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Thursday, April 21, 2016

HOLLAND | Zittin by the Zuider Zee

We are staying at the Country & Lake Guest House overlooking
what used to be the Zuider Zee and is now called the IJsselmeer.
This map was drawn in Leuwarden in 1866. The ZZ is now gone.
When I was growing up this song about the Zuider Zee was popular:
Zing, zing, zing a little sang with me, / I know we're not beside the Zuider Zee, / But when you're zittin by the zide af me, / I want to zing a little zang. 
Zing zome zentimenful melody, / About a chapel or an apple tree, / About a couple livin' happily, / And I'll be glad to zing along. (Music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Leo Robin.)
Well, here we are, Alice and I, actually zittin by the Zuider Zee, except you won't find it on a map any more.

Why We Are Zittin by the Zuider Zee

Where we are in Holland,
just north of Amsterdam.
We are in the Zeevang Polder area of Laag Holland. This literally means "Low Holland", but the tourist brochures call it "Old Holland" because the low-lying areas have been fighting back the water for centuries.

Old towns like Edam, next-door Volendam, and Marken are still thriving, centuries after they were trading centers for cheese and other products that went round the world. Edam is the quietest of the three locations and is just 21 km. (13 miles) north of Amsterdam, accessible via the 314 bus from the upper level at Central Station where the train from Schiphzl takes you.

Alice is accompanying me on a reunion of about 120 members of the Boissevain Family, about 80 from Holland and 40 from overseas.  We are living in a converted three-story barn three or four km. north of Edam on the dike, halfway to the rural town of Warder.

Dove stops and looks in...
The family connection is that my grandmother was born Olga Boissevain. She married an officer in the Dutch Navy, Bram van Stockum. My mother was a Navy BRAT–born in Rotterdam and taken at 2 months of age to Java, where her father had a naval assignment.

The Boissevains were Huguenots–i.e., French Protestants–living happily in the Dordogne, France. They were forced out of France by Louis XIV, the Sun King, who decided to revoke the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and thereby made it treasonous to be a Protestant.

...Then listens. The doves are
like roosters in this area.
If you know all the military-religious-political history, skip the next paragraph and just admire the photos:
Louis XIV was probably encouraged in the direction of persecuting Protestants by the accession to the British throne in 1685 of James II, the Catholic son of Charles I, who had been beheaded by Oliver Cromwell et al. The result was that the Huguenots left France en masse and their impact was huge in both directions. They contributed mightily to the commercial activity of the countries to which they migrated, while their departure seriously damaged the economy of France, which had chased them out. (They were sometimes called the Jews of France in tribute to their business acumen.) The loss of the Huguenots has been cited even by The Catholic Encyclopedia as a contributor to the public malaise that led to the French Revolution. Many Huguenots went to Holland, which was known to be hospitable to Protestants. Some went to England and complained about France while singing the praises of Holland. People remembered England's Mary Tudor (regnat 1553-1558), after whom a tomato juice-based drink is named. She was actually not nearly as bloodthirsty as her father Henry VIII, but she was working for the Catholic side which gave her subjects a feeling of being whiplashed after Henry's break with the Pope. Since the English did not relish having an aggressively Catholic monarch again, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 occurred three years after James II's coronation. James was deposed (unlike his father Charles I, he chose not to go to the chopping block declaiming his divine right to rule) and the crown was offered to William III of Orange-Nassau and his wife Princess Royal Mary.
Morning view by moonlight of the farmland on
the polder behind where we are staying.
The Huguenots who went to Holland generally thrived. The Boissevains started out as accountants and teachers. Their core family business became shipping. They started by keeping track of the bills, then took charge of some ships, and when they made enough money they graduated to the easier lives of financing ships and shipments in Holland and railways overseas. Their companies were called Boissevain & Co., Boissevain & Son, Boissevain Brothers, A. A. H. Boissevain & Co., and H. J. A. Boissevain & Co.

Some of them went into the collateral business of selling insurance on ships and their shipments. Someone has to deal with financing and insuring that long period between paying farmers and manufacturers for their goods when they are loaded onto a ship and getting paid at the other end by the buyers who want to inspect the goods first before they pay.

The genius of Amsterdammers is being able to take a long view and figure out how to run a sustainable business. The Boissevains easily adapted to this business environment.

Many Boissevains lived on the two fanciest streets in Amsterdam, the Herengracht and Keizersgracht. I was given the job of leading walking tours of family houses on these canals. The two tours were last Sunday morning (the Herengracht) and Sunday afternoon (the Keizersgracht). My great-great-grandfather Gidéon Jérémie Boissevain (properly pronounced only by those who know both Dutch and French) lived here.

The Dutch-Irish Boissevains


Peaceful farmland that can suddenly become the feeding ground of
many sheep, cattle, or hundreds of birds...
Gidéon Jérémie Boissevain's son Karel became a journalist, traveled to Dublin, got sick, and married the young Irish woman, Emily Heloïse MacDonnell, who looked after him in Dalkey.

Karel anglicized his name to Charles in her honor (she never felt she had to learn much Dutch) and put out the best newspaper in Holland, the Algemeen Handelsblad. He is called Charles Handelsblad Boissevain to distinguish him from later Boissevains with the same first  name.

