Holland’s coasts are hidden by ranges of dunes that deprive the traveller of the sight of the waters. After a long and arduous climb up these sandy hills, raise your eyes, and there’s the sea! This North Sea was poorly known to the ancients, who imagined it in terms of fables and superstitious terrors. Even Tacitus pictured it as being churned up by constant winds and inhabited by monsters. The fact is that its coasts are stormy, and its colour is variable; in the foreground it is a scummy yellow that looks like dirty washing water, further off, a weak green, and in the distance, a faded blue that blends into the wavy line of the sky. Here and there, great clouds cast their sombre shadows obliquely over this indistinct mirror. No rocks, no cliffs break the force of the waves: this sea rolls on its sandy bed, which it had made for itself and which it is constantly expanding. The physiognomy of Holland’s coasts varies very little: sand, and more sand, water and more water, sky and more sky. On these coasts, which give the impression of being limitless, there stand, between the mouth of the Maas and Den Helder, a number of fishing villages. The most interesting of these villages is Scheveningen. The beach at Scheveningen is frequented by bathers during the summer. At that time of year, a pretty village, linked with The Hague by a tree-lined road, and a promenade built of timber that disappears among the dunes, welcomes foreigners from every country. Here everything shows the effects of proximity to the Ocean. The church, which by no means lacks elegance, contains the enormous skull and a few vertebrae of a sperm whale that was cast up on the shore in a storm, in 1617. These silent fragments are like a commentary on these words of Job: “The monsters proclaim Thee, O Lord”. In the main street, which leads to the sea, are to be found several vendors of shellfish. This sea, whose voice can be heard, shows itself only when the traveller’s feet are almost at the water. The sudden delight of surprise, and the grandeur of the scene that then opens up, fully compensate for the gradation of effects found on other shores. A fishing fleet, whose smacks are beached on the sand, or riding at anchor, or scattered out at sea like the thoughts of the sea’s brain, associates the image of labour with historical memories. Here the Ocean must be proud of Holland and the Dutch; in 1673, De Ruyter defeated the English and French fleets within sight of Scheveningen.
This little village is Holland’s Cherbourg. It has seen exiles and royal misfortunes. It was a cold January day in 1795; the fishermen were loading two boats with packages and travelling trunks; from a conveyance that appeared at the far end of the village came a man enveloped in a wide cloak and a woman carrying a child in her arms. That man was the Prince of Orange; the child was the grandson of the last Stadholder, the future King William II. In 1813, this shore once again saw and welcomed amid acclamations (the Empire had just fallen) the representative of that same family that now occupies the throne of the Netherlands.
If you continue your walk along the sands to the right you will find the spa hotel, where people from The Hague come on Sunday evenings to listen to music. At nightfall, when the sea steals from the sky all its stars, it is a solemn and magnificent prospect. I have seen, in front of this hotel, a display of fireworks on the water, whose subject was, of course, the burning of a ship. I am not especially fond of rockets or Roman candles, but in this case the vulgarity of such entertainments was redeemed by its theatrical grandeur. The darkling sea was almost in itself worth the whole cost of the performance, and with its sublime din, with those tattered clouds, with the only too real catastrophes which the imagination could picture to itself in this pretended conflagration, the scene by no means lacked majesty. And yet this main street, these baths, these cafés, these hotels – all of that is not Scheveningen. A person may have spent many summers in this place and yet not know the fishing village at all. Behind some elegant dwellings, which are a true example of trompe l’oeil
, are hidden narrow streets, and poor brick hovels, in which a silent and wretched population conceals itself. At the doors of these poky cubby-holes, in front of which are drying washing, nets, red shirts and strings of fish threaded on a line, there appears from time to time the figure of a woman, sad, aged and wasted by fever. Children play in the midst of all this wretchedness, as if it were one of the privileges of their age to be unaware of misfortune and poverty. The population of Scheveningen is 6,800, of whom only 450 are Catholics. It should be noted that the majority of the innkeepers and fish merchants profess the Catholic faith, whereas the shipowners and the fishermen are Protestants. For the village there are two government schools, which we visited and which are kept in perfect order. The first, if truth be told, is a ward in an asylum, which holds 250 children of both sexes.
