• Hans Faber

How the Hero of Haarlem is actually a dragon in disguise

It was a Yankee by the name Mary Mapes Dodge who wrote ‘Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates. A story of life in Holland’. The book was published in New York in 1865. It is about poor 15-year-old Hans Brinker, and his sister Gretel. Gretel wins the Silver Skates price during an ice skating race. After that everything turns out for the best, and the Brinkers are one big happy family. But the book contains also the story of the Hero of Haarlem. It is the world-famous story of a boy who sticks his fingers in a leaking dike and prevents a disaster. But, did he really?

The Hero of Haarlem was a boy of 8 years old who, one day, delivered a cake to an old, blind man. But he had forgotten all about time. When in the evening he rushes home the following happened:

Gretel and Hans Brinker

“Just as he was bracing himself for a run, he was startled by the sound of trickling water. Whence did it come? He looked up and saw a small hole in the dike through which a tiny stream was flowing. Any child in Holland will shudder at the thought of a leak in the dike! The boy understood the danger at a glance. That little hole, if the water were allowed to trickle through, would soon be a large one, and a terrible inundation would be the result.

Quick as a flash, he saw his duty. Throwing away his flowers, the boy clambered up the heights until he reached the hole. His chubby little finger was thrust in, almost before he knew it. The flowing was stopped! Ah! he thought, with a chuckle of boyish delight, the angry waters must stay back now! Haarlem shall not be drowned while I am here!”

It was at daybreak, after a very chilly autumn night, when he was discovered by a clergyman. Still he had his finger in the dike. And this is how the dutiful boy saved the city of Haarlem.


The name Haarlem appears for the first time in the year 860 as the settlement Haralem in West Frisia, what later would become the province Noord Holland. And with the foundation of New York by the Dutch, the neighborhood Harlem received its name.

Building dikes: an arms race

Hans Brinker and the Hero of Haarlem are the type of stories confirming the almost supra-natural believe that by keep building stronger, fatter and higher dikes the dangerous sea can be warded off forever. That we can control nature. Sayings like wer nicht will deichen, der muss weichen (German) or wie niet wil dijken, moet wijken (Dutch), are chauvinistic regional classics, and mean 'who does not want to dike, has to give way'. But the enormous bulwarks that have been built along the southern North Sea coast, from Belgium all the way to Denmark, are the people’s enemy in the long run.

Dikes have a long history. At the tidal marshlands dikes have been built from the beginning of the first millennium. These were so-called summer dikes; low dikes at the silted-up salt marshes to protect the marshes from the salty sea during summer, all under normal circumstances. That way making the marshes more suitable as arable land and for livestock most of the year. Summer dikes did not protect the tidal marshlands from the storm floods of autumn and winter. For that they were, purposefully, too low.

From the eleventh century onward, higher dikes were being built. This concurred with large scale, commercial peat excavation (read our blog post on this brown gold) along the southern North Sea coast. There were namely huge peat areas 'behind and underneath' the salt marshes. Besides contributing to global heating already in the High Middle Ages (unlocking carbon) commercial peat extraction resulted also in massive land-loss during great floods, all along what's now basically the Frisia Coast Trail. Sometimes even whole islands and towns disappearing in a single night, read our blog post How a town drowned overnight. To halt this massive land-eating process, summer dikes were replaced by the bulwarks of today. At present these snake-like monsters rise a staggering 12 meters above mean sea level and still rising. A true boa constrictor.

The Sea Bank

Think the Low Countries were the avant-gardists of dike-building? No. Sorry to say. Heavy dike building started already with the Sea Bank built at the end of the ninth century, sealing off the Fenland in England.

Constructing high dikes was not something unique for the sea coast. For many centuries this arms race also took place at the central river lands along the lower reaches of the mighty rivers Rhine and Meuse. Here every community and village had to build its own dikes. If yours were higher and stronger than those of your neighbor, your neighbor would be jammed. Not you. The much celebrated Dutch 'tolerance' explained in a nutshell, but this aside. It were the people of Sliedrecht in the Netherlands, a small town at the river Beneden-Merwede (a lower branch of the river Rhine), who became the ultimate river-dike constructors. For this Darwinian achievement its descendants have been awarded with world’s leading dredging companies and their skills turned out to be indispensable when constructing the 30 kilometers long Enclosure Dam (Afsluitdijk) almost a century ago.

But the dike-constructing race came with a price. Sealing off land from the influence of the sea means first of all that the land behind it no longer silts up. It even dries out and shrinks. Indeed, it turned into the Contrary-land of Hans Brinker and the Hero of Haarlem. We can also name it Bathtub-country without a drain. Furthermore, before dikes existed the waterwolf could flow out over a vast area of tidal marshlands during storm floods. People lived on terps (artificial dwelling mounds) that were on average not much higher than 4 meters above mean sea level. Higher was simply not necessary. The sea just flowed out during storms without, in general, causing too much damage because of this enormous storage capacity.

Highest terp of all

Why the people of the terp village Hogebeintum built a terp of nearly 9 meter above mean sea level when 4 meters was already enough, we do not know. Was it to show off? Look us having a big terp!

And the low summer-dikes functioned as small barriers to quiet down the waves during storms as well. But after the heavy dikes had been built, the North Sea was, and is, being pushed up with onshore winds, resulting in a sea level during storm floods that is on average 1.5 meters higher than before. Therefore becoming much more dangerous when dikes do not hold.

Maybe this is the reason why from the eleventh century onward, when big-dike building began, the number of deaths along the former Frisia coast sharply increased. Read our blog post Half a million deaths. A forgotten North Sea disaster…

The need of giving more space to the river had been recognized in the central river lands of the Netherlands already the last decennia. Here the big rivers can flow out during high water levels now. In the Overdiepse Polder in province Noord Brabant in the Netherlands, even eight new terps have been erected as part of these new Delta Works. If you want to know how to erect a terp, find here the first and only Manual for Making a Terp in 12 Steps.

