Blood in the Streets, Amsterdam 1886

From 1833 to 1940 the Kingdom of the Netherlands experienced one of the longest periods in which any Western European nation did not go to war. A separate army was maintained in the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia) but the home army saw no service against a foreign enemy for over a century. There was however one incident in this period in which serious bloodshed occurred in the streets of Amsterdam, leaving many dead, as the army was called in to subdue rioting. The trigger for these tragic events was a ludicrous one.

“Kermis on the Haarlemer Plein, Amsterdam ” by George Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923)
With acknowledgement to the Amsterdam Museum

The Netherlands in the late nineteenth century was generally prosperous, but as with so many other countries in Europe serious pockets of poverty and deprivation remained in large cities and towns. Though a democracy by the standards of the time, the Netherlands’ political structures did not yet reflect the concerns – and resentments – of a major part of the population. One outlet – a safety valve in fact – for such tensions consisted of customs and celebrations during which the impoverished felt liberated, even if only for a day. Crude, and often descending into drunkenness and violence as they often did, any attempt by the authorities to restrict such celebrations aroused bitter anger.

One such occasion was in 1876 when the Burgermeester – Mayor – of Amsterdam announced that the annual September Carnival “Kermis”) would be forbidden. Reasoning that more wealthy citizens could afford a carnival all year round, and they only for one day a year, large numbers of poor took to the streets. The violent rioting that followed lasted four days and was only put down when army units were brought in to support the police. In what was seen to be an over-reaction by the authorities, which stoked rather than supressed the violence, it is surprising that only one person was killed, though dozens were injured.

The need for a measured response, rather than over-reaction, seems to have been lost on the authorities however and far more serious civil unrest occurred a decade later in 1886. Large public gathering were always viewed with suspicion but on this occasion – quite ironically – a humane impulse also played a role in banning a popular event. Comparable to bear-baiting or dog-fighting elsewhere “palingtrekken” – “eel pulling” – was a cruel but much-enjoyed sport among the poor. A rope was stretched across a canal and a live ell was suspended from the centre. Contestants passed underneath in an open boat and attempted to drag the wretched creature free.  Slippery, and thrashing blindly, the eel was difficult to pull down and the contestant often fell in the water, much to the merriment of the onlookers. By 1886 many regarded this sport as cruel and inhumane and in July 1886 an annual contest of this sort, due to take place at Amsterdam’s Lindengracht (a “gracht” is a canal in town), was banned by the authorities.

The organisers were determined to go on regardless and on 25th July 1886, a Sunday, a large crowd gathered to watch. The police moved in to disperse it and were immediately resisted. By evening, after a full-scale riot, order appeared to have been restored. Violence erupted again the following day however, and now the residents of the poverty-stricken Jordaan quarter joined in, ripping up paving stones and building barricades. The police moved in and were met with heavy objects thrown down from the roofs above. The violence now escalated to a level at which it was regarded essential to bring in the army.  Permission was given to use live ammunition and the barricades were cleared one by one.

The fighting lasted only a single day, but during it 26 people were killed and many more wounded. In the aftermath some saw the events as part of a Socialist plot but the public prosecutor, after investigation, rejected this. The events had been spontaneous and reflected a deep social malaise. The Eel Riot left bitter memories, particularly in the Jordaan. A half-century later, in 1934, rioting by unemployed was to trigger further chaos there, on this occasion with five dead and 56 seriously wounded.

Largely forgotten today, the Eel Riot had been triggered by a noble impulse. Only a sense of proportion was lacking.

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