Charleroi Confrontation Between Miners and the Military

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Charleroi Confrontation Between Miners and the Military

Belgium 1868


The confrontation in Charleroi, Belgium, is commonly called la grève [strike] de l'Épine. Starting in 1867, severe wage cuts resulted in numerous strikes in the coal fields of Charleroi and the Borinage. On 26 March 1868 a coalition of some 3,000 miners assembled and occupied L'Épine, the mine located in Montigny-sur-Sambre. Acting on orders, soldiers charged the crowd, which caused at least 10 casualties and heavily injured some strikers. A widely publicized trial and the intense propaganda of the Brussels section of the First International following the events ensured that, according to Marx, "after the affair of Charleroi, the success of the International in Belgium was assured." For the first time the idea of working-class strength through organization was spread on a large scale in Belgium, which was to host one of the strongest socialist labor movements in the world prior to 1914.


  • 1851: China's T'ai P'ing ("Great Peace") Rebellion begins under the leadership of schoolmaster Hong Xiuquan, who believes himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ. He mobilizes the peasantry against the Manchu emperors in a civil war that will take 20 to 30 million lives over the next 14 years.
  • 1857: The Sepoy Mutiny, an unsuccessful revolt by Indian troops against the British East India Company begins. As a result of the rebellion, which lasts into 1858, England places India under direct crown rule.
  • 1863: The world's first subway opens, in London.
  • 1867: Dual monarchy is established in Austria-Hungary.
  • 1867: Maximilian surrenders to Mexican forces under Benito Juarez and is executed. Thus ends Napoleon III's dreams for a new French empire in the New World.
  • 1867: The Dominion of Canada is established.
  • 1867: United States purchases Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million.
  • 1867: Meiji Restoration in Japan ends 675 years of rule by the shoguns.
  • 1867: Karl Marx publishes the first volume of Das Kapital.
  • 1871: U.S. troops in the West begin fighting the Apache nation.
  • 1874: As farm wages in Britain plummet, agricultural workers go on strike.
  • 1877: Great Britain's Queen Victoria is proclaimed the empress of India.
  • 1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act, a treaty between the United States and China, provides for restrictions on immigration of Chinese workers.
  • 1884: Chicago's Home Life Insurance Building, designed by William LeBaron Jenney, becomes the world's first sky-scraper.

Event and Its Context

Belgium—a territory the size of the state of Maryland—was the second country in the world to industrialize. Industrial production had already outgrown agricultural output by around 1870. Geographically, this process of industrialization was limited to the Walloon provinces, the French-speaking southern part of Belgium, the cotton city of Ghent being the only exception. The main centers of industrialization were Verviers (wool), Liège (metal and coal), Charleroi (iron and coal), and the Borinage (coal). Given the economy's dependence on the import of raw materials and the export of products, it was highly sensitive to competition and economic fluctuations. The presence of a large labor force surplus made low wages the most efficient way to cut production costs and lowered the chances of successful trade union activity. The standard of living of the Belgian industrial workers was the lowest of all the industrialized countries. In the midst of the tremendous changes set off by industrialization, many farmers, members of the middle class, and workers tried to create new forms of solidarity to protect themselves from economic insecurity. The judicial position of all types of workers in this "little paradise of the landlord, the capitalist, and the priest" was extremely poor. The first social legislation dates from 1890, and voting rights were not extended until 1894. General suffrage for men—in the form of one man, one vote—was not introduced until after World War I.

The spectacular expansion of the mining industry during the 1840s and 1850s slowed down considerably in the 1860s. Nevertheless, the number of workers in mining kept growing. Between 1850 and 1875 the number of workers employed in coal mines almost doubled from about 48,000 to nearly 92,000. In 1861 mine owners agreed on a unified exploitation regulation designed to minimize inland competition. This regulation resulted in a deterioration of the working conditions and even made workers responsible for all damages to any material they used. This triggered labor unrest. The first of numerous strikes and conflicts in the 1860s contrasted sharply with the absence of such events during the 1850s. Although it does not imply any direct causal relation between movements of real wages and social agitation, the parallel between increased social unrest and substantial decreases of the real wage index numbers in 1861-1862 and especially 1867-1868 is remarkable. In 1867, for instance, daily wages in the Charleroi basin decreased from 3.05 to 2.79 francs, while the cost of living index went up from 86 to 107. The announcement of yet another wage cut of 5 to 6 percent on 23 March 1868 at the Gouffre mine at Châtelineau set off a wave of strikes in the area.

