The Port of Antwerp lies on the banks of the River Schelde about 88 kilometers from the North Sea in Belgium. Capital of Antwerp Province in Flanders, one of Belgium's three regions, the Port of Antwerp is about 43 kilometers east-northeast of the Port of Ghent and about 45 kilometers north of the Port of Brussels. The Port of Antwerp is one of the world's busiest seaports. Over 472 thousand people live in the city, and almost 1.2 million people call the metropolitan area home.
In 2005, the American Association of Port Authorities reported that the Port of Antwerp was the second busiest port in Europe and the 17th busiest in the world (defined by the amount of cargo handled) in 2005. The Port of Antwerp focuses on general, bulk, and project cargoes. It is also home to the second largest petrochemical industrial complex in the world, after only Houston, Texas. The Port of Antwerp is also one of the world's most important centers for the diamond trade.
Archaeological evidence suggests the presence of Gallo-Roman settlement in the area of the Port of Antwerp during the 2nd and 3rd Centuries AD. By the 4th Century, Germanic Franks had settled the area and given the Port of Antwerp its name. Interestingly, it is said the name comes from the combination of "anda," meaning "at," and "werpum," meaning "wharf." Thus, the Port of Antwerp has been important to the area's development since the city's beginnings.
From the 5th to 7th Centuries, the Merovingian, a Frankish dynasty, ruled the territory around the Port of Antwerp. Now defended by fortifications, the Port of Antwerp was Christianized in the 7th Century by Saint Amand of Flanders.
By the end of the 10th Century, the River Scheldt was a boundary for the Holy Roman Empire, and the Port of Antwerp was a military territory that protected the Empire from outside invaders.
The first written record of the Port of Antwerp was a mention of the port as a departure point for passengers going to Zeeland and England during the 12th Century as well as an exporter of Rhine and Mosel wines to England.
Development of the textile industry in the 13th and early 14th Centuries brought the first period of growth to the Port of Antwerp when imports of English wool began to inspire local commercial efforts. Merchants from Italy and Holland also came to the Port of Antwerp to buy English wool. During this era of development, the Port of Antwerp contained three docks, and a shipping district grew up along the river's banks.
In the late 1500s and early 1600s, heavy storms and floods deepened the Scheldt estuary, allowing larger sea-going vessels to dock in the Port of Antwerp. The port began to expand northward with the building of the Sint-Pietersvliet dock in 1450.
The Port of Antwerp's golden age took place in the 16th Century. Trade flourished based on goods made in Netherlands provinces and by local craftsmen for export to France, Spain, and Morocco. By 1550, the Port of Antwerp had ten wharves and eight docks that spanned two kilometers along the river.
In 1558, the Spanish took the Port of Antwerp, and the area was separated into North Netherland (today The Netherlands) and South Netherland (today Belgium). With a Dutch blockade of the River Scheldt, and for two centuries the busy port was starved for commerce. The formerly wealthy commercial center was reduced to the status of a simple river port.
While the blockade persisted, the Port of Antwerp developed new commercial outlets using the canals that connected Ghent to Ostend and Brugge on the North Sea. Ships from France, Scotland, and England began to use this inland canal route to get to the Port of Antwerp.
The modern Port of Antwerp began in 1811 with the construction of the Bonaparte Dock and continued in 1813 with the Willem Dock and the Bonaparte lock. From 1816 to 1929, the Port of Antwerp underwent tremendous growth in the volume of cargo it handled. Traffic with Africa, the Americas, and Asia created a boom in intercontinental trade, and trade with the German hinterland expanded. German, French, and American trading companies opened offices in the Port of Antwerp as the port's commercial traffic grew.
The first railway line in Belgium connected the Port of Antwerp to the Port of Cologne in 1843, creating the first cross-border rail link between Belgium and Germany. From 1856 to 1870, eight new docks were added to the Port of Antwerp, and export cargoes increased six-fold.
The Port of Antwerp was becoming an important gateway for Western Europe for overseas trade. The Port of Antwerp underwent a complete make-over in the 1880s. The quays along the River Scheldt were straightened, and five new docks were added.
