Chapter 18 - Commerce and Industry

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IN proportion to the size of her territory and the number of her people the commercial activity of Belgium can only be described as immense. But it is sometimes classed greater than it really is, owing to the statistics on the subject requiring explanation. Belgium, owing to its geographical position, forms part of the transport route for goods to and from other countries. The transit charges benefit Belgian railways, but the articles conveyed have nothing to do with either the national resources or the commercial activity of Belgium.

In 1908 Belgium's own exports amounted to about $565,400,000, and her imports to $501,280,000.

These figures represent the true state of Belgian commerce, but in addition it may be stated that the transit trade amounted to $404,207,000. The three largest contributants to the transit trade in their order of importance were Germany, France, and England.

Returning now to the country's own proper trade, we find that in the matter of imports France comes first, Germany second, and England third, whereas in exports Germany takes the first place, and France only the second. In imports the United States, Argentina, and Holland occupy the next places, the first named being not much below this country. In exports Holland stands fourth, and all the other countries have only low places.

The principal articles of Belgian trade in respect of exports, confining the list to those reaching a total value of not less than five million dollars in the year 1908, are the following:

1) Foods of all kinds, Vegetables included $53,009,400

2) Iron and Steel, manufactured 29,461,000

3) Other Metals 30,698,800

4) Leather and Hides 24,651,200

5) Cotton, Linen, etc 27,468,000

6) Engines and Machines 38,713,400

7) Minerals (unwrought) 16,238,800

8) Raw material (textiles) 38,630,000

9) Raw material (animal) 12,636,400

10) Rubber, raw and manufactured 11,047,000

11) Arms 5,220,600

12) Horses (26,012 in number) 5,948,200

13) Paper 6,467,000

14) Stone 8,127,200

15) Chemicals 11,532,200

16) Resin and bitumen 9,722,800

17) Tissues 18,197,000

18) Glassware 13,779,000

19) Dyes and Colors 7,372,500

The exports of coal and coke from Belgium are balanced by a slightly larger import. The exact figures being:


Coal, 4,754,000 tons Value $16,260,000

Coke, 917,000 tons " 4,476,200


Coal (including briquettes), 5,589,209 tons, Value $19,169,600 Coke, 287,037 " " 1,400,800

The receipts from customs are shown in the following table:

Year 1850 1860 1870 1880

$2,220,800 $3,152,200 $5,712,200 $5,121,600 1890 1900 1908

$6,353,200 $10,236,400 $11,465,400 Up to 1886 the receipts were on a free trade tariff; after that year protection became the State policy. Wine pays no import duty since 1887. On the other hand, it is subject to a heavy excise, part of which is attributed to the communal revenue. In 1908 the excise brought in a total sum of $22,828,400, of which amount $6,135,800 was handed over to the communes, leaving $16,692,600 for the State. The State, therefore, derives nearly six millions sterling from customs and excise, and in addition there is about $6,000,000 for local expenditure from excise. The following table shows the principal occupations, omitting agriculture, mines, and metal factories already treated of in other chapters, of the population in 1896 which gives the latest classified returns:

Textiles 169,778 persons

Clothing 137,966

Building 93,577

Food 90,443

Wood, Furniture, etc 88,457 "

Hides and Leather 57,702

Conveyance 41,873 "

Specialized industries 24,435 "

Glass 22,797

Chemicals 20,715

Book trade 14,049

Tobacco 12,034 "

Paper 9,448

China Ware 28,977

The hours of labor at these industries range from eight to twelve hours a day. The following table dealing with a total of 504,304 (410,279 men and 94,025 women) shows -

Number Working 8 hours per day 19,138

8 to 9 " 34,741

9 to 10 " 172,012

10 to 10y 2 " 77,854

10J4 to 11 " 88,166

11 to 11J4 " 70,898

11J4 to 12 " 30,951

12 " 10,544

Total 504,304

The bulk of the industrial population work, therefore, between nine and twelve hours a day.

Joint-stock Companies in Belgium are regulated by the law of May 18, 1873, which was modified and amplified by that of May 22, 1886. In 1908 there were 1,365 such companies, and in 1909 the total had increased to 1,500. They are classified in the following list, but the amount of capital invested in them is not stated:

Assurances 28

Banks and Finance 87

Commercial 499

Industrial 653

Telephone and Electric 24

Shipping 13

Light Railways 1

Tramways 3

Transport 24

Public Works 66

Unspecified 102


The industrial population has a higher proportion to the rest in Hainaut than in any of the nine provinces, and stands lowest in Luxemburg and Limburg. The totals in each province and the ratio to the whole of the industrial class are as follows - those engaged in the mines and factories being included:

Hainaut 269,300 or 23.83 per cent

Liege 190,000 or 16.81

Brabant 185,200 or 16.39

East Flanders 171,000 or 15.13

West Flanders 109,500 or 9.69

Antwerp 109,200 or 9.66

Namur 55,800 or 4.94

Luxemburg 20,400 or 1 .82

Limburg 19,600 or 1.73

Totals 1,130,000 or 100 per cent

The great commercial activity of Belgium is shown by the heavy work performed by the special courtsTribunaux de Commerce - dealing with such matters. In 1907-08, the last judicial year dealt with, 59,588 cases were entered for trial. Of these, 31,054 were decided by the Courts, 10,981 were struck out, abandoned or arranged, and 17,753 were not reached.

There remains to give some particulars of Belgium's national debt. The first loan was raised in 1832 at 5 per cent, and since 1840 it has increased from $51,166,224 to $687,383,570. In addition to this consolidated debt the State issues as occasion requires Treasury Bonds. This floating debt amounted in 1908 to $33,902,000. With the exception of one old loan, bearing only 2 per cent interest, the debt is at the uniform rate of 3 per cent. The total indebtedness of Belgium in 1908, therefore, was $721,' 285,570. This would have seemed an incredible burden to the Belgians of 1830 or even 1860. The service of the debt, interest and sinking fund, required $33,376,660 in 1907. The main asset against the debt apart from the interests of the State is the railways, which showed a profit to the Government of forty million francs or $8,000,000 in 1907. The price of Belgian Consols in 1908 ranged from 92.25 to 96 per cent, averaging 94. The 2 per cent averaged 80.20. Before the Socialist troubles in 1892 Belgian Consols averaged 101 or 102.

In addition to the State debt there is that of the Provinces and Communes. In 1908 this amounted to an existing total of $7,361,544, but between 1830 and 1880 the Communes had borrowed $116,282,934. As the loans are for short periods and are frequently amortized, the provincial debt is in a continuous state of flux and change. A large part of the debt went in the construction of schools after the new Education Act placed their control in the hands of the Communes.

Source: Boulger, Demetrius C. Belgium. Detroit: Published for the Bay View Reading Club, 1913. Print.

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