Vrijmaking van de Schelde.

Paul Jean Clays, Feestelijkheden op de Antwerpse Schelde bij de afkoop van de Scheldetol in 1863 | Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, MAS, photo: Bart Huysmans & Michel Wuyts

Economy & Technology
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The Opening-Up of the Scheldt

Antwerp, Gateway to the World

On 1 and 2 August 1863 Antwerp celebrated: the city lit with lanterns, streets crowded with people, fireworks on the quays, decorated boats everywhere on the Scheldt. From now on no toll was payable to the Netherlands for the right to sail up the Scheldt. A new flourishing period dawned for the port city.

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The division between the northern and southern parts of the Low Countries, at the end of the 16th century, had been a blow to Antwerp’s prosperity. Not only did rich merchants and entrepreneurs flee to the north, but the city lost control of the estuary of the Scheldt. Henceforth the Dutch Republicthe predecessor of the present-day Netherlands. demanded a toll from ships wanting to reach Antwerp from the North Sea.

Under French and Dutch rule, the mouth of the Scheldt was opened for a while but after the revolution of 1830 Belgium again had to accept a toll. That disadvantageous situation was maintained until 1863, when Belgium was able to buy off the toll with a single payment. The free-trade idea was gaining ground.

Twee stoomschepen.

Antwerp, FelixArchief, 2004#2738

Two steamships moored at the Rijn Quay in Antwerp around 1900. In the second half of the 19th century steamships replaced sailing ships. From the 1950s onward the diesel engine was dominant.

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Antwerp, Gateway to the World

From the second half of the 19th century Antwerp harbour entered a new flourishing period. The number of ships quickly increased and those ships were becoming larger and larger. The city and the Belgian government invested in docks, locks, cranes, storage space and railways. From all over the world shipping companies, trading companies and investors descended on Antwerp.

The harbour was not only crucial for stocking up on food, but was also a stimulus to the industrialisation of Belgium. Via the Scheldt raw materials for industry arrived. Ships left from Antwerp with products manufactured in Belgium, in particular iron and steel products. European but also North and South American countries were the principal trading partners. From the end of the 19th century Antwerp was also the hinge in the brutal exploitation of the Congo Free State, later Belgian Congo. From 1895 on ships transported natural riches such as rubber, ivory and copper.

From the 1950s Antwerp imported massive quantities of crude oil, for example from the Middle East. In the harbour a petrochemical industry was established which processed the oil into fuels and plastics such as polythene.

In the 1970s the harbour expanded to become a logistical hub between the West-European hinterland and the rest of the world. Containers were delivered, refilled and sent off again: across the sea in ever larger container ships, overland increasingly frequently by lorry. As a distribution centre and industrial area the harbour contributed greatly to the economic growth of the country. At the same time the increasing drug traffic caused social problems and mobility around Antwerp seized up.

Focal points

Schelde vertrek Congoboot.

Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, MAS, AS.1995.012.064

Departure of a boat for the Congo from the Steen fortress in 1956.





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Red Star Line and Congo Boat

Apart from goods, millions of people from all over the world passed through the port of Antwerp. Two shipping companies made their mark on the recent history of the city and became famous far beyond Antwerp.

From 1873 to 1934 the ships of the American company Red Star Line took emigrants and work migrants from all over Europe from Antwerp’s Rijn quay to Philadelphia and New York. People came back in the opposite direction if their employment was at an end or to visit family. In total the company carried an estimated 2.5 million passengers. Due to the tightening of the American immigration laws in the 1920s and the worldwide economic crisis of the 1930s the Red Star Line went under.

The famous ‘Congo Boats’ of the Belgian shipping company Compagnie Maritime Belge not only transported goods between Antwerp and Matadi in Congo. Every year some eight thousand passengers travelled with them, including many Belgians who worked in the colony. After the Second World War these colonials increasingly frequently took their families with them. Congolese also made the crossing, as seamen and now and then as passengers. In the 1960s the rise of commercial airlines and the end of colonialisation forced the company to reorientate: away from passenger transport in the direction of many destinations worldwide.

Groene Fietsers.

Peter Lembrechts

On 6 October 1973 some 5,000 cyclists, led by Father Luc Versteylen, protested in the Great Market-Place in Antwerp against the digging of the pusher boat canal from Oelegem to Zandvliet. In so doing the ‘Green Cyclists’ opposed the sacrificing of vulnerable nature to economic growth. Versteylen’s ecological movement grew into Agalev (Anders Gaan Leven/Living Differently) and in 1977 became a political party.

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Limits to growth

After the Second World War the expansion of the port of Antwerp continued. When from the 1950s on more and ever larger ships berthed in Antwerp, the Belgian government approved extensive investments. Along the right bank of the Scheldt docks were dug as far as the Dutch border. Locks and canals lessened the dependence on the tide, dredging works made the river wider and deeper. On the left bank too the harbour expanded. In Doel a start was made in 1969 on the construction of a first nuclear power station. To allow the harbour to grow, the polder villages of Oosterweel, Wilmarsdonk and Oorderen had to be emptied. Agricultural land and unique natural habitats were also sacrificed.

