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Eau et développement dans l'Europe moderne

Salvatore Ciriacono

II : Environnement, société et politique

8. Fuel extraction and environmental destruction: peat and peat-companies in the low countries (16th-18th centuries)

Taeke Stol

Texte intégral


1The Northern Netherlands had a very prosperous period between the 1580s and 1750. The zenith of this period, commonly referred to as the Dutch Golden Age was in the first half of the 17th century. A rather popular hypothesis is that this Golden Age was based on the easy accessibility of a huge amount of peat covering the domestic need for energy, just as the British Empire was based on coal, and the present dominance of the United States on the cheap supply of oil and natural gas (Zeeuw 1978). This thesis is not incorrect, but it reduces the prosperity of a period to only one aspect, which can never be the full explanation. Undeniable, however, is that the possibility of meeting the domestic energy needs with inland resources formed a necessary condition for the Dutch Golden Age, but not a sufficient condition. In a country like the Netherlands with hardly any coal and forests that could be exploited for fuel, peat was used for many centuries. This had already been mentioned in the 1st century by the Roman Pliny (Rackham 1952, vol. IV, liber XVI: 1-4). Peat remained the most important fuel in the Netherlands up to the 20th century.

2There are two types, or techniques, of peat-gathering for fuel (Stol 1994: 126-131). The first type is the cutting of peat above ground-water level, also called dry peat digging. The second type is the dredging of peat below ground-water level, also called wet peat cutting. In this article the two types will be referred to as (peat-)digging and (peat-)dredging respectively. The two types had rather different consequences from a landscape point of view. Peat dredging led to the formation of lakes and consequently loss of land. This was on a permanent basis, unless the lakes would be reclaimed later on in the form of drained lakes. In the case of peat digging there are two possibilities. Firstly, all the peat could be dug away, after which the exposed (sandy) subsoil could be made suitable for other (agricultural) land uses. Secondly, it could turn out during the peat digging that the water level could not be lowered any further. Then peat digging could be stopped and the land could further be used as hay land or a switch could be made to peat dredging. If the first option was decided upon, there was qualitative loss of land: the land could only be used extensively. If the second option were chosen, this would ultimately lead to the formation of lakes and so to quantitative loss of land.

3This article analyses both types, the environmental consequences, and concludes with a discussion on the diffusion of commercial peat digging in the Low Countries. Finally a brief re-examination is given of the above-mentioned hypothesis that the Dutch Golden Age was based on the fact that the Dutch could bum their own soil.

Digging of peat by peat-companies

4From the Late Middle Ages onwards large-scale commercial peat digging took place in the Low Countries. This type of peat digging required high investments – the digging of canals, the building of sluices and bridges – before profits started to flow. Only wealthy people and institutions could afford that. Usually they spread their risks by cooperating in an organization called a peat-company. Most of them had shares in different peat-companies, as well as in other sectors of the economy. We can follow the diffusion of these commercial peat-digging companies particularly well (Figure 1). It started in the 12th century in the Southern Netherlands, today’s Belgium: in the northern part of Flanders and in the western part of Brabant (the area north of Antwerp) (Leenders 1989). The most important and largest towns were located there; i.e. Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, and peat was available immediately adjacent to these towns. When these supplies had been exhausted, one turned to the vast peat areas in the Northern Netherlands. The introduction in the Northern Netherlands, in the border area between the provinces Utrecht and Gelderland (Veenendaal), was made in 1550 by a company of merchants settled in Antwerp at the time. Diffusing it further north, into the provinces of Friesland, Groningen and Drenthe, was the work of important citizens of Utrecht and Holland (Stol 1992: 222-223). Noblemen in the provinces of Friesland, Groningen and Drenthe formed companies as well, but the large investments required proved to be beyond the means of these enterprising provincial noblemen. One by one their companies fell into the hands of urban capitalists from the western parts of the Netherlands, or they had to work together with them (De Vries 1974: 202-203). The way peat digging was organized is illustrated in the names of some peat-colonies (Borgercompagnie, Drachtstercompagnie) and canals (Opsterlandse Compagnonsvaart).

5The companies were exploiting the peat bogs in a very systematic way. Layers of peat up to 8 metres thick were dug out, followed by the conversion of the denuded areas into agricultural land. In order to be able to penetrate into the peat bogs drainage was a prerequisite. The area was opened up by canalising small bog streams, but mostly by digging canals. These canals were also used to transport the peat to the urban markets. Peat is a product of low value compared to its volume. As a consequence, commercial peat digging was only possible when transportation was done by bulk-transport, i.e. by ship.

