Antwerp can thank Napoleon Bonaparte for its international port status

22nd March 2013, Comments 0 comments

  The ‘Bonaparte on the Scheldt’ exhibition in the Antwerp MAS Museum aan de Stroom does not detail the biography of the French leader, but rather highlights the influence of two decades of French rule upon the city. Starting in 1794, Belgium fell under French governance, which turned out to be not a bad thing for Antwerp, as it became the most important harbour in the French empire, and certainly under the reign of Napoleon. It was the French that ensured that shipping returned to the Scheldt in 1776 once it had been reopened. “Traders immediately returned to the city,” said curator Jan Parmentier, a historian and maritime expert associated with the MAS museum. “The trans-Atlantic trade also resumed and colonial wares, oil and silk products were shipped.” In 1803, after Consul Napoleon Bonaparte’s first visit to the city, excavations started for two docks, which still exist today and are the oldest part of the port – The Bonaparte and the Willem docks. That initial visit by the French ruler was also important in another respect, as he admired the cathedral and decided it could not be demolished, going against the plans of his national agent Dargonne. Napoleon also had concrete plans for invading England, and he had shipping yards built in the Antwerp port in order to construct a naval fleet. “It was the largest naval yard in Europe,” said Parmentier. But the invasion failed and Napoleon had to start thinking defensively, especially after the defeat at Trafalgar in 1805. The French also had far-reaching plans for urbanisation with wide streets and squares. One of these projects was fulfilled – the Groenplaats, originally known as Place Bonaparte. The French were also responsible for a new administrative division of the southern part of the Netherlands into nine departments, which roughly formed the basis of the future nine provinces of Belgium. They also introduced a new civil code, the Code Napoléon, a speedy postal service, the decimal system and new measuring units like the meter. The MAS is exhibiting replicas and ships’ models, paintings, furniture, beautiful maps including recently discovered ones and many cartoons dealing with how the world was divided up. How should we now look back at the French period? “Initially there was a great deal of oppression, especially for the man-in-the- street,” said Parmentier. “We have also given voice to ordinary people of that period. The military presence also weighed heavy, and Antwerp was in part an occupied city. On the other hand, it was the foundation of the port’s later blossoming. The city became a free port with a merchant fleet that was larger than the Dutch one in 1815.”  

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