Growing up in the Netherlands, one cannot help but be drawn to the water that surrounds you everywhere you go; as you may know, much of the country is below sea level, which is only possibly through a system of dikes and managing the water level with great care.
As my mother’s family hails from the town of Hoorn in the province of North Holland, I spent quite a bit of time in that town visiting my great-grandmother during Summer during my early years. These times were magical, as I heard the tales of her youth and also traversed the town and its annual fair with my great-uncle, which was always a lot of fun. As a result of these wonderful times, I have always been drawn to Hoorn and the towns, such as Volendam, of the Zuiderzee, as the Ijsselmeer used to be known, and its storied history.
Founded in 716, Hoorn rapidly grew to become a major harbor town. During Holland’s ‘Golden Age’ (or ‘Golden Century’), Hoorn was an important home base for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and a very prosperous centre of trade. The Hoorn fleet plied the seven seas and returned laden with precious commodities. Exotic spices such as pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and mace were sold at vast profits. With their skill in trade and seafaring, sons of Hoorn established the town’s name far and wide. Jan Pieterszoon Coen (1587–1629) is famous for his violent raids in Dutch Indies (now Indonesia), where he “founded” the city of Batavia in 1619 (now Jakarta). He has a big statue on the Rode Steen square in the center of Hoorn.
In 1618, Willem Bontekoe (1587–1657) undertook his first and only voyage for the VOC. His story of his travel and hardship found its way into the history books when he published his adventures in 1646 under the title Journael ofte gedenckwaerdige beschrijvinge van de Oost-Indische reyse van Willem Ysbrantsz. Bontekoe van Hoorn, begrijpende veel wonderlijcke en gevaerlijcke saecken hem daer in wedervaren (‘Journal, or memorable description, of the East-Indian voyage of Willem Ysbrantz. Bontekoe of Hoorn, comprising many wondrous and dangerous things experienced by him’). In 1616, the explorer Willem Corneliszoon Schouten braved furious storms as he rounded the southernmost tip of South America. He named it Kaap Hoorn (Cape Horn) in honour of his home town.
The Zuiderzee (now Ijsselmeer)
In classical times there was already a body of water in this location, called Lacus Flevo by Roman authors. It was much smaller than its later forms and its connection to the main sea was much narrower; it may have been a complex of lakes and marshes and channels, rather than one lake. Over time these lakes gradually eroded their soft peat shores and spread (a process known as waterwolf). Some part of this area of water was later called the Vlie; it probably flowed into the sea through what is now the Vliestroom channel between the islands of Vlieland and Terschelling. The Marsdiep was once a river (fluvium Maresdeop) which may have been a distributary of the Vlie. During the early Middle Ages this began to change as rising sea levels and storms started to eat away at the coastal areas which consisted mainly of peatlands. In this period the inlet was referred to as the Almere, indicating it was still more of a lake, but the mouth and size of the inlet were much widened in the 12th century and especially after a disastrous flood in 1282 broke through the barrier dunes near Texel. The disaster marked the rise of Amsterdam on the southwestern end of the bay, since seagoing traffic of the Baltic trade could now visit. The even more massive St. Lucia’s flood occurred 14 December 1287, when the seawalls broke during a storm, killing approximately 50,000 to 80,000 people in the fifth largest flood in recorded history. The name “Zuiderzee” came into general usage around this period.
The size of this inland sea remained largely stable from the 15th century onwards due to improvements in dikes, but when storms pushed North Sea water into the inlet, the Zuiderzee became a volatile cauldron of water, frequently resulting in flooding and the loss of ships. For example, on 18 November 1421, a seawall at the Zuiderzee dike broke, which flooded 72 villages and killed about 10,000 people. This was the Second St. Elizabeth’s Flood: see Sint-Elisabethsvloed (1421).
Hope you enjoyed a little bit of history on this fine Monday!