Jan van Speijk was one of the first national heroes of current Holland. In 1831 he blew up his ship along with the whole crew in the port of Antwerpen, rather than to see it in the hands of the rebellious Belgians. In the young new state – Holland became independent in 1815 after being part of Napoleon’s empire – he was immediately hyped to encourage nationalism. His sacrifice was glorified, where experts now suspect the Dutch captain was just very drunk. Van Speijk had the good habbit to be absolutely hammered when commanding his ships.
Let’s paint the historical background first. In 1815 Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo and shortly after Willem I anounced himself king in the Kingdom of the United Netherlands. This included also Belgium and Luxembourg. But in these southern provinces (Belgium) people weren’t thrilled with Willems regime. Only few men from the south were involved in governing the country, while they were actually the majority. The king also demanded everyone to speak Dutch, while at that time not only the people in Wallonia spoke French, but also the Flemish aristocrats. A third problem was the fact that people in the south were Catholics, where the north was populated by protestants. After 15 years of dissatisfaction the Belgian revolution started in August 1830 and was completed October 1830. A few months later captain Jan van Speijk acted on his own little big bang theory.
Before this ‘highlight of his career’ Van Speijk already proved himself around the Dutch East Indies (currently Indonesia) fighting pirates. This gave him the nickname Schrik der Roovers (Terror of Robbers). During the uprise of Belgium he commanded the fleet that bombed Antwerpen. Later his main job was to inspect the loads of ships coming in and leaving from Belgium’s main port. But on the 5th of February 1831 due to a strong North-Western wind his ship drifted towards the coast, where a mob of Belgians had gathered. The legend is that Van Speijk didn’t want to see his ship in Belgian hands, ran downstairs to the ship’s hold and pushed his cigar into a barrel of gun powder with the words: “becoming a despicable Brabander (Brabant is a Southern region in The Netherlands, MB )? Rather blown to pieces!”
Again, this is the legend. With the rebellion of the southern provinces The Netherlands really needed a national hero and Van Speijk made an excellent martyr. His famous last words were not heard by anyone (not anyone who survived the explosion anyway), but taken from a letter he wrote 2 months before the incident. In this letter Van Speijk compared himself to an old Dutch hero Reinier Claeszen, who blew up his own ship in 1606, so the Spanish wouldn’t take it. It’s also said that he told his men on New Year’s Eve that he would blow up every single one of them along with the ship, before letting them fall in Belgian hands. The drunk crowd was thrilled, but it’s not sure if they still agreed to the plan on February 5th.
Nowadays experts wonder if Van Speijk’s sacrafice was really necessary. The war between Belgium and Holland had stopped and Belgian sources say that the crowd gathered was not an angry mob, but just some curious people. There is even a mention of rescue teams getting ready to help Van Speijk and his men. Well, we probably never know, but what’s pretty clear is that Van Speijk during his finest moment was probably drunk. The captain had the fine habbit to start drinking jenever early in the morning.
His love for the bottle wasn’t that odd. In those times most ‘sea heroes’ – if not all – from Holland were totally drunk during their duties. Currently there is still the expression ‘Dutch courage‘, which refers to jenever (courage in a bottle) as well as alcohol induced self-confidence. It’s made up by English soldiers that through the centuries had many clashes at sea with the intoxicated Dutchmen. Van Speijk was no exception.In this context his suicide may have been no more than a drunken impulse – or worse a drunk accident, killing 30 other people.
Whatever the truth may be; if you can go through life drunk and still make it captain of a fleet, then at age 29 blow up yourself, your crew and ship and it’s considered a great act of heroism and patriotism, you have our respect. Proost Jan!
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