Bonaparte at the Scheldt: Antwerp swept along in a current of French aspirations

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Bonaparte at the Scheldt: Antwerp swept along in a current of French aspirations
Mathieu Ignace Van Bree, The Emperor and Empress visit the squadron in the Scheldt at anchor and go on board the Charlemagne on May 1, 1810. Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon (Versailles), MV1755. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palace (Chateau de Versailles) / Franck Raux.

ANTWERP.- Vive Napoléon?! 2013 is the 200th anniversary of the Willem Dock’s inauguration. The occasion provides us with a reason to celebrate and review two effervescent decades in the history of Antwerp. From 1794 to 1814, the city on the Scheldt found itself under French rule. It was to be a period that would completely change the city and the lives of its inhabitants.

In the July of 1803, Antwerp played host to a visit by Napoleon Bonaparte who, at the time, was still the First Consul of France. Only one year later he proclaimed himself emperor. Affectionately referred to by his soldiers as ‘le petit caporal’ (the Little Corporal), Napoleon had ambitious plans for the port city. These included the need to build a tidal harbour with two docks inside the northern ramparts, surrounding this with a large commercial district.

The plans had to be slightly adjusted, but their essence remained the same. By the end of Napoleonic rule, construction of both Le Petit Bassin and Le Grand Bassin had been completed. Their main advantage was a steady water level. They were also the inspiration for the later dockyards. Nowadays, the ‘Klainen Basseng’ (Minor Dock) and the ‘Groaten Basseng’ (Great Dock) are known respectively as the Bonaparte Dock (built 1811) and the Willem Dock (built 1813). These are the two large docks either side of the MAS.

In 1794, ten years before Napoleon’s visit, the French had already been responsible for Antwerp regaining its access to the North Sea. Previously, free navigation of the Western Scheldt estuary had not been possible since 1585. Numerous important shipping companies returned to Antwerp and, after two lean centuries, the city regained its influence in world trade.

The port took on a modern appearance. Plans to straighten and modernise the quays were drafted. Napoleon ordered the construction of not only a tidal harbour, but also a shipyard for naval vessels. Antwerp became his empire’s main military port. It seemed to him to be the perfect operating base from which to prepare an invasion of Great Britain.

The French were a commanding presence. Antwerp found itself in a constant state of war. Military service and employment were mandatory. The impact on culture was also great. The French city architect François Verly drew up revolutionary plans for urban renewal. However, these proved a bridge too far. Antwerp’s city council retained only the Place Bonaparte, the present Groenplaats and the Leopoldplaats.

Nevertheless, public parks did meet with approval and many houses were designed and furnished in the French Empire style, replete with references to Ancient Egyptian and Roman style. The Palace on the Meir is a fine example of this. However, what the French gave to Antwerp, they also took away in equal measure. At the beginning of French rule, numerous art treasures were moved from religious buildings to Paris. The greater part of these was returned in 1815.

What did the French achieve? What would their further plans have entailed? And how did those 20 years of French rule alter the dynamics and appearance of Antwerp? ‘Bonaparte at the Scheldt’ tries to bring this extraordinary legacy together using paintings, prints, plans, maps, model ships and records from the archives. A diary brings that past back to life as experienced by one of Antwerp’s citizens, while English cartoons viciously lampoon the French. ‘Bonaparte at the Scheldt’ also sheds light on remnants of the Napoleonic era that can still be viewed to this day.

Showing at the MAS from 23 March to 30 June 2013.

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