Rotterdam, 1572

Rotterdam, South Holland, The Netherlands

On 14 May 1940 the German air force began bombing the city of Rotterdam. The result: more than 1000 dead and 70,000 homeless.

Rotterdam was the major focus of Dutch resistance to the German invasion in the Second World War. Despite German superiority, Rotterdam was home of the Dutch colonial navy, which still possessed considerable strength and experience from the Netherlands’ colonial adventures. Indeed, at that time, they still held the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).

Thus, the resistance focused on the port of Rotterdam, one of the oldest in Europe and currently the fourth most important in the world. The port was put down by the German air force, which in a short time reduced the city to rubble, respecting only two buildings: the Church of St. Lawrence (it is said that through the mediation of the Queen of Holland) and the City Hall (as the Germans thought it might contain information linked to the country’s Jews).

However, this was not the first time that the city of Rotterdam was destroyed. Spain was also here, several centuries before, and it did not leave a very good memory at the time, although nowadays hardly anyone remembers it.

Indeed, in 1572 imperial troops also sacked the city.

It should be recalled that the later known as the 80 Years’ War began in 1568 and lasted until 1648.

During this war, Rotterdam was of great importance, as its port played a key role while Antwerp and Amsterdam remained closed.

After the troops of the Duke of Alba had partially controlled the uprising that had begun a few years earlier, the Dutch rebels recovered mainly thanks to foreign funding. In 1572 there were several revolts and uprisings again against the power of Philip II.

In this context, Dutch rebels, known as the «watergeuzen» (Sea Beggars), seize several places, including Delfshaven, a port near Rotterdam.

In 1572 Rotterdam still had a Catholic population that tried to defend the city, but the Protestant population facilitated the capture of Delfshaven. It must be said that just as the way in which the royal troops usually proceeded with Protestants was not very pious, the Sea Beggars also had no problem in wiping out the Catholic minorities in several of the cities they took. Faced with this situation, on 8 April the Spanish troops moved to Rotterdam with the aim of recapturing Delfshaven.

However, that day was a public holiday in Rotterdam and most Dutch chronicles agree that the inhabitants of the city did not want to let the Spanish troops enter, in order to avoid possible disturbances. However, the following day (9 April), after negotiations with the governor of the city, the Spaniards were allowed to enter Rotterdam in small groups.

There are not many references about what happened at the time, but it seems that the entry of the Spaniards took place in a more disorderly manner than initially planned, leading to riots that resulted in some deaths and killings, as well as several wounded, including the mayor.

The most influential Rotterdam figure in the history of Europe is (and was even then) undoubtedly Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasmus was born in 1466 in this Dutch city. Humanist, philosopher, philologist and theologian, he was never well regarded by the more radical positions of Spanish Catholicism. Although Erasmus never supported or adhered to the Protestant reforms, Martin Luther himself acknowledged that he was greatly influenced by his writings.

This generated a certain rejection of his figure by some Spaniards, so after entering the city on 9 April 1572 one of the first targets of some Spaniards (according to some Dutch chronicles, instigated by a fanatical chaplain) was a statue of Erasmus himself that the local population had erected more than a hundred years earlier.

Today, Erasmus is still very much in the memory of the citizens of Rotterdam. Several statues in the city still commemorate him. In particular, there is a statue of him in front of the Church of St. Lawrence, and in the city centre, a modern altarpiece with his image depicts his most famous quotes.

As we said, today Rotterdam is a city that was completely rebuilt from scratch in the second half of the 20th century.

Remembrance of Erasmus of Rotterdam

It’s lunchtime and the first place we head to is the Market Hall, the largest market in the Netherlands, which opened in 2014. Then, as we were only going to spend one day in the city, we decided to go on a free tour (those famous tourist routes that have become so fashionable in all the cities of Europe, where at the end of the tour you pay what you think the explanations given are worth).

