Oostende is a municipality at the terminus of the Ghent-Brugge Canal in the Belgian province of West Flanders. Containing the boroughs of Stene, Zandvoorde, and Mariakerke, the Port of Oostende is the largest city on Belgium’s North Sea coast. Oostende is a busy resort and fishing port with major industries of fish curing, shipbuilding, oyster culture, and manufacturing of tobacco and soap. An important crossing point on the English Channel, the Port of Oostende is considered by many to be the “Gateway to Europe” for rail traffic. Tourists love its long beaches and popular casino. In 2007, almost 70 thousand people lived in the Port of Oostende.
Until the 13th Century, Oostende was a small fishing village, depending on the herring fishery for its livelihood. In 1265, it received city status and permission to have a market hall. On the North Sea coast, it was positioned to be an important harbor.
In the early 1400s, the people of Oostende won approval for building a port that would help safeguard the city from the whims of the North Sea that had a habit of flooding the area. It was the target of many conquering armies and the frequent victim of being ransacked or destroyed. In the early 1600s, Catholics undertook a three-year siege of the Protestant city that ended with 80 thousand casualties. The old fishing village became a fortress city.
The modern port was established in 1584 on the dunes at the city’s western side. After the siege, the Port of Oostende became an imposing port for privateers. Years of wars made fishing too dangerous, so villagers captured royal vessels of Belgium’s enemies to make a living.
When the Dutch closed the harbor of Antwerp in 1722, the Port of Oostende rose in stature. Austrian Emperor Charles VI approved a trade monopoly for the Port of Oostende with the Far East and Africa. For a brief time, the Oostende Trade Company could establish overseas colonies, but that ended in 1731 due to pressure from Britain and Holland, who believed international trade was their exclusive domain. Still the harbor for the Port of Oostende continued to grow.
The Port of Oostende became a free port at the time of the American Revolution. In the late 1700s, about three thousand vessels carried cargo to and from the port each year. New merchant docks began to appear, and gained a reputation as a fishery port. With merchant ships arriving, a great diversity of products arrived there bound for inland Europe.
The early 1800s saw a new era of prosperity. After Belgium’s independence in 1830, the Port of Oostende gained prominence as a resort area when Belgian kings and aristocrats discovered it as a vacation spot. Passenger services were established in 1846 to move people between England and Belgium. In the late 1800s, the port was renovated to meet the demands of growing traffic, and the Belgian government took over port management. In 1905, the new Port of Oostende was inaugurated.
In the 20th Century, the Port of Oostende was an important fishing, trade, and passenger port as well as a popular resort area. It was an important German submarine base during World War I. As a German coastal defense stronghold, it was severely damaged by the Allies during World War II. Liberated by Canada in 1944, the city rebuilt most of its public buildings.