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Some Dutch municipalities originally created by Napoleon's decree

Bicentennial commemorations in 2011

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

Few family history researchers and genealogists will pick a bone with the civil registry reforms French emperor Napoleon imposed on his occupied realm, of which the Lowlands were a part between 1795 and 1813. For many family history researchers the year 1811 is a demarcation line in history, as in before and after, with labourious research before 1811 making way for increasing clarity in the era that followed it.

The civil registry, in Dutch called Burgerlijke Stand, was in 1811 part of a series of extensive local governance reforms: municipal realignments with a minimum population base of 500 (gemeenten), real estate property registry (kadaster) and other bureaucratic reforms such as the civic and judicial offices. Some of these reforms were part of a process which had already started in the late 1780s, when the reform-minded Patriot Party tangled with their conservative Orangist opponents. The latter had popular appeal among the general public, although they had no voting rights but preferred Orange Nassau stadtholders or governors.

The former, frequently led by the merchant class and lower nobility, sought a greater say for themselves without the involvement of the Orange-Nassaus. The joy over Equality, Liberty and Brotherhood, ideals which arrived with the French troops, eventually faded with autocratic French rule.


During the French occupation, the Dutch institutions evolved from the semi independent and federative structure of the United Dutch Republic to an increasingly centralized system, successively called the Batavia Republic, the Kingdom of Holland, and a department of France (1810-1813) before becoming the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1814.

It is during the time-frame as a French department that Napoleon fine-tuned and enforced many of the reforms, which included the hated conscription law (resulting in widespread resistance which remains largely unexplored in Dutch history books). Genealogists have created awareness of the benefits of the civil registry for family research but generally do not delve into the reasons for it: taxation and military conscription.

The civil registry required a better administrative system as well to implement this reform in the Netherlands, which had a range of local jurisdictions based on rights and privileges. One way or another, the dukes, bishops, kings, and emperors had previously, often centuries earlier, granted these favours which were jealously guarded.

Unrealized restoration

Many Orangists may have hoped for the restoration of the pre-French era although some of the reforms must have had wider (perhaps reluctant) support. Fact is, many of them made sense and streamlined society and did away with a hodgepodge of antiquated regulations and rights. Although some jurisdictions - Hardenberg, Overijssel is such an example - in 1818 returned to their former border, its reformed governance remained.

The case of local governments is a most obvious example. No one seems to have numbered the various forms of pre-French era entities but the reform resulted in a reduction to just over 1,230 municipalities in 1811, in the area which covers the Netherlands today. By 1817, there were 1,236 of them, 141 in the province of Zeeland alone. Nearly two centuries later, as of January 2011, the number of municipalities has dwindled to 418 through mergers and realignments (Zeeland now has only 13). By next January, the number will have declined a bit further as more municipalities are joining each other to create still larger entities. This process also happened in neighbouring countries, which were also under Napoleon's rule.

Basically, the administrative process was carried out on the local level with authorities to carry out dictates from the central government. Some administrative and regulative responsibilities were handed to the provinces, but oversight and control largely remained with 'The Hague.'

Few people will dispute the benefits of Napoleon's innovations, least of all family history researchers. They, along with municipal politicians particularly, are celebrating the bicentennial of civil registries and of the rise of modern municipalities.