We first visit the Church of San Lorenzo, outside of which it is possible to see the new statue in honour of Erasmus. We also visit the City Hall, decorated with various sculptural elements.

Opposite the Town Hall is the shopping area of Lijnbaan and Koopgoot. We pass St. Pulus Church, known for being until recently a care centre for drug addicts and homeless people, where the pastor of the parish himself gave small amounts of drugs to these people, periodically reducing the quantity so that they could overcome their addictions.

St. Lawrence Church and City Hall

In general, Rotterdam today is a neat, clean city with hardly any begging on the streets. But this is also something that has not always been the case.

In 1571, the trade wars in Europe combined with the harsh winter of that year, the rapacity of some of the troops and the increase in taxes by the Duke of Alba, led to a huge increase in the number of people without work or homes in all the cities of Flanders. Despite the historical epoch, this situation was unusual in Flanders and in 1572 the possibility of a popular uprising in Rotterdam was more than likely.

The local authorities and the oligarchs (loyal for various reasons to the Crown) could hardly contain the discontent of the population, and the Count of Bossu himself, the governor of Holland, claimed to have the whole country against him.

While it is true that many of the decisions taken by Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, 3rd Duke of Alba and then Governor of the Netherlands, are still judged by some to be cruel or repressive, it is no less true that, according to other authors, many of them were taken because of the demands of the moment and pressure from foreign powers.

On the other hand, it is difficult to analyse from our historical position the morality of many of the decisions taken during the 80 Years’ War, in which the Tercios had to face an unscrupulous rebel army in a distant and dangerous land, often guided by political interests hidden behind the name of God or the union of the Dutch provinces.

Continuing our visit to Rotterdam, we go along the Westergingel street, where some of the canals from the time when Rotterdam won the battle against the sea still remain. We also pass Witte de Withstraat, one of the liveliest streets in the city and where it is possible to find some of the best bars and restaurants in the country. Some of my friends with whom I visit the city have their hostel here.

We finish our visit at the famous Rotterdam cube houses, which attract a large number of tourists who come to see the curious cubic shape of these unique houses.

Beforehand, we passed near the port of Rotterdam. Until the beginning of this century, it was the busiest port in the world. Crossing the Erasmus Bridge, we reach the southern part of the city, where the New York Hotel still stands today, the former home of the Holland-America Line, which for years transported countless European immigrants to the United States of America.

But already in the 16th century, the port of Rotterdam was important, so the seizure of an adjacent port such as Delfshaven by Dutch rebels posed a serious threat to the interests of the Crown, especially in view of the situation of the ports of Antwerp and Amsterdam, which were often closed or blockaded.

As mentioned above, the turmoil that followed the entry of the Spanish soldiers into Rotterdam on 9 April 1572, including some violent episodes, came to an end with the arrival of the troops of the Count of Bossu himself, and finally on 11 April the rebels were forced to withdraw from Delfshaven.

Picture of the entry of the Spanish into Rotterdam in 1572.

Rotterdam, which had remained loyal to Spain in 1566, did not do so in 1572, and after this attempted rebellion was put down, new Spanish troops were sent to the city.

The rebellions that took place in the north of the Netherlands throughout the 16th century and continued into the 80 Years’ War gradually developed a sense of unity among the Dutch, who had previously been at odds with each other.

The revolts against the Duke of Alba and later against Don John of Austria defined the Dutch identity, which still exists today and is very palpable in Rotterdam.

The city continued to collaborate with the rebels and Spanish control was progressively minimised, until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, when Rotterdam became one of the main cities of the then newborn Republic of the United Provinces.

In short, although for a short time, here was Spain.

Bibliographic reference:

  • Una pica en Flandes: la epopeya del camino español, Fernando Martínez Laínez
  • Tercios de España: la infantería legendaria, Fernando Martínez Laínez

Guillermo Vergara Pérez- Villalobos

Brussels, 14 April 2018

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