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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Bil. A wasteland of non-integrated migrants?

This is the story of the reclamation of the former Middelzee in the Netherlands. The Middle Sea was a shallow inland sea that used to cut the present-day province of Friesland into two. Separating from each other the ancient pagi 'territories' Westrachia, modern Westergo, and Austrachia, modern Oostergo. Hence its name Middelzee which translates as 'middle-sea'. It was a process of centuries to heal this scar. And after the salt water of the sea had been driven out, immigrants of the south poured in. The relevant and current mind-boggling, hot-debated question is: have these pioneers, these settlers integrated into society?

An Inland Sea Neutralized

Although Roman soldier Plinius (or Pliny) the Elder (ca. AD 24-75) already felt pity for the barbaric tribes in the north, because of the extremely wet and cold living conditions (check out our post Shipwrecked people of the salt marshes to know what Plinius exactly said), it was actually the third and fourth centuries that were tumultuous climate-wise. During this period, much of the tidal marshlands of the terp region (a terp being an artificial dwelling mound) became uninhabitable, and the peoples living there massively resettled themselves elsewhere. Leading to the much debated habitation-gap of the terp region. Although, this is mainly a dialogue among Frisians and Frisian scholars. People perhaps with a kind of phantom pain who worry about a lesser old-age of the Frisians. Some historians, in order to rub some more salt into the wound, speak of this empty period as:

The time you only could hear the seagulls cry.

The age of the Romans was also the time the Middelzee emerged, and when this shallow sea became the new estuary of the River Boorne or, in the Mid-Frisian language, Boarn. This is why the inland sea was known as Bordine, Bordne or Bordena as well in the eighth century. The River Boorne has two more names, namely Ouddiep and Koningsdiep. The first name means 'old deep' and the latter means 'king's river'. This river has its origin more than 10,000 year back. Read also our post The Boarn supremacy to learn more about this slow flowing river and inland sea, and also about the catastrophic battle of King Poppo, the last Frisian king, against the Franks, which took place at the Boorne in the first half of the eighth century.

middelzee 't Bildt Frisia
former Middelzee 'middle sea', also Bordine

The inland-sea Bordine is furthermore a historical place because it was on its shores, between the pagi Westergo and Oostergo, where the already in his own time prominent Anglo-Saxon archbishop, Saint Boniface, was murdered in the summer of 735. It was here, and not at the town of Dokkum, nor at the town of Dunkirk in the region of Flanders as sometimes even is suggested, where Saint Boniface set up his encampment, and where he was being attacked and murdered. The shores of the Bordine were long and there is no historical data available to further pinpoint the scene of the crime. Everything said here is according to his near contemporary Wilibald of Mainz who wrote about Saint Boniface's life in the second half of the eighth century.

In the natural world nothing is sustainable and nothing is durable. At the end of the first millennium, the sea pushed itself into the treeless salt marshes once more and threatened to deteriorate the environmental living conditions again. The Christmas Flood of 838 inundated much of Frisia and killed several thousands of people in the process. A flood that might be considered the prelude of an aggressive sea era. But this time the Frisians stubbornly decided to stand their soft clay ground, and not to emigrate as their predecessors had done in the fourth century.

Read our post Out of averting the inevitable a community was born about the history of fighting the sea and how it shaped the identity of the coastal people.

Geef ons heden ons dagelijks brood, en af en toe een watersnood

Give us this day our daily bread, and now and then a great flood

The essence of this saying of Dutch water engineers is, that a great flood is the kind of event engineers need from time to time, to keep things moving ahead. Indeed, around the year 1000, the Frisians and monasteries started to build circular and higher dykes to protect the land. Step by step they took back land from the sea that had been lost before, and made a showcase for the rest of the world how serious land reclamation is actually being done. It was not only subduing the inland sea Bordine. All over in Frisia, especially in pagus Westergo, delta works avant la lettre were being carried out simultaneously. Read also our post The mother of all dykes with more information about this water management endeavour in pagus Westergo.

Soon after, Ostfriesen ('East Frisians') would migrate to the islands and coast of what is now the region of Nordfriesland, to export their skills to this area just south of the Danish border. Read our post Burn Beacon Burn: A Coastal Inferno - Nordfriesland about this early-medieval migration wave.