6On the basis of different canal systems it is possible to distinguish several types of peat-colonies (Vervloet 1984: 126-128). Most common are the types with one or two main canals and branches on both sides, generally at right angles. The branch canals (wijken) are mostly positioned at intervals of 160-200 metres and extend back into the bog to the boundary of a neighbouring municipality or concession area. In the main canals, a large number of locks were built. Their function was twofold. Firstly, they served to divide the canal into reaches that had to be filled with water all the time, so that peat barges could navigate the canal easily. Secondly, they served to enable control of the water discharge. The large quantities of drainage water could cause considerable water logging in the lower areas downstream. This was the reason the population sometimes strongly opposed the granting of peat-digging concessions. As a rule, a stipulation was included in the concession, obliging the concession holders, i.e. the shareholders of a peat-company, to prevent any disturbance from water – by building a sufficient number of locks – and they were held liable for any damage.

7With the digging of a branch canal, peat-cutting itself began. It started in two long strips on both sides of the canal. At the same time the canal was extended into the bog. When the first two strips had been dug out, the digging shifted to the two adjacent strips and the two strips alongside the newly-dug part of the canal (Figure 2). In this way peat digging went on in width and in depth till all the peat between two branch canals had been completely removed (Keuning 1989: 88). This process is graphically displayed on 19th and 20th centuries topographical maps (Figure 3).

8Digging of thick packages of peat could lead to serious disruption of water management. A good example is the Gelderse Valley, located in the centre of the Netherlands. Initially, this area consisted of two drainage areas: the northern part drained into the Zuiderzee (present Lake IJssel), the southern part into the river Rhine. A layer of peat of up to 7 metres thick constituted the watershed. After the peat had been dug off, the Valley had become one unit from a water management point of view and the “natural” drainage was into the Zuiderzee. However, the communities involved in the north of the region refused to adjust the water management organisation to the newly created situation and the watershed was restored in 1652/53 by the construction of a dike. Not until about three centuries later, after sometimes passionate conflicts that required the deployment of soldiers, did this artificial divide end (Stol 1992: 194-220).

9This description of the way peat digging took place, looks very systematic. The reality, however, was more complex. To explain this complex character, a closer look is needed at the peat-companies as the organizations creating the landscape. For the internal structure of a company, the peat-company of Heerenveen (Friesland) can serve as an example, the first that came into being in the northern provinces. It was founded in 1551 by a Frisian and two people from Utrecht, who became the heads (hoofden) of the company. The organization was kept under tight rein, with decision-making resting with a small number of people. During the first years all the decisions were made by the three founders, the heads. The ultimate aim was having a smoothly run undertaking and producing high profits. In principle everyone who wanted to invest in peat digging in Heerenveen could buy shares and become a member of the company. It resulted in a kind of pyramidal structure of companies. The “general company” dealt with the infrastructure (the canal, the sluices); below this there were the three heads who each had a company that, in turn, was subdivided into numerous sub-companies. Later the organization and the decision-making process were to undergo some minor changes, but, in essence, they were to remain the same (Hartgerink-Koomans 1952). The way in which peat-digging was organized in Heerenveen was quickly followed by all peat-companies in the northern provinces, and we may assume that all the digging before 1551 was organized in a similar way.

10The gathering of peat was undertaken by this multitude of sub-companies. Most of them had several parcels in one concession. They could fully decide by themselves when they would start peat digging in a parcel and how quickly they wanted to strip all the peat away. As a result, the landscape showed a great variation during the phases of digging. In some parcels all the peat had already been dug out, others had partly been dug out, and there were also parcels still completely untouched. These various landscapes were scattered over the concession area, so the spatial pattern was exceedingly chaotic. This differs very much from the systematic digging of peat as described above.


11After removing the peat the denuded areas were usually converted into agricultural land. Straight lines and geometrical forms characterize the landscape of these so-called peat-colonies. We can define a peat-colony as a settlement whose spatial main structure has been made for the commercial extraction of peat. Although the concept of a peat-colony is quite old, long time it was referred to as merely “colony”. Only since the early 19th century, probably, did the term “peat-colony” become the official label of this form of settlement (Stol 1998: 132-136).

