If you read my post, From the Railway Station to the Grote Markt, you could be forgiven for thinking that Antwerp’s involvement in the world’s diamond trade is where most of its wealth comes from, but as important as the business is, the real prosperity has always depended on its port.
The River Scheldt, on which the port lies is not so well known as the Rhine or the Meuse perhaps, but that’s probably more to do with how far it travels in comparison, rather than anything else. From its source near Gouy in Northern France, it runs for 350 kilometres (220 miles) and enters the North Sea near Vissingen (Flushing) in The Netherlands. On its journey, it runs through Belgium and crosses over the Dutch border near Antwerp. The strategic importance of both the river and the city of Antwerp has had a profound effect on the fortunes of, not just the city itself, but also the Low Countries in general.
Back in Medieval times, Flanders was renowned for its high-quality cloth which meant using high quality wool, and most of it was imported from England into the port of Bruges. It might not be immediately apparent today, but a tidal inlet known as the Zwin made access to Bruges easy, but when the ‘Golden Inlet’, as it was also known, started to silt up it became necessary for merchants to look elsewhere. At the time, Antwerp was just a small river-port taking passengers and German wine across the North Sea, but not only did it have deeper water and easier access than Bruges, it also had better connections to inland markets, and so a new port was built along the banks of the Scheldt close to the Steen.
The first half of the 16th century was called the Flemish Golden Age, and it was largely thanks to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 to 1556. Anybody who follows my blogs will know that I enjoy covering history. I’ve never had any formal education where that’s concerned, and it’s probably just as well, because I wouldn’t have got very far, since I get a complete mental block where family trees are concerned. How anybody knows how to work out the seating arrangements at a wedding reception for today’s extended families I have no idea, so you can imagine how difficult I find understanding European Royal family trees.
Anyway, I digress. Charles was born in Ghent on 24th February 1500 to Philip the Handsome (Austrian House of Hapsburg) and Joanna the Mad (the Spanish House of Trastamara). With these family connections, Charles inherited not just the title of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, but also Archduke of Austria, King of Spain (Castile and Aragon), Lord of the Netherlands and Duke of Burgundy. It’s no wonder there were so many wars back then when family squabbles broke out.
You might wonder why I’m bothering to go through all this when I’m supposed to be talking about Antwerp, but the simple reason is that I’m trying to emphasise the importance of Charles V during this period of Flemish history when Flanders in general, and Antwerp in particular, became so important.
This was the Age of Exploration, and Charles V’s mother (Joanna the Mad) was the daughter of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, who sponsored Christopher Columbus’s journeys to America. The Spanish conquistadores who followed after him brought their precious metals back from the Americas to Antwerp (Charles V was also King Charles I of Spain remember), and coupled with its other trading links around Europe it’s not hard to see how Antwerp became the richest city in Europe: By 1550 the Port of Antwerp had grown to ten wharves and eight docks that spanned two kilometres along the river.
Charles V’s dreams of ruling over an “Empire on which the sun never sets” eventually came to an end with the signing of the Peace of Augsburg, a treaty which was supposed to bring about a solution to the religious divisions between Catholic and Reformation Europe, but the agreement also meant that the Holy Roman Empire was split up, and for Flanders that meant the Golden Age was over.
Charles made the decision to abdicate some of his responsibilities to other members of his family, and the Habsburg Empire was divided between his brother Ferdinand, who was to rule for the Austro/German Habsburgs, and his son Philip II of Spain, who became head of the Spanish Habsburgs. In August 1556, Charles abdicated his throne of the Holy Roman Empire altogether and handed it over to his brother Ferdinand, who had already been designated his successor back in 1531.
Spanish rule didn’t go down well in the Low Countries. Philip’s heavy-handed treatment of Protestant reformers led to William of Orange leading the Dutch Revolt in 1566, and two years later the Eighty Years War broke out. For Antwerp things got decidedly worse when Spanish troops went on the rampage after not being paid on time, and for three days in November 1576 they ran amok killing, if reports are correct, around 7,000 citizens during what became known as the Spanish Fury.
Although not officially recognised, in 1581 the Protestant Dutch declared the Northern Provinces a republic, effectively dividing the Spanish Netherlands into the Protestant north and Catholic south – and they wanted the powerful city of Antwerp to be their capital. After the rough treatment the city was subjected to by the Spanish troops it was hardly surprising that Antwerp was more than willing to oblige.
Spain saw it differently of course and in 1584 they attacked the city again, this time with official backing. The siege lasted a year, but inevitably in the end there was no choice but to surrender. Under the surrender agreement protestants were given time to leave, many of whom fled to Amsterdam, which by then was the new capital of the ‘Dutch Republic’.
In 1648 the Treaty of Munster formally ended the Eighty Years war between the Spanish Crown and the United Provinces (the Protestant north) and the independence of the Dutch Republic became officially recognised. Unfortunately for Antwerp the treaty also stipulated that the Scheldt should be closed to navigation and the port was reduced to using canals that connected it to the sea via Ghent, Bruges and Ostend. A quick look at a map of today’s border between Belgium and The Netherlands shows how vulnerable the port and city of Antwerp could still be if the same thing happened again.
