At the end of the 19th century the Belgian government decided to construct a new port at the coast of the North Sea.
On 1 June 1894 the Belgian government, the city of Bruges and Messrs. L. Coiseau and J. Cousin concluded an agreement in which the conditions regarding the construction and management of the new port were stipulated.
This new port would consist of 3 different parts :
- an outer port on the Belgian coast;this place was called "Zeebrugge", i.e. "Bruges-by-the-sea";
- a sea canal from the outer port to Bruges;
- an inner port in Bruges itself, situated north of town.
This agreement was approved and ratified by Parliament on 11 September 1895; the Royal Decree was published in The Belgian Law Gazette of 13 September 1895.
The works for the construction of the port were executed by a company which, within 3 months after the conclusion of the agreement by Parliament, was founded by Messrs. Coiseau and Cousin.
This company was founded on 25 November 1895 under the name of "Compagnie des Installations maritimes de Bruges", today "Maatschappij van de Brugse Zeevaartinrichtingen" or M.B.Z
The capital of this company was subscribed for 50 % by the city of Bruges; the rest by Messrs. L. Coiseau, J. Cousin and other private persons.
The construction of the port was carried out by M.B.Z., which was also granted the concession for the management and exploitation of the new port complex.
The works started in 1896 and were completed in 1905.
The port was officially inaugurated by his majesty king Leopold II on 7 July 1907. The birth of the new seaport of Bruges was attended by large festivities in Bruges.
A difficult start
During the first few years, maritime traffic remained disappointingly low: every year, some 200 to 250 ships called at Zeebrugge. This was mainly due to the lack of return freight for the ships, the absence of proper road and railway connections and the limited hinterland industry. The transatlantic passenger services did not have the hoped-for big success, either. A few regular services were introduced, though : the passenger service that made the crossing from Zeebrugge to Hull twice a week and a regular connection with Rotterdam. The most important industrial establishment in that period was the Cokes factory.
The World Wars
The MBZ built the imposing “Palace Hotel” on the sea dyke of Zeebrugge for the wealthy (primarily German) cruise passengers of the Hamburg-America line. Minister Van de Vijvere, who inaugurated the building in 1914, concluded his address with the words: “…and let us hope that the Germans will soon come over!” In fact, they did come 11 days later, unfortunately in uniform.
During the first World War, the Germans demonstrated the importance of the strategic position of Zeebrugge. They turned Zeebrugge and Bruges into the base of operation for part of their fleet of submarines. In the port of Bruges, they built pens to protect their submarines and defended the pier with heavy artillery. Furthermore, the entrance to the port was partially obstructed by means of four barges, which were linked together with nets and chains. The total German military force in Zeebrugge was 1,000 strong. Because of the large risks of a possible attack on Zeebrugge, the British army hesitated until 1918 before taking action. In fact, they were forced to take action : in 1917, the German submarines had succeeded in sinking 6 million tons of allied ships.
On 22 April 1918, the British Vice-Admiral Keyes was in command of 168 ships and small vessels and a military force of 1,800. The attack on Zeebrugge began with a diversion: 3 cruisers, including the”Vindictive”, assailed the pier in order to eliminate the German heavy artillery. Meanwhile, 3 other cruisers filled with cement made an attempt to reach the harbour entrance before the sea lock in order to be sunk there, so that the German submarines would no longer be able to put out to sea. The attack was a success, as the English succeeded in sinking 2 of the 3 cruisers just in front of the lock gate. Each year, the battle for Zeebrugge is commemorated in the port on Saint George's day.
After the first World War, the port was a heap of rubble. The salvage and repair work was carried out by the company Decloedt. In 1920, the port was open to ships again; the Zeebrugge-Hull line was resumed and a new important line was added: the train-ferry service to Harwich. The glassworks of Glaverbel, situated along the sea canal, became operational in 1925.
On several occasions, Zeebrugge also served as the port of departure for the fleet of Congo ships of the ‘Compagnie Maritime Belge’. This proved that Zeebrugge could receive the largest ships in spite of the silting problems with which the port was confronted. In 1929 however, the Belgian government decided to bear the expenses of the dredging operations in all Belgian ports, which resulted in more financial breathing space for the Port authority. In the same year, more than 1,000 ships called at Zeebrugge and more than 1 million tons of goods were handled.
The 1930s brought a downward trend : the economic crisis spread all over the world and the tension between the Port Authority and the City of Bruges flamed up. Two great personalities in the history of the port managed to iron out the differences: Pierre Vandamme, the future mayor of Bruges and chairman of MBZ, and Achille Van Acker, socialist politician and future Prime Minister of Belgium.
A bunker station, a molasses terminal, a fuel terminal and a steel plant were constructed in Zeebrugge in the second half of the thirties. The hub of the port activity shifted from the inland port in Bruges to the outer port on the coast.
During the second World War, Zeebrugge played a rather discreet role. Just before the arrival of the German troups, some ships were sunk on strategic points and the lock gates were blown up. The Germans repaired the damage and turned Zeebrugge into a fortified castle, which they included in their ‘Atlantikwal’. When liberation was near, they began to systematically destroy the port installations, except in Bruges where they met with opposition of the resistance. However, the port was largely destroyed and Zeebrugge had to be reconstructed for the second time.