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The Cannibalism of 1672: What Led to the Dutch Mob Butchering and Eating Their Prime Minister?


Once a prominent figure but now largely overlooked, Johan de Witt held a pivotal role in Dutch politics. Elevated to the position of councillor pensionary in 1653, akin to a contemporary Prime Minister, he led the Dutch government until shortly before his passing in 1672.


Born into a prosperous merchant family in Dordrecht on September 24, 1625, Johan de Witt received his education at Leiden University. There, he showcased exceptional aptitude in mathematics and demonstrated remarkable abilities in jurisprudence.

His father, Jacob de Witt, held various esteemed roles in public service, encompassing treasurer of the Synod of Dort, burgomaster, and even acted as an envoy to Sweden. At the tender age of 19, Johan, alongside his elder brother Cornelius, embarked on a diplomatic mission to Sweden to visit their father. Subsequently, they journeyed to France, Italy, Switzerland, and England.


Upon returning, Johan settled in The Hague, where he pursued a career in law. In 1650, following the demise of William II, Prince of Orange, Johan was among those who spearheaded the establishment of a fully republican regime. Consequently, he was appointed pensionary of Dordrecht.




Johan distinguished himself as an exceptional statesman, emerging as one of the era's most adept diplomats. Merely three years later, at the youthful age of 28, he ascended to the position of councillor pensionary. Leveraging his acumen and diplomatic finesse, he orchestrated the transformation of his modest nation into a formidable global economic force.


During Johan de Witt's tenure as Grand Pensionary, the Dutch found themselves in conflict with the English. However, within a year of his appointment, the Treaty of Westminster was concluded, swiftly bringing an end to hostilities. Notably, one stipulation of this treaty prohibited the Dutch from ever appointing William III as Stadtholder. This clause, insisted upon by Oliver Cromwell, stemmed from William's lineage as the grandson of Charles I, raising concerns about his potential future political influence.


In the years that followed, De Witt managed to strengthen the Dutch economy and his great diplomatic skills led to the forming of the Triple Alliance between the Dutch Republic, England, and Sweden. This alliance forced Louis XIV to halt his offensive on Spanish Netherlands.


The murder of the de Witt brothers

In the year of 1672, dubbed the "disaster year" by the Dutch, the Republic faced aggression from both France and England during the Franco-Dutch War. Johan de Witt fell victim to a vicious assassination attempt on June 21st, resulting in severe injuries. Despite his resilience, he tendered his resignation as Grand Pensionary on August 4th. Yet, his adversaries remained unsatisfied. His brother Cornelis, despised particularly by the Orangists, faced unjust arrest on fabricated charges of treason. Subjected to torture, a common practice under Roman-Dutch law which mandated a confession for conviction, Cornelis refused to admit guilt.



Nevertheless, he was sentenced to exile. When his brother went over to the jail (which was only a few steps from his house) to help him get started on his journey, both were attacked by members of The Hague's civic militia. The brothers were shot and then left to the mob. Their naked, mutilated bodies were strung up on the nearby public gibbet, while the Orangist mob ate their roasted livers in a cannibalistic frenzy. Throughout it all, a remarkable discipline was maintained by the mob, according to contemporary observers, lending doubt as to the spontaneity of the event.


There are accounts of some among the mob taking parts of the bodies, and eating them. One man is even said to have eaten an eyeball. Although the stories may have been exaggerated, people did often take ‘souvenirs’ of executions, such as those who dipped handkerchiefs in the blood of King Charles I.

The savage murder of a man that history has judged a highly competent leader is regarded by the Dutch as one of the most shameful episodes in their history.

 


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