The far-outnumbered police force of Châtelineau was unable to avoid mutiny. The strikers engaged in a series of destructive acts and "visited" several other mines. On 26 March 1968 some 3,000 men reached l'Épine in Montigny-sur-Sambre, where they stopped work, broke windows, and threw away workbooks that were a symbol of the judicial inferiority of workers because they implied the possibility that workers could not change bosses even if they had complied with all their contractual obligations. The appeal to send troops to l'Épine was answered immediately. The company of 120 men under the command of Major Quenne encircled some 600 miners in the inner court of the mine. When the surrounded miners threatened to destroy the ventilation system, Quenne ordered his men to charge the crowd and force the evacuation of the mine. This resulted in chaos. Strikers fled while throwing stones. The soldiers' bayonets caused at least 10 casualties and left several strikers badly injured. During the next few days, the situation was remarkably calm, and by Monday, 30 March, most miners went back to work without any satisfaction. Some hard-liners kept demanding a raise, but by Wednesday, 1 April, even they gave in and went back to work at the lower wages. Through the fall of 1868 several small partial strikes occurred, but not once did the workers gain anything. In August that year, 22 strikers involved in the episode at l'Épine were put on trial for the destruction of property and the intent to kill soldiers, a charge that even liberal newspapers catalogued as hugely exaggerated. Thanks to a brilliant defense by young liberal lawyers from Brussels, the accused were all acquitted on the plea that the workers' actions had been provoked by an unreasonable cut in wages and that their preliminary imprisonment of five months was in itself adequate punishment.

The mediation of Cesar de Paepe and the Brussels section of the First International—founded in July 1865—inspired these lawyers, who included Paul Janson, to take up this defense. The acquittal of the strikers therefore added immensely to the prestige of the International, which was further stimulated by the organization of and the publicity surrounding the Brussels Congress of the International in September 1868. In the immediate aftermath of the events of March 1868, the Internationalists from Brussels started an intense campaign with propaganda meetings all over the Walloon area. By December 1868 some 156 such meetings had occurred; in the course of 1869 this campaign intensified and 540 meetings, an average of more than 10 a week, took place. By the end of 1869 these activities resulted in the foundation of 70 local sections of the International in the south, and in the Flanders—the northern Dutch-speaking part of Belgium—the International had active sections in Ghent and Antwerp. The Internationalists were mainly concerned with spreading the word that workers should organize in trade unions and cooperatives, for as long as they lacked organization any strike was doomed to fail and would be nothing but a waste of strength and energy. In his pamphlet, "The Belgian Massacres," which was entirely based on a report, "Les Massacres de Seraing," by Eugène Hins of Brussels, Karl Marx even typified a strike as "a blasphemy."

In spite of this theoretical stand, it was precisely in the context of strikes that contact between militants of the International and the workers was established. Moreover, the mushrooming of local sections was mainly due to the spread of the myth that the International had millions of members and inexhaustible resources. Basically the Internationalists tried to create a labor movement by making workers believe that such a movement already existed. The main problem was, of course, how one was to keep workers from going on strike, as they were convinced that strikes must be effective given the support of the "Bank of London," as the International was sometimes called. Although it could cope easily with small and partial strikes, the organization of meetings, and the occasional donation of legal and medical assistance, in April 1869 the International was completely overwhelmed by a new wave of strikes that spread over the whole mining region in the course of a few days. The announcement on 2 April 1869 that all workers would have to work longer to keep their wages set off a strike in the Cockerill factories of Seraing (Liège). To break the strike, management immediately met some of the strikers' demands, only to revoke its promises a few days later. On 9 April all puddlers at Cockerill went on strike, immediately followed by their colleagues in several other factories in the Liège area. That day and again on 10 April 1869 troops charged the crowds, causing three casualties and injuring several others. The International explicitly dissociated itself from the strike and appealed to the strikers to remain calm and serene.

The puddlers maintained the strike until the 21st; on 15 April they were joined by miners all over the Borinage, where another bloody clash between strikers and armed forces occurred at Frameries. The synchronicity and scope of both strikes convinced judicial authorities that this was the work of a revolutionary conspiracy by the International. Authorities arrested several leaders of the International and conducted a large-scale investigation. The attorney general did everything in his power to indict the "bandits," but could not find any proof of such a conspiracy. All of the arrested and incarcerated Internationalists were released after a month. Similar panic reigned again in higher circles following the Paris Commune, but once again no ties could be established to the organizations of the International. By that time the International was disintegrating rapidly. The fact that except for the usual meetings it remained absent during the whole April 1869 episode dealt a fatal blow to the organization's reputation. The regional federations of the International still existed until the early 1870s, but the locals that comprised the organization disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. Exactly how many workers at one time or another belonged to the mostly short-lived organizations of the International is unclear. Historians have estimated between 50,000 and 250,000. However, considering the size of Belgium and the short period in which the International deployed its activity, it is clear that the impact of the International was huge.

