“In war, audacity is the best move of the genius,” Napoleon is quoted as saying. He was surely thinking of military action and the plans of a great general. However, in the following extreme situation, audacity appears precisely beyond the battlefield. On the evening of 1 October 1758, the home of Ruhrort customs inspector Jan Willem Noot became the setting of a modest proposal.
The Seven Years’ War was raging in Europe and its overseas colonies. As customs inspector Jan Willem Noot received permission in February 1756 to construct a packing house in Ruhrort (and thus laying the foundation stone for the company today), war was just about to break out. In August of the same year, Prussia invaded Saxony, thereby making many enemies. Duisburg and Ruhrort were pulled into the conflict because they belonged to the Prussian Duchy of Cleves. 50 years of peace thus came to an end. In 1758, the cities were already on the front lines and cut off from other Prussian areas. Prussia’s adversary France and its allies were on the western side of the Rhine and planned to cross the river. Ruhrort and the harbour became particularly important strategically, as their location at the confluence of the Rhine and Ruhr was an ideal jumping-off point for further advances to the East. At the end of April 1758, the French Lower Rhine Army finally occupied both cities.
A public official is kidnapped
The local population now had to “forage” the military, meaning provide for soldiers and their horses at their own expense. There were also war costs, called contributions, that cities and states had to pay to France. If they did not meet these demands, the occupiers would take military action against the local people. Cities were suffering under the burden of quartering the soldiers. Due to a lack of food and newly introduced illnesses, many Duisburg residents died of dysentery, a diarrhoeal disease. Progression of the front lines caused shipping on the Rhine and therefore economic activities in Ruhrort to grind to a halt. Flood damage did the rest. In desperation, the people plundered food and wood, which the cities had to pay even more fines for.
To add weight to their demands, the occupiers took important townspeople captive. One of them was Jan Willem Noot, whom they had taken to the left side of the Rhine back at the beginning of 1758. He was not only a customs inspector, but also a councilman and deputy mayor of the city of Ruhrort. During a visit by his wife Catharina and daughter Aletta, he managed to escape and settled in the neutral Dutch Republic.
No one expected that
The commander of the French Lower Rhine Army and sixth Marquis de Contades, Louis Georges Erasme, had achieved an unprecedented rise through the military ranks in recent decades and had occupied key positions in almost every war that France fought in. He was known for being decisive and sophisticated. After a battle near Krefeld, the Marquis had just been promoted to Maréchal de France and was examining the construction of fortified areas in Duisburg and Ruhrort. On the evening of 1 October 1758, he and several officers were “guests” in the Noot home.
16-year-old Aletta Noot used this opportunity to tell the officers about her father’s captivity and exile. They encouraged the young woman to ask the Marquis for the safe return of Jan Willem Noot. Aletta had learned fluent French at school in the Netherlands, which served her well in this task. The Marquis agreed to return her father, but under one condition: He asked Aletta to let him kiss her.
What should Aletta do? The Marquis was in his mid-50s, a stranger, a French occupier, and a Catholic. Her pietistic education and moral values forbade her from being kissed by this man, even if what’s at stake was bringing her father back to Ruhrort safe and sound. At that moment, Aletta Noot made a pragmatic decision and broke with convention. She let the Marquis kiss her, which put him in a tight spot. Apparently, Contades did not count on Aletta’s consent. The Marquis kept his promise, whereby Jan Willem Noot could come back from exile some months later.
Her courage cast a long shadow
Aletta had already demonstrated her courage by kissing the Marquis and showed it again later in her economic decisions. After her husband Jacob W. Haniel died, she ran his haulage company for another 27 years. The company had her organisational talent to thank for lucrative iron transports from the St. Antony, Gute Hoffnung and Neu-Essen ironworks to Amsterdam. In the end, it was her persistence that secured a coal storage area on the harbour against the opposition of Ruhrort coal merchants: She wrote a petition to nobody less than the Prussian King and her request was granted. With iron and coal transport, she laid the foundation for expanding the company into the mining industry. This turning point, which later was orchestrated mostly by her sons Franz and Gerhard, would have been scarcely conceivable had Aletta not changed the company’s portfolio.
You can find detailed information on the situation in Duisburg and Ruhrort during the Seven Years’ War in an article by Lutz Voigtländer “Kontributionen, Freikorps und Douceurs. Duisburg im Siebenjährigen Krieg 1756-1763” (in German) in “Duisburger Forschungen” Vol. 47 (2001), pp. 79-282.