Marcel M. Portegies, Historian
“And the population just kept on growing”
Denis Diderot (1713-1784) is one of the most important French philosophers of the 18th century. In 1773 and 1774 he made a journey through Holland. According to him, that region was densely populated and was subject to high immigration.
Since Diderot made his journey, the number of people per square kilometre has grown four times as rapidly in Holland than it has in France.
Around 1770 foreign travel was common among French intellectuals. Since the writer Jean Louis Guez de Balzac (1594-1655) and the philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) resided there, Holland had become a second home to French scholars. A lot of works on the Dutch Republic were available in the bookshops of Paris at the time. This did not keep travellers from adding their own accounts of their travels through Holland to the existing ones, right up to the revolution in 1789.1
Denis Diderot was one person who aired his impressions of what he called “the Egypt of Europe”. Diderot is considered to be one of the most important French philosophers of the 18th century. In the year 1774, he stayed with the Russian ambassador in The Hague from the 15th of June to the 20th of August, and then from the 5th of April to the 15th of October. He made excursions from the court-capital to Scheveningen, Leyden, Haarlem, Amsterdam, Delft, Zaandam and Utrecht. Apart from his visit to the latter city, then, he stayed within the borders of the province of Holland.1
When giving his opinion on Holland in his account, he compares it to France.1 Relatively speaking, a lot less people live in his mother country, about 54 per square kilometre in 1789. In Holland in 1795, around 144 people lived on the same measure of land.3 According to Diderot, it was as clear as day where all these Hollanders were coming from. He wrote: the republics recruit their inhabitants from the monarchies. Apart from the foreigners who are attracted by the civil, political freedoms, the republic also recruits people who come out of curiosity or in the hope of becoming rich. Among them are also a large number of German and Swiss subjects who are recruited to serve in the army and navy. They make up two-thirds of these forces and almost all of them have settled in this country through marriage”. 1
He was well informed. One of the most characteristic aspects of Dutch society in the 18th century was the continuing influence of immigration from North Western Germany, while, at the same time, many educated Netherlanders were going abroad. This was due to Dutch workers being used to a considerably higher standard of living than workers in the surrounding countries. This was especially true for Holland. This encouraged the employers in Holland to attract immigrant labourers from North Brabant, Overijssel, Gelderland and, in particular, from Germany. The workers in those places were used to heavier labour and lower wages. 4
There were also a lot of foreigners in the state army. This was due to the fact that the army consisted of mercenaries, again primarily from Germany but also from Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland. After 1688, whole foreign units were even hired at times. 5
As a result of its prosperity, therefore, many foreigners settle in Holland. In this vein, Diderot writes that “there is hardly a country in the world more prosperous and, relative to its surface, more densely populated, the result of diligence, industriousness, economy, unremitting labour and the pursuit of profit. For years now people have been declaring with great conviction that the province of Holland alone, small as it is, has more than 2,500.000 inhabitants. (…) Large cities, small towns and villages lie close together and the population just keeps on growing.” 1
Diderot was misled on this particular point, though. In 1950 the estimated population of Holland was still 903,000, a number which fell to 794,146 according to the census of 1795. 3 This, however, in no way discredits the Diderot’s view of Holland as an urbanized region. He writes: “people can make their own judgements about the number of larger and smaller towns and their proximity to each other. There are 48 town from which Utrecht can be easily reached within a day, and a further 33 to which one can go back and forth from Utrecht without tiring oneself.” 1
It is probably a good thing that the French thinker cannot travel through Holland in this day and age. We might venture to guess what he would have written about it now. After all, in 2000 no less than 465 people per square kilometre were living in Holland. At the same time, in France, the figure was just 108 people per km2. This means that, since the latter part of the 18th century, Holland has come to be almost four times as densely populated as France. These days, then, the French do not have a mere two and a half times, but ten times as much space as the Hollanders.
- Diderot, D., Over Holland. Een journalistieke reis 1773-1774 (On Holland. A Journalistic Journey), Amsterdam and Antwerp 1994, p. 9, 14, 23, 27, 29, 30, 110-126.
- Ardagh, J., Atlas van Frankrijk (Atlas of France), Amsterdam 1992, p. 58, 63.
- Hofstee, E.W., Demografische ontwikkeling van de Noordelijke Nederlanden circa 1800-circa 1975 (Demographic Developments in the Northern Netherlands ca. 1800 to ca. 1975), in: Algemene Geschiedenis der Nederlanden, part 10, Haarlem 1981, p. 64, 65. Kossmann, E.H., De Lage Landen 1780-1980. Twee eeuwen Nederland en België, part 1, Amsterdam and Brussel 1986, p. 23.
- Israel, J.I., De Republiek 1477-1806 (The Republic 1477-1806), Part II, Franeker 1996, p. 1146.
- Stalknecht, H., Het leger, Zwolle 2000 (The Army, Zwole 2000) [20 Eeuwen Nederland en de Nederlanders, nr. 36], p. 857.
- Anonymous, Shrink Now for Later, in the Interests of Our Children and Grandchildren, z.p. 2002 (A brochure of the Foundation The Club of Ten Million), p. 8.
Anonymous, Statistisch Jaarboek 2002 (Statistical Yearbook 2002, Central Statistical Bureau), Voorburg and Heerlen 2002, p. 43, 44.