How did Port of Antwerp become the largest in Europe geographically?

The Port of Antwerp can look back on a particularly rich (colourful) colourful history. Since the Middle Ages already, vessels with cargo and passengers have found their way down the Scheldt.

The port area

Antwerp is the biggest port area in the world Over the centuries, the area grew to exactly 12,068 hectares, or about 20,000 football fields.

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The Scheldt

Romans, Vikings, Spaniards, Napoleon; they all understood the Scheldt's strategic importance. Just because of its location on the river, Antwerp was able to grow into what it is today: a metropolis with an international port.

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Brabo who chopped off giant Antigoon's hand and threw it in the Scheldt? It's a great legend, but the name Antwerp is not derived from ‘hand werpen’ (hand throwing). Sorry to spoil the fun.


How did Antwerp get its name then? The Scheldt still plays a key role. It is a tidal river, between low and high tide there is a difference of five to six metres. At high tide, the river leaves sludge which is deposited on the bank. After a while, this results in an accumulation of sludge, which is 'thrown onto the river bank' again and again or is ‘aangeworpen' in Dutch. Aanwerpen, Antwerp. Less exciting in other words than Brabo and Antigoon. But the only correct explanation for the name of the beautiful city of Antwerp.


This accumulated sludge is of course the ideal place for anyone wanting to sit high, dry and safe. The ideal location for a settlement, and later for a city. Higher than the vast surroundings, with an excellent view of the ships that arrive. Antwerp's former inhabitants saw every enemy coming from miles away.


The Scheldt as a lifeline


Antwerpers only have to put a finger in the Scheldt to be in touch with the whole world. The Scheldt is the lifeline that connects the city with the rest of the world. Just look at Antwerp's history over the centuries. A period of economic decline followed every time the Scheldt was blocked. The city went into decline, the inhabitants moved away. When the lifeline is closed, the heart stops beating.


For the best known example, and the absolute low point, we have to go back to 1585. After the city had fallen into Spanish hands, the Scheldt was blocked. In the centuries before, Antwerp had grown into a commercial world centre. After the Scheldt was blocked, Antwerp went rapidly from world port to inland port.


Napoleon's ‘big bang’


At the start of the 19th century, Napoleon was responsible for a new big bang in the port. During the French occupation, the emperor made huge changes to the city and port A large part of the open canals and waterways - which were used to bring the goods from the port to the city - were covered Near the Hanzehuis (Hanseatic House), where today's MAS is located, two docks were built behind a lock: Le Petit Bassin and Le Grand Bassin. In anticipation of the planned conquest of England, Napoleon used the small dock as the home port for his military fleet. The big dock was going to be used for commercial purposes.


The modern port was born. The medieval loading and unloading along the river, with boats rocking up and down due to the tides all the time, was over. The docks behind the locks were a guarantee for calm water and had a huge potential to accommodate large ships.


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


No more tolls


1863 was a milestone for the Port of Antwerp. In that year we reached a historic agreement with the Netherlands. The Scheldt became toll-free, and could never ever be closed again. Antwerp would be accessible forever


The agreement gave the port an enormous boost. The industrial revolution was in full swing, new shipping techniques made it possible to connect with Asia and Africa, and Antwerp took full advantage of its unique location 80 kilometres inland. This is a huge strength. It means the port is close to the rich hinterland. Close to the big production centres, but also close to hundreds of millions of consumers. Products are quickly transported to and from the port by barge, road, rail and pipeline.


Thanks to the port, Antwerp was bursting at the seams as a trading city. To welcome more and larger ships, the quays of the Scheldt were straightened. New docks caused the port to move further north. The port grew bigger and bigger further away from the city.


World War II and the Ten-year plan


By World War II the port went from the Eilandje (Docklands) to what is now the Van Cauwelaerts lock. The city was hit hard at the end of the war. But unlike Rotterdam and Hamburg the port remained relatively undamaged. A hub for military and commercial transport, the port played a big role in the liberation.


After World War II, the bombed ports of Rotterdam and Hamburg were rapidly rebuilt into new, modern ports. Suddenly, the outdated port of Antwerp found it difficult to compete. A thorough modernisation operation was required. This was made possible thanks to the Marshall Plan and the Belgian government's Ten-year plan. Massive investments modernised and expanded the port


New, large docks were dug, such as the Canal dock. The port incorporated the polder villages of Wilmarsdonk, Lillo, Oorderen and Oosterweel. Farmer's sons became dockworkers. Antwerp developed into the European chemical cluster. The biggest lock in the world was built a few kilometres from the Dutch border: the Zandvliet lock. The Port of Antwerp was doing well.


World records on Left bank


In the north, the port of Antwerp literally hit the border with the Netherlands. On the right bank there was no possibility to grow any further. The expansion had to continue on the other bank of the Scheldt.


No villages had to disappear on the left bank, the area consisted only of polders. In the late seventies, the Waasland port took shape. One problem: with the Kallo lock this port only had one lock for years. This is a huge risk: If the one lock fails, the only entrance to the port on the left bank is 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, to date, still the number one in the Guinness Book of World Records!


Growth in front of the locks


For large container lines, the locks and the docks behind them are no longer absolutely necessary. Their immense Gantry cranes can easily unload a container ship while it is subjected to tidal action. The locks therefore only waste time.


That is why the Port of Antwerp decided to build two new terminals, first on the right bank. The North sea terminal and the Euro terminal were the first two in front of the locks. This made the port that little bit bigger again. On the left bank, without a lock, a new dock of no less than 4.5 kilometres was built on the river side too: the Deurganck dock. The largest tidal dock in the world, this is also one for the record books.


The Deurganck dock will soon have a twin brother. Shipping continues to increase in scale, while container traffic continues to grow year on year. To continue playing its role as an international port and economic engine, the port of Antwerp must grow with it.