Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Write for the BIOGRAPHICAL Genre (12/04/14)
- TITLE: A Heavy Chest
By JK Stenger
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It would become one of Hollands most treasured stories in history.
Who was this scholar, whose work is still being in use today and who is often referred to as the father of modern international law? And why was he locked up in prison?
The great historian Toynbee said: “If we can learn anything from history, it is that we never learned from history.” All throughout history we will see the recurring theme that those who seek peace and prosperity, and unselfishly set out to better the lives of others, often get persecuted, killed or thrown in jail. And this happened to Hugo Grotius as well.
As a scholar, who had started his studies at the university of Leiden at the age of 11, he quickly rose to fame. He was even invited to counsel the King of England, and met with most prominent European thinkers of his time. But in Holland he was met with fierce opposition from Maurits, the Prince of Orange. Hugo and several of his fellow scholars were opposed to the raging war between Holland and Spain.
"War is hardly ever justified," said Hugo. "To take up arms in our own defense can only be justified if we have the moral certainty that the other party has the full intention of harming us."
And according to Hugo the dreadful results of the war with Spain and its consequences for the poor peasants of Holland, did not justify the violence.
"We have to negotiate a ceasefire. Where justice stops, violence takes over," he argued.
But Prince Maurits did not agree. The war made him rich and brought him fame as a skilled warrior, and the struggle with some of the leading scholars of Holland infuriated him. Any opposition to his war efforts was ruthlessly crushed.
As a result, in 1619, Hugo Grotius was imprisoned for life in the fortified castle of Loevensteyn and had to live in cramped quarters with nothing but a bed, a table and a chair.
"Allow me to at least study," he pleaded with his captors. "Give me the books of the law."
Eventually he was granted this privilege; thus every month, a big chest of books was delivered to the castle. This gave his wife Maria van Reigersberg, who had been granted permission to care for Hugo, an idea.
She had noticed how the soldiers had gotten slack in checking the contents of the chest of books, when it would leave the castle. Together with their maidservant Elsje, they devised a plan to smuggle Hugo, whose health was waning, out in the empty bookcase.
It must have been quite an ordeal, as Hugo had to lay for more than 5 hours in the bookcase and keep absolutely still. He was almost caught while they were crossing the Merwede River, as some of the soldiers got suspicious as the chest felt so heavy. However they got distracted and never opened the chest.
Hugo Grotius was carried out of the castle around 8.30 in the morning. At two in the afternoon, the chest arrived safely at the house of a friend in a faraway city. From there he escaped to Paris, dressed as a mason.
Hugo would never return to Holland, but kept on writing and thus influenced Dutch law from a distance.
In looking back over his life, escape and his struggles he said, "There is great wisdom hidden in the fact that God has chosen not to reveal many things about the course of our lives to us."
”He died in 1645 in Rostock, Germany, three years before the war with Spain ended, and Holland was officially recognized as a sovereign nation.
Much of the material I used for this biography is written in Dutch.
However some inspiring English sites about his work and life include the following:
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