The history of the port of Antwerp

The Port of Antwerp can look back on a rich history. As early as the 12th century, ships with cargo and passengers plied the waters of the Scheldt.

How old is the Port of Antwerp?

You only need to put your hand in the Scheldt to be connected to the whole world. So goes a saying in the Antwerp port community. The Scheldt is the lifeline connecting the city to the four corners of the world. Just look at the history of Antwerp through the ages. Every time the Scheldt was closed, a period of economic decline followed. The city fell into decline, the inhabitants moved away. If the lifeline is cut off, the heart stops beating.


For the best-known example, and the absolute low point, we need to go back to 1585. After the city fell into Spanish hands, the occupiers closed off the Scheldt. In the preceding centuries, Antwerp had grown into a global commercial centre. Once the Scheldt was closed, Antwerp rapidly went from being a world port to an inland port.

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A new start thanks to Napoleon

It took a Frenchman to come on the scene and restore Antwerp as a world port. At the start of the 19th century, Napoleon opened a new chapter. The emperor took control of the city and port during the French occupation. He had a large part of the open brooks, streams and canals - used to bring the goods from the port into the city - covered over. 


Not far from the Hanzehuis, where the MAS stands today, he built two docks behind a lock: Le Petit Bassin and Le Grand Bassin. Pending the planned conquest of England, Napoleon used the small dock as a home port for his military fleet. The large dock was intended one day to serve commercial purposes.


The modern port was born. The medieval loading and unloading along the river, with boats continually rocking up and down along with the tides, was a thing of the past. The docks behind the locks were a guarantee of calm water and offered huge potential for large ships to dock.


Under Dutch rule, William of Orange later named the large dock after himself. In 1903, the small dock was renamed the 'Bonapartedok'. A tip for anyone going on a city trip to Paris: in the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, where Napoleon is buried, Le Petit Bassin and Le Grand Bassin are on display among the great works of the emperor. 

No more tolls to be paid in the port of Antwerp

1863 was a milestone for the port of Antwerp. In that year, the Belgian government reached a historic agreement with the Netherlands. The Dutch would no longer levy tolls on voyages on the Scheldt towards Antwerp, and the river would no longer be closed off. Antwerp would remain permanently accessible.


This agreement was the stimulus for the development of the port. The industrial revolution was well underway, and steamships made travel to Asia and Africa possible. Antwerp benefited from its unique location 80 kilometres inland. As such, the port was in proximity to inland Europe. Goods destined for the European market reached their final destination smoothly and safely. Via inland navigation, rail and road, goods got to and from the port quickly. And conversely, the port of Antwerp also exported European products to overseas markets.  


Thanks to the port, Antwerp was bursting at the seams as a trading city. In order to accommodate more and larger ships, the Scheldt quays were straightened. New docks and locks were constructed to the north of Antwerp. As such, the port moved further and further away from the city, and was given the space to grow. 


The port of Antwerp during and after the Second World War

At the start of the Second World War, the port reached of 'het Eilandje' reached what is now the Van Cauwelaertsluis. Towards the end of the war, the city suffered heavily. But unlike Rotterdam and Hamburg, the port escaped more or less unscathed. It subsequently made a vital contribution to the liberation, as a supply port for military and commercial cargo and transport.


The badly damaged ports of Rotterdam and Hamburg were rapidly rebuilt as new, modern ports. The outdated port of Antwerp struggled to compete. It was high time for a comprehensive regeneration. This was made possible thanks to funds from the American Marshall Plan, as well as investments from the Belgian government's Ten-Year Plan. The port was modernised and expanded.


Construction started on new, large docks, such as the Channel-bassin. The port swallowed up the polder villages of Wilmarsdonk, Lillo, Oorderen and Oosterweel. Farmers' sons found work as dockers. Multinationals from the chemical industry set up operations in the port area. A few kilometres from the Dutch border started the construction of the then largest lock in the world: the Zandvliet lock. Things were moving quickly for the port of Antwerp.

World records on the Left bank

To the north, the port of Antwerp literally reached its limit: the border with the Netherlands. On the Right bank, there were no more options for further growth. There was no other choice but to expand the port on the opposite bank of the Scheldt.


No villages needed to be demolished on the Left bank, as the area was only made up of polders. The Waasland port started to take shape by the end of the 1970s. The only problem was that for years, the port had only had one lock, the Kallo Lock. That was a big risk: if that one lock failed, the only entrance to the port on the Left bank was immediately blocked.


A new lock was built in 2016: the Kieldrecht lock. With a length of 500 metres and a width of 68 metres, it is currently the largest lock in the world, as confirmed by the Guinness Book of World Records!

Laadbruggen van Stocatra aan het Hansadok met de vrachtschepen Atland uit Göteborg en Proteus uit Bremen en enkele binnenschepen.

Growing before the locks

For container shipping companies, the locks that protect the docks from the effect of the tides are no longer necessary. The huge cranes at the container terminals are capable of unloading and loading a container ship as it moves up and down with the tides. As such, the locks only waste time.


That is why Port of Antwerp decided to build two new terminals, first on the Right bank. The North Sea Terminal and the Europa Terminal are the first two terminals before the locks. The port is therefore now once again a little bigger. Another dock was built on the Left bank, without a lock on the riverside and fully 4.5 kilometres long: the Deurganckdok. With more than 5 kilometres of quay walls, it is the largest tidal dock in the world, another one for the record books.


The Deurganckdok will soon have a successor. Shipping continues to increase in scale, with container traffic still growing year on year. In order to continue playing its role as a world port and an economic engine, the port of Antwerp needs to grow in lockstep.

The Scheldt from source to estuary

The most diverse products from the farthest corners of the world find their way to Antwerp via the Scheldt. Where does our connection to the world find its source?

Small source, broad estuary

The Scheldt finds its source in the village of Gouy in the North of France. Since 2009, Port of Antwerp has been co-owner of the Scheldt source. It is just a stream at this point, only becoming an actual river at the Belgian border. Fed by tributaries, the Scheldt grows wider along the way.


After 360 kilometres, the river flows into the North Sea near Vlissingen. The stretch from Gouy to Ghent is the Upper Scheldt, the section between Ghent and the Dutch border above Antwerp is called the Scheldt, and from this border the Western Scheldt flows into the North Sea.

Food for everyone

The Western Scheldt and the Scheldt together form a unique estuary. Under the effect of the tides, saltwater and fresh river water flow into each other. Because of these tides, there is also a large area of mud flats and salt marshes, with the Verdronken Land van Saeftinghe nature reserve as a wonderful example. As the mud-flats and salt marshes regularly flood and then dry out again, they are important areas for birds to find food. Migratory birds that spend the winter in warm, southern climes therefore like to stop off here for a bite to eat. In the river itself, beavers and seals, among others, search for food. 

Deepening of the Scheldt

From Ghent to the estuary, the tides determine the water level. However, thanks to the most recent deepening of the Scheldt in 2010, the world's largest container ships can continue to navigate smoothly and safely to Antwerp. A constant draught of 13.1 metres is possible and, at high tide, ships with a draught of up to 15.5 metres can sail into the Port of Antwerp. Thanks to the deepening of the Scheldt, Antwerp continues to play a leading role as a world port.

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