Returning to the Flood

Why do some communities rebound quickly from natural disasters while others do not? This question has been fundamental to modern disaster studies since its development in the postwar period. Scholars today broadly recognize that catastrophic events impact societies unevenly and natural hazards themselves are only partly responsible for this variability. Each society’s vulnerability prior to the disaster and their capacity to respond in its aftermath is contingent upon social, economic, and political conditions. Comparing the impact and response to disasters in regions with shared exposure to hazards, but different social contexts has become, therefore, a fundamental strategy to explore this important question. The social construction of “natural” disasters is particularly exposed by the power of political borders to affect vulnerability to hazards. Flooding hazards may disregard political borders, but vulnerabilities are often sharply different.

I am exploring this question as part of a article-length project that considers the divergent histories of East Frisia and Groningen following the 1717 flood. In Groningen, communities rebuilt their dikes with two years of the flood, in many cases expanding them in size and strength. In East Frisia, dikes remained open for eight and the region suffered subsequent catastophes in the interim, includling a new years storm in 1718. What caused such a wide divergence in response?

When pinpointing crucial differences, it helps that Groningen and East Frisia are in many respects similar. They shared environmental conditions. Both lie on the Waddenzee, free landholders farmed the sea clay coastal zones, and both shared an exposure to storm surges. They employed similar dike technologies and dike engineers often worked on both sides of the border. Flooding played a significant role in both region’s cultural memory and similar dike management institutions had developed over previous centuries, both responsive to outside pressures to communalize. (see Van Tielhof, “Forced Solidarity,” 2015)  One might even argue that they formed a unified coastal culture of disaster with communities stretching from Flanders to Denmark. Groningen and East Frisia. A large, transnational region shared cultural interpretations of flooding due to language and (in Groningen and Emden) religious commonalities. Emden, East Frisia’s largest and wealthiest city in the early eighteenth century, was a near vassal state to the Dutch Republic. State authorities in Emden  spoke Dutch and practiced Calvinism, as did many in the agricultural communities along the coast.

On a surface level, East Frisia and Groningen’s responses to the Christmas Flood of 1717 had also seemed mirror images of one another. The flood devastated to both regions, killing thousands. Interestingly, it provoked farmer uprisings in both areas, each a reaction to the imposition of new dike taxes by a distant central state. I argued in my recent presentation that the primary reason East Frisia remained open to the sea far longer than Groningen was the strength of their resistance, itself a product of communal solidarity between landowners and officials in Emden. The city of Groningen, by contrast, capitalized on divisions between and among affected rural landholders and quickly quelled farmer resistance.

The Koninklijk Huisarchief is tucked into the back of the Paleis Noordeinde and accessible through the palace gardens with a special appointment.

If this seems like a familiar project, it’s because I presented on the subject during last summer’s ESEH conference in Zagreb. I have since written a short article in the Dutch periodical Historisch Jaerboek Groningen featuring many of the maps featured in an earlier blog. This article considers the case of Groningen exclusively. I plan to add the comparative element including East Frisia for an English-language publication this year. Several outstanding questions still remain, however. In Groningen, the short-lived farmer uprising manifested in the town of Aduard and directed itself against the wealthy jonker and member of the Estates General, Evert Joost Lewe van Aduard. Why? Did Lewe play some outstanding part in the deliberations about financial responsibility for dike reconstruction? Was he a symbol of the city’s power? Why was he held culpable? Two days ago I visited the Koninklijk Huisarchief to find some clues. Lewe kept up a correspondence with the then Prince William IV. In a letter from 1731, he included his recollections of the events. While not the smoking gun I was hoping for, it nevertheless gives voice to Lewe’s perspective on the events and will be a useful source moving forward with this project.

Interestingly, in the same letter, Lewe also comments on a separate, contemporaneous issue: the sodomy trials of 1731. Beginning in 1730, the Dutch Republic experienced an epidemic of sodomy trials with the most brutal single episode taking place in the Groningen village Faan. More on this subject in the next post.

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