The history of Zeebrugge

The history of the port of Zeebrugge goes back to the origins of the city of Bruges: from the creation of the first navigable canals, to the rise of the flourishing economic and cultural centre in the late Middle Ages, to its decline from the 15th century onwards. The veritable return to the international scene came as a result of the extensive expansion of the port between 1970 and 1985.

Bruges as a trading centre

The connectedness with the sea runs like a thread through the rich history of Bruges.


The early history begins about 10,000 years before the present day, when the North Sea was created by the warming of the poles and rising sea levels. This formed the delta of the great currents. Around about 500 B.C., the sea inundated the new coastal plain on various occasions. Creeks and channels were formed, along which ships could reach inland. 


Thanks to its favourable location and connection to the sea, in the early Middle Ages Bruges developed into an international and industrious trading city with a port. 


However, in 1134, the land north and northeast of Bruges was again inundated, giving the city an even better connection to the sea. The 'Sincfal' creek was cut deeper and given a new name: het Zwin. Via het Zwin, large ships could sail safely as far as Damme, the outport of Bruges. Moreover, this natural connection facilitated supplies to the city. A network of canals, called the 'reien', made it possible to bring merchandise to the centre. 


Well into the 16th century, Bruges remained the most important trading centre in northwestern Europe.  


However, the city subsequently endured a period of poverty. One of the reasons was the silting up of het Zwin, the lifeline for maritime accessibility. Other ports such as Antwerp, Hamburg and Bremen developed and gradually took over Bruges' trading role.

Construction of a seaport

It was the publication "D'une communication direct de Bruges à la mer" by hydraulic engineer Auguste de Maere in 1877 that prompted the turnaround. De Maere was alderman of Public Works for the city of Ghent and, with his brochure, wanted above all to reconnect his home city with the sea. However, his project did not find much of an audience in Ghent, but in Bruges everyone rallied around the idea. King Leopold II was also a strong proponent of a new seaport on the coast. In 1891, the Belgian government set up the "Commission Mixte de Bruges Port de Mer," which held a competition to build a seaport in Bruges with an outlet to the sea along Heist. 


On 1 June 1894, an agreement was reached between the Belgian state, the city of Bruges and Messrs. Louis Coiseau and Jean Cousin, in which the conditions regarding the construction and operation of the new port were laid down.


It would consist of 3 parts:


  • an outport on the Belgian coast; this site was called "Zeebrugge," meaning "Bruges-on-the-Sea";
  • a sea channel from the outport to Bruges;
  • an inland port in Bruges itself, located north of the city.


The works for the construction of the port were carried out by the 'Compagnie des Installations maritimes de Bruges', which was incorporated on 25 November 1895 and later became the 'Maatschappij van de Brugse Zeevaartinrichtingen' or M.B.Z. - the current seaport of Bruges.


50% of the capital of this company was subscribed to by the City of Bruges, the other 50% by Messrs Coiseau and Cousin and other private persons. The works started in 1896 and continued until 1905. 


On 7 July 1907, King Leopold II solemnly inaugurated the port.

A difficult start

In the early years, shipping traffic remained disappointingly low: every year Zeebrugge received between 200 and 250 ships. This was mainly due to a lack of return freight for the ships, the lack of adequate road and rail connections, and the limited hinterland industry. 


The anticipated transatlantic passenger services also fell short of expectations. However, two regular liner services were launched: the passenger service that connected Zeebrugge with Hull twice a week and a frequent connection with Rotterdam.  

The port during the World Wars

The Germans proved the importance of Zeebrugge's strategic location during World War I. They made Zeebrugge and Bruges the base for part of their fleet of U-boats. After World War I, the port was reduced to rubble and had to be rebuilt


During World War II, Zeebrugge played a rather modest role. Just before the arrival of the Germans, some ships were sunk in strategic places and the lock gates were blown up. As liberation drew near, the Germans began to systematically destroy the port facilities, except in Bruges, where they encountered opposition from the resistance. The port was largely destroyed and Zeebrugge was once again in need of reconstruction

bestorming van de havendam - Sint Georges Raid op Zeebrugge


After the war, shipping slowly returned. It was not until 1951 that all the repair works were completed. Adaptation works allowed the port to receive larger petroleum tankers. In 1961, the Sinclair Petroleum Terminal became operational and the Prins Filips Dock was commissioned in 1962. 


The real breakthrough for Zeebrugge came in the second half of the 1960s along with the second maritime revolution: an increase in the scale of ships and the emergence of new techniques to handle unit loads, roll-on/roll-off traffic and containerisation. From 1964 on, the British shipping company Townsend-Thoresen organised ferry services from Zeebrugge for passengers and freight to Dover and Felixstowe. In 1972, North Sea Ferries also started a regular ferry service to Hull.


Zeebrugge's rise prompted the government to look into the further expansion of the port. 


The works for the major extension were carried out between 1972 and 1985 and included the construction of:


  • The outer port: built in the sea and protected by two long breakwaters of 4 km long, accessible without locks for large seagoing vessels. Thanks to the direct access from the sea and the large water depth in the navigation channel and along the quay walls (up to Z - 16 m), the outer port is particularly suitable for fast container and roll-on/roll-off traffic. 
  • The Pierre Vandamme Lock (500 m long, 57 m wide and with a useful water depth of up to 18.50 m): gives access to the Zeebrugge inner port, which is equipped with two large docks:
    * the North Inlet Dock (with a water depth of up to 14 m)
    * the Southern Channel-bassin (up to 18.5 m deep)
    The quay areas around these docks are equipped with various terminals for the handling, storage or distribution of new cars, breakbulk, project cargo and containers. 


The new port of Bruges-Zeebrugge was officially opened by H.M. King Baudouin I on 20 July 1985. 

Increase in goods traffic

As a result of the new port infrastructure, several major transhipment companies opened new terminals in Zeebrugge. These can serve various types and tonnages of vessels and handle almost all types of goods. For this reason, various shipping companies have included Zeebrugge as a fixed port of call in the schedule of their European and intercontinental liner services.


The number of ships and the freight traffic have also increased significantly since then: since 1985, 10,000 ships moored at Zeebrugge every year and the freight traffic there grew from 14 million tons in 1985 to 35.5 million tons in 2000. 

Growth at a rapid pace

From 2010 on, the globalisation of the world economy was particularly noticeable in the marked increase in ship dimensions and the increase in standardised cargo volumes in containers. New connections, capacity expansion, more modern and new terminals, new services, and improved infrastructure and accessibility facilitate the ongoing (progressive) development of the port.


This also explains the port's position as a world leader in the handling of new cars and its expertise in handling roll-on/roll-off traffic.

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