There were early protests against the harbour expansion but from the 1970s on these swelled considerably. The up-and-coming environmental movement put the severe air and water contamination on the political agenda. There were also campaigns against nuclear power. The announced disappearance of Doel, the village where the reactor was located, was to be argued about for years.

Since the 21st century global warming has become a more and more urgent problem. With its huge petroleum refineries, greenhouse-gas producing industry and diesel-fuelled ships and lorries, the harbour has an important role and responsibility in the switch to a sustainable economy.

Rond 1500 groeide Antwerpen uit tot de belangrijkste haven van Noordwest-Europa. Ets van de Antwerpse prentkunstenaar Joris Hoefnagel, rond 1574 of 1598. De stadsomwalling en de citadel zijn goed te zien.
University of Antwerp, Special Collections, Prentenkabinet, tg:uapr:31

Around 1500 Antwerp grew into the most important harbour in North-West Europe. Etching by the Antwerp printmaker Joris Hoefnagel, around 1574 or 1598. The town walls and the citadel are clearly visible.

Schelde Vrij monument.
Antwerp, FelixArchief, GP#8322

Since 1883 the monument Schelde Vrij (Scheldt Free) has adorned the Marnixplaats in Antwerp. Monuments, commemorations, exhibitions and history books have presented the opening up of the Scheldt as the symbolic turning point in the history of the port of Antwerp.

Eugeen Van Mieghem.
Private collection

Eugeen Van Mieghem, Emigrants in the Montevideo Street, 1899. The Antwerp artist (1875-1930) immortalised in this pastel painting a group of Jewish emigrants from the Russian empire, waiting at the reception centre of the Red Star Line.

Entrepot du Congo.
Wikimedia Commons

View of the Entrepôt du Congo on the Antwerp Plantin Quay. The warehouse was the property of the trading company of Edouard Bunge (1851-1927), specialising in rubber and ivory. Bunge also financed Leopold II and the Congo Free State.

Schelde laden en lossen.
Antwerp, FelixArchief GP#8346

Loading and unloading in the port of Antwerp, around 1900.

Antwerp, FelixArchief, FOTO-HB#1458

Wilmarsdonk was one of the polder villages which after the Second World War had to disappear in order to make way for the Port of Antwerp. Only the church tower was left standing.

Petrochemische cluster 1979.
Antwerp, FelixArchief, FOTO-HB#2468

Petrochemicals in the Antwerp port area. As of 2023, Antwerp has the largest petrochemical cluster in Europe.

Discover more on this topic

Antwerpen vrij
Labyrint – Haven van Antwerpen

Bron: VRT archief, Felixarchief Antwerpen e.a. – 26 maa 1985

Ontmoeting met twee sterren

Bron: VRT archief – 17 jun 1958

Labyrint – Haven van Antwerpen

Bron: VRT archief, Felixarchief Antwerpen e.a. – 26 maa 1985

Red Star Line
Red Star Line – Het vertrek

Bron: VRT archief, Offworld Eklektik Productions – 1 okt 2013

Red Star Line Museum
Vlaanderen Vakantieland

Bron: VRT archief, Red Star Line Museum e.a. – 5 okt 2013

De Memoires – Luc Versteylen

Bron: VRT archief – 10 apr 2006

Groene fietsers
De jaren zeventig – Het groene verzet

Bron: VRT archief – 23 jan 1997

De jaren zeventig – Het groene verzet

Bron: VRT archief – 23 jan 1997

Oosterdonk discussie
Terug naar Oosterdonk

Bron: VRT archief, Canvas en KRO en Favourite Films – 1 nov 1997

Oosterdonk gedicht
Terug naar Oosterdonk

Bron: VRT archief, Canvas en KRO en Favourite Films – 18 okt 1997


Bron: VRT archief, Eyeworks – 1976


Beelaert Bram (red.)
Red Star Line Antwerpen, 1873-1934

Davidsfonds, 2013. 

De Vroey Linde
Het red star line museum Antwerpen: over miljoenen mensen en één droom

Ludion, 2014. 

Devos Greta, Elewaut Guy & Geheugen Collectief
CMB 125. Navigeren door een wereld in verandering

CMB, 2020. 

Van Hooydonk Eric
Strijd om de stroom. Een politieke geschiedenis van de Schelde

Davidsfonds, 2013. 


Eekhoud Georges
La nouvelle Carthage

Espace Nord, 2015. 

Elsschot Willem
Het dwaallicht

Polis, 2018. 

Van Ginderachter Maarten, Aerts Koen & Vrints Antoon (red.)
Het land dat nooit was: een tegenfeitelijke geschiedenis van België

De Bezige Bij, 2015. 

Van Gucht Luc & Morjaeu Luc
Suske en Wiske, Sterrenrood (nr. 342)

De Standaard, 2014.  

Verhaegen Marc
Suske en Wiske. Het Verdronken Land (nr. 234)

De Standaard, 2000. 

Nu kijken

Virtuele tour door Port of Antwerp

Bijkomend kijk/luister materiaal

Terug naar Oosterdonk

Over het verdwijnen van de polderdorpen door de uitbreiding van de haven (1997)

Over Water

Speelt zich af in de Antwerpse haven (2018-2020)