The early history of the port began circa 10,000 years before our Christian calendar, when the North Sea came into being as a result of the warming of the poles and a rise of the water level. This resulted in the delta of the large rivers (Rhine, Scheldt and Meuse). Around 500 BC, the new coastal plain was washed over several times by the sea. This resulted in creeks and channels along which ships could reach the hinterland. A settlement where people occupied themselves with salt extraction arose on the edge of this creek area. An archaeological find from the late 19th century also proves the Roman presence. When digging the new sea canal, the remains were found of a Roman vessel that dates from around 200 AD.
The name of this settlement also refers to the connection of its inhabitants with the water. Initially, it was called ‘Rogia’ (which is the original name of the navigation channel ’Reie’), but under the influence of Old Norse, the name was later changed to ‘Bryggia’, which means landing stage. In addition to the Reie, there was another creek in the vicinity, the ‘Sincfal’, but it is not clear whether it also connected Bruges to the sea.
It was not until the Vikings attacked and plundered the region in the 9th century that the count of Flanders decided to build a fortified castle at this site, around which a residential nucleus developed.
Once the invasions and the destructions by the Vikings had stopped, the inhabitants of Bruges started trading with England and Scandinavia, thanks to the excellent connections with the sea.
The sea partially retreated, thus creating salt marshes that were used to breed sheep. Man gave nature a hand by reclaiming the coastal plain through dike building.
The sheep provided wool, which was the raw material for the textile industry. In the 9th and 10th centuries, the production of cloth also developed in Ypres and Ghent. It was not long before the domestic sheep breeding was no longer sufficient and the industry was compelled to import wool from England, while the finished product (the cloth) was exported. This made Bruges into a trade centre. However, the land to the north and the north-east of Bruges was once again washed over in 1134 AD, the positive result being that Bruges had an even better connection to the sea: the Sincfal was further eroded and given a new name: ‘het Zwin’. As from that moment, it was possible to safely reach Damme with large ships via ‘het Zwin’. From Damme, the outer port of Bruges, the city could easily be supplied via a natural connection. A network of canals, the “reien”, made it possible to take the merchandise to the centre of the city.
Meanwhile, the population of Bruges keeps increasing, new parishes are created and large churches are built: the Saint Saviour’s Cathedral, the Church of Our Lady and the Saint Donaas Church. In Bruges, the merchants, who are also called patricians, are the most important citizens. In the 12th century, these patricians assume the control and the organisation of the city, under the supervision of the count. Later, the craftsmen also start to unite in guilds. After the murder of count Charles the Good in 1127, the prosperous citizens fear disturbances and plundering. That is why the new count Diederik van den Elzas grants them privileges; they build a fortification around the city and – more importantly – the city is given the right of self-government. This government consists of a council of aldermen who are chosen by the count. The aldermen are all merchants and have all administrative and judicial powers. The craftsmen are not in the least represented in this council, which logically results in friction, in particular since the citizens are laden with a heavy tax burden.
These tensions escalate and come to a head in 1280: the Belfry with the archives and the treasury of the city burn down. Count Gwijde van Dampierre intervenes and sides against the aldermen in order to confine their power. The king of France, on the other hand, wants to increase his power over the county and supports the aldermen. The city is occupied by the French. They give Bruges a new and bigger rampart with 8 city gates, some of which have been preserved to this day. Bruges is thus divided into 2 camps: on the one hand the ‘Lelieaards’, followers of the king of France and on the other hand the ‘Klauwaards’, followers of the Count of Flanders.
The antagonism reaches its summit in 1302 with the Battle of the Spurs around the Groeninghe Field (near Kortrijk), where the French army is defeated by the Klauwaards, the result being that the craftsmen are now also allowed to appoint aldermen.
This leads to a restoration of peace and a flourishing trade.
In the 14th century, Bruges becomes the hub for trade in merchandise from the South (Italy, Spain, Portugal, France) and the countries bordering the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. In addition to the traditional cloth, the Flemings especially sell carpets, horses, cattle, dairy products and herring. Import mainly included wool, tin, lead, pit coal, beer and corn from England; hide and leather from Ireland; wine, oil and salt from France, spices from Genoa; hop, wax, pitch and wood from Germany; fish from Norway and hide from Russia.