12Between two branch canals there was space for two farms of 15 to 30 hectares each (Lambert 1985: 242). Reclamation was an expensive and labour-intensive job. It could take many decades before a parcel was completely reclaimed. The reclamation was carried out by mixing sand with the topmost layer of peat (bonk), which is not tight enough to produce peat and therefore had been set-aside during the phase of peat-digging (Figure 4). This newly reclaimed land had a good soil structure, but was lacking in natural nutrients. As a consequence, one of the main problems was the shortage of manure. Farmers kept cattle mainly as dung producers. The peat barges brought urban refuse and night-soil as a return cargo for spreading on the fields. With the growing use of (artificial) fertilizers in the 19th century, cattle numbers could decrease rapidly. Another problem was the lack of a sufficient quantity of bonk, essential to give the sandy soil the desired physical structure. Only in 1900 and 1902 did the provincial governments of Drenthe and Groningen regulate how many centimetres bonk had to be set aside. However, these regulations came too late for Groningen; there was no more peat left to be dug out, and the other provinces did not follow this example.

13The economic situation also affected the speed of reclamation. When prices for agricultural goods were high, the farmer often immediately followed the peat-digger. During periods of low prices, however, no-one was really interested in reclaiming new land. Depending on the economic situation it could take one year, ten years, or more than a century before reclamation would be started. In some cases it never started and the cut-away peat lands remained waste and heath-lands developed. This was the case in parts of Brabant during the Middle Ages and in parts of Friesland in the 17th and 18th centuries. Afforestation of the former peat-lands took place in parts of northern Flanders in the Middle Ages and in the peat-colony Hoogeveen in Drenthe in the 17th century (Stol 1992: 190-191).

14So we see a great variation in land-use. This variation is partly due to the fact that the share-holders of a peat-company were usually not concerned with reclamation. As soon as the area of peat was exhausted, the investors retreated. Reclamation was carried out by another category of people. Most of them were poor, peasants’ sons and farmhands, who were seeking a chance to have their own small-holding. Usually former peat-diggers did not become farmers after the phase of peat-digging. Lack of capital and knowledge and differences in mentality prevented such social mobility (Van der Haer 1989: 126). So the reclamation of the cut-away areas was a bottom-up initiative.

15Why was it that peat-companies in general did not invest in agriculture? In this respect we should keep in mind that commercial peat-digging was a private, capitalistic enterprise. This capitalism was essentially commercial capitalism, extremely mobile due to minimal investment in durable means of production. Merchant entrepreneurs could withdraw their capital from one business or region and transfer it to another, quickly and with little financial loss (Lis and Soly 1979: 67-68). The entrepreneurs who had shares in peat-companies were interested in peat-digging because of its high profits. They also invested in the fertile maritime clay-regions in the Netherlands: new polders and the draining of lakes. They were not interested in the reclamation of the marginal, sandy soils. Only in some specific cases were the entrepreneurs interested in establishing agriculture once the peat had been cut away. The best example is the concern of the city of Groningen with the development of the Groningen peat-colonies.

Dredging of peat

16The second type of peat gathering, dredging below ground-water level, was extensively practiced from the 1530s onwards. Geographically this activity was located in the lower parts of the provinces Holland, Utrecht, Overijssel, Friesland and Groningen. These fenlands were reclaimed for agricultural use in a very systematic way during the Late Middle Ages (11th-13th centuries). Draining was at first essential to reclaim these areas, which were carried out by the digging of a multitude of canals and ditches. Initially the land in the peat-areas was sufficiently high for growing cereals. However, when peat land is drained and cultivated, the peat shrinks, partly through compression and partly through oxidation. After a few centuries this shrinkage could run to 3 or 4 metres. Consequently, the peat lands became to wet to produce cereals. The introduction of the polder windmill in the 15th century was of some help, but proved to be insufficient. In general, cereal production ceased in about the 15th century; partly caused by draining problems, partly as a result of falling prices with the import of cheap cereals from the Baltic.

17How did the farmers react to this unfavourable situation? Some responded by switching to rough pasture or intensive livestock production, others by digging peat and selling it for fuel. Peat-digging in these areas required low investments, because the necessary infrastructure (canals, ditches) was already available. Initially the farmers could dig the peat above the ground-water level, locally with the help of windmills by lowering the water level, but soon this became impossible. From the 1530s onwards a new technique was introduced on a wide scale: dredging below ground-water level. With the help of a long-handled tool – an instrument commonly used to clean and deepen the ditches – peat was scratched up from below the water level. The dredged peat was spread in a thick layer over a balk of uncut peat land, mashed with water unto a uniform consistency and trodden by men or women wearing short planks under their shoes (Figure 5). These treading gave the dredged peat a stiff character that made it one of the best fuels available.

