbers half as many members as the Lower House. The chief ministers are (1) the President of the Council and Minister of Finance, and the Ministers of (2) Justice, (3) Interior and Instruction, (4) War, (5) Railways, Posts and Telegraphs, (6) Foreign Affairs, and (7) Agriculture, Industry, and Public Works.
Population. In 1896 this was 6,341,958, or an average of 557 to the square mile. Belgium has long been the most thickly peopled country of Europe. Even in the sixteenth century Philip II. of Spain is said to have exclaimed on passing through it, "This is only one great town." As the population is at present increasing - annually at the rate of about 1-1/2 per cent., there seems a reasonable prospect of Philip's description becoming literally accurate before very long. Emigration is a little more than counterbalanced by immigration. The fact that Belgium possesses no colonies helps no doubt to keep down the number of emigrants. The Congo Free State, of which the King of the Belgians is the sovereign, is not likely to afford much additional outlet for the surplus population.
Religion. The constitution provides for full religious liberty, but as a matter of fact nearly all the inhabitants are members of the Roman Catholic Church. There are about 10,000 Protestants and 4,000 Jews. The country is divided into six dioceses, the Archbishopric of Mechlin (Malines), and the Bishoprics of Bruges, Ghent, Liege, Namur, and Tournay. There are 5,622 Roman Catholic churches.
Education. There is a system of schools, supported partly by the State and partly by the locality in which they are situated; but the results, as apparent in recruiting returns and other similar statistics, are not altogether satisfactory. A considerable percentage of the population can still neither read nor write. There are four universities, at Ghent, Liege, Brussels (free), and Louvain, with a total of over 5,000 students, besides a famous academy of fine arts at Antwerp, with some 1,300 students, and conservatoires of music at Brussels, Ghent, and Louvain, with an aggregate of about 15,000 students. The universities have special technical schools attached to them, and there are schools of design attended by some 13,000 students.
Agriculture. Owing to the density of the population in proportion to the limited area, Belgium is forced to depend largely for its maintenance on foreign imports. To the same cause may also be attributed, in part at least, the tendency to extreme subdivision of the land which is a marked characteristic of its agriculture. Belgium is emphatically a country of small holdings, there being about a million of landed proprietors, of whom only 12,000 hold more than 25 acres, while 594,000 are possessors of less than one "hectare" (about 2-1/2 acres). By these, however, the land is assiduously cultivated, and a very high reputation for farming has been established. In the low-lying districts near the mouth of the Scheldt, large tracts of land, called "polders," have been protected by substantial dykes, as in Holland, from the inroads of the sea, and drained by a network of canals, some of which are above the general level of the soil, and are fed by pumping. Nearly 200 square miles of what would otherwise be waste land have thus been brought under cultivation; in some parts the loose sand-dunes have been planted with the sand-reed (Arundo arenaria), which in the course of centuries has formed a vegetable soil, and now supports extensive fir-plantations. About 67 per cent. of the total area is at present cultivated; 13 per cent. consists of pasture and meadow lands, and 17 per cent. of forest. The principal crops are wheat, rye, barley, oats, and red clover; beetroot, potatoes, carrots, and turnips are also largely grown, and the last three are exported in considerable quantities; flax has for centuries been an important article of cultivation and export.
Industries. Iron is a chief source of wealth. The value of the ore produced in 1895 was over £58,000. Pig-iron to the amount of 829,234 tons, valued at £1,600,000, and manufactured iron, 445,899 tons, value £2,230,000 were produced in the same year, besides 407,634 tons of steel ingots value £1,240,000, and 367,917 tons of manufactured steel, value £1,700,000. (N.B. The above values are merely approximate equivalents in English money of the figures in official tables.) The production of pig-iron employs some 3,000 men, and about 13,000 are engaged in the manufactured iron trade. The number of workmen employed in steel-works is nearly 5,000; while in the production of zinc about the same number are engaged.
Coal exists in great abundance. The seams in some districts do not lie horizontally, as in England, bit are nearly vertical, so that mining has to be carried on almost entirely by means of shafts, instead of the level galleries in use in England. These shafts or pits are driven constantly deeper as the coal is got out, until the limit of practicable mining is reached. There are 260 coal-mines in Belgium, of which 142 were working in 1895. The output during that year was 20,451,000 tons, and the estimated value £7,734,000. Nearly 4-1/2 million tons were exported. On the other hand, about one million tons were imported during the same period. 118,957 persons were engaged in coal mining in 1895, including 1,625 women and 5,792 boys working underground.
Manufactures. Fire-arms are made in great numbers. Liege is the centre of this industry, and contains the Royal Gun Factory, the State Cannon Foundry, and the State Proof-house. Machinery is produced chiefly at Seraing, an industrial centre of which the prosperity dates from the foundation of a factory by John Cockerill in 1817; it has been called the Birmingham of the Continent. Woollen goods are made chiefly at Verviers and Liege; carpets at Brussels and Tournay; linen in Flanders, Brabant, and Hainault: lace at Brussels, Mechlin, and Bruges; cotton at Ghent; glass at Charleroi; hosiery at Tournay. Beet-sugar manufacture is an active industry, there being 123 refineries at work in 1895; the production amounted to more than 150,000 tons of raw sugar.
Shipping. The principal sea-ports are Antwerp, Ostend, and Nieuport. Ghent, although situated inland, has a large shipping trade, the canals giving free access to ships up to 2,000 tons burthen.
