There is no major Belgian city that does not justify the pride of its local particularism by means of some glorious adjective. If Brussels is the capital of the kingdom, Liège boasts of being the Walloon capital, Ghent the Flemish capital: Antwerp, almost officially, has taken the title of commercial metropolis. It has a right to it; its pride is justified. If it is true that it owes the solidity of its present prosperity to the vast workshop that is the whole of Belgium and that feeds and supports its trading posts, this privileged city, this "port beloved of Neptune", renders in return to Belgium the invaluable service of opening the doors of the world to it, of putting it in direct communication with the vast universe. Hence, in his patriotism, in his attachment to the young kingdom, a shade of protection which sometimes exasperates the other Belgians, and earns the Antwerp native a great deal of ridicule, which he endures, moreover, with the most perfect indifference.
The Antwerp native is the "signoorke". "The people of Antwerp are good to themselves", is a bad pun that has become popular and is periodically repeated in the end-of-year magazines, as is another: "Antwerp against all odds".
Innocent jokes, in which the reputation of local egoism that has been made of the great port of the Scheldt becomes apparent. Opulent, proud and disdainful, the powerful city did not protest very violently. It believes it has the right to be selfish and proud: does it not live by itself? It is true that the Belgian workshop feeds and supports it, but it is not the only one that gives it economic power. Antwerp's hinterland extends far beyond.
"It is no longer only to supply the "minque", says Mr. Edmond De Bruyn with pride, to supply Brabant and even Tournaisis with salt and spices, that modest barks tie up their moorings at the capstan: it is to feed half of Europe that steamers line up at the quay. Of course, the small steamers still concentrate the traffic on the river; the "passing" boat links the causeways of Matines and Turnhout to that of Ghent. But Antwerp now also connects England with Switzerland and Italy and serves as a stopover in the United States, Egypt and India. "
Antwerp's situation is indeed truly privileged. You only have to look at a map of Europe to see that all the natural routes of the continent lead to its quays. It took efforts to drain German trade to Bremen or Hamburg: it was to Antwerp that it went, and it is to Antwerp that the great Rhine trade route still leads. It is Antwerp that is the port of the industrious Alsace and of all Northern France. That London and Hamburg," says M. De Bruyn, "make their fortune through loyalty, that Rotterdam serves as a basin of allèges for Rhenish Prussia and Westphalia, that Marseilles opens the door to Africa and that Genoa attracts all the feluccas of the Archipelago between its two docks, what does it matter, since our little pier on the Canal au Sucre is the hub of Europe? "It was at this point that Guichardin, stopping as if at the edge of a forest of cosmopolitan masts, must have remarked that in Antwerp 'one always knows news of everything that is happening in the rest of the universe'. And Napoleon, disembarking on 18 July 1803, after reflecting on this place (the pontoon of the Sugar Canal), scolded the municipality: "Antwerp must finally make use of the immense advantages of its central position between the North and the South, of its magnificent and deep river".
This anecdote is significant. With that clear common sense, with that clear intuition of realities which was the dominant point of his genius, the Emperor had seen, at first sight, that this city, more or less ruined in 1803 by disastrous political circumstances, had been destined by nature to become the leading port of the continent. Placed between the North and the South, as it were in the centre of civilised Europe, on the banks of the only continental river deep enough at twenty leagues from the coast to carry the largest vessels, this city is in such a truly unique situation that nothing, it seems, can ever make it lose its wealth and its glory. Wars, treaties, tariffs, tolls or diplomacy can ruin it in an instant: it always rises again, and the most disastrous blows of fate are followed by the most astonishing prosperities. Nothing is more characteristic in this respect than its history, nothing that is better suited to give confidence in the future.
It is not the place to recount this history here, even if it is in a vast and rapid synthesis, but it shows that it was enough to break the barriers that politics had placed on Antwerp's greatness for the city, taking advantage of its natural advantages, to quickly become as prosperous as it had been in the past and to start developing again according to its own destiny. It is true that Antwerp is no longer in the unique position it was in the sixteenth century, because in the sixteenth century it had no competitors.
Anarchic and half-barbaric Germany could not think of maritime trade; the English were just beginning to take to the seas and leave their island; Holland was only an obscure province of the Netherlands; France was in the grip of civil war or defending its integrity against the House of Austria. All these peoples today have great ports, which give Antwerp all the more formidable competition, as Belgium is too weak to ensure for its nationals those commercial privileges which the policy of a great people can give to its own. But, according to the just remark of M. De Bruyn, the natural situation of the great Belgian port assures it of such privileges that it can fight with advantage. It is enough that it is given the freedom to do so, and the social cell that it constitutes develops according to its type. All the goods of the world flow towards this pontoon of the Werf, which is its core. "It has expanded, but identical to itself; it is no longer just this basket of vegetables, this net of fish that runs the risk of the market, it is the corn from the Black Sea that pours in, the coffees from Santos that inflate the bales, the skins from La Plata that . It is for Antwerp that the fellah irrigates the cotton mills and the sponge fisherman dives, for it that elephants are cut down in the Congo and forests in Norway ; in place of the few farmers, fishermen and craftsmen on the waterfront in search of the fair or the census, in the very place of the memorable landings of Lohengrin or Saint Dymphne, the Vikings or the Venetian ambassadors, Farnese or Napoleon, here is the incessant coming and going of London bankers, Chicago pork merchants, Golconde rajahs and Japanese pipos passing on the gangway Walloon engineers, consuls, Romanian seed-makers and Polish emigrants. "
Who will not admit that this Antwerp lyricism is justified? There is something admirable about the spectacle of this logical and necessary development. The truth is that nowhere is it possible to grasp the power of a well-constituted economic organism in this day and age more vividly than from the balustrade of the promenade overlooking the Werf, and the people of Antwerp, even the most ignorant and uneducated of whom can sense the poetry of such a spectacle, have understood this, for they have set up a promenade there where they like to linger on Sunday afternoons, which, despite everything, still have a provincial feel.
In the pavilion that Antwerp has built in the gardens of the Brussels Exhibition, the past certainly dominates, since it is in a reconstruction of the House of Rubens that the Metropolis wanted to symbolise its splendour. But alongside these splendid flats, where the first radiance of Antwerp's glory was evoked by the memory of the greatest artist who spread the city's fame throughout the world, neighbouring rooms were devoted to contemporary efforts. Nothing better justifies the link between the present and the past; nothing shows more clearly the logic that presided over the development of the Antwerp organism; the port, once limited to the banks of the Scheldt and to a few canals that are now filled in, has been enlarged by the basins dug by Napoleon, and then by still other basins. Today, it invades an immense suburb; tomorrow, it will extend even further. But that doesn't matter! The primitive characteristics of Antwerp are perpetuated; the cell develops according to its type, and it is enough for the municipal administration to follow what might be called the instinct of the city to do great things; and if there is a city in the world that can be compared to a living being, it is indeed this city created by necessity, the necessary outlet for a whole country.
This vision of Antwerp's life is much clearer along the Scheldt, on the Steen promontory, than in the elegant pavilion on the Solbosch, but it is enough for the pavilion to evoke it for it to fulfil its role perfectly.
©Exposition Bruxelles 1910