Otto von Bismarck once proposed that the solution to the Irish problem, as he saw it, would be to "Exchange the populations of Holland and Ireland. The Dutch will turn Ireland into the bread-basket of Europe and the Irish will forget to mend the dykes and will all be drowned."

Flocks of birds descend on the polder to feed. They are pretty to see, but a nuisance to the sheep farmers.
However, the marriage of a Dutchman and an Irishwoman worked just fine. Charles and Emily had eleven children, who are collectively with their descendants called the Charlestjes. Emily was considered wild, but she brought up an extraordinarily successful crop of children and grandchildren.

My grandmother was the fourth daughter of Charles and Emily. The Charlestjes were the largest group at the Boissevain family reunion. Yesterday I had lunch in IJmuiden with my second cousin Charles Leidschendam Boissevain, son of Bob Boissevain and grandson of Charles E. H. (Eh Ha) Boissevain, eldest son of Charles Handelsblad. The day before Alice and I had lunch with another Charletsje second cousin, Ellen Wurpel. Tomorrow we lunch with Aviva Boissevain, who was the primary organizer of the family reunion; we are going to the Amsterdam Concertgebouw café in honor of the Boissevains who helped get it built and who served on its board and staff.

Whatever Happened to the Zuider Zee?

Back to the Zuider Zee. The problem with it was that it was open to the North Sea, and it was unpredictable. When a storm came up the dijks (dikes) around the Zuider Zee were threatened with a break. The places where the dikes broke are forever marked with names ending Braak, just as the Irish post a large black dot on a white background on the side of the road wherever anyone is killed by a moving vehicle.

Morning view of the IJsselmeer (formerly the Zuider Zee) from
the front of our bedroom at the top of the barn where we are staying.  
During the second half of the 19th century Cornelis Lely suggested a plan for the Afsluitdijk to close off the Zuider Zee from the North Sea.

His 1891 plan was to make the Zuider Zee into the largest lake in Western Europe–and also enable the creation of new farmland.

Lely was an engineer and knew what he was talking. He turned his plan into a proposed budget item, what came to be called the proposed Zuider Zee Works.

A long dam would be built connecting the northern tip of North Holland with the western coast of Friesland. This would create a new lake sheltered from the North Sea. The new lake would be renamed the IJsselmeer (IJssel-lake).

Like any big plan, opposition to it came from:
  • Fishermen who feared they would lose their livelihood (yes they would if they only fished for salt-water fish, but they could keep fishing if they did the unthinkable and moved to the coast).
  • Financial people who doubted the plan's feasibility (that is, of course, the job of financial people who have to risk the money and buy or sell insurance). 
In 1913 Lely as Minister of Transport and Public Works added more detail to his plans. Then, in January 1916 the dikes again broke along the Zuider Zee and exacerbated food shortages caused by blockades during World War I, when Holland was neutral. Suddenly Lely's plan was seen as a way to reduce, not increase, risks for the Netherlands.

Construction of the Afsluitdijk was enabled in mid-1918 and started a year later. The first small dike was built between 1920 and 1924. The main dam, the Afsluitdijk (enclosure dam) ran from Den Oever on Wieringen to the village of Zurich in Friesland. Ships dredged material (till) from the bottom of the Zuider Zee and deposited it into the open sea in two parallel lines. Sand was poured between the two dams; as the fill emerged above the surface of the water, it was covered by another layer of till. The dam was strengthened with basalt rocks and mats of willow switch at its base. The dam was finished by raising it with sand and finally clay for the upper surface of the dam, which was planted with grass.

In May 1932, two years ahead of schedule, the Zuider Zee was closed off to the North Sea and ceased be a Zee. The Afsluitdijk was opened September 25, 1933, with a monument marking the spot where the dam was finished. An average of nearly 5,000 workers were employed in the dam's construction, creating jobs during the Depression. Total cost: about €700 million in 2004 euros.

Looking Over the IJsselmeer


Cyclists enjoying the road by the IJsselmeerdijk. People and animals
walk along the top of the dike and on the other side.
In the back of the three-story converted barn where we are staying on the IJsselmeerdijk, the polder spreads out for many square miles.

Lambs are gamboling around. Several horses pace around in their sandy enclosure. Birds come and go both as single spies and in battalions. A few doves make their homes in the eaves of the barn and from time to time reassure us that they are there.

On the front side, the dike road runs in front of the house between Edam and the much smaller village of Warder, where there is a restaurant. Cyclists go by in singles or groups–I saw many bicycle teams with identical shirts and even saw a tandem bike cycling sedately along–and walkers come by, and a smaller number of vehicles. Alice an I went out cycling ourselves a few times, going north to Warder or south to Edam, both within easy reach.

Animals and people share the dyke itself. On the other side of the dike is the IJsselmeer with a little beach that features sea shells that date back to the days when the North Sea came right up to the dike. I have provided daytime and nighttime photos. The guest house is called "Country and Lake", referring to the two kinds of experience available to the west and east. It is listed on TripAdvisor and gets 5 stars from 9 people who have posted. The stars are well deserved.