Return of Shipping during the Year 1890.
|Name of Port.||Number of Vessels.||Total Tonnage.|
Commerce. Its position gives Belgium great importance as an entrepot. The amount of produce passing through its ports is therefore somewhat in excess of its own requirements and productions. The imports of Belgium in 1895 exceeded those of 1894 (stated at £125,960,000) by nearly £8,000,000. The following were the principal articles: - Grain, of all kinds; flour, chiefly from the United States; hemp, jute, and cotton, mostly from England and India; hides, from the river Plate; ivory, from the Congo; wool, from South America; nitrates; petroleum; rice, mainly from British Burmah; coffee, from Brazil; timber, from the Baltic; coal, from England.
Of exports the most important were: - Yarns, machinery, etc., raw textiles, coal, cereals, and vegetable substances. The total value is estimated at £110,800,000. The exports latterly show a fluctuation.
Communications, The roads are mostly very good; length (in 1895) 5,690 miles. Canals are more numerous than in any other country except Holland; navigable waters extend to 1,363 miles. In January, 1896, there were 2,839 miles of railways open, of which nearly three-fourths were worked by the State. England is the only other country as well furnished. There are 4,054 miles of telegraph lines, with over 19,000 miles of wires, and 1,548 telegraph stations. Post-offices number 847, and the private letters carried in 1895 numbered over 109,000,000, besides a nearly equal number of newspapers, and large quantities of other documents.
The Army is raised by conscription, all able-bodied males being liable from the age of nineteen. Substitutes are permitted at present, but a change in the law is probable. The term of service is eight years, of which about two-thirds are usually spent on furlough. The infantry comprises 1 regiment of carabiniers, 1 of grenadiers, 3 of chasseurs-a-pied, and 14 of the line, each having 3 active and 2 reserve battalions, except the carabiniers, who have 4 and 3 respectively. The cavalry consists of 8 regiments, 2 of chasseurs-a-cheval, 4 of lancers, and 2 of guides; each has 5 active squadrons and a depot. Of field artillery there are 4 regiments containing altogether 34 active and 4 reserve batteries of 6 guns each, besides reserve munition battery and depot. There are also 4 regiments of fortress artillery.
The following table gives the peace establishment according to the Budget of 1895: -
Besides the above there is a general staff of 474 officers and men. The total war strength of the Belgian army may be stated at 163,082 men, 14,000 horses, and 240 guns. This includes the gendarmerie, numbering 2,449, which is to a certain extent incorporated in the army, but does not include the Garde Civique, a force of about 43,000 men.
Art. No country, Italy perhaps excepted, is richer in examples of the very highest art, It is impossible, within the limits at disposal, even to mention more than a few of the most prominent. The cathedrals of Brussels and Antwerp, the belfries of Tournay, Ghent, and Bruges, and the town halls (hotels de ville) of Bruges, Brussels, and Louvain are perhaps the most world-renowned of the many, admirable specimens of Belgian architecture.
The Flemish school is among the most celebrated in the history of painting, and Belgium is, of course, rich in examples, from the period of the Van Eycks at Bruges in the fourteenth century, onward. Memling, Quentin Matsys, Mabuse, Rubens, Snyders, Van Dyck, Teniers, and many other masters, inferior only to these, may yet be studied in the localities, and among most of the surroundings which they loved to depict.
Music has long been appreciatively studied in Belgium, and many of her sons have achieved a wide reputation. Of violinists, in particular, there is an excellent record. Joseph Ghys (1801-1848), and Hubert Leonard (1819-1890) are names well known and highly respected among students of modern music, and they have worthy successors among the living masters.
The inhabitants of Belgium form two sharply defined ethnical groups, the Flemings and Wallons or Walloons, distinct in origin, speech, traditions, and geographical position, but united by a common nationality and religion. Nearly all are Roman Catholics; but the Flemings, who call themselves duytsch or neder-duytsch, are of Teutonic stock, a branch of the Low German division, and speak a Low German idiom, essentially the same as the Dutch of the Netherlands, whereas the Wallons are of mixed Gallo-Roman descent and speak a Romance (Neo-Latin) tongue in two varieties (Hennuyer and Liegeois), closely allied to the French dialects of Picardy and Lorraine. The two groups are about equal in numbers (3,100,000 of Flemish, 2,900,000 of Romance speech), and also occupy nearly equal portions of the kingdom: Flemings mainly in the west (both Flanders, two-thirds of Brabant, Antwerp, and Limbourg, with area 5,000 square miles), Wallons mainly in the east (Hainault, Namur, Liege, Luxembourg, and one-third of Brabant, with area over 6,000 square miles). Many are bilingual, especially in the towns, and the capital, though situated in the Flemish domain, is largely French in speech. French is also the language of the Court, of diplomacy, the higher circles, general literature and intercourse, hence it seems destined to ultimately supersede both Flemish and Wallon as the exclusive language of the country. In late years, however, there has been a "Flemish revival," and Flemish is now largely used in literature, and even in scientific works and periodicals, such as the Bulletin de l'Academie Royale de Belgique. On the other hand, Wallon, being little cultivated, has sunk to the position of a provincial patois. Distinctions have been drawn, and sometimes perhaps over-drawn, between the mental qualities of the two groups. Both are equally frugal and industrious, but while the Wallons are more lively they are less solid than the Flemings, who have also been most distinguished in science, and especially in art. Antwerp, Flanders, and Flemish Brabant are the true seats of Belgian painting, architecture and wood carving, and the Flemish towns are incomparably more interesting than those of the Wallon territory. But the Wallons, who may be regarded as the true representatives of the ancient Belga, are physically the finer of the two races, stronger, more bony and taller, also more long-lived and less subject to disease, as shown by the lower death-rate in Namur (18 per 1,000) than in West Flanders (25 per 1,000).