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Antwerp's Pre-War and Future Status as a Major Port (1919)

IN the coming reorganization of European ocean transportation Antwerp Is bound to play a very important role. Before the war, It was one of the most prominent of European ports and a close rival of Hamburg. During the year 1912, 13,761,000 tons of shipping entered the Port of Antwerp or only 36,000 tons less than put Into Hamburg.

 In the case of London, Liverpool and Rotterdam, the corresponding figures were 12,989,000, 11,810,000 and 12,179,000 tons, respectively.

While a Belgian port, Antwerp's prosperity is only to a moderate extent dependent on that of Belgium. Were the great traffic of the hinterland of Central Europe, and especially of Germany, which passes through the port, taken away, its whole economic structure would be destroyed. In fact, it was due almost entirely to English and German shipping enterprise that Antwerp reached its prewar Importance as an entrance door to Europe.

In the year 1912, the port was entered by 3,394 English and by 1,627 German ships, with a respective tonnage of 6,269,438 and 4,149,157 tons. More than 70 per cent of the total shipping making use of Antwerp was therefore either of German or of British origin. It was a well-known fact that those two chief frequenters of the port were engaged in a bitter rivalry for the possession of the most desirable landing stages.

Indeed, all through the year 1913, diplomatic exchanges had taken place between the governments of Belgium, Great Britain and Germany, with a view of settling some of the rival claims made by several of the large shipping companies of the contending parties.

In order to understand the Ins and outs of this rivalry, it would be necessary to examine more closely the relations between Antwerp and its hinterland.

The city lies on one of the arms of the ScheIdt and Is well connected by a number of inland canals and railroads with the principal Industrial centers of Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany. The port of Antwerp therefore affords access to a very important market, which furnishes both inward and outward freight in exceptionally large quantities. Across the German border such rich Industrial cities as Aix-La-Chapelle, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Crefeld, Essen and even Dortmund are with In comparatively easy reach of Antwerp, and all these places have availed themselves to a very considerable extent of the port facilities of Belgium's shipping center.

But there Is one serious drawback to this otherwise favorable position of Antwerp. This is the proximity of the Dutch port of Rotterdam. Viewed from a general standpoint, Rotterdam Is even better located as a port than Antwerp. "It does not have to be approached through a foreign country, as is the case with Antwerp, where the coast is under the Dutch flag, and its Inland connections are even better than those of Antwerp.

Rotterdam is also easily reached from Germany via the Rhine, and there is a very active barge traffic between the German cities along the Rhine and Rotterdam.

German Trade Catered For


Before 1914, the competition of Rotterdam was seriously felt by Antwerp, and the Belgian Government had taken steps to facilitate the transportation of German commodities and goods destined for Germany. This wish to please Germany exerted considerable influence on German-Belgian commercial relations before the war and found expression also in the stipulations of the German-Belgian commercial treaty, which provided especially for the existence of this transit traffic.

But the Belgian Government had even gone a step further and had arranged special rates on the Belgian railroads for German goods bound for overseas. Through these various means it had become possible to strengthen the economic position of Antwerp materially, so that before the war It had become not only one of the leading shipping centers of the world, but also one of the strongest factors In international distribution.

This side of Antwerp's development possesses considerable interest for our own shipping men, and may have a material effect on the future policy of American shipping enterprises.

Of the port's wheat imports, which amounted to 1,841,000 tons during the year 1912, 418,000 tons arrived from the United States and Canada, 644,000 tons were of Rumanian origin, British India sent 216,000 tons, and the La Plata states 397,000 tons. Barley came principally from Rumania and British India, and corn from Argentina and Rumania. Very little of the corn unloaded at Antwerp was imported from the United States. Brazilian coffee and American tobacco dominated their respective markets. Only a comparatively small part of the large traffic handled at the port was destined for Belgian consumers.

Much of the imported merchandise ultimately found its way either to England or Germany. The grain trade of the port was largely controlled by German interests, and great quantities of the grain imported were shipped every year to west and south Germany and to Switzerland, which latter country used Antwerp's port facilities to a very great extent.

