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Harlingerland - Historical context

Gilbert West on Frisian Chiefs

Home | Gilbert West on Frisian Chiefs | East Frisia and Oldenburg | Nomenclature in East Frisia | Earls of Harlingerland 1380-1540

Extract from Gilbert West's "Journey through Groningen and Frisia and the Frisian Isles". West wrote in some detail about the administrative organisation of the places he visited during the second half of the eighteenth century.

In this section he refers to the fact that in Groningen and Frisia, local jurisdiction was controlled by the nobility and based on land ownership - lords of the manor, squires and magnates of lesser or greater wealth.

What West writes here about the estates of Willem Oomkens in the Oldambt (Groninger Ommelanden) would have applied also to Harlingerland in the previous centuries. The ancient system of jurisdiction, based on land-ownership, was still intact, and was not swept away until the next century.

West's point is that whilst the system could undoubtedly lead to drawbacks when exercised by a corrupt or wrong sort of squire, in the hands of an upright, honest practitioner such as Willem Oomkens, it had practical advantages, for occurrences not covered in detail by the written law could be dealt with by the squire's personal authority.

Note that whilst West refers to "Chiefs" in this context, he means someone who exercises jurisdiction on the basis of land-ownership. This was conferred by owning an "edele Heerd" ("manor" or tract of Noble Land) and had to exceed a given acreage. A more accurate term would be "lord of the manor". We have, however, retained "Chiefs" on the basis of faithfulness to the original text, noting additionally that the word "chief" encompasses authentic "tribal" connotations which West refers to copiously elsewhere.

The estates of the Oomkens family, to whom West repeatedly refers, both here and elsewhere, have been estimated to extend to around two thousand hectares. In later generations, by marriage, the Oomkens family estates also incorporated the Huninga and Tiddinga estates.

In this connection it is important to note that (unlike in contemporary England) primogeniture was not the custom. Estates were commonly split between sons, and daughters were given suitable dowries. Willem Oomkens owned about a thousand hectares, based on Oostwold. Contemporaneous members of the family, such as Willem's sons, Oomke Oomkens and Jan Oomkens, held comparable holdings. Both Oomke Oomkens (in the estate centred on "Het Hoge Huis" in Scheemda) and Jan Oomkens (in the estate centred on the castle or "borg" in Beerta) played similar roles to Willem in terms of jurisdiction, and also church affairs ("collators").

Willem's daughter, Heike Oomkens, for her part, married a clergyman, who was duly furnished with the rectory and holdings of Eexta (near Scheemda). In this way, the landed gentry of Groningen looked after their own. Nobody sank into penury, but neither were huge landed estates created.

I know that what is universally known to be true of Mr Willem Oomkens cannot be claimed for all the chiefs, for I know Mr Oomkens to be a nobleman of uncommonly consummate abilities, in every light; perfectly qualified to deal out approbation and reward, censure and punishment, according to their just proportions.

The execution of justice on his estates is recognised everywhere to be impartial, whether severity or clemency be required, to suit the matter at hand. The natural, or heritable, authority which Mr Oomkens exercises thus augments the system of law; which system, as Dr Johnson has observed, is imperfectly adapted to provide for a thousand occurrences of life where authority ought to interpose.

In this guise, the ancient privileges of the chiefs may be seen to provide their subjects with a positive influence for good, in the management of all jurisdictional intercourse.

Gilbert West, "Journey through Groningen and Frisia and the Frisian Isles".