The seaport of the Schelde estuary, is practically the youngest and the least interesting of the great Belgian towns. It should therefore be visited last by the historically-minded tourist. A small town, known in Flemish as Antwerpen (“at the Wharf “), a name altered in French and English into Anvers and Antwerp, existed here, it is true, as early as the seventh century, and suffered heavily in the ninth from the ubiquitous Northmen. But its situation at the open mouth of the great estuary of the Schelde, exposed to every passing piratical invader, rendered it unfit for the purposes of early commerce. The trade of Flanders, in its first beginnings, accordingly concentrated itself in the more protected inland ports like Bruges and Ghent; while that of Brabant of which province Antwerp itself formed a part, found a safer home in Brussels or Louvain, far up some minor internal river. Hence the rise of Antwerp dates no further back than the end of the fifteenth and begin-nine of the sixteenth century.
Its rise, that is to say, as a great commercial port, for from an early period it was the capital of a petty margrave, under the Duke of Brabant. As northern Europe grew gradually quieter during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Antwerp rose somewhat in importance; and’, the magnificence of its cathedral, the earliest part of which dates from 1352, sufficiently shows that the town was increasing in wealth and population during the palmy period when Bruges and Ghent governed the trade of the Continent. But when, in the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, Bruges began to decline (partly from political causes, but more still from changes in navigation and trade routes), Antwerp rose suddenly to the first position in the Low Countries and perhaps in Europe. Its large, deep, and open port was better adapted to the in-creasing shipping of the new epoch than were the shallow and narrow canals or rivers of Ghent, Bruges, and Brussels. The discovery of America, and of the route to India by the Cape of Good Hope, had revolutionized both commerce and navigation; vessels were built larger and of deeper draught; and the Schelde became for a time what the Thames, the Clyde, and the Mersey have become in our own period. Antwerp under Charles V. was probably even more prosperous and wealthier than Venice. The centre of traffic was shifting from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic seaboard. The city reached its highest point of prosperity about 1568, when it is said that thousands of vessels lay at anchor in the Schelde, and that more than a hundred craft sailed and arrived daily. Even allowing for the smaller burden of those days, however, this is probably an exaggeration. The great fairs of Antwerp, of which those of Leipzig and Nijni Novgorod are now the only modern representatives, also drew thousands of merchants from all parts of the world. The chief imports were wool and other agricultural produce from England, grain from the Baltic, wines from France and Germany, spices and sugar from Portuguese territory, and silks and Oriental luxuries from Venice and other parts of Italy. The exports were the manufactured goods of Flanders and Brabant, countries which still took the lead in textile fabrics, tapestries, carpets, and many other important industries.
It is to this late period of wealth and prosperity that Antwerp owes most of the great buildings and works of art which still adorn it. Its Cathedral, indeed, varies in date in different parts from the middle of the fourteenth to the beginning of the sixteenth century and some portions were not quite completed till the seventeenth ; but the general aspect of the core of the town is of the Renaissance epoch. It contains in its modern gallery not a few Flemish paintings of the earlier period, produced by the artists of Ghent, Bruges, and Brussels; but its own native art dates no further back than Quentin Matsys (1466-1531), the last of the painters of the Netherlands who adhered to the national type of art ; while it reached its highest point in Rubens (1577-1640), who introduced into the Low Countries the developed style of the Italian Renaissance, adapted and strained through an essentially robust Flemish nature. It is only at Antwerp that these two great masters can be studied to the highest advantage; they illustrate, one the rise, the other the culmination and afterglow, of the greatness of their native city. I say native advisedly, for though Rubens most probably was born at Siegen (in Nassau), he was an Antwerper by descent, by blood, by nature, and by residence.
The decline of the city in later times was due to a variety of concurrent causes, some of them strangely artificial, which long distracted trade from one of its most natural outlets in Europe. The Spanish troops began the devastation, during the abortive attempt of the southern provinces to shake off the yoke of Spain; in 1576, the Town Hall and nearly a thousand noble buildings were burnt, while eight thousand people were ruthlessly massacred. In 1585, the Duke of Parma completed the destruction of the local prosperity : the population was largely scattered, and the trade of Antwerp completely ruined. The long and unsuccessful rebellion, the division which it unhappily caused between Holland and Belgium, and the rapid commercial rise, first of Amsterdam and then of England, all contributed to annihilate the mercantile importance of Antwerp. The Dutch erected forts on their own territory at the mouth of the Schelde, and refused to allow shipping to proceed up the river. Finally by the Treaty of Munster in 1648 it was agreed that no seagoing vessel should be allowed to ascend the estuary to Antwerp, but that all ships should unload at a Dutch port, goods being forwarded by river craft to the former capital of European commerce. From that date forward to the French occupation in 1794, Antwerp sank to the position of a mere local centre, while Rotterdam and Amsterdam took its place as commercial cities. In the latter year, however, the French reopened the navigation of the Schelde, and destroyed the iniquitous Dutch forts at the entrance to the river. Napoleon, in whose empire the town was included, constructed a harbour and built new quays ; but after his fall, Antwerp was made aver to Holland, and began to trade as a Dutch seaport. The erection of Belgium into a separate kingdom in 1830 again told against it, as the Dutch maintained their unjust power of levying tolls on the shipping; in addition to which drawback, Antwerp had suffered heavily from siege during the War of Independence. In 1863, however, the Dutch extortioners were bought off by a heavy money payment, and Antwerp, the natural out-let of the Schelde, and to a great extent of the German empire, once more regained its natural place as a main commercial port of Europe. Since that date, its rise has been extraordinarily rapid, in correspondence with the large development of Belgian manufactures and still more with the new position of Germany as a world-trading power. Indeed, nothing but the artificial restrictions placed upon its cam merce by the selfishness and injustice of the Dutch could ever have prevented the seaport of the Schelde from ranking as one of the chief harbours of the world, as soon as ocean-going ships demanded ports of that size, and as commerce had no longer anything to fear from marauding pirates.
As a consequence of these conditions, we have to expect in Antwerp mainly a central town of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with an immense modern outgrowth of very recent origin. Save its fine Cathedral, and its imported pictures, it has little or nothing of mediæval interest.
The population of Antwerp is almost entirely Flemish, though French is the language of the higher commerce; and the town is the stronghold of the old Flemish feeling in Belgium, as opposed to the Parisian tone of Brussels.
Concurrently with the rise of its renewed commercial importance, Antwerp has become once more a centre of Belgian art, and especially of the pure Flemish school of archaists, who have chosen their subjects from Flemish history, and followed to some extent the precedents of the early Flemish painters. Examples of these will meet us later.
Choose an hotel on the Place Verte, if possible, or at least very near it. You cannot gain a first impression of Antwerp in less than four or five days.
Antwerp is a confused town, a maze without a plan : till you have learnt your way about, I advise you to follow the tram-lines: you will thus avoid the slummy streets which abound even in the best quarter.