When King Charles II of Spain died childless in 1700 it led to the Spanish War of Succession (see what I mean about the European royal family trees and wars?), but at the Treaty of Rastatt in 1714 the Southern Netherlands came under Austrian control, and it stayed that way until 1797.
European nations seemed to be at constant loggerheads with each other – and even with themselves. The Brabant Revolution in the Austrian Netherlands between 1789-90 was bad enough, but it was the one in France that had the most far-reaching consequences across the continent.
The French Revolutionary Wars included attacks against the Hapsburg Austrians and it was the French who released the blockade of the Scheldt in 1796: The following year they completed the annexation of the Austrian Netherlands with the signing of the Treaty of Campio Formio.
The outcome of the French Revolution led to the domination of Europe by Napoleon Bonaparte, a brilliant military commander, but also a political dictator, and although he never spent a great deal of time in Antwerp, he could see the potential of expanding the port in his ambition to attack his arch-enemy, England.
In 1811 he built the Bonaparte Dock and then the Willem Dock. He also had shipping yards built to construct a naval fleet to attack England, but his defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar changed his tactics to a more defensive strategy.
Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815 saw the end of French rule, and for a while the North and South Netherlands were joined together as the United Kingdoms of the Netherlands, but in 1830 a revolution in the southern provinces culminated on 21st July 1831 with a new Kingdom of Belgium.
With a stable political situation now developing, Antwerp was able to take advantage of the trading opportunities that were beginning to open up again. As well as its European neighbours, the port was now doing business with Africa, the Americas and Asia as well. Another thirteen docks were added by the end of the 19th century, but trade with Germany was abruptly halted when the First World War broke out. After a siege lasting 12 days between 28th September and 10th October 1914, the Germans took over Antwerp and remained here until the signing of the armistice in November 1918.
The period between the two world wars was one of growth and prosperity: Quays were extended, new docks excavated, and a third sea lock constructed. According to World Port Source.com, by 1929, the port covered 300 hectares, contained 36 kilometres of quays, and handled over 26 million tons of cargo.
The Second World War saw Antwerp back under German occupation once again, but quite remarkably, it was one of the few European ports that didn’t get destroyed. Post war expansion saw the construction of two new docks and the first oil refineries – and it didn’t stop there – more new docks, a mooring jetty for tankers, and construction of a new sea-lock all helped Antwerp become one of the world’s largest ports: In 1969, over a million tons of containers passed through the Port of Antwerp.
These days, Chinese ports are by far and away the busiest ports in the world, but Antwerp is still the 11th largest, and it stretches right up to the Dutch border. Every day on average the port sees 39 sea-going vessels, 142 barges and 130 freight trains that transport 235 million tons of freight a year. Around 900 companies operate within the dock area employing over 60,000 people.
Oil refineries, petrochemical works and car factories currently help to make this huge container port on the Scheldt the second largest in Europe (after Rotterdam), and Antwerp the most important city in Flanders once again.
Nearly all of the port area lies outside the city centre nowadays, which has enabled the city authorities to start redeveloping the old docks. Eilandje (meaning islet), is the district where the Bonaparte Dock and Willemdock are located, and has been the first area to be given a new lease of life.
The docks have inevitably been turned into marinas, but the yachts are also joined by heritage boats and sometimes historical sailing ships. In May 2011 the MAS opened: The Museum aan de Stroom, which translates as ‘Museum by the Stream’, is largely about the port of Antwerp, but unfortunately, apart from taking some pictures of the city from the top, I didn’t get to see much of the museum because when I got there, they were about to close up.
That disappointment was nothing compared to the boat trip I had planned. Flandria run a selection of boat trips up the Scheldt to the container port and beyond, or at least they did when I was there in 2012. For me, this was something I really wanted to do and I went to great lengths to make it happen, but it didn’t. I won’t bore you with all the details, but in the end, I had to explain to those who decided to come with me that I would accept the responsibility, but on this occasion, there was no way I was taking the blame. In the end we had to make do with a 1-hour river cruise, which was an anti-climax to say the least.
I want to finish this post about the Port of Antwerp on a happy note though. The Eilandje district is shaking off its ‘Red Light’ image and my memories are only good ones. Many of the old buildings were being converted into bars and restaurants, and on an extremely hot August Saturday night, around a dozen of us descended on the Bocadero, a summer-only bar on the dockside next to 12 old cranes.
The scene was quite surreal. I never imagined for one minute that I would find myself sipping cocktails in a deckchair on a man-made beach outside a concrete warehouse on an old dockside quay – but I won’t forget it in a hurry. The temperature had been in the high 30s most of the time I’d been in Antwerp, and the banks of the Scheldt seemed more like Ibiza rather than the second largest port in Europe.
From the Bocadero I could see the sun setting over the refineries and container port upriver, and although I was enjoying myself far too much at the time to worry about missing out on that boat trip up to the modern port, when I look back now, it strikes me that the Port of Antwerp has played a far more important role than I ever realised.