From world port to inland port and back: a brief history of the port of Antwerp

The Scheldt is Antwerp’s lifeline. The river connects the city with the rest of the world, and the city owes its economic prosperity to it. In this blog post, we take you through the history of the port of Antwerp.

Initial trade in Antwerp and growth of the port

Antwerp is first mentioned in the twelfth century as a port for embarking passengers to England and Zeeland and as a cargo port for German Rhine and Moselle wine bound for England. Thanks to the development of the cloth industry, the port experienced a solid boom from 1200 to 1350. In the sixteenth century, Antwerp grew into a hub for traders from all over Europe. They traded in copper, silver, tin, spices, textiles, wine, olive oil and wool. The port then had ten jetties along the Scheldt and seven inland ports (vlieten).

A low point for the port in 1585

In 1585, Antwerp surrendered to Spain after a blockade of the Scheldt. In retaliation, the Northern Netherlands introduced a heavy toll on all shipping traffic to the city, resulting in a rapid decline of the port of Antwerp. It degraded from a world port to an inland port.

Photograph: In the garden of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) stands a statue of William of Orange, the 16th-century stadholder and leader of the revolt, along with his right-hand man Marnix of St. Aldegonde, the so-called “outer mayor” of Antwerp during the years before the city’s fall in 1585. The statue commemorates the efforts of Marnix of Sint-Aldegonde, who defended the city against the Spaniards, fighting for freedom and tolerance. William of Orange also campaigned for years for a peaceful, tolerant society against Spanish oppression under Philip II.

A new start for Antwerp with Napoleon

It was in the nineteenth century that the port got a fresh start. First, Napoleon thoroughly revamped the city and port during the French occupation and provided docks with locks that kept the water level constant. Suffering with tides on the Scheldt bank was over.

Photograph: Napoleon ordered the excavation of Antwerp’s first two lock docks. Today they are called “Bonapartedok” and “Willemdok,” but back then, they were called “Klein Dok” and “Groot Dok”. On the Veurnekaai you will find a 5-meter-high memorial column made of red granite that commemorates the change of name (100 years after the construction of the docks began).

Never pay tolls again

In 1863, negotiations between Belgium and the Netherlands led to the Scheldetol treaties. Belgium bought off the toll forever with a one-time payment that today would be about 200 million euros. Fortunately, Belgium did not have to cough up that amount alone. All countries that traded via the port of Antwerp paid a contribution tailored to their share of freight traffic on the Scheldt.

Photograph: This is the 30-meter-high monument Schelde Vrij on the Marnixplaats in Antwerp. It commemorates the surrender of the last Scheldt toll in 1863.

The historic agreement revived the port of Antwerp, which benefits from its unique location 80 kilometres inland. The Port of Antwerp is close to Europe’s interior, allowing goods for the European market to reach their final destination smoothly and safely. By barge, rail and road, goods get quickly to and from the port.

Antwerp’s port growth and expansion

Antwerp burst at the seams as a commercial city at the end of the nineteenth century thanks to the port. To receive more and larger ships, the Scheldt quays are straightened. New docks and locks were built north of Antwerp, moving the port further away from the city and giving the port more room to grow.

At the beginning of World War II, the port reached from the Eilandje to what is now the Van Cauwelaert Lock. The city suffered greatly at the war’s end, but unlike Rotterdam and Hamburg, the port of Antwerp came out of the war almost unscathed.

Today, the port of Antwerp is one of the largest ports in the world. It is an important logistics hub for Europe and the rest of the world. Every year, the port handles more than 235 million tons of goods, ranging from chemicals and petroleum products to cars and food.

Want to learn more about the port?

If you would like to learn more about the port of Antwerp, you can visit Portopolis, an interactive visitor centre in one of the buildings at the foot of the MAS. Among other things, you can walk over a giant aerial photograph of the port. If you come to Antwerp with a group or your class, then the bike tour of the port might be something for you. We offer this port tour as a private tour for adults (2 or 3 hours) and as an educational port tour for high school youth (2 hours). On this tour, we follow the historic trail of this world-class port northward. Cycle with us from the Eilandje, past the Port House, the docks and vanished villages to the heart of the modern port of Antwerp.