German and English buyers also predominated at the famous Antwerp wool auctions, which were only second In Importance to those of London. What made the port attractive as a wool center was the close connection, which existed between it and the La Plata markets, which was almost entirely due to the great German lines to South America.

These made Antwerp their regular port of call, taking German Industrial products from the German Rhineland to South America and returning laden with wool and other South American commodities to Antwerp. Even British shippers found it frequently to their advantage to employ the fast German steamers from Antwerp to South America, and several of the British shipping lines plying between London and Antwerp acted as freight feeders for the German South American steamers.

Exigencies of international distribution, which it could take too long to explain, made Antwerp play a rather secondary role in respect to the distribution of cotton, but the close connection between it and South America made It an excellent port for the distribution of textiles, a great quantity of which was shipped through Antwerp by English and German merchants.

Antwerp's Future in the Balance


The future of Antwerp Is now dependent on the action of the Peace Conference at Paris. There is a national and an international side to this problem of Antwerp, only the latter of which concerns us. Antwerp is now entirely free from German domination. The hope entertained by German expansionists that the port might come entirely under German control has disappeared with the victory of the Allies.

This Victory, however, cannot do away with the economic factors affecting the business of the port. Just as In the past, Antwerp will continue to be dependent for most of its carrying business on the great territory back of It, In which are included the German Rhineland, South Germany and Luxemburg. If it is to retain this business, it will be necessary to strengthen this connection rather than to weaken it by interposing artificial barriers, cutting offGermany from access to the sea via Antwerp.

If such a step should be seriously attempted, the port would lose immediately a large part of its pre-war trade. In such a case, this would most likely be deflected to either Rotterdam or Amsterdam, or possibly even to one of the German ports on the North Sea. All this would certainly not be in the interest of Antwerp.

Ita barrier between Antwerp and Germany were to be erected, Antwerp's usefulness as an Import port would be seriously affected. In all probability, Germany would not object to receive foreign merchandise by way of Antwerp if It could not be obtained In any other way.

The Antwerp route, however, would be an extremely expensive one were relations to be one-sided, and were no return freight to be had for the canal and river barges. The inevitable outcome would be the diversion of all Import trade to the Dutch ports, where a large return freight could be obtained.

European economists have laid some stress on the possibility of exporting through Antwerp certain French Industrial products originating In Alsace-Lorraine. These would be shipped on Rhine barges downstream and then by canal to Antwerp.

This traffic, however, was not very large in the past and is not likely to grow very much hereafter. As far as Iron and potash are concerned and other raw materials, this route will probably be made use of. It would, however, seem to be too slow for the shipment of ordinary merchandise, which is much more efficiently carried by rail.

It would certainly be more In the Interest of France to ship the industrial products of her recovered provinces by rail to one of her own ports, and in this way to bestow the benefit of her former possessions on French Interests exclusively, a policy which also conforms with the practice usually followed by France In this respect.

There remains the eventuality of a possible separation of the present German Rhineland from Germany, a policy which is said to be strenuously opposed by our own President and also to find no approval In England. Such a course would very probably result in attracting to Antwerp a great part of the export trade of that region, at least that part which would not find it more convenient to ship via the Dutch ports.

But It seems not to otter any sufficient guarantee tor a regular flow of Import shipments, as only a comparatively small part of the import shipments to Germany via Antwerp are destined for the Rhineland proper. It Is in Antwerp's commercial Interest, therefore, to have its former trade relation with Germany restored.

Antwerp's Importance For Our Shipping

American shipping would have cause to regret any outcome, which would deprive Antwerp of its great hinterland. Connected with its hinterland, it might become a very useful central port of call for our shipping, both for the purposes of our European trade as well as a basis for the organization of any system of transshipment routing, which we might inaugurate after the war.