The children leave this first school at the age of about six, and then enter the primary school, which has 500 pupils. Teaching is shared among a head, five assistant masters and five monitors. The children are taught reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and a little history. They leave this second school at between ten and twelve years of age: the boats claim them. The fishermen’s language is a kind of patois that is fundamentally different from ordinary Dutch, and in which some linguists have believed they recognize traces of the Anglo-Saxon that seems to have been the source of the national language. Their dress, especially the women’s, is distinctive. In the winter, they wear a bodice of serge or calico, a brown serge skirt, a long cape of the same stuff and the same colour, lined in red, with a tall, stiff collar. There is something austere and monkish about this form of clothing; one must in any case admit that it is well suited to the climate and to their occupation. A large hat of coarse straw with a border of black ribbon, lined in flower-printed calico, bent slightly downward on either side and rising at the back and the front like a boat, enables them to hold up to three or four baskets on their heads. These women are tall, and robustly built, with rather plain but healthy-looking faces, blue eyes with somewhat drooping lids, and sturdy limbs. By the age of thirty they have already lost much of their freshness; their skin is weather-beaten, a condition due, no doubt, to the proximity of the sea and to their living in the dunes. The dunes form a country within the country itself; the sand reflects the sun’s rays more strongly than elsewhere; this is Holland’s Arabia.
The men are comparatively short in stature; their dress – black jacket and trousers – does not suit their bearing, which is serious, but awkward. They have round faces, short necks, usually brown and curly hair. Their great treasures are their shirt-buttons and the silver buckles which they attach to their feet and their belts. This conservatism in their dress, especially the women’s, this consistency in their physical traits, these racial characteristics that are preserved due to the concern shown by the boys and girls of Scheveningen to marry only amongst themselves, are all, perhaps, a consequence of their dealings with the sea. The Ocean, in which some poets have believed they have seen an image of inconstancy, is, on the contrary, an image of eternity; of all the elements, it is the one that has suffered the fewest vicissitudes since the beginning of the world.
The dawn of creation saw it born thus, and thus it still rolls today. It moves, it does not change. The Ocean sets its ever-moving stability against the forces of time that undermine the rocks, that alter the level of the continents, that transform living nature and human destinies. The ways of the fishermen who live on the coast share the nature of the Ocean. They have none of the habits of the city. The essence of their character is independence.2
It seems that dealings with the sea foster in them the sense of human dignity. These men have no love of the land; they need space, the free vastness of the seas, the untamed flood, the sky, blue by day, full of stars by night, the sharp north wind, the mind of a man standing upright in his actions like the ship’s mast upon the movements of the Ocean. Soldiers of toil, they love deliberately to brave the lightning’s bolt, the whinnying of the waves that run, without a bit and foaming at the mouth, about the boat’s keel. On land, they are homesick. Strangers to social conventions, they wish to be neither governed nor protected. This feeling of independence can be seen on their faces. Sailors and fishermen differ from other men in the way they carry their heads high as they walk. One would at the very least say that for them was written Ovid’s line:3
He gave man a face that looks at the sky.
This love of liberty even rubs off on their religious beliefs. As we have seen, all, or almost all, of the fishermen of the coast are Protestant; they acknowledge only two books that have the right to speak to them of God: the Bible and the sea. It appears that the Ocean exerts a moral and sanctifying effect on them. Drunkenness is rare among the fishermen of Scheveningen, but even those who drink Hollands gin to excess on land abstain from any form of intemperance when they are at sea. Swearing is unknown on board a boat. The seafaring life strengthens and increases religious feelings in these simple and ignorant men. When a fishing boat sails, each fisherman takes his Bible with him. A meal is never eaten without grace being said, and is also followed by a prayer of thanks. On Sunday, if the men are at sea, they abstain from fishing, and if they are on land, the singing of the Psalms can be heard in their little houses from morning onwards.