The Dutch Republic, with Johan de Witt as their Grand Pensionary – the rough equivalent of a modern day PM – had been one of the world’s leading superpowers since the turn of the 17th century. Pretty incredible for a country smaller than Ireland and with a population of just 2 million. However, disaster struck in 1672. For the Dutch, this was ‘de Rampjaar’ – the disaster year. Although their Golden Age would survive in some form for another 30 years, this was the year that marked both the beginning of an unrecoverable crisis and a truly gruesome end for de Witt.
De Witt had been in power since 1653 and was seen as a great leader and diplomat. As a republican, he was strongly opposed to the powerful House of Orange, but this hadn’t stopped him from defending his country against the nearby – and even stronger – European powers of England and France. The Dutch even won the Second Anglo-Dutch War under de Witt, which he used as leverage to negotiate a very promising trade deal with the English in 1667.
But five years later the English were back, and they’d brought with them France.
The war started terribly, with French troops managing to invade the eastern part of the Republic in a matter of months. The Dutch people, frightened and looking for scapegoats, called for de Witt and his government to step down. They duly did, leaving William III, Prince of Orange, in charge. Many modern historians believe that William, finally in power, hatched a plan to finally rid himself of his long-time rival.
First Johan’s brother, Cornelius, was imprisoned for a supposed assassination plot on William. Then a letter, later alleged to have been forged, was sent to Johan asking him to visit. Finally, whilst an angry crowd surrounded the prison, the security force guarding the former Grand Pensionary just happened to wander off. With no protection from the crazed mob, Johan and his brother were dragged outside to the courtyard and were, like modern-day Brazil , ripped to shreds.
But the craziness didn’t stop with your average, run-of-the-mill mutilation, oh no. According to some reports, fingers, toes, ears and other body parts were sliced off and devoured, guts were ripped out and snacked on, and one man was even said to swallow an eyeball. What the mob didn’t eat, they took home as souvenirs: Cornelius’s heart was ripped out and supposedly exhibited for years.
Just as a final kick in the balls, de Witt’s murderers were never prosecuted, with some even being rewarded. And what happened to William you ask, likely the architect of the whole shocking scheme? Well, he soon became King of England, obviously. Centuries later, an American scholar may as well have been talking about this event when he penned this ode to injustice.