18Dredging started in the provinces of Holland and Utrecht in the 16th century. In the 18th century this technique was common practice in the western part of Overijssel. Dredgers from Overijssel introduced the technique in 1751 in Friesland. Some decades later, the introduction in the province of Groningen took place by Frisian dredgers. Similar to the diffusion of commercial peat-digging, a shift to the north can be observed of the dredging of peat for fuel (Borger 1992; Van Schaik 1969, 1971; Stol 2000: 69-70).

19The introduction of peat dredging has had both positive and negative effects. A positive effect was that dredging was a labour intensive activity, providing work for many people and meeting the high demand for fuel. A negative effect was that dredging led to quantitative loss of land. The land that had been dredged out turned into water and little could be done with the remaining strips of land; they could only be used as hay land. In the middle of the 18th century a large number of lakes had been found in the area north of Rotterdam due to the dredging of peat, which were separated from each other by narrow balks carrying the thoroughfares and buildings. Under the influence of wind and the wash of waves the strips of land disappeared in many places and the broad meres expanded. At a certain moment the water was threatening the town of Gouda (north-east of Rotterdam) to such a degree that in 1635 it became prohibited to dredge peat within a radius of 3 km round the town. Another negative effect was that dredging was only economically viable in the short term. Once turned into water, the lost lands no longer yielded any land tax and water-board charges. In the end only reclamation could check the danger of expansion of the broad meres effectively, while at the same time it offered the chance of renewed income from taxes.

20The authorities were certainly conscious of these dangers. In 1592 the principal water-boards in the province of Holland (Rijnland, Delfland and Schieland) wanted a general ban on peat dredging. It was decided in 1593 and 1595, however, to continue much as before, albeit with much more stringent regulations. The new regulations had little effect, and peat dredging continued on a large scale. New measures were taken; in 1680 Rijnland stipulated, for instance, that peat dredgers had to pay a deposit so the principal water-board could be sure that taxes would be paid at all times. Furthermore, it was stipulated that individual pieces of land were not to be used for peat-dredging, only complete blocks. The extraction of peat from polders was only permitted for a fixed period (25 to 30 years), and under the condition that the polders would be drained immediately afterwards. To secure the financing of the reclamation, the peat-dredgers had to contribute to a so-called drainage fund during a number of years for each parcel they used. In this way many polders were dredged out and immediately reclaimed afterwards until the beginning of the 20th century. This system introduced a more large-scale capital-intensive way of dredging, especially in the 19th century. No longer individual farmers, but entrepreneurs took the initiative and we may assume that they first bought all the land in a polder from the landowners before starting to dredge. This raisers the question: What were the activities of the farmers during dredging and draining? Our knowledge of these aspects is modest; much research still remains to be done. What we know is that dredging became specialized work that required specific skills. Among the labourers were large numbers of foreigners, amongst them many Germans. Most of the lakes caused by dredging were drained in the 18th and 19th centuries. Only a few remained, at present natural reserve areas.

21As is to be expected in the late 16th, the 17th and 18th centuries, regulations concerning peat dredging in the Northern Netherlands – a Republic of seven independent Provinces, but co-operating in the fields of defence and commerce – varied from province to province. In Holland, where authority in this respect was vested with the principal water-boards since the late 16th century, regulations were established at a rather early date, as was the case in the province of Utrecht. In the northern provinces peat-dredging started later and so regulations were issued later. It cannot be said that “following” provinces learned from experiences in “leading” provinces, i.e. Holland and Utrecht. Following provinces had to experience the negative consequences first, before actions were taken.


22Many scholars, who have studied the commercial peat digging on a supra-regional scale level, have noticed the process of spatial diffusion from the Southern Netherlands to the Northern Netherlands and subsequently within the Northern Netherlands. The geographer Visscher mentioned it in 1940 as far as the northern provinces are concerned (Visscher 1940: 124-125). In 1952 the law historian Fockema Andreae described almost the whole process of commercial peat digging from Flanders in the Middle Ages up to the province of Drenthe in the 17th century (Fockema 1952: 18). Many others would follow (Van Schaik 1969: 144-145; Stol 1986-2000; Leenders 1987). In his doctoral thesis, the historian Gerding rejects the idea of a spatial diffusion with force. According to him, everybody knew the technique to do this large-scale peat digging, it was common practice in the Netherlands already for many centuries and in many parts of the country, and the organization in the form of companies is nothing new (Gerding 1995 : 349-350). Gerding’s arguments, however, are not convincing, and have to be rejected.

