Many people dislike their leaders, few will ever go so far as to literally eat them. So why did the Dutch do this? Why did the Dutch eat their Prime Minister in the seventeenth century? It was because his leadership was lacking and he was deeply disliked. Which seems reasonable.
The tragic hero of this grisly encounter is Johan de Witt who headed the Dutch government from 1653 till his eventful demise in 1672. Johan and his brother, Cornelis de Witt, were wound up by a pro-monarchist mob that tore them to pieces. In order to shame the deceased, parts of the cadavers were gorged and eaten by the frenzied crowd. The most intriguing part is that no arrests were made, and everyone involved in the bloodbath went scot-free.
This raises some obvious questions. Why did the Dutch choose to reign hell on their own elected leader? And as most politicians would like to know, what is the upper-limit on blunders a premier can pull off without turning into food? Unfortunately, Johan de Witt was a victim of a strained milieu and some horrible luck.
Seventeenth-century Holland was a booming economy, largely due to its control over East Asian trade. Initially, Holland was a constitutional monarchy, with the Prince of Orange serving as the head of the government. In the mid-1600s, the trade fostered an influential merchant class that favored republicanism over aristocracy. As Holland prospered, the scales tipped in the favor of this middle class resulting in a system with diminished power in the hands of the monarch. Johan de Witt gained an upper hand as the Grand Pensionary (the highest elected office) over the Stadholder, the Prince of Orange.
As Grand Pensionary, de Witt had diverted funds from the army to the navy. A decision taken to use the superior ships to conduct bolster trade with the Far East. More importantly, he wanted to check the rising British influence across the English Channel. The policy seemed to work perfectly in the favor of the Dutch Republic — until France decided to invade in 1672. With a weakened army, the Dutch were in no position to combat the threat. To rub salt on their wounds, the British Navy ensured a naval blockade, trapping Holland — quite literally — between the devil and the deep blue sea. A panicked nation was divided between two factions, the Orangists who wanted the monarch to reclaim the power, and the dwindling republican support for De Witt. As the war started faring badly for the Dutch, de Witt lost support. Over time the Orangists prevailed, and the public sentiment held de Witt responsible for the debilitated army, and Holland’s subsequent embarrassment.
Things escalated so badly that an assassination attempt was made on the Grand Pensionary(which he was lucky enough to survive, even if he suffered serious wounds). He resigned his position as Grand Pensionary, but this was not enough for his enemies: in order to penalize de Witt further, his brother was accused of high treason for plotting to kill William III, the Prince of Orange. Historians have not found any veracity in a conspiracy, but Cornelis was kept in prison and records indicate that he was tortured into giving a confession. When Johan de Witt visited him in the prison, a mob surrounded the two brothers and dragged them on the street. Johan and Cornelis were shot and left to the frenzied mob, and what followed was a macabre display of cannibalism: to humiliate the Grand Pensionary for letting his people down, his body, and that of his brother were stripped, hanged on a gibbet, and disemboweled. That was still not enough: their entrails were roasted so that the Orangist mob could eat them, a sight that does not represent the sophistication we associate the Dutch with. To be honest, this sensationalized act of violence is no different than other ghastly acts like English witch-hunts, American lynchings of colored folk, or bloodshed in India over beef. All of them are the hallmarks of proscribed actions — symbolizing the worst in us.
This story is a testament to how desperate times often result in the most unbecoming behavior. A fact that cannot be stressed enough as we deal with this pandemic. Throughout this year we have seen headlines from across the globe that must not at all be taken as a reflection of humanity. With little light visible in this tunnel it is worthwhile to remind each other of restraint. Just an ounce of self-reflection goes a long way in ensuring that hell does not break loose through the institutions that have stood on a precarious edge for centuries. While many of us are looking for ingenious names for the ongoing horrendous years, it turns out the Dutch outthought us three centuries ago. In the modern-day Netherlands, 1672 is remembered as Rampjaar, or Disaster Year. Let us get together in ensuring that the Dutch don’t have to rename 1672 after the last weeks of 2020.