Day Trip to Vlissingen: Its history
For centuries Vlissingen has been one of the most important trading harbors and seaports in the Netherlands. For day–trippers and sun worshippers, Vlissingen has the longest seafront promenade in the Netherlands bordering one of the most beautiful beaches in the country.
Vlissingen is a lively seaside resort and tourist destination, attracting thousands of visitors every year. Besides the lure of its seaside location, Vlissingen offers numerous beach pavilions, activities, events and nightlife. The main attractions of Vlissingen are the boulevards on the Westerschelde and the beach. The two kilometer long promenade along the wide beach provides places to eat and drink and shower facilities. Nearby are shopping centers, cafes, pubs and restaurants. Walking around the city, 300 monuments are reminders of its rich history.
The Object of Multiple Attacks
Located in the province of Zeeland, on the island of Walcheren, Vlissingen dates to 620 AD when it was a fish stand on the river Schelde. As more fishermen arrived and fishmongers set up shop, it was dubbed a village in 917. It was granted city rights almost 400 years later. Over the centuries it grew into a hub for the herring fishing industry, international commerce, privateering and the slave trade. A trade the Netherlands is not proud of. Because of the town’s strategic location, it was occupied, oppressed and bombarded by the French, the Germans, the Spanish and the British. It was attacked constantly since it had direct access from the North Sea to Antwerp, one of the most important ports in Western Europe since the Middle Ages.
The Dutch have had a strange love–hate relationship for centuries with the British. The on–and–off relationship began In 1585 when Elizabeth I of England and the Dutch Rebels, who were fighting against Spanish rule, allowed the English to station garrisons along the shoreline in Vlissingen to keep the seaport out of the control of the Spanish. Then, the Dutch Republic and England fought each other. The Anglo-Dutch Wars were a series of four conflicts fought over trade and commerce between their colonies, during the 16th and 17th centuries. It was all about competition between two naval empires for dominance of oceanic trade routes, mostly in Asia and the Americas. Some of these wars even happened while William III of Orange, ruler of the Netherlands, was also King of England, having married his cousin Mary Queen of Scots who was also Queen of England. Yep, it’s weird and confusing. Whose side was William on? Then again, both nations also united to fight common enemies such as the Spanish, French and Germans.
In the 17th century Vlissingen became a main harbor for the (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie – VOC), the first international megacorporation founded in 1602 by a government-directed amalgamation of several rival Dutch trading companies. During the heyday of the Dutch Golden Age, many VOC ships set sail from Vlissingen for the various outposts of Dutch colonial empire in the Far East and contributed to the world power of The Dutch Republic.
Vlissingen is also famous for its shipbuilding and ship repair industry that developed in the mid-15th century because the city was not subject to moving sandbanks that ships couldn’t hurdle. At the end of the 15th century the new Dutch Republic government chose this port as an arsenal for the Admiralty. In recent times most of the ships of the Royal Dutch Navy have been built here.
Michiel de Ruyter, Holland’s Most Famous Admiral
Vlissingen is the birthplace of Admiral Michiel de Ruyter (1607–1676), one of the Netherland’s most skilled and successful admirals and founder of the Dutch Marine Corp. De Ruyter was loved by his sailors and soldiers, because of his disregard for hierarchy. He came from humble beginnings; his father was a beer porter and his mother was a housewife. He was also respected for risky and bold undertakings, despite his cautious nature.
He became famous for destroying the British fleet in June 1667 during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. He attacked British warships on the River Medway, a branch off the River Thames estuary. He burned more than 10 British warships, captured two others and towed away the flagship of the English fleet, HMS Royal Charles. That was embarrassing for England’s King Charles for whom the ship was named. The raid was detailed in the bestselling Diary of Samuel Pepys (written between 1660 and 1670) who was secretary of the Navy Board, a commission that was responsible for the day-to-day civil administration of the Royal Navy. His account of the Medley raid brought a hasty end to the Second Anglo-Dutch War with the signing of the Treaty of Breda (1667) in the city of Breda. The treaty stopped hostilities for a time and gave the British permanent possession of New Amsterdam and the colony of New Netherland in exchange for the worldwide monopoly of nutmeg. Huh? All that heroics and land for nutmeg.