The writer has pointed out already in former articles the desirability of American ships engaging In the Baltic trade. Our future trade connections with the new Poland and Russia will necessitate our taking such a step. The chances are that there will be a preponderance of American freight going to Russia as compared with Russian freight moving in the direction of the United States. This would necessitate the return of American ships from Russian ports with holds only partly filled, a situation which is not very desirable In the interest of economical operation.

In normal times, a very active trade between the Russian Baltic ports and Antwerp usually takes place. During 1912, for Instance, Russia shipped to Antwerp 41,000 tons of wheat, 13,000 tons of barley, 64,000 tons of oats, 48,000 tons of corn, considerable numbers of hides, bristles and much other Russian material, which in turn was transshipped at Antwerp to other destinations.

Our ships bringing merchandise to the Russian Baltic ports might engage in part in this trade between the Russian ports and Antwerp and other ports in the vicinity and might return to the United States after having embarked the commodities of the German Rhineland and of South Germany.

Assuming that Antwerp will regain Its former large South American trade, due almost entirely to Its close relationship with the German markets, the organization of a triangle shipping service between this country and Antwerp via South America would then become possible.

The importance of Antwerp as a market for the distribution of South American produce has been already enlarged upon. It is well known to American shipping men that our commerce with South America is very much hampered, and will continue to be so by the lack of return shipments from South American ports to our own.

The considerable divergence in tramp shipping rates between United States ports and South America, and most of the European ports and South American destinations is the direct result of this state of affairs.

With Antwerp forming part of our own international transportation system, a plan might be developed, working approximately as follows: Vessels could start from a United States port, laden with American Industrial products for a South American destination. After discharging their cargo, they could take on South American produce for Europe, which they could unload at Antwerp.

There freight might be taken aboard either for the United States or for any eastern destination, for which frequent cargoes are obtainable in that port. In the latter case, the ship would return from Eastern Asia with cargo for America, of which there is never any lack.

In this respect, Antwerp may otter even greater advantages to American shipping than any of the other leading ports of Europe. National Interests will largely govern the after-war port and shipping polices of the three leading European shipping countries, viz., England, France, and Germany.

While these may not actually discriminate against foreign shipping, there Is no doubt that Imperial preference In England and French particularism well strive to retain as much as possible of the national trade for the shipping Interests of their own countries.

Considerations of financial economy may also force the German exporters and merchants to make use as much as possible of such shipping as may be left to them. On the other hand, Belgium is no seafaring country. Of the large shipping trade of Antwerp, only 921,000 tons were carried In Belgian bottoms. Only 602 Belgian ships entered the port in 1913, as against 3,352 English and 1,705 German ships.

Belgium, therefore, has no reason to favor Belgian shipping unduly is interests, in fact, lie rather in as large a development as possible of Its port as a port of call for the shipping of the world.

As German ships may not call as frequently In Antwerp as formerly, and as England will most likely commit its shipping in this direction, it has to be feared that Antwerp will lose in Importance. It will, therefore, certainly welcome any move on the part of American shippers to assist In the future development of the port and to supplement not only the tonnage required for handling Its transit trade, but also to carry Belgian products to other markets, a service which, so far, has been principally performed by German Shipping.

The port of Antwerp may also soon have for us an additional interest by reason of the fact that it may become the most important emigration port of Europe. Before the war most of the European emigrant traffic was handled by way of Bremen, from which 239,000 emigrants embarked in 1913. Hamburg took second place with 192,000 emigrants, while Antwerp handled only 115,OOO.

The emigration business of Antwerp was mostly in the hands of the German shipping lines, which had an operation agreement with the Red Star Line. It is practically certain that the German shipping companies will not toke so extensive an interest again in this phase of the ocean-carrying business, and that their former emigrant traffic will fall to the shipping of other countries.

It would greatly help if the United States could thereafter look after emigration traffic bound for its shores, and for emigrants from the moment when they board a ship. In this respect, the port of Antwerp could prove very helpful.

L. W. Alwyn-Schmidt, “Antwerp’s Pre-War and Future Status.” In The Nautical Gazette, Volume 95, No. 16, Whole No. 2488, Saturday, 19 April 1919, Page 268

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