The only direct result of the strikes and the confrontations between workers and the military in 1868-1869 was an official inquiry into the working conditions in the mines. The indirect consequences were far reaching, however. Paternalist strategies expanded from merely being considered means of managing the human resources of the factory. Paternalism became a political strategy and was then perceived as the main instrument for countering socialist propaganda. Considering the wages, it was nearly impossible to set up powerful trade unions, and therefore one of the main objectives of the Internationalists had been the creation of consumer cooperatives. Industrialists responded immediately and created stores that they dubbed "cooperatives"—most of them were company stores—and in 1873 took steps to change the legislation governing cooperatives. Although the record of the First International was far from successful, its approach and accomplishments marked the history of the labor movement in Belgium in a profound way. In 1880 the remaining members of what once was the Ghent local section of the International set up a cooperative Vooruit that was to be the backbone and money-maker of the whole socialist labor movement. The success of Vooruit, which was often called "the socialist Rochdale" ensured that after another violent confrontation between military and workers in 1886 the formula of the interdependence and unity of political, trade union, and cooperative labor organizations would be copied by Social Democrats and later on by Christian Democrats all over Belgium. According to Georges Haupt, this so-called Belgian socialist model probably had more influence on the formation of European socialist parties than did the organizational model of the German Social Democratic Party.

Key Players

De Paepe, César (1842-1890): De Paepe was a printer and physician. He became a renowned theoretician of international socialism. Positioned "between Marx and Bakunin," he was among the founding members of the Belgian section of the International, dominated the socialist movement in Brussels, and was the driving force behind the establishment of the influential Belgian Labor Party in 1885.

Hins, Eugène (1839-1923): Hins was a teacher and journalist.He published L'International and was the general secretary of the Belgian section of the International, organizing the spread of the movement to the Charleroi region and the Borinage. He participated in the Paris Commune and later lived in exile in Russia. In 1900 he returned to Belgium and became a key figure in the Belgian and international free-thinkers movement.

See also: First International; Paris Commune.



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Devreese, Daisy E. Documents Relatifs aux Militants Belges de l'Association Internationale des Travailleurs: Correspondance 1865-1872. Louvain-Brussels: Nauwelaerts, 1986.

Gubin, Eliane. "Libéralisme Économique et paternalisme en Belgique au XIXe Siècle." In Liberalism and Paternalism in the 19th Century, edited by E. Aerts, et al. Louvain: University Press, 1990.

Haupt, George. "Socialisme et Syndicalisme. Les Rapports Entre Parti et Syndicat au Plan International. Une Mutation?" In Jaurès et la Classe Ouvrière, edited by M. Rebérioux. Paris: Ed. Ouvrieères, 1981.

Henneaux-Depooter, Louise. Misères et Luttes Sociales dans le Hainaut, 1860-1869. Brussels: University Press, 1959.

Mayné, Marc. Eugène Hins: Une Grande Figure de la Première Internationale en Belgique. Brussels: Académie Royale de Belgique, 1994.

Oukhow, Catherina. Documents Relatifs à l'Histoire de la Première Internationale en Wallonie. Louvain-Brussels: Nauwelaerts, 1967.

Puissant, Jean. L'Évolution du Mouvement Ouvrier Socialiste dans le Borinage. Brussels: Académie Royale de Belgique, 1982.

Scholliers, Peter. "The Cost of Living in Nineteenth-century Belgium." In Studia Historica Oeconomica: Liber Amicorum Herman Van der Wee, edited by E. Aerts, et al. Louvain: University Press, 1993.

Wouters, Hubert. Documenten Betreffende de Geschiedenis der Arbeidersbeweging ten Tijde van de Ie Internationale 1866-1880. 3 vols. Louvain-Paris: Nauwelaerts, 1970-1971.


Devreese, Daisy. E. "Vestiging van het Internationaal Werkliedenverbond in België 1865-1868." Tijdschrift voor Sociale Geschiedenis. (1976): 42-56.

Additional Resources


Deneckere, Gita. Sire, Het Volk Mort: Sociaal Protest in België, 1831-1940. Ghent-Antwerp: AMSAB-Houtekiet, 1997.

Knudsen, Knud. "The Strike History of the First International." In Internationalism in the Labour Movement, 1830-1940, edited by F. van Holthoon and M. van der Linden, et. al. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1988.

Strikwerda, Carl. A House Divided: Catholics, Socialists, and Flemish Nationalists in Nineteenth Century Belgium.New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.

—Hendrik Defoort

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Charleroi Confrontation Between Miners and the Military

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