Or the Eel Riots of 1886

25th July, 1886, on the streets of Amsterdam: You stand among buildings from an era of former glory, dwarfed by tall and thin houses. You are surrounded by many people, dressed in blue overalls and sturdy shirts, fervently watching something take place on the water.

Something is happening in this bustling neighbourhood, something you see as you turn away from the crowd and towards the spectacle on the canal.

A boat speeds through the water with a man standing atop it. He seems focused on something. As you follow his eyes, you spot what he sees—wriggling from a line. It’s an eel, slimy and still very much alive. As the boat draws nearer, you see the man prepare—and as the boat passes—he reaches out and grabs the eel.

The crowd cheers, before the eel slips from the man’s hand. He topples into the water, to the roaring laughter of the crowd.

Now suddenly, there is unrest near the line as a couple of uniformed policemen cut in. Eel pulling, or palingtrekken, had been made illegal, because the municipality thought it was a cruel form of lowly entertainment.

But you disagree: The neighbourhood you stand in, the Jordaan, suffers on scraps. It is packed too full of people. These large houses, once home to craftsmen, are now either taken down and replaced, or filled to the brim with families. People now live in drafty basements, houses with narrow corridors where light and air are but luxuries.

Philanthropy eases a few lives here and there, but years of poverty are not so easily brushed aside.

The crowds around you, faced with policemen eager to prevent you from enjoying some eel-pulling, did the only logical thing: They got angry.

One of the policemen were dragged into a basement and beaten up. Another’s sabre is drawn from his scabbard, and the rest of the officers struggle to escape the crowd.

They come back with reinforcements later and after a bit of rioting, the people of Joordan decided they had better go home. Around ten o’clock, anger had given way to quiet on the streets, as the police took control once more. Most of the people had simply gotten tired and left.

Monday morning rolls around and, after a good night’s sleep, the riots begin anew. A mob armed with sticks besiege the police office. The policemen, locked in and in desperate need of help, began escalating things. The army arrived. People were throwing all kinds of things to the soldiers and police officers and the army reacted by using live ammunition.

After the smoke cleared away from what seemed like a re-enactment of one of the many revolutions in France, the unrest died down. Thus did the eel-pulling riots end. This riot had caused the death of 26 people and many more were wounded. In the aftermath, the media were not kind to the police and military for their brutal actions. Some were quick to blame the socialists as instigators of the revolt.

A tidbit on Dutch resistance and revolts: While the 19th century was a century of revolts and revolutions for most of Europe—a century of consolidating power after the Napoleonic wars with monarchs suppressing those pesky Enlightenment ideals—The Netherlands did not follow the trend.

In the Netherlands, which had been a republic since 1581 with a mostly citizen elite as its government, people accepted the new monarchy. Over the course of the 19th century the monarch lost power to parliament and the foundations of our current democracy were put in place, but this happened calmly and without revolution.

The question then is, if ideology and sovereignty couldn’t move the Dutch to revolt, what did move them? Well, the answer is eel-pulling. But why did social issues achieve what grandiose ideas of emancipation could not?

A few potential reasons eel-pulling could motivate riots while ideology could not:

Firstly: After the Belgian revolt, revolution and liberal ideas had a bad reputation. They were linked with a successful uprising against Dutch hegemony.

Secondly: King William II was quick to grant parliament more rights to prevent any more violent revolutions, which his german cousins had to deal with (blackmail concerning his sexuality may or may not have been a part in this).

Lastly: Most dutch citizens were simply tired of political resistance after the string of coups and counter-coups of the late 19th century.

However, there was an area which did incite anger in the Dutch people. Like all industrial countries of the time, the Netherlands was dealing with rampant poverty and bad living conditions. To lighten their otherwise grim lives, people turned to entertainment. Here, we see a divide between the liberal elite, which wanted to transform the populace into a society of well-behaved citizens, and the workers which still enjoyed more crude forms of entertainment.

In a culmination of circumstances, from the government taking away these forms of escapism, the unhappiness of the people could not be contained.

From this story of palingoproer (the eel riots), emerges the fact that the days of large scale revolution in the Netherlands were over. Whereas the 18th century had known many revolts, both great and small against the stadtholders or regents, the 19th century was marked by multiple small-scale revolts, instigated by problems that ultimately failed to cascade into revolution.

The Dutch were done with political revolts and revolutions over ideology. Only hunger or bad working and living conditions could rile them up enough. This is also why, when Pieter Jelles Troelstra (1860-1930), a Dutch socialist politician, declared a socialist revolution in the Netherlands, his call went mostly unheeded. This apolitical approach can really only be explained in the context of the improving social conditions in the Netherlands. Whereas living conditions were still poor, the political climate grew increasingly less repressive. In  1848, when other countries had revolutions the Netherlands gained their first liberal constitution—the basis of the one we still have today.

The Netherlands has a long history of revolts, but to me, the Eel-riots are special. Not just because it is such a bizarre story, but also because it seems so genuinely and ridiculously Dutch to riot over eels while this century was noticeably quiet in the Netherlands. While the fires of political revolution spread through Europe, in the Netherlands only sparks appeared. These sparks took the form of down-to-earth revolts concerning food, shelter and… Eels.