To summarize the above in a nutshell; the Frisians started to move more earth than the sea did. Every day of the year. Deus mare, Friso litora fecit 'God created the sea, the Frisian the coast' is, therefore, a well-known saying, although often corrupted by others to credit other nationalities. Yes, success has many fathers, and failure is an orphan.

After another even greater flood, the Saint Lucia’s Flood of 1287, killing a staggering estimated 50,000 to 80,000 people along the southern coast of the North Sea and hitting the province of Friesland notably hard, a dyke was built between the village of Beetgum in Westergo and the village of Britsum in Oostergo. With this enclosure dam, the reclamation of the Bordine inland sea was more or less halfway around the year 1300. North of this dyke, however, there was still a big chunk of inter-tidal marshland which had to be reclaimed. An area called Bil. Reclaiming Bil, or killing Bil, would be the apotheosis of taming the Bordine. An apotheosis that took even longer than that of the eponymous Hollywood movie sequel of Quentin Tarantino.

Wild Bil

August 11, 1398. Lord Arent of Egmond in the province of Holland, also became lord of both Wadden-Sea island of Ameland, and of an “uytlant gheheten Bil dat aengheworpen is buten dycs ende gelegen is tusschen Mynaertsga end Sint Mariengaerde”. The latter is freely translated as: a tidal marshland called Bil that has been silted-up before the dykes and is located between the village of Minnertsga and Saint Mariengaarde. Sint Mariengaarde being the former abbey near the village of Hallum.

So, the silted-up clay, or tidal marshland, in the remaining mouth of the Bordine inland sea was named Bil. Today it is called ‘t Bildt, which is a combination of the Dutch words bil and land. Sounds a bit like the Danish Legoland capital Billund. The Dutch word bil is related to the Dutch word bol and to the English and German word ball and Ball. Expressing something that is round and elevated compared to the surrounding area. So, the round-elevated, tidal marshland. Bil in the modern Dutch language means 'buttock'. But this aside and please forget we mentioned it in the first place.

the Middle Sea with the phases of reclamation

A century after Bil was given to nobleman Arent of Egmond, money was brought together to pull Bil out of the sea’s firm embrace. Besides being a showcase, it was going to be a business case as well. In the year 1505, an enclosure dyke of more than 14 kilometers long was erected between the locations Dijkshoek in the west and Hallumerhoek in the east. It secured more than 5,000 hectares of fertile salt marshes. The dyke is still there, and is called Oudebildtdijk meaning 'old Bildt dyke'. The work was (probably) completed within a few years, and it really was an unprecedented achievement in world water management.

In the year 1600, north of Oudebildtdijk Rd., a new 13 kilometers long dyke was erected between area De Westhoek in the west, and the village of Nieuwe Bildtzijl in the east. This time securing nearly 2,000 hectares of fresh, green land from the sea. Also this dyke is still there to be admired, and is called Nieuwebildtdijk meaning 'new Bildt dyke'. Yes, the names do not compete for the creativity price. But it was all very organized and very functional.

In fact, in many respects the whole enterprise from the year 1505 onward, was extremely organized and rational. The allotment of land and of farms, the straight canals, the trenches, the water locks, the location of villages, etc. It was all symmetrical and well planned. In fact, the polder, i.e. embanked land, Oude Bildt became a role model for the polders to come, in the Netherlands and world wide. That includes the UNESCO-listed polder De Beemster in the province of Noord Holland. This polder was established a bit later than 't Bildt, in 1612, and with the same rational planning.

Why polder De Beemster is UNESCO listed and not the real McCoy polder 't Bildt, we have not got the foggiest idea. Maybe, because it is closer to the capitol Amsterdam. Or is it another illustration that Frisians are incapable of getting credits for their achievements? Read more about the lack of these assertive skills with Frisians in our post History is written by the victors - a history of the credits.

Tamers of Wild Bil

Who were the people of this last frontier? Who tamed Wild Bil? They were not all Uma Thurmans. But they were not solely Frisian workers either. No, they were cowboys from all over the Netherlands who emigrated to the new, fertile land in the north. Especially from the islands of the provinces of Zuid Holland and Zeeland. These early labour migrants settled and stayed.

