Destruction of a city and a reputation

Today, Nov. 4, is the anniversary of the 1576 “Spanish Fury” in Antwerp, one of those incidents that casts humanity in a truly dreadful light especially when it comes to public affairs.

Humans are an odd mix of the trite, the appalling and the uplifting. In the midst of darkness they can find light. But they can also create darkness on such a scale that there is no shortage of plausible characterizations of history along the lines of Herbert Spencer’s “history is little more than the Newgate calendar of nations.” The Newgate Calendar was, in case you don’t own a copy, an 18th and 19th century lurid set of stories about people who wound up being executed for having been brutal and dissolute, subtitled The Malefactors’ Bloody Register, and was third only to the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress on the list of books the average British home would contain in those days). Thus Hegel called history a butcher’s block wile British historian of Parliament Lewis Namier claimed that “History is made up of juggernauts, revolting to human feeling in their blindness, supremely humorous in their stupidity.” Yet it is hard even to find much humour in the conduct of Imperial Spain, especially in this incident.

The “Spanish Fury” begins with the Eighty Years’ War, which already sounds bad and is. It was a revolt by Spain’s “Seventeen Provinces” (what would later become more or less the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, plus parts of France) against Spanish imperial rule that was as brutal and intransigent as it was bad and unsuitable to these particular regions. And it is already easy to denounce the kind of dynastic politics that would turn the Burgundian Netherlands into the Hapsburg Netherlands and then, in the 16th century, transfer them to Spain with which they had very little in common.

Then you get the Spanish unwillingness to accept the inhabitants’ manifest desire not to be ruled from Madrid, contrasting grimly with their willingness to shed blood over nearly a century to keep it. Which failed.

Indeed, the “Spanish Fury” itself was both counterproductive in preserving Spanish rule and the result of incompetent Spanish rule. It was carried out by troops who were actually mutinying because they hadn’t been paid. By the government of Spain, mind you, not the people of Antwerp. Madrid was as usual bankrupt despite, or perhaps because of, the vast flow of silver from its New World colonies that let it pursue grandiose geopolitical plans without the necessity of governing well at home or abroad.

The mutinous troops rampaged for three days, murdering, raping, looting and burning, killing some 7,000 people and permanently damaging Antwerp, leading to Amsterdam’s rise to the leading city of the region. And this ghastly episode also reinforced negative views of Spain abroad and gave further credence to anti-Spanish propaganda including from Britain, what has been denounced as “La Leyenda Negra” by Spanish historians. But it was by no means all legend. Indeed, this was just one of many “Spanish Furies” in the area over more than a decade.

In the end, these outbursts only increased the determination of the Seventeen Provinces to achieve independence from this tyrannical, bloodthirsty and inept regime, which Spain resisted violently until 1648 when the conclusion of the even more appalling Thirty Years’ War secured the independence of the Dutch Republic though the “Spanish Netherlands” were kept by Spain until 1714 when they went back to the Austrian Hapsburgs.

The whole episode is unbelievably violent, coarse, stupid and persistent. And sadly it’s the sort of thing people do all too often, especially in public affairs.