In terms of migration these days, Flanders mostly finds itself on the receiving end. But recent events have brought the public’s attention around to the history of Flemish migration. There have been books, documentaries and exhibitions about the Flemish migration to Wallonia during its industrial heyday in the late 19th and first part of the 20th century, and the 60th anniversary of Congolese independence in 2010 found the media and historians looking back at the wave of Flemings who moved to the former Belgian colony.
Next year, the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp will re-open after a move and major renovations of the new space, and there have been a score of events around the famous shipping company, which played a crucial role in the massive European migration to the US at the turn of the last century.
Many of these stories are told in the travelling exhibition Vlamigrant now set ashore in Antwerp’s Atlas centre. Vlamigrant, made up mostly of informational panels, looks at the migration history of Flemings, with the goal of making them more receptive to current migration processes. Although history offers no clear-cut solutions, it does prove that there is much pressure on both the place of origin and the place of destination.
Even thousands of years after the transition to a less nomadic way of life, population movements heavily influenced the development of regions. In Europe, the disintegration of the Roman Empire is strongly connected to successive waves of extensive migrations. Wandering tribes, such as the Franks, the Slavs, the Germans and the Saxons, found a more or less permanent place to live between 400 and 1,000 AD, also referred to as the period of the Migration of Nations. Their early “states” formed the foundations of what would later become the European nations.
The piece of land by the North Sea we now know as Flanders found itself on the outskirts of the Roman Empire and, later, the Frankish Kingdom. This peripheral status would completely change over the next centuries. With the development from settlements to (still town-like) urban areas, the county of Flanders – originally the coast region, west to the river Scheldt, including parts of current France and the Netherlands – would become one of the most prosperous regions in Europe. The increasing importance of a trade economy in the 11th to the 13th century stimulated migration, both internal and external. The cities represented a new future, beyond feudalism.
Like other regions that evolved towards “states”, Flanders and its cities knew many internal struggles for power, succession conflicts and expansion wars. These all created a host of political refugees, banned from the place they once called home or seeking safety outside the dominion of the new rulers. (Often to retaliate a short time later.)
In 1095, pope Urban II called out to Christians to re-conquer the Holy Land from Islamic rule. The crusades combined economic, political and religious motives and brought large numbers of kings, knights, foot soldiers, as well as commoners, from all over Europe to the Holy Land and large parts of the Orient.
Well before the knight armies of the First Crusade (1096-1099) confronted the Turks, hordes of men, women and children had set out to the East. This People’s Crusade drew a trail of destruction from France and Flanders to Constantinople (Istanbul), before it was largely decimated on the Asian side of the Bosporus. The few survivors often awaited another form of migration: They were sold as slaves.
In the years to come, many crusaders settled in the Holy Land or in Eastern Europe. After the re-conquest of Constantinople in 1204, part of the Fourth Crusade, Baldwin IX, count of Flanders, was crowned the first emperor of the Latin Empire of Constantinople.
From the late 13th century on, the thriving Flemish economy increasingly came under pressure. Even if Bruges was a driving force behind the Battle of the Golden Spurs on 11 July 1302 (hence the official Flemish holiday) between city militias and the French cavalry, the cost of the war and the subsequent financial effects weighed heavily on a city treasury already having to cope with a sluggish local economy.
Many people decided (or were forced) to leave Flanders because of the successive wars, the decline of the cloth trade, the famine and the social unrest. A significant number of textile workers migrated from Bruges to England. By the mid 14th century, the plague worsened matters.
Although Flemish regions were at first relatively spared, the Black Death would resurface in the 1360s and leave its devastating mark. Around the time of the Battle of the Golden Spurs, Flanders had been the most densely populated region north of the Alps. Half a century later, the population had dropped dramatically.
Antwerp – part of Brabant since the mid 14th century – had started to take over Bruges’ role as an international commercial centre that housed and attracted travelling merchants and fortune seekers. From the late-15th to the mid-16th century, the population of Antwerp tripled, making it the first city in the Low Countries to reach 100,000 inhabitants, many of whom were migrants.
One of the most important migrations in Flemish history, though, concerns the Fall of Antwerp and the ensuing massive emigration. Once again, economic, religious and political factors intertwined. The Spanish crown (which ruled over the Low Countries) was confronted with enormous debts and decided to impose heavy taxation. In the meantime, Antwerp’s close bond with the English cloth trade disintegrated, resulting in unemployment and famine, aggravated by crop failure.
Trying to face the economic crisis and avoid uprisings, local governors tried to loosen the strains of Catholic repression by the Spanish Inquisition. To no avail. After the Beeldenstorm (Iconoclastic Fury) in 1566, the Eighty Years’ War erupted. The Northern Netherlands would gain independence. The South, including Antwerp, remained under Spanish rule.
In 1585, Spanish troops recaptured Antwerp. Local protestant rebels were given a choice: convert, migrate or die.
In the following years, half of the Antwerp population went abroad, many to Amsterdam, which became a sort of “New Antwerp”. The brain drain – most migrants were skilled labourers, traders, artists etc – laid the foundations for the Dutch Golden Age.
The Fall of Antwerp forms the chronological starting point of the Vlamigrant exhibition. It’s a prime example of how migration impacts both the region left behind and the recipient region, for years to come. Flanders had lost its central position and would long be dominated economically and politically by neighbouring superpowers.
Following the Second Industrial Revolution, Flemish migrants relocated to leading industrial regions: south to Wallonia or across the oceans to the US, particularly the Midwest areas.
The transition wasn’t always easy, says Elisabeth Khan-Van den Hove, current editor of the Dutch-language Gazette van Detroit, a newspaper founded in 1914 to inform Flemish migrants about their homeland. “The migrants from West and East Flanders who arrived in the Detroit area in the early 20th century and found work in the building trades or in agriculture often had trouble communicating and tended to stick together with their countrymen, much like some present-day immigrants from Asian countries.”
This migration of labour came to a standstill as Flanders became more and more prosperous after the Second World War. “Now we see mostly temporary expatriates – people who come for a few years due to their careers, like engineers, IT workers, academics – who sometimes decide to stay on. Then you have the entrepreneurs who are attracted by the ‘can do’ spirit of America, the opportunities and the wide-open spaces.”
The situation has significantly changed over the last decades, for the Detroit newspaper as well. “The Flemish presence in the Detroit area has shrunk tremendously,” says Khan-Van den Hove. “Our faithful readership is fast disappearing. You only need to count the obituaries in each issue to realise that.”
In the wake of all this, the Gazette – approaching its 100th birthday – is trying to redefine its position. “Many migrants were forced to leave the country because of the devastation of the First World War or because of unemployment and poverty,” says Khan-Van den Hove. “They tried to forget it as soon as possible by focusing on building a new life and a new identity, and often didn’t share too many memories. But their descendants are curious. Genealogy has become a popular hobby and ‘roots tourism’ is flourishing. I think the Gazette can play a role there.”
Her successor on the editing chair will have to continue that mission, as Khan-Van den Hove is moving to India. A new migration.
Atlas, Carnotstraat 110, Antwerp