The sea: she’s such a diva

And now earth is confronted with rising sea levels because of global heating. Within Europe the Frisia Coast Trail area happens to be one of the most vulnerable areas to be affected. Can habitation along sea shores continue in the long run? Should the dikes be enforced and made even higher and fatter?

Frisia Landunter
Frisia Coast will be hit the hardest

More and more people and even scientists plead to stop, or at least change or nuance this arms race. Leaving behind the ancient reflex wer nicht will deichen, der muss weichen. Their plea is to restore as much as possible the dynamics of the sea. Give the sea, just as has been done with the rivers before, space. That way land can silt up again and risks of dikes leaking and breaking will be less. No more Heroes of Haarlem needed. Besides that, it will contribute to a spectacular more diverse natural landscape. Not controlling the sea, but managing it. Make a compromise. Work with the waterwolf, not fight it. So, when the sea level rises, the land will rise with it. It has been done already during the many centuries before high dikes existed. Why not again?

The inhabitants of the village of Holwerd in the northeast of province Friesland in the Netherlands have quite advanced plans and the financial means for opening the dike and to give way to the sea again. "We are going to cut this snake in two," as a certain former Iraqi Minister of Information it formulated in 2003. Thus creating inland tidal marshlands and a nature area. The project is named Holwerd aan Zee, ‘Holwerd at Sea’. Nearby, at the village of Blije, another grassroots (of course, Puccinellia grass) initiative exists. Here the community is building a new terp on the other side of the dike at the salt marshes. This project is called Terp van de toekomst ‘terp of the future’.

Similar developments have taken place at National Park ‘t Zwin in the northwest of Belgium, which happens to be the very starting point of the Frisia Coast Trail. Earlier this year a dike has been demolished to make way for the sea there as well. But also the sluices of the massive Haringvliet storm-surge barrier in the Netherlands are being left (slightly) open since recently to give salt water and migrating fish permanent entrance. And then there are the big plans, being implemented as we speak, with the Enclosure Dam 'Afsluitdijk' of which a fish migration river will be part of. Again to restore a more dynamic relation between salt and sweet water, between sea and land, althoug the dam is also reinforced and heightened.

Lastly, universities like the one of Wageningen in the Netherlands are experimenting with salty agriculture. To be prepared for the future and because the process of (re)salinization is already taking place in coastal zones. The University of Wageningen also identified adaptation pathways for the Frisian coast how to cope in the long run with rise of the sea level, including some of the antique solutions of former Frisia.

Although it is all still very small scale, these initiatives might be the first signs of a new way of thinking. The idea that total control and a total engineer-able world is not the sole solution. Not even fully possible in the long run. The world and nature are just too complex. Focusing at the sea and its coastline, the consequences are that people must 'accept' the sea and its salt. With a growing and thus rising sea level, there is a greater need for additional water storage during high(er) floods. This can be combined with the need to halt the land behind the dikes from shrinking and let it silt up again, where possible. This will be more reliable in terms of safety. Above that it will greatly enrich nature.

But people have to adapt and must learn to be more symbiotic and less parasitic in their behavior. Perhaps an additional side effect can be achieved too. Through enlarging the surface of wetlands along the coasts worldwide, more carbon will be captured and locked again, since wetlands specifically are very effective in doing this. That way helping to damp global heating in the meantime as well. There are many initiatives around the world to conserve and foster wetlands, including the Convention on Wetlands.

For those readers who think this isn't possible anymore to live without dikes, know that just south of the Danish border at the Wadden Sea coast of Germany people still do dwell in the full dynamics of the sea and are still surrounded by it during high floods. Indeed, we talk about the islands and Halligen of North Frisia or Nordfriesland.

With all this in mind we can take an example from the grassroots along the Frisia Coast where communities turn to the sea and want to embrace it. Almost literally, with the huge sculpture of artist Jan Ketelaar on top of the bulwark-dike at the terp-village of Holwerd: a naked woman with her arms spread open, with her feet firm in the clay, waiting for the flood to come (see featured picture of this blog post).

Let’s understand that the Hero of Haarlem is, in fact, a Dragon in Disguise. Let’s take those fingers -gradually- out of dikes. Let’s make the wetlands of the Frisia Coast Trail flourish again! Or, inspired by the words of a certain former American President:


Note 1: We work on a back-up plan as well, namely that the sea level rise will be mitigated by exporting the additional water to desert areas on the planet. Salt wetlands in Chad, Egypt and Algeria.

Note 2: Credit photo of sculpture to Udo Krekt.

Suggestions for further reading:

Klerk, de A., Vlaardingen in de wording van het graafschap Holland 800-1250 (2018)

Knottnerus, O.S., Sea level rise as a threat to cultural heritage (2003)

Nieuwhof, A., Bakker, M., Knol, E., Langen, de G.J., Nicolay, J.A.W., Postma, D., Scheper, M., Varwijk, T.W., Vos, P.C., Adapting to the sea: Human habitation in the coastal area of the northern Netherlands before medieval dike building (2019)

Oosthuizen, S., The Anglo-Saxon Fenland (2017)

Rooijendijk, C., Waterwolven. Een geschiedenis van stormvloeden, dijkenbouwers en droogmakers (2009)

Ruyter, de P., Vloeiend landschap. Over de toekomst van het Friese landschap (2016)

Schroor, M., Strategies for future flood protection in the Wadden coastal area: Exploring adaptation measures with cultural-historical elements in Fryslân (2019)