The serene island of Texel has had a rich, dynamic and turbulent history, which includes a brush with the American Revolution and the location of WWII’s last battlefield. Now it’s a paradise for hikers, cyclists, horseback riders, artists and sheep.
Texel has something for everyone, from historians and nature lovers to sheep and birdwatchers. It even has a Bird Information Centre. No sheep information center, but it does have its own breed of sheep, the Texelaar.
If you want to visit Texel for tourist purposes then check out our exploring Dutch islands article. But if you’re a history fanatic then read on!
Texel (pronounced Tessel) is the largest of the West Frisian Islands with nearly 14,000 residents. The island chain is part of the Netherlands and has 14 islands, four of which are inhabited, and is also called the Wadden Islands, since they are in the Wadden Sea. (That makes sense.) The Wadden Sea is more of a mud flat than a sea. At low tide, a favourite outing of the Dutch is mud walking (in Dutch: wadlopen) on the Wadden Sea from the mainland to one of the islands. It takes several hours.
In 2009, the Wadden Sea, that runs along the coasts of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, was included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It is also the largest continuous national park in Europe.
Meanwhile, back in Texel. The island is 20 km long and 8 km wide. Much of Texel’s dunescape is part of the Duinen van Texel National Park. The Park covers all the island’s dunes and woodland on the westside, from the southernmost tip to the most northerly point. It’s a natural barrier against storms and marauders. One-third of the island is a nature reserve. Texel has seven towns and villages, the largest is Den Burg, the island’s capital. The others are Den Hoorn, Oudeschild, De Koog, Oosterend, De Waal and De Cocksdorp. Each is unique and worth a visit. Oudeschild is the only village located on the sea and has a harbour.
The ancient history of Texel
Artefacts, such as flints and crude tools found at archaeological digs, show humans on the island date back to the Stone Age, 8000-4500 B.C. These probably belonged to hunters who were temporarily living in the area and left because there wasn’t much to hunt except birds. Permanent residents didn’t appear on the island until the Middle Bronze Age, around 1000 B.C. The remains of ancient burial mounds can be found near the town of Den Burg.
In 1415, Texel island received city rights. Texel reached a pinnacle in the 17th and 18th century when merchant ships of the Dutch East India Company procured supplies for their long journeys at the Reede van Texel.
Near the town of Oudeschild, the Reede van Texel was a sheltered inlet established in the 15th century. Ships leaving from locations around the Zuider Zee would anchor at the Reede van Texel, waiting for favourable winds to sail to the Baltic countries, France, Spain and Portugal and later also East India.
For hundreds of years, this was a very busy place. Ships were constantly being loaded and unloaded with supplies, mainly spices to be traded for arms. The boom ended when the Dutch East India Company went bankrupt in 1799.
A brush with the American Revolution
During the American Revolution, Texel was used as a haven for the USS Bonhomme Richard, a Continental Navy warship named for Benjamin Franklin (referring to Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac), under the command of John Paul Jones. On September 23, 1779 a naval battle ensued between the USS Bonhomme Richard and the English Royal Navy’s HMS Serapis.
When the Bonhomme Richard was badly damaged by the outgunned Serapis, the captain of the Serapis called upon Jones to surrender. Jones then uttered his most famous words, “Sir, I have not yet begun to fight.” After four hours of mayhem and lives lost on both sides, Jones captured the Serapis. The heavily damaged, burning man-of-war Bonhomme Richard sank off the British coast and Jones sailed the Serapis, with 600 prisoners and his wounded crew, to Texel for desperately needed repairs, which would take several months.
The Dutch Republic was a neutral country and did not recognize the U.S. Dutch rebels in Holland who opposed the current Dutch Republic’s government led by the Prince of Orange, William V, an anglophile and related to the British monarchy, identified with American patriots. The Dutch insurgents had been supplying the Americans with arms through a third party for several years. The Prince was not pleased with Jones using Texel for repairs but did not want the British, who blockaded Texel, to attack him in the harbour. Prince William and the British ambassador wanted Jones arrested. Nothing came of that. The Dutch supporters, along with the French ambassador who disliked the English, supplied and protected Jones, his ship and men, for which Jones was very grateful.
During the ship’s repair, Jones did a public relations tour and got acquainted with Dutch bankers and investors in Amsterdam. Jones sailed away from Texel in December 1779, outwitting the British blockade. A year later, the English declared war on the Dutch for the fourth time, (What are friends for?) because it accused the Dutch patriots of shielding Jones, for indirectly supported the American Revolution with supplies and some other trade issues. In 1782, Dutch bankers in Amsterdam were one of the first to finance the American Revolution.
Texel, WWII’s last battlefield
World War Two’s last battle happened in Texel at the end of the war in 1945. For five years, during the war, daily life on Texel was undisturbed except for the German occupiers who built bunkers all over the island and had hundreds of Texel men sent to Westerbork concentration camp in the Dutch province Drenthe. Besides all that, life on Texel was relatively quiet, until April 1945.
As Germany’s defeat became apparent, the German command was forced to enlist prisoners of war from the Eastern Front. Among them was the 822nd Georgian infantry battalion. It arrived on Texel on February 6, 1945, composed of 800 Georgians and 400 Germans. To escape their horrific conditions as prisoners, the Georgians saw themselves as forced mercenaries.
For the Georgians to disavow themselves from the Germans, they revolted on April 6. The mutiny went smoothly until the German’s sent reinforcements. It took five weeks to squelch the uprising. Nearly 1,500 soldiers and civilians were killed, and Texel was heavily damaged. Although Germany had already surrendered unconditionally on May 5, the war on Texel continued until May 20. Subsequently, the Georgian Uprising has been referred to as “Europe’s last battlefield.” The 228 Georgians who survived returned to their home country.
Texel is much quieter now and waiting to be visited and explored any time of the year. It has enough to offer any traveller.
What’s your favourite of the Dutch islands? Let us know in the comments!
Feature Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied