Ocker Repelaer: traitor or hero? On the subversive manoeuvres of an 18th-century diplomat

It was a special group of prisoners: people arrested for committing crimes against the state. Political prisoners, accused of treason to their country. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this was the fate of people who became caught up in the conflict between supporters of the stadholder and republicans. They included Ocker Repelaer, a diplomat in wartime.

Knight's Chamber in the Prison Gate. Photo: Kees Hageman
Portrait of Ocker Repelaer 1810, 1894-1898, collection Gemeentelijke Prentverzameling Dordrecht

Why the regent Ocker Repelaer disappeared behind bars

Ocker Repelaer van Driel (1759-1832) was born to a regent family in Dordrecht. His father was the burgomaster and he himself also became a distinguished administrator, but his career did not progress without setbacks: Repelaer became caught up in internal political developments. Around 1800, a kind of civil war broke out in Holland. Two parties were out for each other’s blood:

  • the supporters of the House of Orange, the Orangists, of whom Repelaer was one; and
  • the Patriots or republicans, who wanted more freedom for citizens.

The latter took control after the Batavian Republic was founded in 1795. Repelaer’s diplomatic role now put him in mortal danger.

In the Knight’s Chamber of the Prison Gate

As a supporter of the stadholder, William V, Repelaer had travelled to France several times as envoy extraordinary, attempting to achieve a reconciliation between the Patriots and the Orangists. But in the Batavian Republic, this was viewed as treason. The fact that Repelaer stayed in contact with the stadholder, even after the latter fled to England, proved to be the last straw. He was arrested and imprisoned in the Prison Gate. As a distinguished and wealthy gentleman, he was not imprisoned in a dark cell with the common folk, but assigned to the elegant Knight’s Chamber. Moreover, the warder provided him with fuel, lighting and good meals.

Keeping a diary

In his cell, Ocker Repelaer kept a diary. On 1 January 1796, he expressed his deep sense of foreboding:

‘A new year has begun, one that is likely to be even more ill-fated for me. What will it bring? Shall I undergo a scandalous death at the scaffold? Or shall I suffer a humiliating and degrading public punishment?’

Repelaer prepared himself for death. He wrote the text that was to be carved on his gravestone and gave it to his grandfather, when the latter visited him at the Prison Gate.

Trial and rehabilitation

It is no wonder that Repelaer was in gloomy mood: the judges were demanding the death penalty. The trial went on, however, and in 1797, the death penalty that had been demanded was commuted to four years in prison. Repelaer was transferred to Woerden Castle. When he was free again, in 1801, he was able to continue his career. After the House of Orange was restored to the throne, Repelaer served under King William I as Minister of Education, the Arts and Sciences. In 1818, he was even made Minister of State, and the king repaid his loyal service to the royal family by making him a peer. How different things might have been had the Patriots won the struggle for power...

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