Some background information on the history of the Eastern Docklands

History of sailing, steam ships, shipping companies, workers, artists and passengers

View on central area of Eastern Docklands Amsterdam

The history of the dockland area dates back to the seventeenth century, and it has been turbulent from time to time. Many important national and international historical events took place in this dockland area; traces of them can still be found.

In the Middle Ages and up to the seventeenth century the Eastern Docklands were part of the sea. There were some swamps and some small islands in this area.
The island Paardenhoek (horse corner) was a cavalery station. The island Pampus, further out in the sea, was a tricky place for sailors, where ships trying to reach the docks often got stuck when the tide was low.

Docklands Museum The seventeenth century is often referred to as the Dutch Golden Age. This was a time of expansion and increasing wealth, of international trade and overseas travelling. It was also a time of war. Some of the great Dutch seafaring heroes (or pirates) sailed the seven seas and fought the Spaniards in the Eighty Year liberation war.

Piet Hein was one of the best known among them. The main street and tunnel in the Eastern Docklands are named after him. A group of silvery apartment and office buildings in the central part of the area is called Zilvervloot, recalling a well-known battle, when a Spanish silver fleet coming back from colonial areas was conquered.

At that time, this area connecting Amsterdam to the sea was often crossed by smugglers, who avoid paying duty on goods brought into the city. To prevent this, the city council decided to change the area into a military training ground, but this turned out to be impossible.

 Then it was decided to use this area near the city walls for business purposes. Several city windmills were built on newly made islands.
The first three windmills, called Hope, Love and Fortune, were used for sawing wood. They are gone now, but they are still commemorated in a spectaculair new apartment building in the central area of the Eastern Docklands. The only remaining city windmill of this time, de Gooyer, now houses a brewery and a cafe selling the traditional Y-lake beer. Houses with historical photographs

One of the two city hospitals, the Plague house, had also been established in the area.
As its name suggests, this hospital was used to treat victims of the plague; it was also used for general medical treatment of the poor. The hospital owned a fish pond near by, popularly known as the sick water.
It was believed that eating fish would be helpful for restoring the health of the sick poor. But possibly it was also believed that the water itself caused sickness.
This was quite possible in an age when malaria and cholera were still common diseases in this area.

In this time, the painter Rembrandt liked to stroll through this area and he made several sketches of it, so we have a good idea of what it looked like, even today.
Rembrandt's work shows a quiet, picturesque area with the developing city in the background.

View of Java island in Eastern Docklands

The local people were traditionally known for having a mind of their own. In the eighteenth century the dockland areas now known as the Eastern Islands had seen many struggles between royalists and republicans (so-called patriots). The royalists, knows as ‘the axes’ were violently subdued on a day still remembered as the ‘day of the axes’. Somewhat later the Dutch republic changed to a monarchy. 

During the time of French government at the end of the eighteenth century, part of the dockland area was used by the Napoleonic army for housing and exercise purposes. Some former barracks are situated south of the dockland area, now housing apartments and offices.

Sailing ships in the harbor of Eastern Docklands Amsterdam
In the nineteenth century, the seventeenth century docks built on the neighboring Eastern Islands had become too small for the demands of the time and they were gradually expanded to the Eastern Docklands.

The main part of the Eastern Docklands was built in the early twentieth century. During several decades around the turn of the century new islands were made in the wetlands.

The traditional sailing ships were gradually replaced by twentieth century steam ships and the dockyards and warehouses changed according to the new demands.

Trade mainly took place with the former East-Indies (mainly Indonesia) and West-Indies (mainly Central America) and the Levant (Near East).

Central area of Eastern DocklandsSome of the new islands were named after islands in the East-Indies, for example Java or Borneo.
The warehouses in the western part of the Eastern Docklands were named after the continents.
They were each used for storage of different kinds of goods.

The dockworkers were specialized in handling certain products. They were organized in a kind of guild system, often named after the colour of their hats. Only the blue hat guild (Blauwhoed) still exists.
This organization is not a guild corporation any more; it has become a regular business. It built the shopping center Brazilie in a renovated warehouse.

Overseas passenger traffic also took place from this area. People travelled between Amsterdam and the former colonies; and emigrants arriving by train from Central and Eastern Europe left for North and South America. Sometimes they had to wait for days for their connecting ship, staying in the Lloyd hotel.

Traditional officers houses in docklands Some officers or middle management of the shipping companies were housed in the docklands. Their houses are still there.
The housing quarters of the dockworkers, railroad workers and sailors were next to the docks.
At the end of the nineteenth century, living conditions were very poor. They were gradually improved during the twentieth century. The Eastern Docklands had been a centre of social struggle for improvement of working and living conditions.

Many strikes took place during the nineteenth and twentieth century. Probably the best-known strike in Dutch history was the railroad strike of 1903, taking place in this dockland area.
The strike was ended by military force, but it became a symbol for the socialist movement, becoming an influential political movement during the twentieth century.

Loods 6, building with many art and design shops In the hunger winter of 1917, during the First World War, the potato riots took place in this area. Many hungry people stopped the potato trains and distributed the food amongst themselves.
The riots were stopped by military force and contributed to the communist movement becoming quite strong in the traditional dockworkers quarters.

 Some of the first new housing projects and sanitation projects to improve the lives of the poor took shape in this area.
New houses with big windows and running water were built; fairly paternalistic socialization projects for the unsocial poor were started.

Traditional officers houses on northern islands in Eastern Docklands Amsterdam In World War II, the Lloyd hotel for overseas emigrants was taken over by the Nazis and it became a torture prison for resistance fighters.
Partly because of this and partly for more traditional reasons, the February strike against the Nazi occupation got a lot of support in the dockland area.

After the Second World War the Lloyd hotel was changed into a prison for Nazis and shortly afterwards it became a youth prison.
It remained so until the 1970s, when social sensibilities could not tolerate this practice any longer.
The Lloyd hotel was taken over by squatters, mainly artists, who have lived and worked there until the year 2000, when renovation of this historical building began.

Houseboat with potted flowers in Eastern Docklands Amsterdam In the 1970s, the docklands were abandoned by the shipping companies. The area had become too small for their needs and they left for new docks on the west side of the town. The area was now taken over by squatters, city nomads and houseboat dwellers. Thousands of them created a large alternative community in the docklands.

Most of the squatters left in the 1980s, when redevelopment of the area started, but many artists and houseboat dwellers have remained.
The time of the squatters community is recalled in some books, films and local restaurants. It has definitely influenced the present atmosphere in the Eastern Docklands.

After many years of planning and discussion, the municipality started redeveloping the Eastern Docklands. This great project is now nearly finished and a new living area is acquiring its own shape, style and atmosphere.

Many things have changed and some things have stayed the same. A minor, but symbolically important local struggle took place at the start of the twentyfirst century, when one of the hundred-year-old trees in the area was cut down. This tree, a poplar tree, was one of a group commonly known as the Seven Sisters. Lots of potted plants were put out everywhere by the people living in the neighborhood.
The millennium green uproar faded out after one of the local politicians was replaced and hundreds of young poplar trees were planted in the area.
The event is remembered as a fitting conclusion of the twentieth-century history of the Eastern Docklands.

Now, over ten years later, there is a lot of green in the area.

Traditional village and boat sailing out on Markermeer near Eastern Docklands Amsterdam

See also:
layout and architecture
social life and nightlife

More information:
www.scheepvaartmuseum.nl (museum of seafaring)
www.iisg.nl (international institute of social history)