During the early 20th Century, the Port of Antwerp grew tremendously in size, capacity, and cargo volume. Quays were extended, new docks were excavated, and a third sea lock was constructed. By 1929, the Port of Antwerp covered 300 hectares, contained 36 kilometers of quays, and handled over 26 million tons of cargo.
By the 1930s, the Port of Antwerp was the third-busiest seaport in continental Europe and enjoyed an outstanding reputation for handling general cargo efficiently. Private operators added specialized facilities for the transshipment of grain, coal, chemicals, refrigerated goods, and fruits. Industrial companies arrived with auto-assembly and oil refining plants.
When the Port of Antwerp was liberated at the end of World War II, it was one of the few ports in Europe that had not been destroyed. Traffic and cargo volume quickly reached new records. In 1950, the port handled 29 million tons of cargo. Post war expansion included the construction of two new docks and the first oil refining activities.
A Ten Year Plan for the Port of Antwerp covering the period from 1956 to 1965 included construction of new docks, expansion of the loading bridge company, addition of a mooring jetty for tankers, and construction of a new sealock.
In 1967, the Atlantic Span, the world's first container ship, arrived at the Churchill Dock in the Port of Antwerp. Container traffic grew quickly and dramatically from the beginning. In 1966, the Port of Antwerp handled almost 296 thousand tons of containers. In 1969, over one million tons of containers passed through the Port of Antwerp.
In the middle 1960s, the Port of Antwerp started thinking about developing the left bank of the River Scheldt for cargo-handling as industrial sites demanded access to the port. The plan that developed created the "Waasland port," an industrial port emphasizing petrochemicals. In 1969, the Kennedy tunnel was opened, creating a second crossing of the River Scheldt.
A six-year plan covering 1970-1976 addressed infrastructure needs for the Port of Antwerp. The right bank port complex was finished, and a canal dock was constructed to provide access to the left bank through the Sawftinge marshes, offering an alternate path to the port that allowed ships to avoid the Bath bottleneck. The Port of Antwerp once again hit all-time highs in cargo handled in this decade, handling 60 million tons of cargo in 1970 and 3.3 million containers in 1975.
The most recent phase of industrial development in the Port of Antwerp area began with the economic revival of the late 1980s. Large investments brought increased production capability to area companies, leading to need for expanded freight-handling facilities. Increases in shipping created needs for larger cargo-handling sites on the landward side of the Port of Antwerp. As a result, remaining open areas of the right bank in the Port of Antwerp were developed. In 1985, container volume reached a new high of 11 million tons.
In 1991, a chain of radar stations along the river was established, giving the ability to monitor ships from the mouth of the estuary to the docks in the Port of Antwerp. By 1995, freight volume reached 108 million tons, including almost 26 million tons of containerized cargo.
In the 1970s, most of the freight handled by the Port of Antwerp was created or destined for Belgium or Luxemberg, and exports accounted for much of the volume. Twenty years later in the 1990s, most of the cargo passing through the Port of Antwerp was bound for Germany, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Switzerland.
The Antwerp Port Authority was established in 1997 as an independent municipal company, giving the Port of Antwerp the help it needed in focusing on dealings with stakeholders in government and around the world. Since then, the growth in container traffic has exceeded the port's capacity despite efficiencies in using available terminals and private investment in modern container terminals. With the limits on the right bank having been reached, the Port of Antwerp began to seek options for using the left bank. In 1998, the Flemish government approved construction of the Deurganck tidal dock that would offer direct access for container ships.
In early 2001, the port authority entered into an agreement with a nature conservation group that formalized their shared vision for an ecological infrastructure network in the Port of Antwerp area. In 2002, the Flemish and Dutch governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding designed to achieve a balance between the needs for accessibility, nature conservation, and flood protection.
King Albert II officially opened the Deurganck Dock in the summer of 2005. When all the container terminals on the dock are operational, the Duerganck will have capacity to handle over seven million TEUs per year, more than doubling the Port of Antwerp's capacity for containers. The governments of Belgium and The Netherlands also signed four treaties related to collaboration on activities in the Scheldt estuary, joint nautical management on the Scheldt, and tugging charges in the ports on the Scheltd.