Ask anyone in the Netherlands about the northern Frisian city of Dokkum and they will answer: It’s where Boniface was killed. In fact, if they recall their elementary school history lessons correctly, they would say that Boniface was murdered near Dokkum. Pilgrims have been flocking to the site in their tens of thousands for many years. A chapel was built near a well associated with Boniface and a statue of him was erected in front of the chapel.
Boniface was a successful British church administrator who had set his sights on converting the heathen Frisians. They killed him for his trouble. But it put the city of Dokkum on the map, literally. The tiding that Boniface had been killed near the town is the first time its name is mentioned in any written records.
Although Dokkum has been quite resourceful in cashing in on the pilgrim trade, there is more to the city than the well, the chapel and the statue. Full of historic buildings, Dokkum’s entire center is a national heritage site.
For some time Sonnema Berenburg Distillers had their head office in Dokkum. Berenburg is the national drink of Friesland. At 30% alcohol per volume, with a distinct bitter flavor it is a spirit that warms the inside. It is therefore a beloved tipple for participants in Friesland’s national sport, ice skating. If the Dutch in general are skating enthusiasts, the Frisians are skating fanatics. If weather conditions are particularly favorable (as in cold!), which has only happened 15 times since 1909, the Eleven Cities Skating Race is organized. And of course Dokkum, as one of Friesland’s eleven cities, is on the route.
With the exception of the tours organized in early years when the circular route went in the opposite direction, Dokkum is the last city to be reached before the finish in Leeuwarden. Therefore the race is often decided in or near Dokkum, but never was it decided so conclusively there as in 1940. That year the race was held in extremely inclement weather. At the early morning start of the race the temperature was around -5 ºF (-20 ºC) and the forecast called for gale-force easterly winds and snow.
A small lead group of five skaters reached Franeker just after noon, where a punishing 27-mile trek to Dokkum across narrow canals criss-crossing a flat, empty, always windy landscape awaited them. It took the five three hours to get to Dokkum, battling a polar headwind and white-out conditions. The five race leaders went into a tavern to warm up and, as it turned out, talk. One of them suggested that because a proper skating stroke could not be maintained under the prevailing conditions the five should not race, but help each other on the final stretch and cross the finish line in unison to claim a joint victory.
After some discussion the five set out for Leeuwarden, the tension between them gone, because of what later would become known as the Dokkum Pact.
When they arrived in Leeuwarden chaos ensued. One of the racers could not resist the temptation and started sprinting. As this happened, thousands of excited spectators moved onto the ice, which started to groan and wobble dangerously. It was not clear to anyone where the actual finish line was. At least three of the riders claimed victory. In the end the Eleven Cities Committee had no choice but to follow the lead of the riders and accept the Dokkum Pact. The five riders were declared joint winners, despite protestations from Holland’s most prominent sports journalist of the time.
To read more about Dokkum, read Issue 9, of Dutch the magazine.
Listen to more on the Dutch love for outdoor speed skating in our podcast on the Skate the Lake event.
To receive information about the Netherlands, the Dutch, and the Dutch diaspora on a regular basis, subscribe to Dutch the magazine!