Thursday, 3 November 2011

Fabulous things about the Dutch #4

They hold back the sea – something that even King Canute (of nearby Denmark) didn’t manage.

You could argue that if you’re going to choose to live in a country that borders a massive ocean and is below sea level, you can’t complain about a bit of damp now and again, never mind actually being washed away from time to time. And hats off to the Dutch: not only do they not complain, but every time they’re flooded off the face of the map by the implacable ocean, they simply build more walls and dykes and sea-gates. And houses.

Nowhere is this stick-to-it-ness more obvious than in the tiny town of Marken. This little village used to be on an island in the Zuiderzee, a huge inland extension of the North Sea. Nowadays, the island is a peninsula, joined to the mainland by a purpose-built raised causeway; and the Zuiderzee is no longer a sea, but a giant lake known as the IJsselmeer. Today Marken is more tourist trap than anything else (it’s where we took our de-rigueur pictures in giant clogs, outside a ‘clog-making factory’ that sold a lot of stuff made in China), but that’s not how it began.

Way back when Marken was still an island, the people grew crops. But the sea came in and washed away their harvest and their houses. So they rebuilt their houses and, because the saltwater had turned their land brackish, they began farming livestock instead. But the sea came in and washed away their sheep and their cows and their houses. So they rebuilt their houses (on raised mounds, this time) and decided to be fishermen instead. But the sea came in and washed away their houses (which they rebuilt, on stilts); and then their countrymen dammed the Zuiderzee and created the freshwater IJsselmeer in its place, which put paid to offshore fishing, so the men of Marken were compelled to travel into the North Sea to catch whales.

I mean, golly! Not once did anyone say, ‘Hey guys, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting mightily weary of this being-washed-away-by-the-sea thing. How about we go live somewhere above sea level?’

To a greater or lesser degree, this amazing doggedness applies across all of Holland and its people. It’s a steely-willed persistence that has kept the nation from disappearing under the ocean, thanks to a staggeringly complex system of dredgers, dams, dikes, walls, sluices and canals. (It also makes for a landscape that’s interesting for about half an hour – then you realise the entire country looks the same.)

Interestingly for me, it’s also a characteristic that can be found in many of my fellow South Africans, for the simple reason that they’re descended from the Dutch. Back in the 1800s, farmers of mainly Dutch descent (‘boers’) living in the Cape Colony (the Western and Eastern Cape of South Africa today) had a decision to make. The Cape Colony had been established by the Dutch in 1652, but had ping-ponged between them and the British for a couple of hundred years, and by the early 1800s was once again under British rule. The boers didn’t like this (as is true even today, the Dutch don’t like being told what to do, and particularly not by members of other nations), but the alternative was pretty intimidating: to pack up their entire lives and move, lock, stock and barrel, into the then largely unexplored interior of South Africa. It was a hostile country, not only because of its geography, with a giant escarpment to climb, and a massive semi-desert plus several raging rivers to cross; and its stock of fatal diseases to catch, including malaria and sleeping sickness; but also because the indigenous people didn’t hesitate to protect their own homes and families by killing anyone who threatened them.

On balance, but I would have been tempted to pay my taxes, free my slaves* and learn to drink afternoon tea. Not the boers. These Voortrekkers packed up everything they owned and headed north. The story of the Great Trek is one of almost indescribable hardship and heartbreak, but not once did the Trekboers consider turning back. For better or worse, it’s an intrinsic part of the history of South Africa, and the inherited Dutch characteristic of fortitude against all odds contributed to it in no small part.

* I was told by a Dutchwoman (bless her) that the Dutch never owned slaves. They did. They were enthusiastic proponents of the slave trade, and imported about 63 000 slaves to South Africa between 1658, when the Dutch East India Company gave Jan van Riebeek authority to deal in slavery, and 1808, when the British abolished the trade.

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