Flushing Out The Name Flushing
Diarist Sam Pepys also coined the word “Flushing” for the town of Vlissingen in his diary. He anglicized the name since he couldn’t speak or understand Dutch. Meanwhile, Vlissingen was also the name of a Dutch colonial village in New Netherland colony on the east coast of the United States. Since the English now possessed the Dutch colony, they moved into the village and by 1657 shortened the name to “Vlissing.” They then began to call it by its English name “Flushing.” They couldn’t speak Dutch either. Today, Flushing is part of Queens, a borough of New York City.
Vlissingen’s Economic Fall and Rise
Vlissingen fell on hard times during the 18th century. The Napoleonic Wars were disastrous for its economy. The town was entangled in a tug–of–war between the French and the English over Napoleon’s naval base in Antwerp. For fear that England would invade the Netherlands and attack the naval base, Napoleon visited the town in 1811 and ordered existing forts to be improved and new defenses to be constructed. For fear that France would invade England from Antwerp, in August 1809 England sent an invasion fleet of 37 line ships, 30 frigates, 84 small war vessels and about 150 transport ships. The armada included more than 38,000 landing troops supported by 144 cannons on board the ships. The English bombarded Vlissingen and occupied the town and region, but not for long. Afflicted by the “Zeeland fevers,“ a type of typhus mainly caused by drinking contaminated water, the English left Walcheren in December 1809, less 4,000 soldiers who died. The goal of breaking French maritime power in Antwerp was a bust.
After 1870, the economy revived after the construction of new docks, the Walcheren canal, the arrival of the railroad and the establishment of the Royal Schelde shipyard in 1875. The shipbuilding yard has built more than 400 vessels over its 144-year history. Known today as Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding, its where most of the Royal Dutch Navy’s ships are built.
The shipyard is also known for building one of the most famous ships in the 20th century, the MS Achille Lauro. Built originally as the MS Willem Ruys between 1939 and 1947, it was sold to the Italian cruise line, MSC Cruises, in 1965. Renamed the Achille Lauro, the passenger ship was hijacked by members of the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985. A 69-year-old Jewish American man in a wheelchair, Leon Klinghoffer, was murdered by the hijackers and thrown overboard. The hijackers were later found, arrested, tried and jailed. Over a decade later, in April 1996, the PLO accepted responsibility and reached a financial settlement with the Klinghoffer family. In 1994 the Achille Lauro caught on fire in the Indian Ocean, off Somali, and sank. Everyone on the cruise, except for three, survived.
World War II: The Liberation
Vlissingen was one of the most fought-over cities of the Netherlands during WWII. There was heavy fighting during the German invasion in May 1940 and during the Allied liberation in 1944. The island of Walcheren was heavily fortified with a dense concentration of bunkers and pillboxes loaded with heavy guns and artillery that were manned by more than 10,000 German soldiers. Starting on the morning of November 1, 1944, the Canadians bombarded the city for an hour with heavy artillery. While the town burned, filling the morning darkness with a red glow, the British No. 4 Commandos of the Special Service Brigade saw the black silhouette of the Orange Mill (Dutch: Oranje Molen) marking the location of their landing, Uncle Beach.
Eleven Dutch commandos took part in the landing, including Corporal W. de Liefde who landed at 05:45 with the first reconnaissance boat. Alone, he climbed onto a pier to mark the landing spot for the other boats, waving a green lamp. The commandos stormed the beach, quickly put the Germans out of action and cleared the mines and other obstacles on the shore for the other liberators, the French 1E Marine Commandos, the British 52nd Lowland Division and the 155th Scottish Brigade. Capturing Vlissingen was part of Operation Infatuate, with the main goal of securing the sea route to Antwerp, Belgium. At the end of the war, Vlissingen counted only one house with no war damage. Today, the city is filled with monuments, memorials and other traces of the war. Dutchman Corporal de Liefde (Eng: Love) rose to First Lieutenant, received the Bronze Cross for Valor and passed away in 1951 in Eastbourne, England.
The city was rebuilt after the war. In the 1960s, the seaport and industrial area developed and flourished. Today Vlissingen is the economic driving force behind central Zeeland, which includes tourism. In the nineteenth century, the first hotels were built and since then Vlissingen has become a magnet for visitors, especially beachgoers and sun worshippers.
Have you ever been to on a day trip to Vlissingen? Were you aware of its history? Let us know in the comments.
Feature Image: © Jim Goyjer Photography