More and more foreign merchants settle in the city and build their warehouses where their representatives are established. In order to defend their interests, the merchants unite in ‘Hansen’. For the powerful “German Hanse”, Bruges was a very important trade junction, where they established an influential head office, namely the “Oosterlingenhuis” – Eastermenhouse. The bloom of Bruges is also illustrated by the power of the “Flemish Hanse of London”.
Bruges also becomes an important financial centre, mainly as a result of the arrival of the Italians. These Italians are merchants as well as bankers who change money, lend at interest and make payments. In Bruges, these financial activities mainly take place in the square in front of the inn of the Van der Beurse family. Hence the Dutch name ‘beurs’, which will later capture the world as the name for the place where money is traded. The Italian family De Medici also introduces the bill of exchange in Bruges.
The merchants in Bruges gradually withdraw from active trade and start acting as brokers or intermediaries, as a result of which they are more dependent on foreign merchants. The citizens of Bruges slowly lose hold of the trade as the main activity.
Other factors are responsible for the economic downturn of Bruges as well :
‘het Zwin’, the lifeline for the accessibility of the city by sea, starts silting up. Sluis becomes the new outer port of Bruges.
England starts its own textile industry, as a result of which the export of wool from Flanders experiences a decline. The ships that supply Bruges must often sail back empty. As a consequence, they prefer not to berth anymore. The protectionist ban on importing English cloth also compels merchants to look for other places.
Other ports, such as Antwerp, Hamburg and Bremen, develop and gradually take over the commercial position of Bruges.
It is a well-established fact that Bruges lost a lot of its economic power after 1450.
In the 15th century, under the Burgundian Dukes, Philip and Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy, the city reaches a new height, yet primarily as a cultural city. Obviously we think especially of the Flemish Primitives Hans Memling and Jan Van Eyck.
Under the Habsburgs and the Spaniards (Charles the Fifth) and during the religious wars, Bruges gradually became a dormant city. Maximilian of Austria wanted to curtail the power of Bruges and introduced high taxes. The subsequent political riots resulted in his imprisonment in Bruges in 1488. Out of revenge, he deprived the merchants of Bruges of more privileges after his release. During the Eighty Years’ War, Bruges became a front-line city and in 1604, Sluis was captured by the North Netherlands (by the troops of Maurice of Nassau): Bruges lost its outer port and its connection to the sea at one stroke.
In addition, this was again confirmed by the Westfalen Peace Treaty (1648), which involved the end of the religious wars and the definition of the borders between the North and South Netherlands. Antwerp also lost its outlet to the sea. For Holland, on the contrary, it was a ‘Golden Age’.
In the 17th century, the Flemings attempted to revive trade by digging the Canal Ostend-Bruges-Ghent with the dock (‘Handelskom’) in Bruges, but by then Bruges had not been an international port for a long time and only played a minor role as a small regional port.
Under Napoleon, the digging of a canal between Bruges and Breskens (currently known as the ‘Damse Vaart’) was started, but this project was never finished due to the Belgian revolution. All in all, the period between the 16th and the 20th century was a period of poverty for Bruges. There simply was no money to replace old buildings with new ones, as a result of which the historic setting of the Middle Ages has been largely preserved. But this has only been beneficial to the tourist sector from the second half of the 20th century onwards.
In the second half of the 19th century, Georges Rodenbach described Bruges as a poor city bled to death (‘Bruges la morte’). The publication “D’une communication directe de Bruges à la mer”, which was written in 1877 by hydraulic engineer Auguste de Maere, was the turning-point. De Maere, who was alderman of Public Works of the city of Ghent, published his brochure in particular with the purpose of reconnecting his own city to the sea, but his project could count on little support in Ghent.
In Bruges however, everyone readily accepted the idea. King Leopold II was also greatly in favour of a new seaport on the coast. Belgium had to react to the first maritime revolution, when sailing vessels were gradually replaced with much larger steel steamers. In 1891, the Belgian government appointed the “Commission Mixte de Bruges Port de Mer” (Mixed Commission of Seaport Bruges), which organised a contest for the construction of a seaport in Bruges with an outlet to the sea via Heist.