23The geographical concept of diffusion is much more than just dissemination. In general, three types of spatial diffusion are distinguished: 1) Expansion or contagious diffusion refers to a spreading similar to an oil spill or contagious disease; 2) Relocation diffusion is a process in which the phenomenon being diffused evacuates the old location as it moves to new locations; 3) Hierarchical diffusion occurs when a phenomenon transmits through a system of ordered centres, locations or decision points (Baker 1975).

24The dissemination of commercial peat digging shows all three kinds of diffusion. It spreads from South to North to satisfy the growing demand in urban areas (contagious diffusion), and because of the exhaust of peat resources there was a need to look for new areas (relocation diffusion). Most authors do not go further than just describing this process. However, the process of spreading includes more than just the diffusion of commercial peat-digging as such, it also involves the way it was carried out, both organizationally and technically. Fockema Andreae was the first to notice this in 1952. Many examples can be found in the literature (Keikes 1942: 17; Stol 1992: 221-223 and 1996: 30), which clearly show that one learnt from earlier experiences and that initially the South was more advanced than the North. The organization in the form of companies, currently very common, was at the time rather unique (Stol 1993: 88). It shows a society in which the gentry co-operated on an ad hoc basis, which is another necessary condition for the emergence of the Dutch Golden Age. Participants in a peat-company could withdraw almost at will; others would take their place. This made the whole enterprise flexible and in the long run quite successful. Co-operation is also found in the diffusion of the techniques and the organizational structures. Mostly this occurred by way of personal – often family – connections; hence this form of spreading can also be called hierarchical diffusion.

Fig. 15. Klazienaveen and Barger-Compascuum (province of Drenthe) in 1935. The peat-digging was done in the way as described in Figure 19.

Fig.16 .Dreding of peat near village Amstelveen, south of Amsterdam (Atlas van Stolk, Rotterdam

Fig. 17. The Netherlands around 1650.

Fig. 18. Sketch of the process of commercial peat-digging along a branch canal (wijk).

Fig. 19. Sketch of the changing soil structure in a peat-colony.

25The commercial extraction of peat resulted in a landscape of “water and fire”, with huge environmental consequences. Vast areas in the western part of the Netherlands were transformed into lakes and subsequently drained. A well-known saying is that God created the world, except Holland, that was created by the Dutch themselves. What actually happened, was that the Dutch first destroyed their natural environment, and later transformed it into an almost completely man-made environment. Peat digging also changed the landscape considerably in the northern, eastern and southern parts of the country. Thick layers of up to 8 metres peat were dug out, which meant that almost all the deposits of the Holocene period of the last 20 000 years disappeared. Only a few fragments of raised bogs are still present at the moment as nature reserves, maintained at very high costs. For a good impression how the landscape of the Dutch fens looked centuries ago, one has to go to Germany or Ireland.

26The extensive extraction of peat for fuel highlights the importance of inland energy supply. Another available inland energy supply was the power from wind, used in windmills not only for land drainage, but also in a whole variety of windmills for industrial purposes (Hills 1996). This availability partly explains the Dutch Golden Age during the 17th century. Of much more relevance to this thesis, however, was the way the digging and dredging of peat was organized. This typical early-capitalistic form of organization was characteristic for the Northern Netherlands during the time of the Golden Age. Before about 1800, almost all large-scale projects were based on private enterprise. In the 19th and, especially, the 20th centuries State involvement grew. The Zuiderzee and Delta Works were State projects, a novelty in the Dutch history. The system of peat-colonies reflects up to the 20th century the old situation: Private enterprise and commercial capitalism, while the (liberal) authorities were reluctant to intervene. This aspect also stood at the cradle of the Dutch Golden Age.


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33Hills, R. L., 1996, Power from wind. A history of windmill technology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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49Visscher, J., 1940, Emmen en Zuidoost Drente. Een geografische monografie, Utrecht.

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51Zeeuw, J. W. de., 1978, “Peat and the Dutch Golden Age. The historical meaning of energy-attainability”, AAG Bijdragen 21: 3-31.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 15. Klazienaveen and Barger-Compascuum (province of Drenthe) in 1935. The peat-digging was done in the way as described in Figure 19.
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Légende Fig.16 .Dreding of peat near village Amstelveen, south of Amsterdam (Atlas van Stolk, Rotterdam
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Légende Fig. 17. The Netherlands around 1650.
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Légende Fig. 18. Sketch of the process of commercial peat-digging along a branch canal (wijk).
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Légende Fig. 19. Sketch of the changing soil structure in a peat-colony.
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Regionaal Opleidingen Centrum Flevoland, Almere.

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