Let's return to the question of this blog post. Did these immigrants integrate into local society or not? Well, it depends on the definition of integration you use. Do not get mad at us or desperate because of this sloppy and bureaucratic answer, but give us a moment to explain.

If it is economic mobility and participation you put first when it comes to integration, then yes, they did integrate. Albeit, it did not come easy. The working class, so to speak, was exploited by the new Frisian and Saxon landowners of 't Bildt. Farmers, and especially the landowners, earned lots of money from the rich crops of this very fertile land and, of course, by not paying the workers too much for their efforts either. Resulting in not only extreme poverty of workers in the course of the nineteenth century, but also in the highest level of secularization in the Netherlands. Following in a way the footsteps of the heathen mob that killed Saint Boniface on more or less the same spot centuries before. Regarding their integration, people took and take part in the local economy.

Oh, and even one of the most famous painters of the Dutch Republic, Rembrandt van Rijn, married Saskia van Uylenburgh in the church of the village of Sint Annaparochie in the year 1634. Saskia was a rich girl from region ‘t Bildt. Well, if that is not integration, we do not know what is? And did you know that the Frisian statesman Pieter Stuyvesant, governor of New Amsterdam, modern New York, was a brother-in-law of Rembrandt? Read our blog post History is written by the victors – a history of the credits.

Note that not much has changed when it comes to the treatment of low-skilled labour migrants. See the annual report 2021 of the Netherlands' Labour Inspectorate.

saskia van Uijlenburgh
Saski van Uylenburgh

If, however, it is adopting the ruling language and embracing of local values you are looking for first when it comes to integration of newcomers in society, then the answer is decidedly no. To this day, the Bildtker (viz. someone from the area ‘t Bildt) speaks a different, creole language which is neither Frisian nor Dutch. In addition, of course, the almost heathen and early secular nature still shows. Yes, the Bildtkers even advocate that their language will be recognized as an official minority language. That is, you could argue, the opposite of integration. Namely, creating as a group of immigrants your own language and subsequently strive to get it recognized as an official language. And, we are not sure either if the Bildtkers would not flunk Dutch integration exams that are compulsory for immigrants today. On the other hand, the Bildtkers seem to manage quite well with the rest of the Netherlands’ population.

Therefore, we leave the fuzzy verdict whether the Bildtkers are ‘integrated’ or ‘not integrated’ with you! And to be clear, of course, this is not a generalization concerning the current integration and migration debates.


Note 1 - The father of Saskia and Rembrandt's father-in-law, Rombertus van Uylenburgh, who was mayor of the town of Leeuwarden, was present at scene of the crime when William of Orange was murdered in the town of Leiden in the year 1584. William of Orange is considered the founding father of the Dutch Republic. Read our post The Abbey of Egmond and the rise of the Gerulfings to learn more.

Note 2 - If you want to learn more about the history of ‘t Bildt, now incorporated with other municipalities into the new municipality Waadhoeke, please visit the cultural historic house annex church Aerden Plaats in the beautiful village of Oude Bildtzijl a name that translates as 'old Bildt sluice'.

Note 3 - The Frisia Coast Trail passes through region ‘t Bildt. When you enter the tidal marshlands before the dikes at the Wadden Sea side, you will have a chance to get an impression of how Bil looked like before it was reclaimed in the sixteenth century. Even have a feel how it walked like!

Suggested music

Bacalov, L., The Grand Duel (1972)

Further reading

Ferwerda, L., Een uytland gheheten Bil, 1398-2005. De geskidenis fan de gemeente 't Bildt (2005)

Keizer, S., Geschiedenis van 't Bildt: Romeinen in Billând? (2020)

Looijenga, A. & Popkema, A. & Slofstra, B. (transl.), Een meelijwekkend volk. Vreemden over Friezen van de oudheid tot de kerstening (2017)

Louman, J.P.A., Fries Waterstaatbestuur. Een geschiedenis van de waterbeheersing in Friesland vanaf het midden van de achttiende eeuw tot omstreeks 1970 (2007)

Schroor, M., Van Middelzee tot Bildt. Landaanwinning in Fryslân in de Middeleeuwen en de vroegmoderne tijd (2000)

Tuuk, van der L. (ed.), Bonifatius in Dorestad. De evangeliebrenger van de Lage Landen - 716 (2016)

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