until the 7th century much of the land along the seacoast was
submerged on-and-off by the sea. As a result it became covered by a
thick layer of heavy sea clay, which remains and affects agriculture
there to this day. Much of that submerged land was reclaimed, between
1200 and 1600, by building dykes and smaller drainage canals that
crisscross a strip of land 10 to 15 kilometers broad along the
coastline, producing 'polders' of
usable land, sometimes lying below sea level.
At first this land, because of residual salt in the soil, could be used only for pasture sheep but as it gradually become desalted and enriched with sheep dung, monks who lived in large monasteries along the coast began cultivating the land. Nowadays the crops grown there include sugar beets, grain and flax. About a third of this reclaimed land was used for pasturing cattle and geese.
Inland from that coastal strip, on a line can be drawn starting roughly some 15 kilometers south of Brugge at Torhout and running eastward to Tielt and Gent and then towards Antwerp. North of this line the soil is sandy. In the 19th century the most important crop there was potatoes and later on vegetables. It is also a region where chickens and pigs were raised. A considerable part of the land was covered with woods called 'het Houtland'. These woods have long yielded timber products.
Around 1870 when the railway began connecting towns the 'tourist' visitors to the woods became an important source of local income in both West and East Flanders. The railway allowed people easier access to the large farms in northern France to supplement their incomes by seasonal field work and it also improved access to the factories of Gent and northern France became easier.
South of the above line the soil is a sandy loam deposited during frequent floodings of the North Sea several million years ago. There tobacco and especially flax was grown. Up until the mid-19th century there was in West Flanders a strong cottage-based industry of growing flax and spinning and weaving linen cloth from it.
1During the late 18th and early 19th century all of Flanders, but particularly West Flanders was impacted by international processes that affected much of Western Europe. These include a large increase in population, rapid industrialization and chronic rural crises that lead to an exodus from the countryside into towns and cities that because they offered employment in factories that were taking over formerly successful rural cottage industries. Belgium, particularly Flanders, followed Great Britain in having huge population increases due to falling death rates and increased birthrates: in the period 1813 -1913 the population of West Flanders rose by 175%! In Flanders inherited land was dividing, causinga progressive decrease in the size of farms. Although already observed in the 16th century this subdivision was aggravated by the rise in population, resulting in the reduction of the size of 60% of farms in some regions including West Flanders to 1 hectare, a barely viable size. As a result the livelihood of many farmers became precarious, there was much 'hidden' unemployment and there was a rise in the numbers of landless domestic staff and daylabourers ('dagloners'). This occurred both on large farms which were particularly strongly represented in fertile regions and in the towns. In some regions many unemployed sought financial assistance.
this rural crisis affected the fertile parts of the country such as
Flanders more those in less fertile parts to the east of a
north-south line from Antwerp to Brussels. In this heath country, the
'Kempen', farming had long been oriented toward subsistence. In
contrast in more fertile West and East Flanders
farming was directed more toward the market.
Harvest failures in 1844 -1845 exacerbated problems in Flanders. These failures started with a rape and wheat crop failure, followed by potato blight in 1845, and then of wheat, rye and potatoes again in 1846. Because of the resulting shortages food prices rocketed - the price of rye, the staple grain used in bread, trebled between 1845 and 1847, while wages remained static or fell. The high prices encouraged the import of cheaper grains of somewhat better quality from 'Amerika' thus further lowering prices in Belgium. (The word 'Amerika' was then used generically, meaning all of North America.) This stimulated many farmers to emigrate to U.S.A. and Canada, many on the Red Star Line, with the expectation of cheap land and better harvests of better quality that yielded higher incomes.
Some emigrant farmers could write home to say they, as the head of a family had received 160 acres of high quality land in Manitoba, Canada for $10! (Words to the right from this advertisement2 read: "in the great northwest of 'Amerika' 200 million acres of free homesteads. Heads of families will received 180 acres free. Any other male 'colonist' who has reached the age of 18 years also receives the same amount of land." Although it took an enormous aount of labour to 'break the sod' and to bring this land into production, the work this took was not describe in letters to his family in the 'old country', only the 'good parts' of their experience in 'Amerika', encouraging other family members and his former neighbours to emigrate. Many of their descendants still live near Swan Lake, St.Alphonse, Mariapolis and Bruxelles, Manitoba.
1From 'Rural economy and indigence in mid-nineteenth-century Belgium' by Dominque A.G. Vanneste, Journal of Historical Geography, 23,1 (1997) 3-15. Ivan Beernaert provided the story of the above emigrant, his great-uncle.
2Posted in rural Belgium in the late 1800s. Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Manitoba.